"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.
All racy stuff for Victorian England in 1859, just two years after the Divorce Court had come into being, but Annie’s case was doomed to explode in her face.
Before the court opened for business only four women in the history of England had secured a divorce. To the astonishment of those who set it up the Divorce Court was “besieged” with applications and was the only court in England where barriers were needed to manage the crowds.
Newspapers had a field day dispensing scandal and readers loved it. As Cohen says: “Born at the same moment, the Divorce Court and the mass-circulation press were made for each other.” One national paper was printing 142,000 in 1860, an increase of 500 per cent in just four years.
For the Lloyds it spelled disaster. The judge smelt a rat and found that Annie’s father was paying Lloyd to divorce her.
It was the first recorded case of “collusion”, their reputations were trashed on a national scale and the petition refused.
Annie’s case and other stories of family embarrassment are told in Cohen’s thoroughly researched book. If things occasionally take on a lofty air (Cohen is an American academic) then the subject matter makes up for it in scandalous content and interesting revelation.
Cohen delves into other family secrets such as illegitimacy, homosexuality and adoption. It takes us from colonial officials and their mixed-race children, through the distress of unmarried mothers forced to give up their babies, the anguish of gay men having to live a lie and on to the obsessive navel-gazing of today’s reality TV.
One surprise is that 20th century families could be more repressive than their forebears. In 1868 Dr John Langdon Down (the man who gave his name to the syndrome he spotted in some patients) started Normansfield, an institution for the mentally impaired that aimed to improve their capabilities.
Victorian parents kept up constant contact, sent their children the latest fashions, had them home for holidays and seemed to accept that every large family was likely to have a member with an “affliction”.
By the early 20th century when Langdon Down’s son Reginald had taken over (he had a son with Down syndrome) children were sent in order to be got out of the way. Families raced to “conceal the disgrace of a tainted blood line” and rarely visited.
The dates show how close the secrets are. Normansfield, sold to the NHS in 1951, closed only in 1976 when its nurses walked out in protest at conditions. Mother-and-baby homes and adoption societies had their high point not in the 1860s but the 1960s, yielding only to the pill, legal abortion and changing attitudes.
If there had been no secrets in earlier generations there would be no Who Do You Think You Are? on today’s TV. As Cohen points out: “Telling the family’s secrets works for us moderns in the same way as keeping them did for the Victorians, it forges the bonds of kin.”