Pride & Privacy: Insights from Jane Austen

It might sound odd to talk about privacy at a time when computer surveillance didn’t exist. If transported to today’s era, modern communications would floor Jane Austen. Photographs, instant text messages, public platforms, using devices to communicate at all.. the list goes on. Computers in the 18th century weren’t even a pipe dream. It wasn’t until two years after Austen's passing that Charles Babbage began designs for his first difference engine. The concept of metadata didn’t exist until 1967, with GIS invented in less than five years prior in 1963.
18th century high society might also seem like an era where privacy as non-existant. Upperclass communities, if Austen's novels are telling, were a buzz of gossip and speculation over other people's lives. Who was courting whom, who married, how much money did they have? The right neighbor could be a veritable encyclopedia of every person who entered society. From where someone was born to sisters, brothers, in-laws and titled ancestry. 
Yet despite the intense social nature within Austen’s novels, privacy is of critical importance to her creations. Privacy protected personal thoughts, feelings and, worse, thoughtless actions from jeopardizing social status. It was an integral part of life: to have breathing space where one’s actions are not public knowledge. What lessons can we learn from the value of privacy in Jane Austen's era?

A world under a magnifying glass

While Jane Austen's cast never knew about Facebook or Goggle, they did live in a world with all eyes watching. Did you offer the right greeting? Approach guests with the right hospitality? Thank the host appropriately? From large social gatherings to intimate tea, witnesses discussed and analyzed individual behaviour. Kathryn Sutherland in Jane Austen and social judgement writes: “in all her novels Austen portrays a society that closely restricts mental and physical space, particularly for women, who are allowed little solitude or independence.” While finances dictated majority of one’s social value, bad behaviour could also tip the scales. Scandal could damage individual, even the entire family's community status.

But secrets and hiding information are major drivers of plot in Austen’s novels. While on the surface it appears everyone knows everything about the neighbour, the opposite is what drives the story. Character survival depends how well individuals keep select information hidden from public eye. In Emma, Frank Churchill takes great pains to hide his engagement with Jane Fairfax. How much scandal would follow Georgiana Darcy in Pride and Prejudice if the public knew of her near-elopement Wickham? How might Willoughby and Colonel Brandon act in Sense and Sensibility if everyone knew their history? The argument goes that privacy is not a concern if we have nothing to hide. But the reality is everyone has something they don’t want the world to know.

Privacy and trust: who are you telling your secrets to?

During Austen’s lifetime, keeping sensitive information confidential was a mark of good character. Those that are trustworthy are those whom the reader respects, while those prone to gossip are more liable to be ridiculed. Look at the following conversation from Sense and Sensibility between Lucy Steele to Elinor Dashwood. Lucy tells Elinor of her engagement to Edward Ferrars:

“You may well be surprised," continued Lucy; "for to be sure you could have had no idea of it before; for I dare say he never dropped the smallest hint of it to you or any of your family; because it was always meant to be a great secret, and I am sure has been faithfully kept so by me to this hour. Not a soul of all my relations know of it but Anne, and I never should have mentioned it to you, if I had not felt the greatest dependence in the world upon your secrecy; and I really thought my behaviour in asking so many questions about Mrs. Ferrars must seem so odd, that it ought to be explained.”

At this point, Lucy Steele does not know Elinor well. Certainly, she is oblivious to Elinor's feelings for Edward. Yet she is accurate that Elinor Dashwood is trustworthy. Elinor keeps the information completely confidential, and is better having done so. This particularly powerful when Lucy's sister Anne later spills the beans. It is Anne, not Elinor, who causes an uproar by revealing the engagement to the Ferrars family.

Privacy goes hand in hand with trust. When we confide in others, we do so with the belief that they will not share the information elsewhere. When we communicate personal information and sensitive details, we do so to specific people. Those we can trust not to spread the gossip around. People who can hold on to our secrets are trustworthy; those who don't are not. We rarely share information if we know the other party will use it in any way for their own gain. This is as true in Austen’s novels as it is with current relationships between individuals and organizations.

Privacy and restraint: if you don’t need the details, don’t ask.

Have you ever been in a situation where you are being asked to share information you don’t want to? The friend who cajoles us into embarrassing over sharing, or the feeling of being put on the spot? For Austen, there’s a line between asking for details and knowing when not to. Respecting personal boundaries is a mark of politeness.

Consider the following exchange between the sisters of Lydia, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice. Lydia is entertaining, definitely bragging, about her recent marriage to Wickham. Retelling the affair, she includes that among those who saw her wed was an unexpected guest: Mr. Darcy.

“Oh, yes!—he was to come there with Wickham, you know. But gracious me! I quite forgot! I ought not to have said a word about it. I promised them so faithfully! What will Wickham say? It was to be such a secret!"

"If it was to be secret," said Jane, "say not another word on the subject. You may depend upon my seeking no further."

"Oh! certainly," said Elizabeth, though burning with curiosity; "we will ask you no questions.”

Now compare it to the following dialogue in Sense and Sensabilty:

“No bad news, Colonel, I hope;" said Mrs. Jennings, as soon as he entered the room.

"None at all, ma'am, I thank you."

"Was it from Avignon? I hope it is not to say that your sister is worse."

"No, ma'am. It came from town, and is merely a letter of business."

"But how came the hand to discompose you so much, if it was only a letter of business? Come, come, this won't do, Colonel; so let us hear the truth of it."

"My dear madam," said Lady Middleton, "recollect what you are saying."

"Perhaps it is to tell you that your cousin Fanny is married?" said Mrs. Jennings, without attending to her daughter's reproof.”

Even though Mrs. Jennings is a kindhearted character beloved by Austen fans, there’s no question in the novel others find her frequent prying a turn-off.

A solid practice of privacy is to limit how much information you're asking for. This advice offers twofold benefits. First, you cannot be responsible, or liable, for information you don’t have. Depending on your location, data minimization may also be the law. Some privacy legislation, including PIPEDA and the GDPR call for restraint in data collection by law. Establish the purpose for your data needs, and ask for the minimal personal information required.

Second, in an age where users are overwhelmed with data requests, we don’t always like the intrusions. Consumers are becoming aware that companies don’t always have user best interests at heart with data collection. Allow users choice when sharing information that is non-essential. Some might be comfortable offering up details, but not always, and if so it’s not our place to ask.

Privacy and the right to be left alone

Social media might encourage a world of sharing, but it’s important to remember there are times when we  want to be alone. Sometimes we don’t want to tell our life story to the world. Sometimes we don't want to talk to others, or have others watch us and listen in. The characters in Austen's books know this feeling well. Take the following moment of joy for the titilar character in in Emma,

"She wanted to be alone. Her mind was in a state of flutter and wonder, which made it impossible for her to be collected. She was in dancing, singing, exclaiming spirits; and till she had moved about, and talked to herself, and laughed and reflected, she could be fit for nothing rational."

Although Austen's characters appear to live for social occasions, their ability to get away from the noise and recover is critical. Privacy and solitude mean being free, even if for a moment. Catherine Moreland uses time alone for some of her more determined explorations of Northanger Abby. Elizabeth Bennet often takes to quiet reflection in her room. Writing Is Jane Austen the Antidote to Social Media Overload? Alexandra Samuel comments:

Precisely because the inhabitants of Austen’s world are so restrained in what they can say to one another, they are constantly retreating to the solitude of their rooms. Shut away from the world, they spend hours in private contemplation of whatever they dare not discuss with even their most trusted friends and relations.

No matter where we go, there are always times when we don't want to be disturbed. Having privacy means letting down our guard, and being able to breath. By contrast, it's harder to relax knowing someone is watching us. Advertising that is uses recent search history, for example, can be unnerving because it reminds us someone is watching. Privacy advocates question the trend of Internet of Things devices constantly listening in. When enjoying a fresh cup of tea in the morning, who else is with us, watching or listening in?

Privacy and creative power: when pseudonyms give us wings

While Jane Austen is a household name now, during her lifetime few would recognize her genius as an author. In the early 1800s, women didn’t own property, couldn’t legally sign contracts, and writing was not an acceptable occupation. It was Austen’s brother Henry who took books to publishers. According to Lydia Figes of Artuk, majority of Austen’s books were released under the title ‘By a Lady’.

How much did the ability to publish anonymously contribute to Austen's writing career? In Northanger Abbey she comments "a woman, especially, if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.” Ironically, this is one of the first books that named her as the author, and published only after her death. It's hard not to ask: would Austen have found fame if readers knew of her gift during her lifetime? If her books saw release with her name, what might happen to her own public reputation?

Pseudonym aren’t new to the literary world. Lots of authors use them. They use them to protect their privacy, or sometimes to publish under different companies. Some use pseudonyms to keep new works from suffering against existing reputations. From a FAQ commentary of Writer's Digest:

"Established authors will do it to cross genres and keep from aggravating their fan bases. Wouldn’t you be a bit ticked off if you bought Stephen King’s next book expecting blood, guts and hair-raising intensity, only to find out it’s a weepy romance novel? King may choose to publish under a different name so he doesn’t disappoint his die-hard horror fans."


All too often, we see privacy as a new problem of the modern era, an issue that can be solved with the right technology or contract. Yet there’s value observing the importance of privacy during a time when the digital world didn’t exist. Privacy is a hidden, but critical part of our social structure. It is important for the preservation of relationships, mental health and reputations. Your users need privacy to feel comfortable and to trust you. A fact as true today as it was in Austen’s time.

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