Review in the Sunday Business Post [Ireland]

Mar 17 2013
Sara Keating

"In the contemporary culture of compulsive confession, it is difficult to conceive of the repressed family histories in Deborah Cohen's fascinating book."

In the contemporary culture of compulsive confession, it is difficult to conceive of the repressed family histories in Deborah Cohen's fascinating book.

It opens in colonial India in the 1770s, when Robert Bruce, a captain in the Bengal Artillery, begets a daughter by his Indian mistress. A doting father -- "You never beheld a prettier or finer Child in all your life," he wrote to his brother in England -- he is keen to have her educated at home, but is dissuaded by his family, lest her "black connections" bring shame upon the Bruce name.

The girl died before they had a chance to reconcile the matter but, four years later, when Captain Bruce returned to England with a five-year-old ward, Margaret Steward, he and his charge were embraced by the family. When Bruce returned to Bengal, Margaret stayed on, to be educated and introduced to genteel society by her hosts as if she was one of their own.

What the Captain had neglected to reveal to his mother was that the girl was, in fact, a Bruce and another product of his lusty liaisons. Margaret literally became a living skeleton in the family closet, until her origins were revealed a decade later.

Margaret Steward was just one of innumerable undocumented illegitimate children born to English men throughout the colonies, some of whom were adopted like Margaret under false pretences, but most of whom were not.

Children born in Victorian England fared better than their colonial counterparts; in upper and middle-class England, anyway, the focus of Cohen's exhaustively researched study. (For the working classes living in crowded conditions and beholden to institutions of church and state, however, as Cohen suggests, the concept of secrecy just didn't exist: "Keeping a secret, like keeping a servant," she writes, "was one way, then, to define the middle class."

The first half of the book focuses on families in Victorian England, the era in which childhood was invented, when wealthy families would go to great lengths to protect their offspring, just as the Bruce family did, when they eventually discovered Margaret's interracial heritage.

In a culture devoted to the sanctity of family life, a serial adulteress such as Harriett Derring, for example, would be protected by her mother from the scandal-hungry press gathered in the viewing gallery of the divorce courts. Children with intellectual and physical disabilities, meanwhile, were sent to school at great expense, although the Langdon-Downs, founders of the progressive and prestigious Normansfield Training Institution from which Cohen draws her stories for a fascinating chapter on attitudes to disability, did not extend their benevolence to their own disabled son.

Family Secrets is full of stories of similar personal compromises and cultural contradictions, and Cohen is too good a writer not to know that it is the stories themselves, rather than her theories, that give the book momentum.

Tales like that of Misses Willis and Hart, for example, who ran the Mission of Hope, a home for unmarried mothers who were encouraged to give their children up for adoption.

Compared to Ireland's Magdalen Laundries, their methods of moral education seem almost altruistic, and yet you can't call the story of Daisy Harris, denied access to a daughter who was adopted in a different name, anything but cruel.

However, occasionally the structure of Family Secrets is a bit unfocused, and Cohen's interpretation of the facts only crystallises at the chapter's end. And yet one of the great strengths of the book is its breadth, which encompasses a broad swathe of the cultural changes that affected families -- divorce and adoption laws, the fashion for therapy, trends in television -- as well as the evolution of social concepts of privacy into the 20th century.

Where the Victorian age prized family discretion, Cohen concludes, there are few boundaries now between personal and public life. But that is not to say that Family Secrets does not strike its own note of relevance. Indeed, it brings a whole different layer of significance to the recent phone-hacking scandals at tabloid newspapers in Britain and the ongoing saga surrounding Jimmy Savile's tenure at the BBC, where the institution's duty to public service was spectacularly failed.