Review in the Evening Standard

Jan 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.

Cohen believes that the rise of confessional culture and our current mania for self-exposure has given secrecy a bad name, almost shameful in itself. But the Victorians knew the virtue of skeletons in closets, and much preferred an open secret to raw “openness”. When a successful East India Company man came home to Edinburgh in the early 19th century with a half-caste child in tow, no one challenged his explanation that it was the daughter of a friend, though few believed it, and the girl grew up to be one of the richest women in Scotland.

Manners are easier to maintain than morals: even in the 1930s E M Forster’s policeman boyfriend felt it was “only good manners to put up a pretence to the world in general”. Similarly, the public was shocked by the first divorce courts in the 1860s not because of the sexual behaviour they exposed (entertaining though that was) but because of the naming, shaming and blaming that the new law demanded.

Unhappy couples were forced to collude with each other simply to ensure a good result, and by the 1930s things had come full circle: owning up to adultery became the way, not the bar, to getting a divorce.

“Nothing changes more than what is shocking,” Elizabeth Bowen said in 1959. Even the words for the old taboos have fallen into disuse — bastard, foundling, fallen woman — and some things people used to feel ashamed about, such as infertility, have become causes of compassionate public interest. A gay man today is unlikely to feel, as did an Anglican minister in the 1920s, that he needs to keep his diary in the vault of his bank.

But are we nicer? Cohen suggests not at all. When misfortunes such as illegitimacy or birth defects befell the Victorians, they were treated as tests from God or accidents (the man who named Down’s syndrome, for instance, speculated that it might be caused by a shock in pregnancy, or masturbation). But once evolutionary theory and Freudianism introduced the idea of hereditary “taint”, people began to feel that the blame for abnormalities — in nurture as much as nature — might implicate almost everyone.

The spotlight fell on the family as the “source of all our discontents”, endlessly breeding repression behind closed doors. It began to seem healthier and more honest to hold nothing back, as Roger Graef’s 1974 documentary series The Family demonstrated to the nation, simultaneously displaying the utter ghastliness of the Wilkinses of Reading and how unashamed they felt about it. As Cohen says of those very first reality stars, “their affairs might be sordid but they had no tawdry secrets, and as for privacy, theirs was either non-existent or so capacious that it could withstand the scrutiny of millions”.

It’s the constant tug of war between privacy and secrecy that Cohen sees driving the issues and laws surrounding shame. She ends with a great chapter on the current fad for genealogy. More than a third of Britons, Cohen reports, have researched their ancestors online and one in six has discovered a family secret. It’s the promise of revelations that is the attraction: “Telling the family’s secrets works for us moderns in much the same way as keeping them did for the Victorians: it forges the bonds of kin”.