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.
As a society, we still place a high value on the right to a private life. The roster of celebrity witnesses who appeared at the Leveson Inquiry to complain of journalistic intrusion was eloquent proof that even people who rely on publicity for a livelihood felt a sense of burning outrage that the line between their public and private personas had been breached.
But Cohen argues that, ‘In the early 21st century, privacy is not the ability to hide but the right to tell without cost’. Or as Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, put it (and he should know), ‘People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.’
In Victorian times an unmarried woman who became pregnant was forced to leave home in disgrace and move to an area where she was not known, scorned by family and friends.
The kinds of information that we are willing these days to share, not just with our friends and acquaintances but, via social media, with complete strangers is astonishing. No intimate moment is too personal to divulge.
From hot dates to giving birth - we don’t seem to feel an experience is authentic until it has been viewed by a virtual audience of zillions. The glamour model Jordan (these days known as Katie Price) was a trailblazer when it came to turning a moderately unremarkable personal life into an industry worth millions.
Her 2004 appearance on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here, during which she met her future husband Peter Andre, charmed viewers and proved the catalyst for a vast, lucrative cult of personality, the private cost of which, only she and her family know.
The gradual shift from our Victorian ancestors’ passion for secrecy to our own insatiable appetite for publicity is Cohen’s theme. Her quest through the archives of divorce courts, adoption agencies, marriage guidance bureaux and psychiatric clinics starts in India in the 1790s, when Robert Bruce, a captain in the Bengal Artillery, wrote to his brother, John, a professor of logic at Edinburgh University.
Robert wanted to send his daughter to Britain to be educated. John was appalled. The child was illegitimate and half-Indian, and it was hard to say which was worse.
Furious in his turn, Robert arrived in Edinburgh, bringing with him a little girl whom he introduced as Margaret Stewart, the daughter of a friend. In fact, she was his child by his Indian mistress.
Installed in the household of Robert’s elderly mother and spinster sister, Margaret rapidly won over the curmudgeonly John, inherited a fortune from her father, and eventually married, for love, a Bristol lawyer named Oneiphorus Tyndall, a decade younger than herself.
Such stories, Cohen reveals, were far from unusual. The illegitimate offspring of respectable families were quite often as cherished as their legitimate siblings. But the circumstances of their birth were invariably treated with elaborate secrecy: the truth, if it were to come out, could bring shame and ruin, not just to the bastard child, but the entire family.
Where there are secrets, scandal invariably follows. Cohen finds a wealth of sad and lurid stories in the 19th-century divorce courts, and the archives of adoption agencies and institutions for the ‘mentally defective’.
Unmarried mothers and those whose children were ‘abnormal’ were habitually persuaded that it was in their child’s best interests to expunge the shame of their birth by giving them away.
‘It grieves me very much to have to part with my child,’ wrote unmarried mother, Daisy Harris, who later tried desperately to get back her daughter, Vera Rose. ‘I do want her so…’ she wrote. ‘I feel that I cannot live without her.’
The miserable chronicle of secrecy goes on and on: homosexuals were obliged to hide their true nature for fear of arrest and imprisonment (unless they happened to inhabit the cloisters of an Oxbridge college or a Church of England cathedral close, where such inclinations tended to be more tolerantly regarded).
The post-War emergence of early forms of marriage guidance counselling revealed nameless horrors lurking behind the respectable front doors of Britain’s quiet suburbs and picturesque market towns. No wonder that by the Sixties, privacy, far from being the glue that held the institution of the family together, had become the stuff that would blow it apart.
‘The family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents’ thundered Cambridge academic Edmund Leach in 1967. The fashionable psychiatrist R.D. Laing, blamed family secrets for every kind of psychic malady (though when is own daughter was hospitalised for a nervous breakdown, he was very careful to keep the fact a secret).
So, which is worse? The shame that once drove people mad, or the lack of it that results in people behaving as though there were no boundaries at all between the public and private self?
Cohen is a historian, not a polemicist, so she refrains from moral judgment, but she does note one rather endearing side effect of the current fashion for discovering family secrets: the passion for amateur genealogy that keeps so many people harmlessly occupied in tracing their ancestors and - in its telly incarnation of Who Do You Think You Are? - once brought a tear to the flinty eye of Jeremy Paxman, a chap whose personal boundaries you might have thought utterly impregnable.