Review in the Sunday Telegraph -- Book of the Week

Jan 27 2013
Sunday Telegraph
Judith Flanders

“Cohen is a formidable researcher, and she narrates the stories she has uncovered with infectious delight.  A find.”

As former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan put it so memorably at the Leveson Inquiry, “Privacy is for paedos”. In part, this was no more than a tabloid journalist using words carelessly. If he had said secrecy, not privacy, was for “paedos”, the response would surely have been more muted, for post- Freud, secrecy is viewed as something entirely negative, whereas privacy is a right, enshrined in law.

Historian Deborah Cohen, whose previous book investigated how the British lived with their possessions, now explores how they lived with their ideas.

What did families try to hide, from 18thcentury Britons in India, to suburbanites in the 20th century? In the 19th century, it was a truism that families should have no secrets from each other, even as they presented an impenetrable façade to the world. Family Secrets explores, via dozens of illuminating stories culled from the divorce- courts, adoption agencies and institutes for the mentally impaired, among others, how the world changed into a place where everybody tells everyone everything, from therapists to reality television.

By the early 19th century, there were 20,000 odd British men in India, mostly unmarried; over half the children baptised in one Calcutta church were both illegitimate and mixed race. Everyone knew about mixed- race relationships in India, but what happened when the men went home? Sometimes the children were brought back by their fathers, their mothers, referred to in legal documents as “old servants”, left behind. Sometimes the children themselves created elaborate back- stories: Anna Leonowens, the author of the autobiography that became The King and I, fabricated her entire childhood in order to hide her mother’s mixed- race background.

The less privileged often had no choices: crowded conditions, and lives open to church, charity and governmental intrusion, meant working- class secrets inevitably escaped. As Cohen pithily remarks, “Keeping a secret, like keeping a servant, was one way, then, to define the middle class.” One solution was the concept of open secrets: something everybody knew, but no one discussed, or spoke about only in code. “Forget marriage. He’s like Uncle Sid”, was acceptable, while discussions of homosexuality were not. Other “bachelor uncles” lived flamboyantly, canary- yellow gloves, raspberry- pink stationery and all.

This simultaneous seeing and not seeing was greatly misjudged by the government in 1857, when the first divorce court was established. The establishment was certain that bringing divorce into the open would make it less likely to happen, not more. The publicity given to divorce would make people think twice before having affairs, or beating their wives. But the court had failed to allow for collusion, with husbands and wives agreeing a story in advance. So shocking was this notion of private agreements of public shame that the post of Queen’s Proctor was established, whose job it was to discover and publicise the secrets couples were hiding.

As privacy grew and secrecy diminished, what was defined as “normal” became ever narrower. Those living outside the norm were forced into hiding of one sort or another, at home as well as in public. Our stereotype of the Victorians says their attics were stuffed with lunatics. In reality, as Cohen shows, they lived openly with the mentally disabled, and as openly raised the children of others. It was only in the post-psychoanalytic 20th century that adoption became hidden, and mentally disabled children were farmed out to institutions, their families pretending they no longer existed.

Cohen makes use of the extraordinary archives of Normansfield, an institution run by John Langdon Down ( who gave his name to Down’s syndrome). Down and his wife ran a compassionate, caring establishment where children were temporarily sent in the hope that their condition could be improved.

Yet even such enlightened families as Langdon Down’s kept their own secrets: his son died after a fight with his brother Reginald; and later, Reginald, by now the institute’s director, himself had a Down’s syndrome child who was kept entirely secret, despite Reginald’s own pioneering work on the condition. ( It is also notable that Cohen, an American, mentions neither George V’s epileptic son John, brought up in isolation on the Sandringham estate, nor the late Queen Mother’s two institutionalised nieces.) Scientific progress and genetics made “taints”, whether of mental illness or illegitimacy, more rather than less frightening as the century progressed, and it was precisely these horrifying suppressions that ultimately brought about the various “liberation” movements of the later 20th century, from gay rights to feminism.

At this stage Family Secrets becomes more theoretical, drawing less on the fascinating case studies that enliven the earlier sections. ( Who can fail to enjoy the story of the 14year- old grandson of the Earl of Perth, who eloped with a married nursemaid and ended his days as a clam- gatherer in Long Island?) The author’s careful concern for accuracy, and appreciation of ambiguity, occasionally lead her into sentences that cover so much ground they say nothing: “Fathers were proud and ashamed, evasive as well as open”.

Yet these are sins born out of positive qualities: care for sources, rigorous impartiality, and an appreciation of nuance. Cohen is a formidable researcher, and she narrates the stories she has uncovered with infectious delight.  A find.