REVIEW: Family Secrets: living with shame from the Victorians to the present day by Deborah Cohen (Penguin, 2013)

Family SecretsDeborah Cohen’s Family Secrets: living with shame from the Victorians to the present day is an engaging and vivacious read. Filled to the brim with well-researched anecdotes and well-chosen illustrations, it is certainly enjoyable. Cohen’s premise is essentially that as we have become less interested, for various reasons, in keeping secrets, we have as a society become more precious about our individual and familial privacy; that families, often seen as sites of repression, were often more accepting of deviance and difference than is often assumed; and that family secrets bonded families together along a spectrum of shared secret-keeping, privacy and familial shame. Reading shame across time, from the Victorians to the present, allows a unique insight into the cultural mores of our society through varying socio-economic contexts: the high Victorians, the supposedly more louche Edwardians, the post-WWI secret-tellers, and the post-WWII rejection of secrets all together; all leading eventually to the modern age, obsessed, it seems, with baring all on reality TV shows and genealogical journeys, but paradoxically extremely aware of the modern dictates of individual privacy. ‘Privacy is today a hallowed right while secrets are perceived as damaging’ (p. xiii). To delve into the world of secrets and shame, argues Cohen, ‘is to enter a world whose emotional habits, though in many respects very different from our own, were neither as irrational nor as benighted as they are often portrayed’ (p. xiii).

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For the interested public, this will be a fascinating book. Part I begins by exploring the value of family secrets in the Victorian era, focussing first on colonial families (on which, more below), and secondly on the new invention of the Divorce Courts from 1857. The public proceedings of the divorce courts in particular were explicitly designed to shame, in order to in fact safeguard the sanctity of the family by putting people off the procedure. For colonial families, meanwhile, keeping secrets could be particularly difficult, due to the (supposed) ‘societal consensus’ for “immorality” in the colonies (p. 35), and of course due to the more obvious racial component of colonial illegitimacy.
Part II moves on to think in more detail about shame and guilt, exploring the role of the family in the lives of the mentally disabled, illegitimate children, and homosexual men (lesbianism was, according to Cohen, ‘a different matter’, having never been illegal and having never generated ‘the steady thrum of scandal nor the commentary that accompanied male homosexuality’ [p. 144]). Here Cohen’s main argument comes to the fore: that the Victorian family was by no means as repressive as is often thought, and that such families often had more space for both difference and “deviance” within their close and extended kin networks. Thus, while the Victorians fretted about institutionalising their children, and often maintained high levels of contact with them throughout their institutionalisation, the rise of ideas about heredity led Edwardians and after to feel more ashamed of mentally and physically disabled family members, who often thereafter languished in institutions for the rest of their lives.
The history of adoption, meanwhile, raised complex questions about both secrecy and privacy: should adopted children have a right to know they are adopted? And whose interests of privacy should be respected in adoption law: the biological parents’, the adoptive parents’, or the child’s? Homosexuality, meanwhile, was often an open secret within Victorian families which had both the physical and emotional space to accommodate ‘oddities’ or ‘peculiarities’ among its members. In other words, with large and ever-increasing families, Uncle X’s bachelor lifestyle did not cause any significant problems. Within these families, as long as the secret was unspoken, a level of acceptance would be achieved – but obviously to the detriment of the family member(s) in question, and their ability to lead an open and happy life (male homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1967).
Part III finishes the book by exploring the evolution of what Cohen calls our ‘confessional culture’. During the 1930s, in particular, ‘secrecy and privacy pulled further apart, as conduct that had furnished the terrain of family secrets was increasingly redefined as a legitimate area of privacy. People still kept secrets, but more and more they imagined that their intimate doings were no one else’s business’ (p. 182). Thus, the interwar years saw the rise of family therapy on the one hand, and the agony aunt on the other. By the 1970s, families were being labelled as somewhat inherently repressive structures, hotbeds of unhelpful secrets and suffocating shame. The rise of genealogical prime-time, embodied in the huge success of the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are? reflects the reassertion of the family in the light of this characterisation, as celebrities and the general public alike look to their distant kin to find their own sense of identity and belonging.

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This is undoubtedly an engaging book, and situating the case studies within the evolving history of secrecy and privacy was original and thought-provoking. The writing style was at times rather cheesy and repetitive, however, and more importantly I often found myself extremely discomforted by some of the terminology used. The constant, seemingly unreflective, references to ‘half-caste’ children in the chapter on ‘The Nabob’s Secrets’ was very unwelcome. Constant references to ‘feeble-minded children’ in the chapter on institutionalisation also seemed unnecessary. Of course, Cohen was probably co-opting the terminology of the time here. Still, some interaction with that terminology was, I think, necessary, and an opportunity was thereby missed to really think about words and meanings in a book designed for public consumption.

Nonetheless, Cohen has undertaken a great of archival research for this book, and has made great use of a diverse range of sources. The book was interesting and thought-provoking (and mostly for the right reasons). I am sure it would be of interest to readers of this blog. It was pleasing to see colonial families being given sustained attention in the first chapter, and genealogists interested in the contextual background of any ‘imperial skeletons’ in their own family’s closet will find this chapter particularly rewarding.  ‘If all British houses, as William Thackery observed, contained skeletons, imperial families such as his own had more than their fair share. That was not just because of the infamous “connexions” that men acquired abroad. It was also a product of the intimacy that empire demanded of families’ (p. 7). As Emma Rothschild’s book The Inner Life of Empires has made abundantly clear, colonial families relied heavily upon each other to facilitate colonial lives lived across borders and boundaries: whether as financiers, guardians or (as in this book) secret-keepers.  Mixed-race children in particular were often a thorny issue for de facto families that transcended the boundaries of marriage, respectability and geography. While sometimes Eurasian children were hidden away, however, at other times colonial families accepted, and even embraced such children. Often, of course, this depended on the dictates of race and class: lighter-skinned children were easier to accept than more obviously mixed-race progeny, and families who could afford good education and social prospects could to some extent shield such children from the disapproving gaze of an increasingly ‘Victorian’ British society.

It is interesting that in Andrew May’s recent article in the colonial families Special Issue of the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History he noted that these days it is more of a badge of honour than of shame to have a ‘colonial secret’ in your family.

“To someone of my generation (born 1950),” noted Penny Stevens in 2001, “to have such a genealogy is an exciting prospect and certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but I am afraid that my father‘s generation was brought up to feel it a stigma.”

In the words of Cohen ‘telling the family’s secrets works for us moderns in much the same way as keeping them did for the Victorians: it forges the bonds of kin’ (p. 248).

– Emily Manktelow

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