Review: Family Secrets, Deborah Cohen

 An alternative title for this book could have been The History of Shame.  Deborah Cohen takes an academic approach to the history of family secrets in this fascinating piece of social history.  As she herself acknowledges, it is extremely difficult to chronicle something which by definition was kept secret. However, Cohen has taken a step back and tried to understand how prevailing trends altered people’s attitudes towards the people and events who they would prefer to airbrush from their back story.  Cohen divides her book into three sections but really it splits better into two.  The first five chapters cover issues such as mixed-race children, divorce and adultery, disabled offspring, illegitimacy and homosexuality.  The final two consider the changing nature of the family structure, the rebellion against the nuclear family and how we move forwards as a society.

The first chapter goes all the way back to the 1770s with Robert Bruce arguing back and forth from India with his brother in Edinburgh over what to do with his illegitimate mixed-race daughter, all via letters which took eleven months to reach their destination.  Eventually, Robert Bruce returned to Scotland in 1786 with a five year-old girl who he introduced as Margaret Stewart, the daughter of a friend who had to stay in India. He subsequently returned to Bengal and consigned his illegitimate Eurasian daughter to the care of his brother and sister.  The Scotland-based Bruce family clearly loved Margaret more than her father ever did but were anxious to ‘protect’ her from her mixed heritage, erasing any record of her mother and fretting terribly that the downy hair on her lip might be the sign that the child was about to turn darker.  Despite becoming the richest heiress in Scotland, few men were willing to woo Margaret due to her bloodline – she did not find a husband until middle age.

Margaret Stewart in old age

The shame affixed to mixed origins is an uncomfortable part of the history of the British Empire – men went out to India and formed informal relationships with native women, children were born but all too often these families were struck asunder when the man sought a British wife.  Robert Bruce was careful to make it impossible for his daughter Margaret to ever seek out her mother.  Will Hollond expressed a kind of airy sympathy for the ‘poor girl’ who was the mother of his two sons who he was about to remove to England.  Peter Cochrane was in a relationship with the mother of his Eurasian daughter Susan for nearly twenty years and yet when Susan got older, he stopped acknowledging her as his child and instead referred to her as a girl whom he was ‘no less anxious about’ than his legitimately born sons.  Most remarkable to me was Anna Leonowens’ family history; famous for being governess to the King of Siam’s children, she was immortalised in the musical The King and I.  Having personally watched four different adaptations of said story (five if we count the dire Disney movie), I was stunned to learn that rather than being the poker-spined English Rose, she was born in Ahmadnagar in India rather than Wales and her mother was Eurasian.  Her shame over her origins led her to invent an entirely fresh personal history – she was certainly successful.

The memory of the Indian woman was consistently obliterated; she faded into a distant memory for her children and they lied about her when they grew up.  Her lover left her to seek a wealthy wife and she became merely the ‘ancient housekeeper’.  Yet, I felt that Deborah Cohen never quite made clear what her point was – did she mean that the Empire was built on the exploitation of the natives?  That was no surprise.  The other chapters seemed to chart changing attitudes far more effectively – this one felt more like a series of anecdotes.  The chapter on divorce was fascinating in its description of the thought processes behind the legislation.  1857 was a really big year in the history of divorce – the Divorce Court was established, previous to that it had only been possible via a tortuous ‘tour through the Ecclesiastical Courts, an action in the court of common law to recover damages against the wife’s lover and then an Act of Parliament’.  Only four women had ever achieved a divorce of their own previous to this and whether male or female, one had to be seriously rich to even attempt it.  It was believed (naively) that the institute of marriage would be preserved through this because ‘innocents’ might be rescued from nightmarish marriages, meaning that those demonic rascals who kept spoiling marriage for everyone else would be stopped.  Of course it didn’t quite work out like that.

I was really struck by how similar in thought process the Divorce Court was to the workhouse.  I studied the Poor Law for part of my History GCSE (I did the weirdest syllabus ever, even struggled to find it interesting) and as I recall, the terms of the Poor Law were set up to make the workhouse the very worst possible option rather than a place of refuge.  Similarly, the Divorce Court was set up to be so very humiliating that nobody would seek it out who had not been in a truly terrible marriage.  Being obliged to confess all, scandalous stories naturally made their way into the press and exposed the Divorce Court’s victims to the disapproving eyes of the world and we all know what a forgiving lot the readers of the British tabloid press can be.  Early on, the problem of ‘collusion’ began to arise, whereby one half of a divorcing couple would agree to take all the blame simply so that a divorce could be achieved, even if neither were free of sin.  The magistrate James Cheese’s reputation was destroyed when he was revealed to have paid his worthless drunkard son-in-law to file a divorce petition. Rather than playing the penitent, Annie Cheese had been cavorting round Paris with her new lover and her husband Captain Lloyd was barely even aware that she was gone.  Annie Cheese was not to be liberated from her marriage simply because she wanted to be so.  The divorce petition was denied.

Be good or the Queen’s Proctor will get you …

The Queen’s Proctor was appointed to seek out cases of collusion, when both sets of hands were dirty.  Divorce was not allowed to be about two people simply no longer wanting to be married to each other – there had to be one angel and one devil.  Right up to the 1960s, unless everything had been confessed, getting a divorce was not easy and the Queen’s (or later King’s) Proctor was there to sniff out the liars.  A phrase was even coined ‘jumped out like the Queen’s Proctor’.  Mr Allen paid his friend the rather ordinary Mr Milburn to pretend to be one Captain D’Arcy and then to seduce Mrs Allen in the hope of being able to sue for divorce.  Naturally enough, the case was dismissed.

More complex was the case of Harriet Capel, married to a cruel and brutal man Viscount Forth, her mother helped her escape and she filed for divorce.  However, despite her husband’s violence and adultery, Harriet was also discovered by the Queen’s Proctor to have travelled to America in the company of one Mr Dering.  Case dismissed.  By a strange coincidence, Viscount Forth ended up living with Annie Cheese before her death in childbirth and his untimely suicide (it’s all very Victorian).  Harriet married Dering but once again ended up back in the Divorce Court and again subject to the machinations of the Queen’s Proctor.  Nothing was ever simple when it came to the Divorce Courts and its morbid insistence on full confessions would continue for another fifty years.  For myself, my mother was safely divorced from my biological father many, many years ago and we are all grateful for it but I couldn’t help but feel that this model of divorce took away people’s humanity.  There can still be two decent people but a marriage can simply be damaged beyond repair – why set a couple up for a lifetime of misery?  It seems so devoid of mercy.

A Victorian Normansfield patient.

The next chapter dealt with ‘children who disappeared’, those with disabilities who vanished from their families – there was a real discomfort to reading words such as ‘idiot’ and ‘imbecile’ applied medically.  John Langdon Down set up Normansfield Training Institution with many fine ideals to better the outcomes for disabled children.  Children were to be provided with the very best, their parents sent them off with fashionable clothes and hoped for a cure.  Cohen contrasts the motives of Normansfield with the optimism and enthusiasm of the Industrial Revolution – it was genuinely believed that specialised training would allow disabled children to catch up with their peers.  Five year-old Lucy Gardner was sent away to Normansfield for four years and then returned to her parents who pronounced her ‘much improved’.  Elizabeth Scott-Sanderson was handed over aged one and never went home again, not even for a holiday.  After she turned eighteen, she never had any visitors again.  All too often, parental hopes were disappointed and their children stayed at Normansfield for their entire lives.

John Langdon Down gave his name to Down’s Syndrome, even spotting the tell-tale line on the hand which signposts the condition.  Over time, his son grew up and took over at Normansfield.  Sadly, John Langdon Down’s grandson was born with Down’s Syndrome but the boy’s mother refused to acknowledge it.  She insisted that the child was simply slow to learn and sent him to the local school.  It was not until after her death that he was admitted to Normansfield as a patient.  Looking at a family photograph, I felt such a keen sympathy for the poor woman – even in the tiny grainy image it was obvious that he did indeed have Down’s.  These children were not sent away due to a lack of love.  Their parents loved them desperately and Cohen makes it obvious that if anything, the Victorians were far more accepting than their descendants.

With their vast sprawling families, the Victorians were used to a diversity that vanished with the rise of the homogenisation of the family and the rise of the stereotype of 2.4 children.  The notion of eugenics gained credence and people feared that a disabled relative cast questions over the rest of the family too.  So while a Victorian child might be cherished as one of God’s unfinished creatures, as Mama’s special pet and then sent off to ‘school’ in Normansfield (even if they had been going for twenty years), their 1920s counterpart would be been left at school all year round and quietly expunged from family history, forgotten from their parents’ obituaries and buried in an unmarked grave.  Elizabeth Scott-Sanderson’s father did not pay the extra money for her seaside trip because he thought there was little chance she would notice she was there and he was not prepared to let her go  on the off chance.  Rather than believing that God called them to care for the less fortunate, the dimly-understood and newly-conceived notions of evolution and heredity meant that families were less prepared to reach out in love to their disabled children.

Nurses at the Haven of Hope

For similar reasons, people sought to keep adoption quiet too.  Mrs Wallis’ Haven of Hope for Homeless Little Ones was founded in 1893 but adoption was still illegal for another thirty years.  Mrs Wallis pressurised the unmarried mothers into ‘signing away’ their children and these poor young women were largely unaware that the agreements were not legally binding.  Vera-Rose Harris was given away aged three and her mother bitterly regretted it but believed that she had no way of retrieving her daughter.  The truth was that unmarried mothers had nobody to speak for them – their children were snatched from them and there was very little they could do about it.  Even worse was the way that children could very simply be handed back.  One girl had been the ‘light of the house’ until she turned fifteen, discovered she was adopted and within six months was sent to an orphanage.  It was believed kindest to hide their origins from the children meaning that when adoption was finally made legal, adoptive parents faced the dilemma between making the adoption formal and thus revealing it to the child or carrying on without any legal status for their family unit.  The creation of the ‘short birth certificate’ granted a certain anonymity to children’s births and partly solved the problem but the dilemma surrounding what to tell adopted children continues.  I felt that Cohen had missed an opportunity to explore what it can mean in the modern day where birth parents can contact their children via Facebook, even in cases where children were removed via a Court Order.

The next chapter dealt with ‘Bachelor Uncles’.  I found this one an awkward read.  While Cohen managed to track wider social trends in other chapters, I found such sweeping statements about gay male behaviour uncomfortable.  I am not well enough informed to know if it is true that lesbians were less-persecuted but I think the most problematic factor is that prejudice is still so common.  As a WASPish liberal heterosexual Christian, I appreciate that I get a pretty sweet deal as far as living in the UK goes.  However, I have been horrified at times by some of the rampant homophobia which is still prevalent within Christian circles.  I recognise though that on the whole this occurs when people are reacting to the unfamiliar.  When all that someone has known is the family unit of mummy, daddy and siblings, any alternative is threatening.  For me, growing up as the only child of a single parent, the arrival of my Dad when I was fourteen was very unwelcome because it disrupted what was for me familiar.  However, after a protracted sulk, I recognised that change was not necessarily bad and over time I came to recognise his awesomeness.  Similarly, I think that the Christian church needs to get over the sulk and just grow up.

Deborah Cohen

My best friend when I was a child was Rosie*, the daughter of my childminder but it took me many years to notice that Rosie’s mother Lena* was not a single mother like my Mum but was in fact in a long-term relationship with Jane*.  I never questioned Jane’s presence – as a four year-old I had no reason to and then she was simply part of the backdrop of my life. When I was ten, my mother gently explained that Lena and Jane were in a relationship.  I had had no idea.  I saw them every day and although it has been years since last we met, I do not remember them as ‘the lesbians’ but rather as a family who were a big part of my childhood.  Rosie was my childhood best friend – we fought like crazy at times and I still cringe about how bossy I could be but I have such vivid memories of just being children together.  I remember talking to Lena about my absent father, a conversation I still appreciate because it was nice to have someone to talk to about it other than my mother.  Jane used to pass on used paper from her work that I could use for colouring.  When my mother had a bike accident, they immediately dropped everything to help.  Around Mother’s Day and my mother’s birthday, Lena used to take me to the shops so I could get my mother a present.  They were very kind people – they were part of my ‘normal’.

Yet they were also keeping secrets and although Lena and Jane were not exactly closeted, it was also the 1990s and they were circumspect about their family life. They once said to my mother that they hoped that Rosie was not a lesbian because it just made life so hard.  Around about the time that I became aware that Lena and Jane were together, I also began to notice that classmates and their parents had speculations of their own.  That just makes me think about how ugly society can be though that it fails to value strong marriages like theirs.  When I was eight, my mother remembers vividly that I came home very upset.  I have no memory of this and I do remember most things.  Anyway, my mother asked what was wrong and I explained that we had made father’s day cards at school and it had upset me.  She pointed out that I could send a card to my adored Grandpa as indeed I did every year and I burst into tears, so my mother further tried to help by reminding me that Rosie didn’t have a dad either and I wailed, “But she’s got a Jane!”  As my mother tells this story, never in her life had she felt so inadequate – not only had she failed to find me a responsible father but she had furthermore not provided a lesbian co-parent (edit: just to clarify, this story has been told & retold as a humourous anecdote within my family to reflect the traumas children can unintentionally inflict on their parents.  My mother usually has has to do the telling because I am too busy doubling over with laughter).  I would stipulate that I am fine and that although I am grateful that I do now have my Dad, my Mum did an amazing job. However, I’m not quite sure how we would have made it through the teenaged years without Dad being buffer.

The point I’m making in a very roundabout way is that the evolution story of the family is not over.  Of course some things have gotten easier.  My lovely Year 2 teacher retired the year after she taught us, she was in her sixties, had a glass eye and was very Yorkshire.  The whole class adored her and we were always delighted when she re-appeared at school functions, always in the company of a similarly grey-haired and bespectacled lady who also wore her hair in a bun.  They sold handicraft items at the school fayres and Miss B’s ‘friend’ gave me a discount on a hand-painted bookmark when I ran out of money once so I really liked her.  I was aware that Miss B and her friend always took an interest in Rosie and that they had even met up socially with Lena and Jane but it was not until years later that I connected up what my mother had meant when she once remarked to me that she thought that Miss B and her friend were ‘like Lena and Jane’.  It was not an option for Miss B and her friend to have a child of their own, but the next generation were able to.

I was struck how Cohen noted that even in the Victorian era, families found it easier to accept gay relatives if they had someone else to refer back to.  In one family, when various members began to speculate on who a particular young man would marry, the boy’s grandmother cut them off, saying that this would never happen since he was ‘like Hugh’, a legendarily camp great-uncle.  Again in sprawling Victorian families, it could be accepted that certain flamboyant male relatives would bring home a ‘best friend’ and even what that meant but some things were too uncomfortable to directly discuss.  By the 1930s and 40s, this was a lot harder to ignore and so families were more likely to cast children out.  Yet in both cases, it was the fear of the unknown that led to homophobia; there were haunting accounts of families unable to reconcile to their gay offspring but in general it did seem that family love could overcome.

The final sections dealt with talking therapy and the idea of the ‘repressive’ family.  I found this one difficult again.  The notion of talking therapy, marriage guidance and counselling is naturally worthwhile – I know from experience that if I am avoiding talking about something, it is generally a sign that it has really got to me.  However.  I do think that poems such as Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’ are rather self-indulgent.  We can all find reasons and excuses for our behaviour that date back to childhood – nobody’s parents are perfect, everybody makes mistakes but when I read The Shock of the Fall earlier this year, the words of the main character stuck in my mind; There is an expiry date to blaming your parents.  A certain acquaintance who shall remain utterly nameless blamed his parents’ behaviour for his failed marriage and abandonment of his infant daughter.  He then went on to blame his ex-wife and daughter’s behaviour for difficulties he experienced with his subsequent partner and children.  The common factor was him.  At the end of the day, we are all authors of our fate and you should always aim to write yourself as the hero of the story rather than the victim.  In my view, by all means talk about what happened, talk and talk and talk and talk until it all makes sense.  And then move on.

This book was an extremely thought-provoking read but in many ways I felt that it did not cover what it promised.  In the introduction, Cohen briefly mentioned that while incest is now a taboo, it was regarded far more matter-of-factly in the Victorian era, seen as a natural consequence of over-crowded living.  Similarly, Cohen mentioned the prevalence of the misery memoir and did make some contrasts to the tabloid coverage of the divorce courts.  She even gave heavy coverage to the television programme Who Do You Think You Are and the national fascination with genealogy.  Yet I never felt that she ever captured the idea of Things We Don’t Speak Of.  If we imagine a kind of geology of gossip, the fluffy top layer would be the everyday trivia of who fancies who, then the grubbier layer of betrayals and denials and open secrets that are revealed to one person at a time and then the muddy scandals that always raked up.  But down at the very bottom is the black rock of Things We Don’t Speak Of.  There are no words, you can try but you fall silent.  Things We Don’t Speak Of defy description, they are like a vacuum – just as in space nobody can hear you scream, Things We Don’t Speak Of die quietly because they are not stories to be passed on, fading out of family history altogether.  It would have been interesting to have some kind of analysis of how that can occur.  I appreciate though that this would have been an almost impossible task.

Leo Tolstoy had it wrong – even happy families are different, the family itself is a many-headed chameleon.  I go back and forth from day to day whether I have aunts or step-aunts, I am extremely elastic on what makes somebody my ‘cousin’ (although I only have two Cousins with a capital C and I love them both dearly) – a family is not static, it is ever-changing and constantly evolving but never broken.  We cannot truly understand what motivated our ancestors, about how they saw the world.  Some stories naturally fade from history.  Really what this book seemed to be more about was constant exchange of secrecy for privacy and in that respect, Cohen has achieved a very subtle and well-written commentary.  Rather than the mythological madwomen in the attics of Victorian England, there was more a sense that what went on an Englishman’s home was a family matter.  The moves towards curtain-twitching neighbour-watching meant that people became less tolerant, more unwilling to turn a blind eye.  Fashions in psycho-analysis made people believe that parental relationships brought on homosexuality, that masturbation brought on mental deficiency.

The constant sharing of information now via social media is an entirely new chapter in the history of the family.  People share photographs of their children from birth onwards – the internet reaches into our lives and scoops out our personal information.  We walk through streets covered with CCTV, our lives are subjected to constant checks.  Yet do we really know what is going on with our neighbours, those we work beside?  All of this sharing, all of this breakdown in privacy – has it actually led to an increase in understanding?  Supposedly, we are living in an age of loneliness.  Quite what this means for the future of the family remains to be seen.

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Family Secrets by Deborah Cohen
Published by Oxford University Press on 2013
Genres: History, Europe, Great Britain, Modern, General, Social History
Pages: 372
ISBN: 9780199977802

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3 thoughts on “Review: Family Secrets, Deborah Cohen

  1. When I first saw the book you were about to review it looked interesting (I have a degree in sociology and taught it in adult education some years ago), but your review is much more so!
    Thank you for revealing much of your own life, in doing so it helps in understanding the issues that Deborah Cohen is trying to analyse.
    We do seem to live in a society that knows more about people’s lives and lifestyles, yet is just as intolerant of differences as in the recent past.
    What you tell us of your school friend with lesbian parents is a good example, there are still many who find every aspect of what you describe abhorrent today. I agree with your comment about the Christian church. Twenty odd years ago I had a 'discussion' with a friend of my then wife about homosexuality. She (the friend), a devout Christian (and it has to be said a good and kind woman) believed it was a sin and that was that as it said so in the Bible. I suggested to her that there were much worse things in the world than the way two people chose to love another (I used the example of arms dealers) but she would not have it and I realised that she was close to being upset and dropped the subject. (The irony for me was that my ex-wife before I knew her had lived with another woman for a couple of years and could be best described as bi-sexual, I wonder if the friend ever found out!)
    We seem to live in a time where everyone talks of rights, freedoms and openness but they only interested when it matches their own views. Instead of differences being celebrated (whatever they may be) they are viewed with hostility.

  2. Hi Mike – this one was a fascinating read. I think Deborah Cohen's book kind of stopped short of really analysing recent trends but it is interesting considering how the meaning of family has changed. And you're right – people are still very intolerant of differences. Now that I'm past school and university age, I think that I'm more confident in just not engaging with people who espouse views that I find offensive but also you're right that's important not to cause upset to otherwise well-meaning people who happen to hold a limited world-view. I know so many lovely people who happen to have grown up with a very narrow definition of what makes a family – I would never seek to criticise them on a personal level but I am grateful for my own upbringing. My childhood was extremely stable even if I was one parent down for the first few years – I think that providing the stability is what matters. In that way to be honest, I'm actually very conservative!

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