Private Matters

Art Installation at Trent U

Think of your private sphere. Now think of the world of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google. What aspects of your private life do you share? Some people like to keep certain areas of their lives private, unseen by the public eye, unobserved by outsiders. The author of the Catalogingandcardigans blog that I follow confides, “[Most] of my concerns about the privacy of my social media presence are unfounded. There’s a lot in the media about people getting in trouble with their present or future employer because of what they’ve put online, but it’s not like I’m one of the Boobrarians on Twitter dropping the f-word at random” (Sep. 30, 2011). Canadian Artist Wendy Trusler examines the private and public through old letters in her art installation. Her collection of more than 3,000 letters spans over 150 years and asks the question, “Why do we keep letters?” 

In Frank Warren’s PostSecret book project, he invites people from all walks of life to send him their secrets on homemade postcards. Many people use these missives to reveal their “private fears, hopes, regrets, and desires” (Indigo-Chapters book blurb). In a sense, people use the forum as a confessional booth. They shed years of guilt and repression by divulging their secret thoughts on the back of a postcard and mailing it off. It is a very public revelation, but the anonymity of the transaction maintains the author’s privacy.

Have you noticed how often the subject of privacy is in the news these days? Between the British phone hacking scandal and our very own Vic Toews wanting to legislate access to the private files on our computer, the discussion of the private sphere remains relevant. Here, Rick Mercer uses his weekly rant to chastise Vic Toews MP for tampering with Canadians’ privacy:

When Bowen and Lessing explore the private and the public spheres in their writing, they put those concepts under the microscope and examine them through a post-war and post-colonial lens. For Bowen, how does the concept of home change when it is bombed, attacked, and almost annihilated? Mrs Watson’s episode in the wood unsettles her. In a chat with her husband about love and life, she muses,

 “The way we live, we never know anyone. All that crowd back at home, they’ve forgotten us. It was all coming in for coffee, or else whist. It doesn’t get you anywhere. I mean, you get used to it, but that doesn’t make it natural. What I mean is…” (Bowen 985).

Although she does not reach a conclusion about her life and the shape it will have in this new suburb, she is thinking about her place in her private sphere. Mrs Watson picks up the threads of her life and gets to know her new neighbours, but she is also thinking of life, what she can share with her husband, and those thoughts she must keep private.

Lessing ponders the question of home through the eyes of Mary Turner. Arendt suggests, “To live an entirely private life means above all to be deprived of things essential to a truly human life” (58). Not only is Mary thousands of miles away from the British motherland, she is an orphan. She is without a mother and father, she is married but has no relationship with her husband, and her ‘friends’ are untrue. Her private space is not a sanctuary. It is a danger zone. In the end, “their poverty has worsened and Mary’s health, physical and mental, is breaking down” (Roberts 76). Mary is “alone”, “defenceless”, “propelled by fear”; and death overtakes her (Lessing 203). As much as she tries to create a home, a private sphere is unobtainable for Mary Turner. Both Bowen’s and Lessing’s studies of the private realm are unsettling, disturbing, and thought-provoking.

In her Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, Lessing asks of young writers, “Have you still got your space? Your sole, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold onto it, don’t let it go” (Lessing). This is the private space we must treasure and protect. The private sphere is valuable real estate indeed and must be preserved at all cost.


Public Affairs

Hannah Arendt

I like Hannah Arendt’s definition of the public sphere because it is simple and easy to understand. Instead of talking about “a discursive space in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment” (Wikipedia), we can ponder Arendt’s ideas. She declares, first, “that everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity…. Appearance constitutes reality…. Second, the term ‘public’ signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it” (Arendt 50, 52).

Therefore, once you leave the privacy of your home, you are in the public realm. To quote Arendt again: “[E]ven the twilight which illuminates our private and intimate lives is ultimately derived from the much harsher light of the public realm” (Arendt 51). Furthermore, “there are a great many things which cannot withstand the implacable, bright light of the … public scene; there, only what is considered to be relevant, worthy of being seen or heard, can be tolerated, so that the irrelevant becomes automatically a private matter” (51). While the “private sphere shapes the public sphere” (Class Lecture Jan 23), the public realm defines and give worth to the private realm.

With that illumination in mind, let’s look at Mrs Watson’s appearance in the public realm. When Mr Watson comes upon her lying face down in the woods, “he felt hot colour come up his neck….He could not have been more stricken in his idea of her if he had found her here with another man. He did not like to see her embrace the earth” (Bowen 983). He puts forward his objections to her: “You oughtn’t to be like that in a place like this.” “Besides, look here … That grass is reeking wet.” “You’ve no business….Suppose Freddie or Vee had happened to come up here. That’d have been a nice…” “Look here….You’re batty!” (Bowen 983-984). He is so overcome that he remonstrates in half sentences, hesitations, and unfinished thoughts. Her behaviour is so embarrassing and their conversation so personal, he is almost speechless. He does not have the vocabulary or the depth of feelings to discuss it with her.  To him, the matter becomes unspeakable—irrelevant—and private.

Similarly, Mary Turner’s problem is so embarrassing to the white community that they speak of it in whispers, in code, in hints: they do not have to articulate the problem because they all know. The narrator states “that the murder was simply not discussed.” There was “a tacit agreement that the Turner case should not be given undue publicity by gossip.” Everyone in the community operates with “silent, unconscious agreement….like a flock of birds who communicate …by means of a kind of telepathy” (Lessing 9-10). Because Mary consorts with a Black man, she lets down the side, she fails to uphold her “Britishness”, and she betrays the white community. The matter is not “worthy of being seen or heard” (Arendt 51) and ultimately becomes a very private matter.

The British Monarchy knows the public sphere, but Queen Elizabeth II has lost touch with her people and no longer understands the rules. After Lady Diana’s death, the Queen retreats to Balmoral with her grandsons. She does not immediately fly the British flag at half staff. She waits until six days after the passing to address her public, and then, feeling the pressure from the people and on the advice of her advisors, she uncharacteristically gives a very public speech to the nation acknowledging the life of Diana. Her speech pays tribute to Diana, “her devotion to her two boys…and the devastating loss that they…have suffered” (BBC1). She says the very least that is possible to satisfy the public. The Queen is a daughter; but she is a mother, too. She primarily thinks of her grandsons having to grow up without a mother. Her grief for them is so large that the matter becomes unspeakable. It, too, becomes irrelevant and private. Of course, she is the Queen—she and her advisors have devised this speech to appease the public, but this is all she is going to say on the matter. Long live the Queen. 

Please stay tuned. Check back in for my last post, wherein I shall sum up and share my thoughts and words on why the public and the private matters.

Private “I”; Public Eye

Public Eye TV Series

When an acquaintance gave me a copy of Charlotte Church’s autobiography, I felt insulted that she thought I would want to read the book. What could a 14-year old have to say of any value? Interestingly, it is titled Voice of an Angel: My Life (So Far) although I don’t think she was referencing the ‘angel in the house’. So. Charlotte Church. Sweetly, she writes, “As Mum always says, ‘A lot of your success has to do with your team. They’re the best’” (Church 103). Here’s another thought: “When people ask me what it’s like to sing on stage, I tell them that it’s a bit like sharing yourself with all the people in the audience. Afterward you feel drained, as if your soul has been squeezed, although in a great way” (Church 102). You get the idea. It’s not a literary work. It’s just a case of young celebrity capitalizing on fame and getting some publicity. Ahhh, but she hasn’t lived yet. And there is nothing titillating to gossip about.

Now, fast forward to 2011. The British press have exposed Charlotte’s and her family’s private life to the public, with disastrous consequences. Here, she questions how the media would have found out about her mother’s mental illness and why the public would be interested in her father’s love life.

Welcome to the shadowy realm of the public sphere and the private sphere. When worlds collide, indeed. Arendt states, “The emergency of society—the rise of housekeeping, its activities, problems, and organizational devices—from the shadowy interior of the household into the light of the public sphere, has not only blurred the old borderline between private and political, it has also changed almost beyond recognition the meaning of the two terms and their significance for the life of the individual and the citizen” (Arendt 38). She also notes that “modern privacy in its most relevant function, to shelter the intimate, was discovered as the opposite…of the social [sphere]” (Arendt 38). 

Mrs Watson and her friends

Mrs Watson desires the friendship of her neighbours. It is her way of measuring and placing herself in the strata of society. She needs them to validate her life.  Mrs Watson comes home with her husband (after having just recovered from falling prostrate on the grass) to find her new neighbour, Mrs Dawkins, on her doorstep. In a series of exchanges with Mrs Dawkins, she quickly establishes her place in the hierarchy of her neighbourhood. She finds out that Mrs Dawkins lives in Kozy Kot in the same housing estate; she learns that Mrs Dawkins’ Dorothy and her Vera are playing (quite nicely) together; she agrees that it is a nice estate; she discovers that Mrs Dawkins’ family has a car, too. In affiirmation of Mrs Dawkins’ comment, “’I always say…that it takes time to settle into a place. Gentlemen, being out so much, don’t feel it the same way’”, Mrs Watson pulls the offending (country) leaf from her head, and says, “’Still, I’ve no doubt a place grows on one. It’s really all habit, isn’t it?’” (Bowen 985). All is right with our Mrs Watson.

Mary Turner's so-called friends

Not so with poor Mary Turner. Her social interactions with her friends and neighbours maim her. Her relationship with Moses kills her.  Before she weds, she visits a married friend and overhears some gossip about herself, about what she wears, how she conducts her life, and her unmarried status. She is numb with the news, but “she composed herself and went back into the room to join her treacherous friends” (Lessing 41). Lessing hints of tragedy to come by stating, “That little incident, apparently so unimportant, … had a profound effect on Mary” (Lessing 41). After she marries, Mr. and Mrs. Slatter visit the Turners at home. In describing the visit, Mrs. Slatter uses the occasion to judge. Surely, it is unintentional for “Mrs. Slatter was a kindly soul”, but she feels “sorry for Mary who had married a good-for-nothing like Dick….But she remembered only too well the sufferings and humiliations of poverty. She looked at Mary with real tenderness, remembering her own past, and was prepared to make friends. But Mary was stiff with resentment, because she noticed Mrs. Slatter looking keenly round the room, pricing every cushion, noticing the new whitewash and the curtains” (Lessing 75-76). The italics (mine) indicate that Mrs. Slatter is pronouncing judgement. Mary knows that Mrs. Slatter is saving up all the details to gossip about her. In the face of the evidence, Mary is defenceless. 

When the public eye meets the private “I” in fiction and in life, disaster lurks. Beware!

“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.” – Socrates

Angel or Madwoman?

In the domestic sphere, the angel in the house is used “in reference to women who embodied the Victorian feminine ideal: a wife and mother who was selflessly devoted to her children and submissive to her husband” (Wikipedia). We see a strong variation of that representation in the character described by Rhys. Christophine is a symbol of the creolized or post-colonial domestic in Wide Sargasso Sea. She declines the material world as not important; she has children, but there is no husband or father of the children in her life. She is every woman. She is ex-centric and lives outside of the public sphere, or she will go mad. She is confident in herself (Class Discussion Feb.13).

The Watson family enjoying life on the Estate

What a contrast to the characters that Bowen and Lessing write about in their texts. Rather than portray an Angel in the House, they each depict the madwoman in the attic  or “demonic alter ego” (Boumelha 346). Both Mrs Watson and Mary have a ‘nervous condition’ or are slightly mad, which “are familiar subjects in post-colonial literature…and also in colonial literature” (Gibson 310). Mrs Watson’s private world is in chaos. She moves away from all that is familiar—from her friends and their social circle—she is in unknown territory. With her move to this new estate, she has too much privacy. She is on her own and cannot adjust. She has no one to reinforce her feelings of worth. Her husband is no support. She makes no impression on anyone, and she feels, “Up to now she had been happy without knowing, like a fortunate sheep or cow always in the same field. She was a woman who did not picture herself….She never needed to ask what was happening really…. Now no one cared any more whether she existed; she came to ask, without words, if she did exist.” (Bowen 982).  

Dick and Mary Turner's home

Similarly, Lessing constructs Mary “as a psychologically frail woman…dominated by a strong personality” (Lessing Gray Interview). Lessing remembers “listening as a child to the people talking…about this woman, a neighbour who allowed her servant to do her dress up the back and to brush her hair…. [W]as she mad, what was wrong with her?” (Lessing Gray Interview 332). When Mary marries and leaves the town, she moves into a life of poverty with her hapless husband. Her home should offer her a sense of authenticity, family, safety, and sanctuary. Instead, it gives her nothing. What has happened to her dream? Charlie looks at the Turner home and knows it is not authentic (Lecture Notes Jan. 23). Mary makes this move to the veld to correct her ‘single’ status, but it is not a wise decision. Her husband now controls her life, and that fact drives her crazy: “Once she was roused by a noise and realized it was herself, talking out loud in the living-room in a low angry voice…..The sound of that soft, disjointed, crazy voice was as terrifying as the sight of herself in the mirror had been. She was afraid, jerked back into herself, shrinking from the vision of herself talking like a mad woman in the corner of the sofa” (Lessing 149-150).

The British government tried to keep women in their domestic sphere as well. Married women were considered chattel:

“By marriage, the personal identity of the woman is lost. Her person is completely sunk in that of her husband, and he acquires an absolute mastery over her person and effects” (International Commercial Law, 1863.)

Coming from a position of having no voice, the Suffragettes agitated for the vote. The “Cat and Mouse Act” was one attempt by the government to ‘toy’ with women who were struggling for the right to vote and to have a voice in how their country was run. The Act legalized the Suffragette’s hunger strikes and stated that women would be let out prison as soon as they became ill. Once the Act came into existence, force feeding stopped.  Force feeding was “described as a physical and mental violation that caused pain, suffering, emotional distress, humiliation, anguish and rage” (Wikipedia).  

Part of the modernist experiment is to write truth, to shock, and to turn tradition on its head. Bowen and Lessing “[undermine] the authoritative male texts” (Boumelha 345) and discard the images of the angel in the house for more realistic ones.


Doris Lessing 1950

Elizabeth Bowen

In the post-modern world, the home comes under attack. Because of industrialization, people are leaving their rural roots and moving to the cities. Because of the war, homes are blown up and destroyed. In colonial Africa, the idea of home is turned upside down. Elizabeth Bowen questions the concept of home in her short story Attractive Modern Homes. Doris Lessing also looks at the domestic space in The Grass is Singing. In the fictional worlds of Mrs Watson and Mary Turner, their authors place them into a domestic sphere where they are in peril. They must work through their struggles, through their mania, to come to grips with their situation. The contrasts between the two women are notable. Mrs Watson’s family is upwardly mobile, and she seeks the society of like-minded women to validate her existence and purpose. Mrs Watson tries to settle into her new situation in her recent move away from all that is familiar. She equates her move to the new town as a move to the “Colonies” (Bowen 981). Bowen describes Mrs Watson as a “[pioneer] unennobled by danger” (Bowen 981). Mary, who lives in one of those “Colonies”, struggles to maintain her sanity as she deals with a new husband and a move to the veld. Unlike Mrs Watson, she and her husband are poor and cannot play at niceties as they struggle for existence. Mary shuns society because she fears other women will judge her. While Mrs Watson craves having a cup of tea with the neighbours and validating her own life, Mary shudders at the thought. Mary thinks that people coming into her domestic space is an invasion of her privacy.

Similarly, in the modern world, we live in perilous times. The private sphere is under attack. Celebrities demand notice and some stars are willing to give up aspects of their privacy for fame. However, when those gaining access delve too far into private lives to feed the insatiable appetite of the public, havoc ensues. When the media crosses the line and breaks laws to bring the private into the public sphere as a means of giving its public ‘news’, or when a government seeks to gain private information from its citizens by enacting laws, there is a huge outcry. I’ll leave you with a representation of that struggle.  (Although the sound you hear on the link actually belongs to another video on the website, I think it adds an interesting layer to the concept of private and public.)

Private Sphere Public Sphere

Public Sphere Private Sphere

Welcome to my Blog sphere

Welcome to Thoughts and Words, so named because I view thoughts as private space and words as public space. Of course, words can be private, but as an author, you lose control of your words as soon as you speak or write them. Once they are spoken or captured on paper and are in the public sphere, people can comment on them, twist them, reinterpret them, publish them, and plagiarize them. Or they can ignore them.

In the next several posts, I will look at the domestic sphere, the private sphere, the intersection of those areas with the public, and the public sphere through the lens of literature. I will conclude my blog with a final discussion of our yearning to maintain our private space. Why do we value privacy? How can we protect it? Why do we seek publicity?  In the modern world of FaceBook, blogs, LinkedIn, and other social media, what should be considered private? How much should government have to say in the private lives of their citizens? 

Stay tuned…and please, feel free to add your ideas to the conversation by commenting on my blog. I welcome your thoughts and words.