A History of Secrecy

  • Melinda Alliker Rabb


Historical evidence supports a distinction between privacy and secrecy as counterterms to public. According to Raymond Williams, eighteenth-century rural England was transformed from an “intricate land of mystery and surprise” into “a predictable land of wide views, sweeping sameness, and straight lines,” that is, into “knowable communities” (Williams 1973:165). Enclosure acts, planned highways, and ‘modern’ farming techniques, instigated by motives of efficiency and profit, seem to replace irregularly shaped groves, caves, hollows, and hamlets obscurely connected by winding footpaths. Human intervention into the natural world, Williams implies, increasingly puts everything on display as if to accommodate consumerism and merchandising. Douglas Hay and Nicholas Rogers object that the “planned countryside of straight lines” and open views, oversimplifies agrarian change: “the process none the less was in part a closing-in” (4). By the time Jane Austen wrote Persuasion, for example, some 200,000 miles of hedges had been planted, “at least as much as in the previous 500 years” (4), creating the blind corners and barriers that would allow Anne Eliot to overhear without detection a conversation between Frederick Wentworth and Louisa Musgrove.


Early Modern Period Secret Society East India Company Secret Service Discursive Power 
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© Melinda Alliker Rabb 2007

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  • Melinda Alliker Rabb

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