Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day by Deborah Cohen

June Purvis on an absorbing study of social change

January 31, 2013

In 1786, Robert Bruce, a Scottish captain in the Bengal Artillery, brought back to Britain his five-year-old Eurasian daughter, whom he introduced as “Margaret Stewart”. Explaining that she was the offspring of a friend obliged to stay in India, he kept the secret of her birth from his relatives and friends, even the child herself. In India at that time, Indian mistresses lived openly in the homes of white British men, and they and their mixed-race children took the man’s surname. However, once back home in Edinburgh, it was critical for Bruce’s reputation as an eligible bachelor in a “respectable” old Scottish family that he should keep the secret, which he eventually divulged only to his closest relatives. After his death, his brother John, the keeper of the state papers, Scotland’s chief archivist, tried unsuccessfully to conceal the facts. It is family secrets such as these, and the ways they have been revealed from Victorian times to the present day, that is the subject of this highly readable, absorbing and enjoyable book.

Since this is a story told from within families, Deborah Cohen consults an impressive range of sources including autobiographies, personal letters and court records, but especially the confidential archives kept by such institutions as adoption and marriage counselling agencies. It is her contention that what has taken place behind closed doors has helped to shape the social mores of today and stretch the boundaries of “acceptable” conduct. Indeed, much of what was considered “shameful” in previous decades, such as illegitimacy or homosexuality, is now acceptable.

The book adopts a roughly chronological approach and is divided into three parts. The first focuses on Victorian society, with one chapter on the secrets brought home from the far reaches of the Empire by adventurers such as Bruce, and another on the more juicy details divulged in divorce records in the mid-19th century when, for the first time, Englishmen and Englishwomen could get a divorce (although not on equal terms) by disclosing the steamy secrets of their failed marriages. The second section of the book, which concentrates largely on the late 19th century to the 1950s, explores the issues of mental disability, adoption and homosexuality. The final part traces the rise of modern confessional culture from the 1930s to the present. Particular attention is paid to the popular BBC One programme Who Do You Think You Are?, in which the ancestral secrets of celebrities are revealed to a domestic audience numbering in the millions. Thus the highlight of the show in which the writer J.K. Rowling appeared was her discovery of a number of female relatives who, like herself, had been lone mothers.

The middle sections of Family Secrets, which focus on adopted, illegitimate children and mentally deficient youngsters who “disappeared” in the institutions created to look after them, are especially poignant, perhaps because much of the rich information presented is personal testimony, voices that have been hidden for years in confidential archives that have rarely seen the light of day. Illegitimacy, of course, was the most common of all family secrets. Although illegitimacy rates steadily declined during the Victorian period, at the dawn of the 20th century some 65,000 out-of-wedlock births were occurring each year. As Cohen elaborates, among respectable folk in early 20th-century Britain, illegitimacy was considered a sign of moral weakness, passed on through the bloodline. Indeed, such “sexual immorality” in a woman was considered a sign of depravity in her offspring. The stigma of illegitimacy was so strong that it was believed that an illegitimate child could “corrupt” by proximity. Consequently, many babies were given away or informally adopted, legal adoption not being introduced until 1926.

The case study of the Haven of Hope for Homeless Little Ones (later called the Mission of Hope), founded in 1893 by Janet Ransome Wallis, offers many moving stories about adoption, carefully preserved for the deeply religious proprietor and her staff to read. Unlike most other homes for unmarried mothers, the Mission of Hope welcomed those who already had one child, such as Daisy Harris, a canteen worker. In 1919, Harris’ daughter Vera Rose, an illegitimate “war baby”, was adopted by Thomas Lichfield, a bank clerk, and his wife. The childless Lichfields confided in a letter to Wallis that they would take a child “even if her parents were not what they should be”, carefully adding that even “an illegitimate child would do”. Like most adoptive parents - who overwhelmingly wanted girls rather than boys - the Lichfields never revealed to “Marjorie”, as Vera Rose became, her origins. Yet Marjorie’s “Aunt Daisy”, unable to support either of her children, was heartbroken. She wrote to the Mission, begging for a photograph. “How I regret the day I parted with her … I only pray she will get somewhere, where she will be treated kind.” The flood of illegitimate babies was so great during the First World War (500 born to the workers at one munitions plant alone) that Wallis ended up running 12 maternity homes, putting herself in debt.

During the late 1960s, the Mission of Hope and other “mother and baby” homes were closed down. Legal abortion, the arrival of the contraceptive pill and more permissive attitudes towards illegitimacy made them unnecessary. At this time, too, there were many attacks on the modern nuclear family, an institution seen by some influential commentators as repressive. Edmund Leach, the eminent anthropologist, claimed in 1967 that the family, “with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets”, was not the basis of the good society but “the source of all our discontents”. Such views were buttressed by renegade psychiatrists R.D. Laing and David Cooper, for whom the family was the cause of mental illness. Intellectuals on the Left, as well as feminist and gay rights activists, also wanted to “liberate” the family, an institution that, it was claimed, smothered individual autonomy. With prescience, the feminist and psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell suggested in 1966 that families could involve couples “living or not living together, long-term unions with children, single parents bringing up children, children socialized by conventional rather than biological parents, extended kin groups, etc”. It is this widening of the family form that has taken place over the past 40 years or so, alongside a culture that now simultaneously condemns secrets as destructive and views privacy as a right.

Family Secrets is a stylishly written, multilayered, broad-sweep book that examines the part that families have played in bringing about social change in our society from Victorian times to the present day. Arguably, greater use could have been made of the personal testimonies of more “ordinary” folk, especially in the 20th century. Equally, the distinction that Cohen makes between “secrecy” and “privacy” is not always as clear- cut as outlined. However, these are minor quibbles. Whereas we commonly focus upon public events as a force for change, Family Secrets skilfully explores how families themselves helped to shape the social and cultural landscape. It will surely become essential reading for students on history, sociology and social policy courses, and will prove of interest to the general reader and policymaker, too. At a time when family “breakdown” is a matter of public concern, this book casts an illuminating light on a complex issue.

THE AUTHOR

“I aspire to having hobbies but, having flung myself at this book for eight years, I’ve lost them all along the way,” confesses Deborah Cohen, Peter B. Ritzma professor of the humanities and professor of history at Northwestern University.

She lives in Chicago with her partner, Tom Silfen, and their daughter Alice, aged 6. “If you like architecture, it’s a place where you can keep busy. It’s both a storehouse of 19th- and 20th-century treasures and depressingly irreverent about its patrimony, always threatening to tear down this or that masterpiece.”

A specialist in British history, Cohen grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She first visited the UK aged 13, “catching (in 1981) the very tail-end of punk rock. I returned home to Kentucky with blue hair.”

Although her father’s family boasted more “collectors, gamblers and aesthetes” than her mother’s, superficially “the two sides were very similar”.

“The Cohens (my father’s family) were grocers; the Packmans (my mother’s) had women’s clothing stores. But there was an obvious difference, with all sorts of emotional resonances: the Cohens liked old things; the Packmans were interested in the future.

“As a historian, what’s been most fruitful is keeping the Cohens’ disorganised but redolent materiality of yesteryear in some sort of bounds with the Packmans’ inventorying frame of mind.

“Remembering to ask after the larger significance of a particular historical problem requires only summoning up the Packman impatience with the boggy minutiae of the past. ‘What does it matter, bubeleh?,’ my beloved Packman grandmother used to say when I badgered her about some bygone moment. ‘It’s all history now.’”

Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day

By Deborah Cohen

Viking, 400pp, £20.00 and £11.99

ISBN 9780670917662 and 9780141959573 (e-book)

Published 31 January 2013

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