Share on Facebook!

               The Literature and Culture of the Closet
                         in the Eighteenth Century
                                                    Danielle Bobker

Privacy and Modernity I: The Family

➢ Philippe Ariès, Introduction to The History of Private Life III: The Passions of the Renaissance
➢ Michael McKeon, “Chapter 5: Subdividing Inside Spaces” in The Secret History of Domesticity:
     Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge

Because a major goal of the course is to enrich and complicate notions of both private and public, students are invited to provide synonyms any time they find themselves using either of these words in discussion or writing. In this way, we can begin to uncover and, where necessary, let go of our assumptions about both categories and the relationships between them. Excerpts from two major histories of privacy ground the rethinking we have already begun: both Philippe Ariès and Michael McKeon narrate privacy’s emergence in relation to the development of the modern family.

Ariès contrasts the communality of medieval Europe–-“private was confounded with public” (1)–-to the compartmentalized forms of nineteenth-century social life – when private and public separated as the family home became a refuge from a basic state of anonymity everywhere else. According to Ariès, increasingly bureaucratic governments, the flourishing of print and literacy, and internalized religious practices like confession and closet prayer were major cultural factors in the shift from communality to compartmentalization. Early modern privacy consisted not only in more intimate family interactions than ever before in more intimate rooms than ever before, but also in changing discourses and practices of selfhood, including new concerns with bodily modesty, reflexive reading and writing, and friendship, which was increasingly characterized as shared solitude.

Fig. 8a. Longleat House, 1570. From Michael McKeon, The Secret History of Domesticity, 253. Marquand Library, Princeton University Library.

Fig. 8b. Longleat House, c1809. From Michael McKeon, Secret History of Domesticity, 254. Marquand Library, Princeton Univesrity Library. By permission of Oxford University Press.

In his Secret History of Domesticity, McKeon situates the increasing coherence and complexity of the private in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries within a series of interrelated categorical and disciplinary divisions, including the separation of science from the arts and humanities and, most significantly, the separation of workplace from household. Our initial encounter with McKeon’s book focuses on his exploration of the architectural corollaries to this process. In the chapter on “Subdividing Inside Spaces,” McKeon is interested in how changing domestic designs mirrored and precipitated the conceptual evolution of privacy in the period. Privacy had traditionally been defined—and designed—as a withdrawal from the fundamental publicness of the household. Later, the generous use of corridors made individual rooms discrete and less permeable (see Figures 8a and 8b), thereby reinforcing the new feeling that privacy was a positive and distinct value. Separate rooms variously accommodated women’s desire for distance from men (and vice versa), family members’ desire for distance from servants, and the desire of any and all members of the household for distance from outside visitors. McKeon’s chapter also provides our third catalogue of the varieties of the closet and cabinet in the period, including the cabinet of curiosities and closet as study, library, boudoir, harbour of secrets, and site of secretarial business.

Share on Facebook!

previous | PDF full text | next


Contact Us - 2009 Digital Defoe | ISSN 1948-1802 (online)