[As promised here’s Sue Nicholson’s review of this new book. Sue read and commented on an earlier draft of the book, and here reviews the published version. Among other articles she has previously written about the Pepys’ house at Seething Lane. Phil.]
Danielle Bobker is Associate Professor, English Department, Concordia University, Montreal. In this book she examines the phenomenon of the “closet” in the long 18th century as a catch-all term for a range of intimate spaces. She considers the social significance of choosing closet companions, of privileged access, as well as the opportunities afforded for gossip and sometimes transgressive outcomes. Each chapter highlights an aspect of closet behaviour and is prefaced with a “prelude” taken from Pepys’ Diary. The book is illustrated with architectural diagrams and contemporary prints and reflects on the Diary, as a real-life context for her analysis of the literature of the time. As well as Pepys, Professor Bobker covers a wide range of contemporary sources including Anthony Hamilton’s Memoirs of Count Grammont, Jonathan’ Swift’s satirical verse, John Taylor’s The World Runs on Wheels and the Sentimental Journey of Laurence Sterne. This book has evolved out of a multidisciplinary course entitled “The Closet”, taught by Professor Bobker over a number of years. It is a kind of cabinet of curiosities in itself, a curated collection to delight, educate and intrigue the reader and including in its wide scope both architectural and social history, queer theory and classic English literature.
More than any other room in the house, the importance of a closet was its versatility. This small, secure room could become a study, a place to hold a specialist collection, a library, a boudoir, an exotic bathroom or a room for private prayer. The word “cabinet” was sometimes used interchangeably with “closet” and could mean a chest of drawers, a cupboard, simple lockable box or the room itself. The key here was the key; only the closet’s owner could grant access. Nowhere was this concept more elaborated than in the Royal Court. Palaces were built to include a series of rooms through which the visitor progressed, each doorway being guarded and each room being closer to the Royal Presence. A petitioning visitor might be allowed into one of the outer reception rooms. A valued subject might be invited to witness the “Grand Levée” and an esteemed courtier the “Petit Levée” that preceded it in the King’s bedroom. The closet lay beyond this and represented the height of privileged access.
The English closet had important origins in sixteenth-century palace apartments designed in enfilade. The lockable room at the end of a series of adjoining chambers provided a secluded place for reading, writing, and storing valuables. It was therefore private in the general intuitive sense of the word… the closet was a channel of traditional public power as well. Admission to the closet, unlike most other parts of the court, depended only on the approval of the royal owner or her proxy, and the criteria for admission were necessarily opaque. Courtiers who had already been appointed special roles could be invited in, but so too might random petitioners from remote regions of the city or beyond.
For Pepys, gossip was currency and inside information was vital, as he manoeuvred his way through the tricky landscape of 17th century politics and power. As Clerk of the Acts at the Navy Office, Pepys had only rare and limited access to those with influence, but he knew how to trade information with the right people and make himself useful. The Diary records several examples of Pepys being “tipped the wink” by a more senior colleague about a developing situation, and of scurrilous gossip from Court. Pepys’ regular visits to The Exchange often resulted in a trade of useful information.
Throughout the Diary period, Pepys lavishes time and money perfecting his closet. It was a place of sanctuary from the demands of his job and the mundanities of domestic life. It was a private space for quiet reflection and self examination through diary writing, and somewhere to enjoy his growing collection of books in peace. At the Navy Office he had a partitioned room of his own where he could work in peace, though he enjoyed spying on the rest of his team through a little peep-hole he drilled in the paneling. This office “closet” was also ideal for secret assignations for example with Mrs Daniels, who came to ask for a favour for her husband and was willing to pay Pepys in kind.
The closet was also a place to show off to others, to exhibit intellectual capital in the form of books, art works and carefully curated objets. Pepys badly wanted his wife to be a credit to him in society. He paid for singing lessons for her, drawing lessons, dancing lessons (a mistake; she was too fond of dancing and perhaps the dancing master. Pepys put an end to it). He wanted her to have a closet too, which he could show off to others, styling her as studious (he bought her pair of globes), and well-read. She was neither and he knew it. When he was preparing to set sail with the fleet in 1660 to bring Charles home as king, he took care to make arrangements for Elizabeth and made a will, promising “… to give her all that I have in the world but my books, in case I should die at sea.” (Diary, 15 March 1660.)
He in turn was often shown round the private closets of others; Lady Batten, Thomas Povey, Commissioner Pett, the Queen Mother’s closet at Somerset House and even that of the King. Each one is critiqued in the Diary.
The things people kept in their closets were nearly as telling to Pepys as what they said in them.
Closet etiquette demanded that a visit be followed by a small gift, reflecting the taste of the owner. After being shown Abigail Williams’ closet (mistress of Lord Brounker), he had to avoid her for some time, for fear of being given a second tour, “and thereby forcing me to give her something.” (Diary, 22 August 1667). He clearly did not like the woman and, crucially, she was offering Pepys neither privileged information nor sexual favours.
If the key question for closet solitude was, “who am I?” proximity to other people in closets led occupants to ask, “who am I in relation to you?”
There is no mention in the Diary of royal bathrooms, but it seems that Charles took his cue from the luxurious arrangements at the French court:
Shortly after the Restoration, and in keeping with his general interest in intimate spaces and rituals, Charles transformed the largest of his three bathrooms into a place for relaxing in luxurious seclusion, a kind of spa lounge. Whitehall works’ accounts show that, in 1663, “The room was paneled and embellished with carvings, curtains and a screen were provided for the bath and a painting was set up over the chimney. A palisade was erected in the privy garden before the windows of the rooms to maintain the King’s privacy… “soft furnishings” were brought in, including hangings and a feather bed. An account from September 1668 lists expenses for laying a forty-nine-square-foot floor in its sunken-pool bath. Five years later, the water system was improved, and the room’s walls and ceiling were covered in mirrors.
There was no bathroom in Seething Lane and Pepys is vague about the exact position of the “house of office”. William Penn’s is described as being on “the leads” but then when his own cesspit is being emptied, confusingly Pepys refers to that as a “house of office” too. All houses in 17th Century London (unless they were situated next to or over a river) were legally obliged to have what Pepys is pleased to call a “vault for turds” which would be emptied by “nightsoil” men. There is a reason he is so vague; he probably went there only rarely. His normal practice was to use chamber pots or a “close stool” which were emptied by his wife and the servants. On 25th May 1663, Pepys took a laxative and “staid within most of the morning” while it worked. Unfortunately Elizabeth and the maid Ashwell spilled the pot on the way to empty it, “upon the floor and stool and God knows what, and were mighty merry making clean of it…”
English country homes of the grander sort are famously short on plumbing even today, their occupants being used to having servants to deal with such matters. In fact, and Professor Bobker points this out, an Englishman had actually invented a flushing loo in Tudor times:
Sir John Harington, a godson of Elizabeth I, is credited with being the first to reconceive it… Punning on a jakes or jack, two other common names for the privy (and ancestor to our john), Harington’s Metamorphosis of Ajax is an extensive treatise on excretory cultures past and present that also offers practical advice on how to “[free] this noysome place from all annoyance” by means of a flush and a valve.
It was slow to catch on:
In his mid-eighteenth-century plans for the massive Kedleston Hall, Palladian architect James Paine included only one indoor privy. In 1734, William Kent designed “only a windowless ‘two-holer’ in an odd corner of the hall” at the Earl of Leicester’s country house in Norfolk. If the elite who cared enough did have their privies designed with special care, these facilities elicited the same combination of wonder and suspicion as other novelties in this period.
Only common people walked down the garden to the loo, while those with social pretensions continued to use chamber pots in the comfort of their chamber. This sordid reality was at odds with the model of refinement they wished to project, a situation which Jonathan Swift exploited to comic effect in his scatological poems, notably “A Lady’s Dressing Room”.
As I was saying, gossip was currency to Pepys and when his neighbour Mrs Turner starts spilling the beans about his illustrious neighbours, he is all ears. William Batten’s wife has her jewellery stolen. After a servant has been arrested, the missing jewels are found hidden under a cup in her closet. How did they get there? Did she perhaps hide them there herself? Speculation ensues. Lord Brounker has acquired a large number of expensive locks and keys. According to the servants he has been locking their property away and refusing to give it back unless they can produce a list. Shocking!
The thresholds of closets and cabinets sometimes become especially loaded sites of conflict over lost authority or broken promises… (In) 1667 (a pregnant) Lady Castlemaine is rumored to have “nearly hectored [the king] out of his wits,” threatening “to bring all his bastards to his closet-door” or to bring the new baby, after it is born, “into the White Hall gallery, and dash the brains of it out before the King’s face.” A year before, Pepys had experienced a closet shaming of his own when a crowd of women staged a protest in front of the navy’s offices, demanding compensation and assistance for their husbands— naval officers who were held as prisoners of war in Holland. As the crowd disperses, Pepys calls just one of the bereaved women back to his office closet to give her some money in private. In this case, there is no record of what it cost her.
Pepys was desperate to have his own coach. As his social standing and personal fortune grow over the course of the Diary, this becomes increasingly pressing. It was a huge expense, not just to buy a coach but to also buy and stable a pair of good horses, and lastly to employ a groom/driver. A modern parallel would be owning your own helicopter. The Diary traces the rationale he constructs; he has promised Elizabeth, it will save the Navy money in cab fees (!), he won’t have to share private space with annoying strangers, it would save time. This last was patently not true: travelling by coach across London to Whitehall through the narrow, winding, crowded streets was slower than going by boat. It was probably quicker to walk, as Pepys had often done. Travelling by hackney coach on 12th November 1666, Pepys was held up: “but so great a stop there was at the New Exchange, that we could not pass in half an houre”. On this occasion he gave up and walked.
No, Pepys had other reasons to love coaches. One was the unrivalled opportunity for the kind of privileged access to information we have already considered. It was a great place for gossip too:
Pepys describes how he and Mr. Gawden, on their way to the Duke of Albemarle, “contracted a great friendship” in “the freedom of [their] discourse” about the king’s mismanagement of navy money and the knavery of Sir William Penn.”
And, inevitably, coaches served Pepys as “mobile closets” for furtive sexual encounters. with various women including Betty Mitchell, Knepp the actress, and finally Deb Willett:
…he sometimes consciously overrides her lack of consent, taking advantage of the fact that she is trapped with him. “This day yo did rest with my hand tocar la cosa de our Deb in the coach – ella being troubled at it – but yet did give way to it,” he reports in August 1668.
But the real driving force was Pepys’ ambition, his craving for status. When he finally achieves his dream he is overjoyed:
At noon home to dinner, and there find my wife extraordinary fine, with her flowered tabby gown that she made two years ago, now laced exceeding pretty; and, indeed, was fine all over; and mighty earnest to go, though the day was very lowering; and she would have me put on my fine suit, which I did. And so anon we went alone through the town with our new liveries of serge, and the horses’ manes and tails tied with red ribbons, and the standards there gilt with varnish, and all clean, and green refines, that people did mightily look upon us; and, the truth is, I did not see any coach more pretty, though more gay, than ours, all the day.
On reflection, he worries about causing envy:
And his concern is hardly misplaced. Sir William Warren’s first comment to Pepys about his coach is that he hopes “that the owner might not contract envy by it.” Beforehand, Pepys has suspected that “my being so much seen in my own coach at this time, may be observed to my prejudice.” Shortly thereafter, he finds out from Creed and Povey that courtiers are indeed sneering about “how fine [his] horses and coach are” and his gold-lace sleeves. Pepys is only briefly “vexed.” As soon as his colleagues leave, he goes straight to the tailor to have the trim taken o his favorite suit.
When Pepys is libeled in an anonymous pamphlet in 1679, the images on his coach are especially derided, by a writer who comes across as a particularly nasty social media troll:
First you had upon ye Forepart of your chariott tempestuous waves & wrecks of Ships … And now really consider with your self, at you are but ye Sonne of a Taylor & wipe out all this presumptious painting & new paynt it with these things which are agreeable to your quality. In the first place paint upon the Forepart as hansom a Taylor’s shop Board as you please, with the old Gentleman your Father at worke upon it and his Journy men sitting about him, each man with his pint of Ale & Halfepenny Loafe before him, And the good old Matron your mother, and your selfe, & the rest of your Brothers & Sisters Standing by. is will be agreeable to your qualities. Then behind your Coach Paint all ye Evil deeds of P[epys] & H[arbord] in particular.
The original heraldry that Pepys had commissioned for his family vehicle depicted Neptune, the demanding ruler of the oceans in Roman mythology, in order to underscore his senior role within the Royal Navy as the basis of his elevation. According to the traditional exclusive social logic, the people riding in coaches inevitably merit eye-catching décor. But, given his background, Pepys’s chosen design is ‘presumptious.’
Finally, the subject of “coming out of the closet” as gay, is addressed by Professor Bobker in a Coda: “Closets often accommodated homosocial and homoerotic bonds, not least because royals and nobles al- most always chose favorites of their own sex to serve them in their most private rooms.” (Ibid. p. 193.)
There is plenty of evidence (too much!) in the Diary that Pepys was not a closet homosexual. Nor was he a closet Catholic, although during the “Popish Plot” era of 1678-80, his enemies would accuse him of just that. In putting his defence together, he gives a description of the interior of his closet including a table with a copy of the Bible and a Prayer book upon it and his wife’s portrait above it. It may have looked like an altar to his accusers, with Elizabeth in the role of a saint. He was imprisoned twice but finally released without charge. It is touching to picture this little intimate space featuring a portrait of Elizabeth, who had died on the 10th November 1669, just after returning from a holiday they had taken together in France.
By taking the closet as her subject, Professor Bobker is throwing light on those aspects of life which their owners would prefer to keep secret; their bodily functions, assignations, betrayals, sexuality. This romp through history’s private places makes fascinating reading that will appeal to Pepys nerds. It is also a major work by an established academic and as such, it is gratifying that Professor Bobker has chosen to use the “Pepys Diary” website as a source for her work, referencing not just the Diary text but also annotations and articles by contributors. All credit to Phil Gyford, who first put the Diary online, made it searchable and continues to keep it updated. As Pepys readers we should also all be proud of the body of reference material we have co-created and the contribution it makes to the study of 17th century England.
- Buy The Closet from Princeton University Press.
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