What kind of pockets hold 40 sheets of paper, a dozen pens and a phial of ink, along with wax and wafers? When I read Pamela’s description, in captivity, of her private pocket stash, I was a little curious, and imagined that her 18th century “pockets” were something very different from those riveted to my jeans.
My thoughts were confirmed when I found a study, “Women’s Pockets and the Construction of Privacy in the Long Eighteenth Century,” written by Ariane Fennetaux and published in Eighteenth Century Fiction 20, no. 3 (Spring 2008). Fennetaux describes the history, function and cultural significance of these “pockets” for women of the time. In fact, Fennetaux argues that the pockets enabled a kind of personal privacy and independence for women that they were denied in most aspects of their lives.
Apparently these pockets could be rather large, and, oddly enough, were shaped similar to female genitalia, at least from Fennetaux’s perspective. They were also worn close to the body, tied along the waist over the “shift” undergarment. And often dangled over a very private area, since I’m told women did not wear underpants. Fennetaux says the pockets were accessed through slits in the overdress.
Fennetaux maintains these quasi undergarments took on special symbolic and emotional significance for women, while carrying sexual connotations for men. For example, women not only hid letters and other items of personal value for them in these pockets, they also sewed notes to the pocket, embroidered their names or names of friends on them, bequeathed the pockets to others in their wills, and encased them away in walls.
As she relates the function of pockets to privacy, Fennetaux writes:
“Privacy . . . involves a dialectical relationship between interior and exterior, between self and other. In their complex uses, pockets comprise thresholds that articulate these relationships between interior and exterior, secrecy and disclosure, self and other.”
She further clarifies the relationship between pockets, their contents and privacy:
“It is ‘the control we have over information about ourselves’ which according to Charles Fried constitutes the key element of privacy. As places in which objects could be hidden, pockets offered women the possibility of somewhat monitoring access to personal information and thus enabled them to experience some privacy. Yet pockets only provided precarious secrecy to their owners . . .Moreover, if we are to judge from their literary representations, pockets seem to have been an obvious focus of curiosity. Mr. B. suspects Pamela of hiding her letters and journal in her pockets: ‘now tell me, where it is you hide your other written papers, your saucy journal? . . . Tell me, are they in your pocket? . . . Answer me then, are they in neither of your pockets?’”
It seems that a second, very personal area provides a deeper level of privacy than pockets – the bosom. But even that can be compromised. Although Pamela’s letters in the care of Mr. Williams were safe from thieves who riffled his pockets, because he secured them in his bosom, Mr. B demands Pamela’s letters early on from her bosom and later on, threatens to strip search her to find her writings, wherever they may be on her person.
It appears this invasion of privacy – whether picking pockets or other areas of a woman’s dress or body, can come as close to being criminal as any threat to virtue.