I had to share with you an utterly wacky article on ‘Privacy’ which was published in The Saturday Review, June 3rd 1865 (p.660). In today’s age of social media, phone-hacking, tabloid journalism and super-injunctions, it’s easy to believe that the modern age has a uniquely dysfunctional relationship with the notion of privacy. But this article shows that the good people of the mid-nineteenth century also had their woes when it came to keeping their secrets secret.
The author begins by asserting that “No nation so sacrifices so much for privacy as the English.” (Apologies to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland here, but I’m going to run with this guy’s terminology for now.) The English, he claims, go to great expense and inconvenience to protect it:
“Every man must have his own house to himself and consequently appropriates to himself four or five times as much ground as is really necessary to support the amount of house-room he requires.”
This, he says, has had a dreadful effect on house prices in London. (Ah, yes, I know I often find myself racked with guilt that my London house is four or five times larger than I really need!) And on top of that: “Every small English middle-class family feels it necessary to have its own cook.”
And the British refusal to relinquish their privacy is even more pronounced on the railways:
“There has been a great deal of controversy lately upon the subject of establishing a communication between the passengers and the guards of railway trains. The public say it must be done, or neither their lives nor reputations will be safe; and the railway directors reply with a solid non possumus.”
The difficulty here is that Victorian trains were divided into compartments of six or so people, with no thoroughfare – as in the American and Continental trains – between the compartments and therefore no way for a guard to check on everyone. This fear had been compounded the year before the article was published by the grisly murder of City Banker Thomas Briggs, who was bludgeoned to death whilst in a railway carriage entirely unbeknownst to his fellow passengers and the railway guards.
The British people were torn between their love of privacy (we can all sympathise – who doesn’t love getting two train seats to yourself?) and the blood-curdling terror of being cooped up in a carriage with axe-wielding murderers, over-sharers, smellies, gropers, snorers, and man-spreaders. Amy Milne-Smith has written a great article for JVC on the subject of ‘Madmen on the Railways’.
The Dining Room
Yet, there is one area of life, claims our reporter, where the English utterly
and inexplicably abandon their love of privacy, and that is at the dinner table.
“It is curious to observe how Englishmen, so jealous of their privacy, endure a number of servants who destroy it altogether.” He even dreams about “the happy day when steam-powered substitutes should have been invented” to replace the pesky, nosy help. Until the dawning of the age of the cyborg-servant, however, the reporter offers a couple of temporary solutions to the problem of having servants listening to your dinner table gossip.
1) Dumb waiter systems installed at the elbow of every second guest. Unfortunately, he suggests, this idea would play havoc with the delicate social dynamics of the dinner table: “There is something terrible to contemplate the fate of two ill-matched guests cut off by frowning dumb waiters from intercourse with all the world besides. Even if they were well-suited, two hours and a half of uninterrupted tete-a-tete would tax the most fertile resources.” No, it just won’t do.
2) Thankfully, the reporter has another solution: hinged dining room floor and a table raised and lowered by a giant mechanical winch, anyone?
“At a given signal from the master of the house, the floor would open, the table would sink, and after a few minutes’ interval would rise again, bearing another course, and cleared from the debris of the last.”
Eureka! Or perhaps not. Our ingenius reporter does concede that this might take some getting used to, and that the good people of Britain might feel a little uncomfortable “sitting around a yawning chasm.” And then, of course there’s the more pressing problem that “one of the charms of the daughters of Eve might entice a fair head to bend too rashly over the abyss, in order to study the operations going on below.” We have gazed into the abyss. It is full of dirty dishes.
I’ve read this article several times now. At first I thought the author was being satirical. I really don’t know any more that he is. In any case, this is a wonderfully wacky insight into nineteenth-century anxieties at a time when trains, servants, sensation novelists, the press, police, detectives, divorce courts and others all seemed to want a sneaky peek into the daily lives of the respectable people of Blighty.