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Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self

Today we consider privacy a right to be protected. But in eighteenth-century England, privacy was seen as a problem, even a threat. Women reading alone and people hiding their true thoughts from one another in conversation generated fears of uncontrollable fantasies and profound anxieties about insincerity.

In Privacy, Patricia Meyer Spacks explores eighteenth-century concerns about privacy and the strategies people developed to avoid public scrutiny and social pressure. She examines, for instance, the way people hid behind common rules of etiquette to mask their innermost feelings and how, in fact, people were taught to employ such devices. She considers the erotic overtones that privacy aroused in its suppression of deeper desires. And perhaps most important, she explores the idea of privacy as a societal threat—one that bred pretense and hypocrisy in its practitioners. Through inspired readings of novels by Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, and Sterne, along with a penetrating glimpse into diaries, autobiographies, poems, and works of pornography written during the period, Spacks ultimately shows how writers charted the imaginative possibilities of privacy and its social repercussions.

Finely nuanced and elegantly conceived, Spacks’s new work will fascinate anyone who has relished concealment or mourned its recent demise.

256 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2003

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


“This provocative and stimulating study is a welcome and pertinent addition to scholarship on eighteenth-century interiority. Spacks foregrounds the unknowability of the self which was and remains a source of anxiety and fascination.”

Dana Rabin | H-Net Book Reviews

“One of the most satisfying and informed of literary critics, Spacks provides a look at psychological privacy that is both a thoughtful examination of the nature and history of privacy and a masterful piece of literary criticism. . . . Essential.”


“Spacks, who has written some of the most influential studies of the English eighteenth century . . . now turns her attention to another epoch-making change that took place in the eighteenth century—the concept of privacy. . . . Spack’s immense erudition and elegant writing style combine to create a book both profound and readable. . . . The rich and detailed study breaks new ground and invites us to contemplate the origins of one of today’s most cherished values.”

Virginia Quarterly Review

“This is a book about literature and about the act of reading itself—and that is one of its great strengths. Those willing to immerse themselves in the author’s discussions of 18th-century novels will find her book both a blessed relief from the current climate of voyeurism and paranoia and an illuminating exploration of our contradictory attitudes about privacy.”

Charlotte Taylor | New York Sun

“This is a good and informative book.”

Frank Kermode | London Review of Books

Table of Contents

1. Privacies
2. Privacies of Reading
3. The Performance of Sensibility
4. Privacy, Dissimulation, and Propriety
5. Private Conversations
6. Exposures: Sex, Privacy, and Sensibility
7. Trivial Pursuits
8. Privacy as Enablement
Works Cited


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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