Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century (2/4)

On Secrets

Secrecy represents the pathological other to communication. If public life is based upon social intercourse, then secrecy is an impediment to the exchange of information. Yet public life is not solely about untrammelled communication, whether for liberal Victorians who understood themselves in terms of their difference from foreign despots, or over-sharing millennials on Facebook. Privacy has always been a necessary counterpart to publicity, all the more fiercely defended when new ways of connecting people seem to enable publicity to encroach too far. Neither publicity nor privacy exists in isolation and the borders between the two shift at particular periods. Equally, both are multilayered and experienced variously according to who one is. Yet, intertwined though they are, the relationship between publicity and privacy is not equal. As publicity means accountability, privacy, while recognized as necessary, is only permitted under sufferance. The private, a space to nurture the self, is always a contested space, carved out in the shadows of oppressive openness and incessant exchange. Privacy’s necessary concealments are justified by trust; however, whereas privacy is a legitimate secreting away, secrecy implies that this might be abused. The secret, then, offers an affront to publicity because it troubles the boundaries of acceptable privacy. The problem, of course, is how to distinguish between the discrete nondisclosures that safeguard privacy from surreptitious activity carried out in secret.

For the Victorians, both publicity and privacy were venerated as cornerstones of national life. Publicity was celebrated as public square, the ideal market where strangers could meet on equal terms and do business; or, as Alexander Welsh, in particular, has argued, the light of public opinion, guide for both sovereign Parliament and, in the case of those whose stories found their way into the papers, the judge of private behaviour. With its roots in utilitarianism, publicity was not just heralded as a good thing, but as the basis for goodness itself. But publicity’s expansion, depersonalized and bureaucratized, undermined the basis of publicity by threatening the individual selves that, in liberal ideology, constituted the public. The private was the public’s necessary supplement, a space in which the self could develop that moral sense that was then mobilized by publicity. Private space, epitomized by the middle-class home, was celebrated as both hallmark of national character – the Englishman’s home and all that – and safeguard of a class-bound and gendered subjectivity that was generalized for all. Of course, access to privacy was limited to those with means; like the franchise, those without the resources to create private spaces of their own were considered unworthy of trust. It was no coincidence that the urban working classes were subject to surveillance by the regimes of law, public health, and Mrs Pardiggles. Without the means, the only way to assert the right to escape publicity was by tolerating it.

Secrecy was universally despised. In public life, secrecy was suspiciously foreign, the refuge of continental despots; in private life, it represented the failure of character, the inability to live as one should without promptings from others. As David Vincent has shown, this explains the outrage that followed the 1844 Post Office scandal, as well as the late development of the secret service.1 These high ideological stakes meant that the uncertain border where privacy edged over into secrecy was a point of particular obsession. The home, for instance, provided rich material for novelists, particularly the sensation novelists of the 1860s. It was also the source of the impossible standards expected of Victorian women, whose behaviour was expected to be exemplary in order to sustain the sanctity of the domestic and justify the right to dwell within it. Victorian middle-class masculinity, gentlemanliness itself, was predicated on discretion but this could conceal hidden ambitions, mask a secret life or a concealed past. Not only was the border between private and public contested and uncertain, then, but so too was that between the private and the secret. And the only way to ensure that privacy was not being abused was to subject it to publicity, to invade private space and root out its secrets.

Keeping secrets places one in the hinterland beyond privacy and so attracts suspicion. Private space, for the Victorians and for us, was understood as necessary to create independent citizens, able to account for themselves in public. However, it is secrecy that creates the individual, the set of differences that make us distinct from one another. Rather than understand secrecy as pathological, then, beyond the legitimate contest between privacy and publicity, perhaps we should understand it as their precondition. The private self privileged in the liberal tradition is, after all, already the result of repression, as the ego establishes itself against its unknown other. If privacy provides the means through which we become socialized as individuals, then the private self is already founded on a secret.

Rather than jeopardize society, secrecy is the barely repressed basis of social life. Not only is the liberal self carved out from the repressed unconscious, but telling secrets provides the means of forging intimacy. The knowledge that someone has a secret generates conflicting feelings: on the one hand, the secret awakens a desire to know; on the other, we want to know why we have not yet been told. Although circumstance vary, not knowing a secret places one at a disadvantage: we know that the truth is other than what it appears, but we depend upon someone else to find out what it is. Telling secrets is both a sacrifice of individuality, as the secret keeper gives up something that makes them different, and a way of creating bonds, as both secret keeper and the person to whom it is told now share something that nobody else knows. Telling secrets breaks down difference while, at the same time, reasserting it as a line is redrawn between those in the know and those that aren’t.

We cannot but keep secrets – to do so would eradicate difference and make us the same – but we build social bonds through partial disclosures, whether these are the whispered intimacies of courting lovers or the putative openness of democratic government. When secrets are shared it creates a connection that, in turn, excludes others. Intimacy is not built on knowing the other – how can it, when we barely know ourselves – but rather on what we choose to share.

1David Vincent, The Culture of Secrecy: Britain, 1832-1998 (Oxford University Press, 1998), chapters one, two and three. [back]