Family Secrets

Winner of the Forkosch Prize of the American Historical Association, 2014
Winner of the North American Conference on British Studies’ Stansky Prize, 2014
"Public Pick," Public Books, 2013
"Book of the Year," 2013 -- the Spectator, The Sunday Times, and the Times Literary Supplement


In an Edinburgh town house, a genteel maiden lady frets with her brother over their niece’s downy upper lip.  Would the darkening shadow betray the girl’s Eurasian heritage?  On a Liverpool railway platform, a heartbroken mother hands over her eight-year old illegitimate son for adoption.  She had dressed him carefully that morning in a sailor suit and cap.  In a town in the Cotswolds, a vicar brings to his bank vault a diary – sewed up in calico, wrapped in parchment – that chronicles his sexual longings for other men.

Drawing upon years of research in previously sealed records, Deborah Cohen offers a sweeping and often surprising account of how shame has changed over the last two centuries.  

Both a story of family secrets and of how they were revealed, this book journeys from the frontier of empire, where British adventurers made secrets that haunted their descendants for generations, to the confessional vanguard of modern-day genealogy two centuries later.  It explores personal, apparently idiosyncratic, decisions:  hiding an adopted daughter’s origins, taking a disabled son to a garden party, talking ceaselessly (or not at all) about a homosexual uncle.  Cohen excavates the tangled history of privacy and secrecy to explain why privacy is now viewed as a hallowed right while secrets are condemned as destructive.

In delving into the familial dynamics of shame and guilt, FAMILY SECRETS investigates the part that families, so often regarded as the agents of repression, have played in the transformation of social mores from the Victorian era to the present day.  Written with compassion and keen insight, this is a bold new argument about the sea-changes that took place behind closed doors.

Press Reviews

Book of the Year -- The Sunday Times

Sunday, December 1, 2013
The Times [London]
James McConnachie

"Half the book feels like eavesdropping -- tales of illegitimate half-Indian children and 'bachelor uncles' -- the other half is a deeply considered argument about the changing relationship between privacy, secrecy and shame."

Book of the Year -- Times Literary Supplement

Wednesday, November 27, 2013
The Times Literary Supplement
Frances Wilson

"Rigorous and relevant."

Starting with the premiss that a private life and a secret life no longer mean the same thing, Deborah Cohen's rigorous and relevant Family Secrets:  Living with shame from the Victorians to the present day (Viking) explores the shameful history of how we have covered up our shameful histories.  She brings together the families who harboured secrets, the individuals -- illegitimate, mentally handicapped, mixed-race -- who were secrets, and the current rage for uncovering the secrets of our ancestors (one in six people who have explored their heritage on internet sites have apparently discovered something that a previous generation sought to hide).

Book of the Year -- The Spectator

Saturday, November 23, 2013
Jane Ridley

"Deborah Cohen's Family Secrets (Viking) is a thoughtful critique of privacy and the family masking an academic monograph.  It blows apart our patronising attitude towards the Victorian family and argues that secrecy worked as a strategy for dealing with shame and misfortune just as well as today's much-vaunted culture of openness."

Review in Public Books -- "Public Pick," Non-Fiction 2013

Thursday, October 10, 2013
S. Lochlann Jain

"[A] rollicking read through the hidden land of cultural morality and its fundamental institution, the family....intimate questions of how families defend and protect themselves become the block from which Cohen chisels a majestic book."

Review in History Today

Wednesday, May 1, 2013
History Today
Sally Alexander

"Cohen tells a psychic life of nation through private grief. Law and social institutions are built on the tension between private feeling and social mores; families are the incubators of such tensions. Everyone who reads this lucid book -- a memorable sentence on every page -- will understand their world more clearly."

Review in TLS

Friday, April 26, 2013
The Times Literary Supplement
Pat Thane

"Deborah Cohen opens up the role of the family in bringing about this change, raising new questions and perspectives in this mysterious, important area of history."

English families have long kept socially shaming episodes secret, which makes reconstructing the history of the English family all the harder. Deborah Cohen explores what was kept secret and how, what has changed since the early nineteenth century and why. She focuses on the middle classes, since those "above" and "below" them socially were less successful at, or less concerned with, hiding their transgressions from prying eyes - from eighteenth-century cartoonists to modern tabloids.

Review in the Independent

Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Carole Angier

"[A]n impressive piece of history."

Victorians were the very model of English secrecy, covering up everything – starting with table-legs, as we know.

As we also know, historians love to demolish our most cherished beliefs. Deborah Cohen demolishes this one, and springs several other surprises. Did you know that for nearly half its 150-year life the Divorce Court awarded divorce to innocent partners only, and punished adulterous ones by making them stay married?

Review in the Sunday Business Post [Ireland]

Sunday, March 17, 2013
Sara Keating

"In the contemporary culture of compulsive confession, it is difficult to conceive of the repressed family histories in Deborah Cohen's fascinating book."

In the contemporary culture of compulsive confession, it is difficult to conceive of the repressed family histories in Deborah Cohen's fascinating book.

Review in the Spectator

Sunday, February 3, 2013
Jane Ridley

“This is not an easy book, but it’s an important one. Family Secrets is thought-provoking, well-written and remorselessly intelligent.”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that secrets are toxic and break up families. Today we look back smugly on the bad old days of the stiff upper lip when skeletons were kept firmly locked in their cupboards. We think we know better. The English, once famous for their secretiveness and reserve, have become addicted to confessional culture. Celebs expose their childhood scars in misery memoirs, and transparency is hailed as the greatest good.

Review in the Telegraph

Saturday, February 2, 2013
The Daily Telegraph
Frances Wilson

A “rigorous exploration of what people over the past 200 years have been determined not to reveal.”

Review in BBC History Magazine

Friday, February 1, 2013
Joanna Bourke

A “riveting book that is both a history of aspect of British culture that are swept under the carpet and a meditation on the relationship between secrecy and privacy.”

Review in the Daily Mail

Thursday, January 31, 2013
Jane Shilling

A 'riveting study of secrecy and shame'

With this riveting study of secrecy and shame, the historian Deborah Cohen makes the intriguing point that privacy, which used to mean the right to keep your personal affairs known only to a restricted circle of family and friends, has almost entirely changed in meaning.

Review in Times Higher Education -- Book of the Week

Thursday, January 31, 2013
The Times Higher Education Supplement
June Purvis

"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"

Review in the Observer

Sunday, January 27, 2013
The Observer
Salley Vickers

An "excellent and illuminating book."  It is "in the fastidious detail that her book comes alive."

"Nothing changes more than the notion of what is shocking," wrote the novelist Elizabeth Bowen in 1959, on the eve of two decades of major disruption in the public notion of what should be kept under wraps. Deborah Cohen's excellent and illuminating book explores, in painstaking but never tedious detail, what society from the Victorians onwards kept secret, the relationship between secrecy and shame and the subtle interdependence of the secret and the private.

Review in the Sunday Telegraph -- Book of the Week

Sunday, January 27, 2013
Sunday Telegraph
Judith Flanders

“Cohen is a formidable researcher, and she narrates the stories she has uncovered with infectious delight.  A find.”

As former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan put it so memorably at the Leveson Inquiry, “Privacy is for paedos”. In part, this was no more than a tabloid journalist using words carelessly. If he had said secrecy, not privacy, was for “paedos”, the response would surely have been more muted, for post- Freud, secrecy is viewed as something entirely negative, whereas privacy is a right, enshrined in law.

Review in the Scotsman

Saturday, January 19, 2013
The Scotsman
Lee Randall

“fascinating reading”

You should be ashamed of yourself. What a shame. It’s a crying shame. Have you no shame? Familiar phrases, all, as is the notion of shame, which supposes that there is a right and a wrong way to live. But as novelist Elizabeth Bowen pointed out 53 years ago, “Nothing changes more than the notion of what is shocking.”

Review in the Financial Times

Saturday, January 19, 2013
Financial Times
Henry Hitchings

“….scrupulous research with cool analysis and a humane intelligence”

We tend to think secrets are toxic, polluting both the sanctity of families and the integrity of public life. Transparency is a political watchword, and candour is regarded as the hallmark of healthy relationships.

It is a cliché of our confessional culture that “the truth will set you free”. Frankness is represented as courageous – and also modern, the result of enlightenment’s steady progress. But, as Deborah Cohen shows in this wide-ranging study, the history of attitudes to secrecy, shame and disclosure is much more complex.

Review in the Evening Standard

Thursday, January 17, 2013
Evening Standard
Claire Harman

A "fact-packed and fascinating history of secret-keeping"

If there’s one thing we like to believe about the Victorians — or any generation before our own — it’s that they were more buttoned-up and hypocritical than we are. Unmarried mothers, illegitimate children, “confirmed bachelors” were all, surely, sources of shame to our benighted forebears? In a fact-packed and fascinating history of secret-keeping, Deborah Cohen turns this concept on its head.

Review in the Guardian

Saturday, January 12, 2013
The Guardian
Kathryn Hughes

A “book of marvels”

The biggest thing that Deborah Cohen achieves in this book of marvels is to dislodge, once and for all, the whiskery idea that the Victorians were a generation of secret keepers. The image of all those attics stuffed with mad wives, strange sons and idiot siblings waiting for modernity to shine its cleansing light on festering family shame will no longer do.

Review in the Express

Friday, January 11, 2013
The Daily Express
Viv Watts

"scandalous content and interesting revelation"

In a league table of difficult daughters the memorably named Annie Cheese would have been in the first division.

Married at 19 to a dissolute Captain Lloyd, against the wishes of her respectable magistrate father, Annie lost her head when Lloyd landed in jail for debt just three years after the wedding.

While visiting him in prison she met his friend George Chichester and after Lloyd went to jail for a third time she ran away with George to Paris, had an illegitimate child and Captain Lloyd promptly sued for divorce.