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.
Cohen argues that for the past 200 years Secrecy has been engaged in a frisky gavotte with its first cousin Privacy. First one leads, then the other takes a turn. And in the 19th century Privacy, that classic constituent of political liberalism, mostly had its best foot forward. What went on in an Englishman's [sic] home remained a family's own business, which meant, paradoxically, that there was nothing much to hide. It was only once the 20th century started to breath down everyone's neck that a retreat into lock-down seemed necessary. Now any family that wanted to shield its sadnesses and embarrassments from public view was obliged to take refuge in a thick wadding of camouflage, misdirection and pointed silence.
This sounds confusing, but Cohen's great strength is the way she puts flesh on theory, making it come to life before our eyes. Take her chapter on mental disability. In the mid-Victorian period, she argues, well-resourced families found themselves able to cherish mentally handicapped children. God had chosen you to care for one of His less finished creatures, and that was that. Such children joined in family life, appearing at the dinner table, splashing in the sea, becoming Mama's special pet. If they were sent away to a school, such as the progressive Normansfield Training Institution in South London, they went wrapped in love and with the promise that everyone was counting the days until the holidays.
By the time the apparently permissive Edward VII was on the throne, it was all quite different. "Imbeciles" were increasingly left at Normansfield all year round and for decades at a time. Communication between school and parents, once suffused with loving chatter, had dwindled to the occasional chilly letter from the family solicitor or doctor. Children who did occasionally come home, such as clergyman's son Percie Weldon, were told to keep out of sight when visitors arrived. Cohen finds tragic evidence of handicapped children systematically expunged from the record, their names left off parents' obituaries, ending their lives in unmarked graves.
All this had happened because heredity had replaced God as the driving force in human history. The turn to eugenics in the early years of the 20th century made families with a mentally handicapped child, gay uncle, or criminal cousin frantic with worry about a possible "taint" in their bloodline. Would anyone want to marry into a family that might be deemed "contagious"? In this new age of curtain twitching the only solution was to behave as if your mentally handicapped child, alcoholic brother or adulterous mother simply did not exist. If it was too late for that, you could simply kill them off in an accident and pray they never turned up to embarrass you.
Cohen finds a similar pattern when it comes to those permanent bachelors without whom no Victorian home was complete. A flamboyant uncle who always arrived with a "best friend" in tow was easily accommodated at a large family gathering where a variegated palette of appearances and behaviours was on show. But by the mid-20th century, and with families smaller in size, a homosexual son or brother was harder to hide in plain sight. And even when heredity was replaced by theories that favoured "nurture" over "nature", there was no let-up in the potential for shame. As ideas derived from psychoanalysis began to circulate in educated families, mothers of gay sons and shoplifting daughters blushed at the thought that their clued-up friends must surely be wondering about their parenting skills. Cohen is too subtle an historian to suggest that every kind of family issue fitted one cultural pattern. Or, as she succinctly puts it, "secrecy tends to run in circles rather than straight lines." In the case of adopted children, the Edwardians' insistence on total discretion seems to have worked a treat. Before the Adoption Act of 1926, childless couples who used the services of a private agency such as The Haven of Hope for Homeless Little Ones regularly passed off the new arrival as their own.
Adoptive mothers resorted to large winter coats or long holidays by the sea in order to disguise the fact that they had not given birth. The decision never to tell the child about her origins served to graft her seamlessly on to her new family tree. It also dealt with any neighbourhood gossip about her moral make-up and the worry that, once she hit puberty, the little stranger might go the same way as her mother.
While the new act of 1926 certainly shored up the legality of the adoption process, its formalised paperwork also blew away the chance to keep things private. No matter how discreet the new parents were, someone usually found out and, from there, it was a short step to whispers over the coffee cups and taunts in the playground. Legislation designed to eradicate the earlier nightmare in which the birth mother might reclaim her infant had the unintended effect of exposing the adopted child to the trauma of knowing that someone had once given her away.
What marks out Family Secrets as an important book is not so much its breadth – there are also chapters on race, divorce and family therapy – as its depth. Each chapter has a painstaking architecture of original sources, Cohen having spent years working through the archives of institutions including the Tavistock Clinic and the Edinburgh Marriage Guidance Centre. The result is a clear-sighted investigation into what our forebears felt was private, and what they kept secret – and, most importantly, the difference between the two.
• Kathryn Hughes's biography of Mrs Beeton is published by Harper Perennial.