Review in TLS

Apr 26 2013
The Times Literary Supplement
Pat Thane

"Deborah Cohen opens up the role of the family in bringing about this change, raising new questions and perspectives in this mysterious, important area of history."

English families have long kept socially shaming episodes secret, which makes reconstructing the history of the English family all the harder. Deborah Cohen explores what was kept secret and how, what has changed since the early nineteenth century and why. She focuses on the middle classes, since those "above" and "below" them socially were less successful at, or less concerned with, hiding their transgressions from prying eyes - from eighteenth-century cartoonists to modern tabloids.

Cohen begins in late eighteenth-century India, where British men lived openly with Indian women and the children they had together. Men of comparable status did not produce more illegitimate children in India than in Britain. The difference was that they did so openly. Problems arose when they returned home, sometimes bringing the children, though not their mothers. The children, especially if dark-skinned, might be shunned socially and some fathers hid the relationship, sometimes from their own families. Yet families could be supportive. In 1786, Robert Bruce returned to Edinburgh, having made a fortune in India, bringing his half-Indian daughter Margaret, disguised with the surname Stewart, pretending she was a friend's daughter whom he had brought home to boarding school. He kept her real identity secret even from his family for two years, until he wanted to return to India. His mother and sister had been affectionate to Margaret, so he risked the revelation. They brought her up, doting on her, though still hiding the relationship and, as she grew up, expressing alarm that she was "getting a black downiness on her lip". She inherited her father's wealth, becoming very rich, but rumour about her parentage, her dark hair and pallor, prevented her marrying until she was in her thirties and had moved to London.

The main theme of the book is how many families shielded sexual transgressors, suggesting a long history of divergence between public and private morality in place of stereotypes of "Victorian" moral rigidity. Reports from divorce courts reveal a similar picture. Divorce became legally possible in England and Wales only in 1857, on severely restricted terms. It was too expensive for most people, and easier for men. Scotland had long had legal divorce on easier terms - one of many legal differences, which Cohen overlooks, referring to Britain throughout, but only to English legislation. Divorce was legalized in England just as a popular press emerged and the courts provided irresistible copy, giving families further incentive to hide shaming behaviour.

One secret surprisingly hardly mentioned by Cohen concerned the couples in all classes who cohabited, often producing children, because they could not divorce and remarry, as many wished. The numbers are unknowable before the 1970s. Proponents of divorce reform from the late nineteenth century thought they were many and advocated reform to end these "illicit unions".

But family secrets abounded and Cohen is unavoidably selective. She discusses the importance for homosexual men of family support for their illegal sexuality, especially as arrests increased from the 1920s, provoking more intrusive interest from the press. Another big secret was illegitimacy, here explored through the lens of adoption. This was legalized only in 1926 and often kept secret by adoptive families, including from the child, to avoid the taint of suspected illegitimacy. Yet most illegitimate children were not adopted. Some families cast out their erring daughters, but more supported them, absorbing them into the family home. Until at least the 1960s, some children grew up believing that their grandparents were their parents, another secret, often wellknown in the neighbourhood, but traumatic for the child to discover.

Cohen shows how these diverse sources of shame and secrecy took different trajectories over time. There was no simple shift from "Victorian puritanism" to modern liberation. Divorce became more accessible between the wars, though still expensive until the introduction of legal aid in 1948, and restrictive until 1969. "Idiot" children, generally institutionalized only briefly if at all by Victorian middleclass families, with the aim of rehabilitation, were more often locked away from the 1920s on, as eugenic fears gripped some families.

More resisted such fears than Cohen suggests, however, and most "retarded" children were not institutionalized. Many families preferred to support them at home, hence the formation in 1946 of the campaigning Association of Parents of Backward Children (now MIND); though still in the 1960s some children, and adults, were "put away" in sometimes horrifying conditions.

The interwar years gave birth to what Cohen calls a "confessional culture". More people divulged their secrets, anonymously, to agony aunts and confession columns in popular papers, while radical intellectuals confessed openly in memoirs and novels, trends that continued after the war. Public attitudes to sexuality were gradually shifting, influenced by films, the press, the slow permeation of psychoanalysis. The "permissive" 1960s did not spring suddenly from nowhere.

As patterns of acceptable behaviour shifted slowly and unevenly, the panics of public moralists became more strident in the 1950s: about teenage pregnancy (though it was rising no faster than the teenage population), youth crime (ditto), adultery (who knows?) and much else. Cohen sometimes accepts the moral panics too literally, detecting more "problem families", more unhappiness in marriages and more "nuclear" families, isolated in a new "runaway world" of high mobility. Social workers had long been concerned about "problem families" under various labels. Marital unhappiness was probably not growing, but people were more willing to talk about it. Supportive "extended families" had been fewer in the past and social mobility greater, and modern families kept closer links, than contemporary sociologists realized.

If there were more public confessions, family secrecy did not vanish, and families chose what to reveal. In the 1960s, children might still not be told about death or mental illness in the family. As Cohen argues, family secrecy existed to protect privacy, but in the world of modern mass communications, privacy needed protection by more public, legislative, means. From 1947, illegitimacy could be hidden when the shortened birth certificate was introduced. Adoption was more rarely kept secret from the children, but in 1949, their mothers lost the right to know the adopters, and in England and Wales, children were not allowed to know the identities of their birth parents until 1978.

Cohen stresses how often families protected transgressive members and quietly kept alive tolerant values, until they burst through the veil of secrecy in the later 1960s (though her comment that "Today the closely guarded skeleton in the closet seems as quaint an item as the antimacassar" seems optimistic at a time of belated revelations of child abuse by prominent figures). Yet families have more often been accused of repression than transgression, and never more than by the post-1968 radicals who promoted the dramatic cultural change that followed. Deborah Cohen opens up the role of the family in bringing about this change, raising new questions and perspectives in this mysterious, important area of history.