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Customs of Publicity

    NATIONS have so scattered, so various, and so broadcast a
quality of inconsistency that it is not worth while to re-
proach them for that sin. Ifa man had so little conscience
of his own will, he would hardly be human enough to bear a man’s
name. But in truth none but those accustomed to think in the-
toric would require of a country the unity of feeling that proves a
man to be sane. None the less it is unintelligible that—despite all
our little English private ways, our blinds, our shrubs, our railings,
the enclosures of which we are so fond, our separate houses, our
suburbs, our resolute little solitudes at close quarters, our point-
blank seclusions, the thin screens we make haste to interpose’
where we cannot shut off the voices and the pianos; despite our
close crowds just at arm’s length, and the cramped hiding-places
that we crouch in—we should yet take a daily license with names.

    The French paper gives no such publicity to the unfortu-
nate. There is not a small malefactor, not a litigant, no citizen
subject to an ignominious accident, not a man whose affairs are
exposed inevitably to public inquisition, but the Paris paper leaves
him the privacy of his name. In the case of conspicuous assas-
sins or criminals of note, of course, it is not so. Some one must
ultimately content the general curiosity by publishing the names
of these; therefore no attempt need be made to secure to them
that possession, escheated once for all. But the others—the un-
lucky, the pauper, the bankrupt, the plaintiff, the defendant, the
accused, the acquitted, the condemned, the ridiculous, the reluc-
tantly exposed, the accidentally revealed—does the custom of the
press in France confirm in their hold upon that last right, the right
to the idle) of their names.

    Strange to say, the very word privacy is English and hardly
has a translation, yet the English custom offends and violates the
thing for which it has the exact and peculiar word, and of which it
has precise consciousness. Thus the English custom outrages
Privacy to its face—as it were in person. Nay, does not even the
exhibitor of his own portrait retain in France the dignity of a
sequestered name? The English catalogue prints names in full.
It seems that the French difference is clear enough: For dealers
with the public, published names; to those who have nothing
whatever to present before the world except the strife, the misfor-
tunes, or the errors of their intérieur, or the favour of their faces

as a painter may render it, the appropriate reserve is left. By what
strange consent is it resigned in England daily, and by those who
have nothing but confusion to undergo—rich and poor alike? The
last obscurity of mean life is not obscure enough to suppress a
name. Insignificantly disgraced, it is insignificantly given to the
world. The slums cannot bury it. Its commonness gives it no
shelter, except the slight and uncertain shelter of its multitudinous
use—so many share it. Nor is there any possible paltriness of
crime that shall be permitted to efface a name. oreover the
prosperous, the powerful, must suffer like things, by the same
general consent. Their salient names have to endure the peculiar
and unmistaken stain.

    It was Charles Kingsley who made much of that human
possession—the eternal, inalienable, and inseparable name. And
even those who have not conceived his whole idea of this sign and
proclamation of individual life and destiny, must assuredly have
felt at times the value of their names—not as known, but as un-
known. For instance, the crowd is free of your aspect; to your
walk and dress and demeanour it has a kind of Hole of sight; it
may overhear your voice and jostle you by the shoulders. But
while your name is your own secret, as you walk alone, you re-
serve the heart of your privacy. Why, then, is it to be compro-
mised by the merest chance? Ifa thief shall have your purse, all
thieves will have your name, forsooth! Or a carriage accident is
to be enough occasion for unsealing it. As for your poor brother
or sister, the “first offender,” is it not a cruel custom that makes
the name as public as the crime? A cruel custom and a useless!
The idle readers of police reports surely find their amusement in
the anecdote, and not in the name of the unhappy hero, whereas
to him and his acquaintance the name is all-important. Something
else than humane is this English habit, and it is no small indelicacy
to read the paper; you may read of the capture of a young thief,
as the Paris paper tells it, with mere initials, and your conscience be easier.

    That our national custom in this respect is of long standing,
old newspapers bear witness, but with the strangest little sign of
pudeur showing consciousness of the act of cruelty. It is this: In
a magazine of 1750 a monthly list of bankruptcies Is given, and the
title of the column is printed “B—nkr—pts.” Under this shrink-

                                    Customs of Publicity

ing and shocked head-line in its large type appear in full the bap-
tismal and family names of the whole company of the month’s
b—nkr—pts, headed_by some unhappy Eliza Hopkins or so,
rocer, say, and of Bristol. It is the sorriest show of sparing
Eliza Hopkins; nay, the thing is made worse by this lamentable
stammer, which does but add a humiliation. A frank title of
“Bankrupts” would have had all the indifference of mere business,
but the hesitation is traitorous. It is a much harder thing to have
the ill-luck of the Bristol grocery made public under this show of
forbearance and emphasis of indignity. Eliza, being an honour-
able bankrupt, must needs feel something of the reproach of the
fraudulent when she sees her condition made the subject of this
mock hide-and-seek.

    In England to-day we make no show—even so wanton a
show as was made by this mincing magazine of 1750—of sparing
anybody. Recall the case—the many cases, rather—of the late
Jane Cakebread. A few years ago there was a woman of that
name, incorrigibly drunken, in the streets of London. After a
great number of appearances in the police-courts, some reporter
thought it worth while to print her extraordinary name. Printed,
it caught the eye. The dull fact of her being haled before the
magistrates acquired by repetition a cumulative interest: her re-
plies began to be reported. Soon the paragraph-writer in the
cleverer papers, vain of what he called an “unmoral” view of men
and things (he did but make one more mongrel word by his Teu-
tonic particle, and he altered the meaning of the supplanted Latin
negative less perhaps than he thought), began to follow her with a
bantering applause; she was old, she was courageous; her name
considered, she was unique; she might surely be allowed to enjoy
herself in her own way, whilst Fleet Street looked on amused.
Tolerance—that was the word, tolerance and humour. When the
unfortunate was gathered finally into a lunatic asylum, and died
there confessedly insane, the humourists had less to say. In Paris
Jane Cakebread would have been Mme C. What a loss such a
suppression would have been to the inexplicable gaiety of our
single nation! Her career, her convictions, her indomitable vice,
her cheerfulness—all would have been little without her name.
Ah, it is we who are the “lively neighbours”! The Parisians
would have taken Jane Cakebread so seriously as to hide her, to

waste her with an initial! That very name which to our papers
was precious is that which they would have had the gravity to re-
spect. Tell us no more of the gaiety of France. There is not a
journalist in London but was more gay than that.

So useful a purpose, I am told, is served by this universal
publicity that my wonder is thrown away. Business, for example,
is safeguarded by the proclamation of the failure at Bristol. So
be it; but would it be too much to ask for some discrimination?
What is safeguarded by the publication of the names of suicides?
Now and then an effort, forlorn enough, is made by family and
friends to keep some hold upon their own secrets; but they are
De obliged to yield them, unto the uttermost fact. Granted
that the story has to be told, and that the courts have to be open,
is it necessary to print and placard the name? It is the name, the
mere name, that one might plead for. Other countries find no
such necessity. Then comes the almost crushing rejoinder that
other countries do keep judicial and official secrets, and with what
consequences to-day in France—with what consequences! But
none the less should it be possible to have the affairs of private
life—made public by the anomaly of violence—opened by the pro-
cesses of the law in all their history, but closed from the mere
reader as regards this one possession of the unfortunate, their
names. Is it not the possession even of the dead—their only
right? There might be less of this futile, desperate, and always
defeated attempt to keep hidden the history of a suicide, but for
the knowledge that if the facts are given to the world, so also will
be the name, and that from this strong custom of a country there
is no escape.

Paris, in a word, prints in full the name of the critic and the
reviewer, and hides the name of Jane Cakebread, and hides the
name—in which there is no amusement, none—of the man who
yesterday breathed the vapour of charcoal in. his room. London,
on the contrary, generally veils the name of its dramatic critics;
but it prints the unnecessary names of those who had no desire
but to vanish. It prints the names the printing of which—adding
much to the confusion on one side, the helpless side—adds little
or nothing to the idle pleasure on the other, the pleasure of an
idle reader. For, seeing that the names of criminals, of suicides,
of parties in an amusing lawsuit, of the respondent and the co-

                                    Customs of Publicity

respondent, are, except to one reader out of thousands, the names
of strangers, the idlest reader would lose nothing of his pastime if
the infamous were allowed to be the anonymous. Nay, theirs are
names that, even published, will be soon forgotten. They have
seldom the charm of the name of a Jane Cakebread, and they are
published to please the briefest curiosity on the part of the world,
and to inflict a long dismay upon the already wounded.

                                                              ALICE MEYNELL

MLA citation:

Meynell, Alice. “Customs of Publicity.” The Venture: an Annual of Art and Literature, vol. 2, 1905, pp. 32-38. Venture Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2022. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2022,