When I was a child, our family took a trip that included a day at Yellowstone National Park. At some point during that trip, we went into a souvenir shop, and I was given a small stipend to spend. After much contemplation over the options within my budget, I purchased a small cedar wood box; a miniature chest with shiny golden fittings on a shiny shellac finish secured by a simple brass padlock. As a middle member of a large family, this acquisition held the promise of privacy for whatever childish treasures I could squirrel away into it. I find it curious that of all the shiny objects in that shop, this box was the one that caught my fancy.
This need for privacy and security is an innate part of the human condition; manifesting in early childhood and ingrained in varying degrees by adulthood. I remember the first time I watched the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and the horror I felt as Mrs. Bennet snatched a letter addressed to Jane right out of her hands before she had even read it. It doesn’t happen that way in the book, thankfully, although Jane is compelled to read it aloud to the family. I later learned that in that era, the sharing of letters within a household and among friends was typical and expected.
Being a rather private person myself, I became curious about where personal boundaries extended in the culture of Regency England. The concept of private life was still a fairly new idea – one that historians say began in England, and changes in architecture that introduced rooms where people could withdraw and find solitude. Social class obviously established this to a large degree, but I was astounded to discover additional realities of the era. It was a complex time with complex social rules—particularly where it relates to personal property and personal space. Essentially, if an item was of any value, it was locked up or at least hidden. Theft of items that were not secured in some way was considered less serious than items taken that were under lock and key.
The lowliest of servants would—if they could afford to do so—own a locking box of some kind in which they would put whatever treasures they owned. It may be as simple as a silver spoon or thimble, but locked in their box, it was off limits, for the boundary had been established. Thieves used this to their advantage. If they could get their stolen goods into a locked box, it was much harder to prove that they had stolen anything since they enjoyed the same protection of privacy as honest persons.
In privileged homes, the silver, the liquor, the tea, coffee and sugar, were all locked up and accessed only by the holder of the keys. Have you ever wondered why this was deemed necessary if the servants were all considered trustworthy? Even if the servants were all honest and above stealing from their master or each other, during the daytime, there were doors left unlocked. Most commonly there was a service entrance for deliveries and the comings and goings of those employed within the house. The laws related to daytime breaches of security were different than the laws that went into effect when the house was locked up, for those laws included the act of breaking.
The number of people passing in and out of rooms to clean, to traverse the house to get to a destination room, etc. created a need for ways to secure items from those who had access to the rooms they were kept in. For the wealthy, this need was met by elite cabinetmakers who crafted elaborate desks, tables and dressers with locking mechanisms and secret compartments such as the French mechanical table shown in this video from the Getty Museum.
The process of locking up the house for the night was a ritual that was meant to keep people out and also keep those within confined to their assigned space. Past generations had put servants sleeping in living spaces like drawing rooms at night, but the evolution of architecture during the Georgian era established rooms in the attics or even a separate annex for the servants. In many houses, they were locked in their rooms for the night, as were lodgers and tenants in boarding houses. Shutters were closed and outer doors and often even the windows were barred to prevent entry. The burden of proving that a burglar had broken in was contingent on establishing a solid perimeter that prevented him from doing so.
The line between what was private versus what was public was often clearly stated. A “private house” was understood by all as a designation, as was “public house” or “public garden.” The language of the private thought process came to be known as “keeping your own counsel.” This phrase simply means that one is not going to discuss their beliefs, knowledge or plans with anyone else. When Darcy promises Elizabeth that he will keep the secret about Lydia’s elopement, he reveals his leanings toward the private mind-set of the elite classes as much as his personal trustworthiness.
The more aware I’ve become of this aspect of Georgian and Regency culture, the more insight I’ve gained into the psychology of various Austen characters as it relates to privacy. I’d love to hear your thoughts and observations on this topic.