Review in the Observer

Jan 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.

The central body of the book is structured around its topics: interracial intercourse and its progeny, adultery, illegitimacy, mental disability and homosexuality (in fact, the subjects that novelists since the 19th century have depended upon). The final section considers the family and the culture of confession that challenged, and continues to challenge, the very British traditions of reserve.

Cohen quotes Thackeray, "Every house has its skeleton in it somewhere" (The History of Pendennis), and nowhere was this apparently more the case than in the houses of those who, during the heyday of the British empire, repaired, for what ever reason, to India. "The nabob was "a controversial new species of grandee who made his fortune in India and returned home to enjoy his treasure". But many, if not most, also enjoyed the treasures of the country they had come to exploit, not least the sexual availability and erotic allure of its women. It was, Cohen assures us, commonplace to have a native mistress who was frequently given the Hindu title of Beebee (Mrs), and these mixed-race households were "unapologetically open to view".

The open secrets only became problematic when the men returned home, often bringing with them the children they had fathered in a very different social climate. Cohen gives us some poignant examples of the fates of these children who not infrequently, in the case of "Margaret Stewart", for example, prompted genuine affection and loyalty in their British families. Margaret was the illegitimate daughter of Robert Bruce, who, ruthlessly separating her from her mother (there's an interesting correspondence between the nabob's possessiveness of his offspring and brutality towards his mistress), brought her back to his native Edinburgh under cover of being her guardian. Apart from this act of oblique acknowledgment, Bruce seems to have been an indifferent parent, but his two siblings took the blood connection to heart and even ensured that Margaret was acknowledged as the rightful heir to her father's estate, thus cutting themselves out of a considerable fortune.

Margaret eventually married a much younger man who, against expectations, apparently loved and cherished her. Together they lived a life of luxury unlike Susan Cochrane, another Eurasian, who was brought to England as a small child, raised as a "lady" and who spent her later years fruitlessly fighting to prove that her English father's liaison with her Indian mother had been a legal marriage.

The fate of the empire's mixed-race offspring brings to mind Marlowe's "That was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead". Morality is shown as distinctly relative. Here the book is not so much a study of secrecy as a study of pragmatism – "When in Rome…" becomes the moral compass. What is fascinating is the tenacity with which the English nabobs maintained their blood ties with their Eurasian offspring. Even if these "brownies" were accorded lesser fates than their legitimate, white brothers and sisters, they were by and large cared for and frequently acknowledged, albeit tacitly.

Much the same can be said of those children in the Victorian era who were born with some version of mental inadequacy. Cohen reveals that far from eschewing any potentially embarrassing connection with their "simpleton" offspring, the Victorians tended rather to dote on them. It is not until the 20th century that attitudes sharply alter. Again, it is in the fastidious detail that her account comes alive.

"Lucy Gardner and Elizabeth Scott-Sanderson arrived at the Normansfield Training Institution with the same diagnosis: both were deemed 'imbeciles' from birth. Five-year-old Lucy brought with her trunks full of pretty clothes… On her visits home, Lucy attended garden parties and teas. When she was away, neighbours and acquaintances inquired about her progress. After four years of training, Lucy Gardner returned to a family that delightedly pronounced her much improved.

"Elizabeth Scott-Sanderson never came home, not even for holidays…"

By 1920, the date of Elizabeth's birth, Victorian optimism that "idiots could be educated, even cured" and a certain largesse that tolerated difference as part of God's plan had succumbed to a dread of a hereditary taint. With God dislodged, afflicted children became not His most vulnerable lambs but manifestations of bad blood. The new science of eugenics promulgated the notion that "feeble-mindedness" was the prerogative of the lower social orders. A feeble-minded child reflected dangerously on the apparent normality of other family members. Gradually, originally progressive institutions, like Normansfield, "founded to promote the integration of the mentally disabled became the means by which they could be segregated for a lifetime".

Cohen is equally engaging on adoption and homosexuality, both of which involved the very British art of turning a blind eye. In the final sections of the book, she considers our post-Freudian culture, in which shame and secrecy are not so much social arbitrators as bars to personal authenticity. Cohen bravely raises the paradox of a culture in which "transparency" and public confession seemingly go hand in hand with an idealising of privacy. If this is the least compelling section of the book it is because there are fewer examples of what in the past it was felt needful to conceal. And, as Freud recognised, the concealed inevitably becomes alluring. Cohen does not directly tackle the phone hacking scandals but she might agree that our current censoring of such behaviour – as with the recent Jimmy Savile revelations – may well be in proportion to our fascination with what we like to suppose we deplore.


Salley Vickers's latest novel, The Cleaner of Chartres, is published by Viking