The Closet is a literary and cultural history of the intimate space of the eighteenth-century closet- a private room which was one of the most charged settings in English architecture. It examines numerous historical and fictional encounters and explores the intimate lives of both famous figures such as Samuel Pepys and Laurence Sterne, and less familiar ones such as Miss Hobart, a maid of honour at the Restoration court.
NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about? Why will people want to read it?
Danielle Bobker: ‘Closet’ was the generic term for any lockable room in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British architecture. As private wealth grew, closets of all kinds were increasingly desirable and increasingly available across the social spectrum. My book is a literary and cultural history of the intimacy of these spaces.
If you’re unfamiliar with eighteenth-century studies but you’ve seen The Crown, the audience room at Buckingham Palace is a good point of reference. In an episode in the latest season, Elizabeth II says to Margaret Thatcher: “Over the years this room has been part office, part drawing room, part confessional, and part psychologist’s couch.” That’s a nice encapsulation of some of the ways people interacted in historical closets too.
Scholars have already drawn strong links between closets and changing ideas of selfhood by considering the things that people did alone in these rooms, such as praying, reading, or writing; dressing; or poring over their collections of books, art, and curiosities. By shifting attention to closets as settings and symbols of a variety of extra-familial relationships, The Closet offers a new explanation for their proliferation in British buildings and books, and a queerer view of the period more generally.
NOTCHES: What was a closet, in the early modern period, and how did these spaces come to be associated with illicit and/or transgressive sexuality?
DB: Eighteenth-century British closets had important origins in the enfilade architecture of early modern palaces and noble households. Because there were no corridors, family members, courtiers, and other servants had to pass through most of the rooms in the course of their daily business. The closet was generally the last in the suite, the only room where access could be strictly controlled. The illustration on the cover of my book situates us in the closet in the Queen’s Apartments at Kensington Palace, designed by Christopher Wren in the late seventeenth century, with a view through the adjoining chambers. So, the quick answer as to why closets were historically associated with illicit sex—or illicit anything really—is that, once their doors were shut, they were the rooms best suited to doing things other people weren’t supposed to see. Even privies and bathing closets—the antecedents of modern bathrooms—had this edgy reputation.
The longer answer, which the book especially emphasizes, has to do with the intricate power dynamics of the closet. On the one hand, closet relations enacted the top-down status hierarchy that had organized society since feudal times. Arbitrary decisions about who would come into their closets allowed monarchs and aristocrats to show off their (supposedly God-given) superiority. If the queen invited you into her closet, she wanted you to feel honoured—and pretty much obliged to join her there. On the other hand, once inside, the closet became a temporary levelling machine where the usual formalities fell away. The queen expected you to speak candidly, to gossip with her, and relate to her as if an equal—for just as long as she wanted. Moreover, the superior party was also vulnerable: elite people also needed allies and might need to divulge secrets of their own. All kinds of physical and emotional closeness, including sexual contact, could ensue, especially with the same-sex favourites granted most regular access to these private rooms.
Thus closet relationships were, structurally, more secretive and less predictable than those happening in the more formal parts of a household. According to Historic Royal Palaces twitter, the closet pictured on my book’s cover was where Queen Anne and her first favourite, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, argued bitterly, before parting ways forever in 1711. In fact, as reigning monarch, Anne actually occupied the King’s Apartments at Kensington Palace. But even if apocryphal, this anecdote gets at the lasting view of this space as a site of intense and precarious homoerotic attachments.
NOTCHES: What does the history of the closet tell us about the relationship between privacy and eroticism?
DB: Feminist and queer social theorists point out that most interpersonal experiences, including sexual ones, are private in certain respects and public in others. Yet we don’t always see these layers and intricacies because the history of the private and public is still commonly narrated in heteronormative, classist, and oppositional terms—focusing on the growing split between feminine (unpaid, domestic, personal, familial, conjugal, and subjective) and masculine (paid, commercial, collective, political, and objective) spheres of life. Since closet relationships were both domestic and extrafamilial, intimate and political, erotic and strategic, they help to expose the limits of these oppositions as tools of historical description.
Historical closets also unsettle current investments in sexual identity and sexual agency. Eighteenth-century writers sometimes present eroticism as an effect of architectural privacy, belonging more to the politically charged space of the closet itself than the people occupying it. Of course, scenes of closet intimacy do involve specific characters or historical individuals, with their own backstories, desires, and motivations. But the intensity often begins with the elaborate décor, then the aura of the room envelops the occupants, rather than the other way around. “Shall we to the boudoir?”
In the seduction scene that is the main focus of my book’s second chapter, for example, the author Anthony Hamilton specifies that the women in question are seated on a couch, with Indian curtains behind them covering a bath and a smaller closet full of sweetmeats nearby, which is far more material description than in any of the other episodes of his secret history.
NOTCHES: One of the main characters in your book is the diarist Samuel Pepys. Can you tell us a little bit about his experiences of closets?
DB: For Pepys, closets were rooms for improvement, in both senses. In his diary he records visits to many fancy closets in Restoration England, including those belonging to the King, the Queen, and the Duke of York, who oversaw the Royal Navy where Pepys worked. As a non-noble man, he was well aware of what he stood to gain from such visits. But he didn’t want to have to wait for invitations. To help grow their social networks, he and his wife Elizabeth worked hard to make the three closets of their own as appealing as possible. The diary shows that they were constantly reorganizing, redecorating, and renovating them. Among the books, art, and other objects they displayed was the tennis-ball-sized bladder stone that Pepys had had surgically removed.
The diary also provides significant evidence of how the intimacy of the closet exacerbated general patterns of inequity and violence in the period. Pepys was a serial sexual predator who peeped at the young woman who cleaned the shared space beyond his office closet through holes he had drilled himself and often used his own and others’ closets to corner women of lower social standing. There are also a few—too few—moments in the diary when women with closets get the upper hand. I want to shake hands with Abigail Williams, who was the girlfriend of Pepys’ colleague and neighbour Lord Brouncker. Pepys slut-shamed her behind her back. But she made him squirm with repeated invitations into her closet, which, as he and she both knew, it was not advisable for him to refuse.
NOTCHES: This is a book about the history of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?
DB: Another central concern of The Closet is media shift, and the awkward early articulation of the liberal democratic values of public knowledge and social inclusion. Alongside, and often inside, closets, printed texts were also multiplying in the eighteenth century, challenging the elitist tradition of hand-copying texts for limited circulation. Because closets were associated with the possibility of sharing secrets across status divides, they became resonant symbols not only for conservative writers worried about books and ideas circulating beyond the group they had intended to address, but also for those embracing the prospect of reaching larger and more diverse audiences—and everyone in between.
In Jürgen Habermas’s influential history of the rise of the modern public sphere, it is, effectively, the novel closeness of the conjugal bedroom that gives bourgeois men the confidence to participate in virtual conversations in print. The Closet finds that the precarious bonds of the closet provide a better blueprint for the social and emotional complexity of eighteenth-century print publicness. More than two hundred textual collections called closets and cabinets, often qualified as “broken open” or “unlocked,” were published between 1550 and 1800. In particular, the closet spy or voyeur, a common figure in these textual collections, came to embody the mixed feelings of new readers and writers of print, who were full of desire yet unsure of the value of knowledge encountered via this anonymous medium.
NOTCHES: Your book is strongly interdisciplinary, using literary, artistic and architectural sources as well as historical texts. How has this approach shaped this project, and do you think this is something that historians of sexuality could/should do more of?
DB: My approach in The Closet is to look for hotspots, where the verbal, the conceptual, and the material dimensions of eighteenth-century experiences of intimacy intersect with particular force. I think I picked up this habit of mind from Laurence Sterne… The first chapter I wrote (the fifth in the book) is about vis-à-vis, a new English preposition in eighteenth-century only after it was a new face-to-face carriage model, as the ground for Sterne’s exploration of the interplay between closet-like carriages, changing relationships between carriage passengers, and an increasingly optimistic view of stranger sociability, both on the street and across the pages of popular novels like his own Sentimental Journey. From there, I started to see how other words/spaces, like cabinet, privy, and of course closet, were also evocative touchstones for social change.
Research exposing and challenging white supremacy is what’s most urgently needed in sexuality studies and throughout the academy right now, though. The closet’s social power derived from absolutist status ideology—the idea that birth is worth—which girded the whole obscene edifice of slavery and colonialism in this period. If I were starting the same book today, I would want to address the relationship between closet favouritism and racism more directly and to consider how the top-down dynamics of the closet continue to operate behind closed doors in ostensibly democratic institutions, including universities, where preferences and unconscious biases are often disavowed or justified in relation to supposedly objective standards of excellence, judgment, or taste.
NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?
DB: I became interested in the history of sexuality when doing my MA in English in the mid-1990s. It was the height of third-wave feminism and queer studies was on the rise. I fell in love and came out. I took a course on gender and genre in the long eighteenth century with Marcie Frank (author of Gender, Theatre, and the Origins of Criticism and The Novel Stage) where I encountered Aphra Behn, Nell Gwyn, and Barbara Castlemaine. I had watched Dangerous Liaisons multiple times. Given everything that was going on, it would have been more original for me to go in some other direction. My MA thesis, which I finished in 1999, was “Towards a Restoration discourse of female libertinism.”
NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom?
DB: Students have been my main interlocutors while working on The Closet so I do really hope that other students will in turn find it approachable. I’ve taught a course called “The Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture of the Closet” several times. The book could be a guiding text for courses on the history of privacy and domesticity. It could work in general introductions to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century studies as well. And specific chapters could ground discussions of book history and media shift; extrafamilial intimacy (friendship, favouritism, voyeurism, stranger sociability); literary genres (secret history, country house poetry, the anthology and miscellany); and architecture and material culture (court closets, bathing closets, water closets, prayer closets, dressing rooms, collectors’ closets, museums). I recently enjoyed hearing Anthony Delaney and Freya Gowrley’s new research queering the history of domesticity. I’d also love for The Closet to be read in conversation with this and other new work in eighteenth-century sexuality studies.
NOTCHES: Is there a connection between the historical closet and the modern expressions ‘in the closet’ and ‘coming out,’ either directly or indirectly?
DB: Yes! ‘In the closet’ and its flip side, ‘out of the closet,’ first became common metaphors in the eighteenth century, in the context of the cultural shift from manuscript to print. For instance, to promote The Spectator, a daily lifestyle paper, one of the first of its kind, Joseph Addison had his Mr Spectator declare: ‘I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of Closets…’ After ‘closet’ came to denote the built-in streamlined storage that was an innovation of nineteenth-century architecture, these negative associations with outmoded, elitist, and stagnant relationships to knowledge were even more deeply entrenched.
The queer versions of in and out took shape in the late 1960s, when lesbian and gay rights activists promoted ‘coming out’—disclosing non-normative desires and experiences to friends and acquaintances—as the best way for sexual minorities to free ourselves, individually and collectively, from structural homophobia. The twenty-first century digital revolution has brought with it the idea that ‘coming out’ is necessarily a mediated process, something that has to happen on a screen. In ad campaigns like ‘Absolut Out’ and websites like www.comingout.space, the original liberal fantasies of virtual inclusion that were embedded in this metaphorical opposition three hundred years ago have come into focus again, only now the capitalist impetus for these fantasies is clearer than ever.
NOTCHES: What are you working on now that your book is published?
DB: My new book project, “Flayed,” is about entanglements of humour, sex, and violence in eighteenth-century satire and twenty-first-century comedy and comedy criticism. For good reason, there’s a lot of anxiety about humour right now. I suggest that it is possible to have more joyful disagreements about jokes, by better understanding our own assumptions about their harms and pleasures, and where they come from.
Danielle Bobker teaches in the English department at Concordia University in Montreal. Her book The Closet: The Eighteenth-Century Architecture of Intimacy is out now from Princeton University Press.
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