Book review - Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day by Deborah Cohen

Deborah Cohen’s new book shows how the middle-classes kept it all behind closed doors – until they threw them wide open

Deborah Cohen’s new book shows how the middle-classes kept it all behind closed doors – until they threw them wide open

Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day

by Deborah Cohen

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    Viking, 400pp, £20

    You should be ashamed of yourself. What a shame. It’s a crying shame. Have you no shame? Familiar phrases, all, as is the notion of shame, which supposes that there is a right and a wrong way to live. But as novelist Elizabeth Bowen pointed out 53 years ago, “Nothing changes more than the notion of what is shocking.”

    This quote, and a great many other intriguing observations, can be found in Deborah Cohen’s new book, Family Secrets. Cohen, an American academic, is the award-winning author of Household Gods, which examined the British love affair with their homes. As before, she works from the inside out, examining how societal mores have changed over the past 180 years by looking at how families coped with behaviour that others might see as wicked or indicative of grave moral flaws.

    And change they did. “Where shame for the Victorians largely accumulated around bad choices and moral failures,” writes Cohen, “their descendants would confront new forms of disgrace… Increasingly suspect and prone to blame, the families of the mid- 20th century – smaller, homogeneous, and keenly attuned to deviance – may have hid even more than the secretive Victorians they excoriated. There was, though, an important distinction between the stigmas families truly feared and those that they attributed chiefly to the prejudice of others.”

    Functionaries in India, for instance, often lived openly with their native mistresses and their mixed-race children, but back in Britain would never dare. If they brought these children (and rarely their mothers) back to the UK, notes Cohen, “their half-caste status was subtly erased, except where it could not be denied” .

    Detailed, individual vignettes are the launching points for discussions about everything from illegitimacy to adultery, birth defects to homosexuality, and it makes for fascinating reading. Cohen pulls back from individual histories to demonstrate the knock-on effect, for instance on the evolution of divorce court, and changes to adoption laws. She looks, finally, at the present- day fascination with genealogy, and how we now wear uncovered family secrets as badges of honour.

    Hers is, she acknowledges, a middle-class perspective. The lower classes, enduring crowded living conditions and regular scrutiny from the church, social services and other governmental bodies, had fewer opportunities to hide their secrets. “Keeping a secret, like keeping a servant, was one way, then, to define the middle class. It was not just a matter of ability but of inclination.”

    I would have liked more cross-class comparisons, but that’s a minor quibble about a very enjoyable social history which uses gossip to great effect, without tipping over into sensationalism. Cohen had access to new primary source material, and her lengthy references underscore the depth of her research.

    Readers are often reminded that our presumptions about the restraints of bygone eras are often mistaken. Things were not always worse in “ye olden” days. Society’s definition of normal narrowed considerably during the inter-war years: “When families hid infertility or an idiot child, it was partly because deviations from the norm appeared more shameful against the backdrop of an increasingly homogeneous set of experiences.”

    Victorians felt your past was not your business, but the family’s, thus “privacy meant keeping people out of your business; the domestic fortress was privacy’s stronghold.” A family should be transparent within and opaque from without. Because transgressions were confronted within the family, says Cohen, the Victorian reputation for repression is overrated.

    It was, however, the Victorians who established the Divorce Court in 1857 – prior to that it was virtually impossible, available only to the extremely wealthy – but its mandate was not to facilitate the dissolution of unhappy alliances, but to safeguard the sanctity of marriage. “The Court would release from the marital bond an innocent yoked to a sinner, provided of course that the victim who brought the charges in fact had no blemishes of his or her own.”

    All proceedings were published in the newspapers, an early version of naming and shaming that, they presumed, would discourage others from misbehaving. It had just the opposite effect. Once people realised that everyone was at it, they came out of the woodwork. The divorce court was inundated, and couples began colluding, leading to the creation of the Queen’s Proctor, “a public prosecutor whose sole charge was to ferret out the secrets that petitioners and their families sought to hide.”

    This tarnished the reputation of the middle class, who believed themselves to be particularly virtuous. The idea was that the upper classes were given to whoring and touring, and lower classes were prone to bigamy, illegitimacy and cruelty. The middle class even laid claim to the vote, in 1832, on the basis of their supposedly superior morality. But Britain quickly discovered that even the most mundane lives were not above reproach, which led to legal changes. From 1923 wives could divorce on the same grounds as their husbands, the poor were offered legal counsel, and, in 1926, parliament ended the practice of publishing divorce court reports in newspapers.

    The 1930s saw the rise of mass market confession – agony aunts, memoirs and marriage guidance centres. While Victorians felt family skeletons were inevitable and “as a sign of family unity, even laudable,” by the Great War the very meaning of privacy was shifting, and throughout the 1930s definitions of secrecy and privacy pulled further apart. The Daily Mirror, launching the tabloid era, ran a popular secrets section featuring letters from real people – though even here not every “sin” was confessed: tales of adultery ran rampant; stories of incest, however, were not seen.

    Back in divorce court, “From the 1930s it was not adultery that the Court punished, but the failure to confess adultery. Confession had been transformed from the means to the truth to a central purpose of the divorce court.”

    Cohen identifies the idea that transgressions should be aired not concealed, and that ridding yourself of secrets improves your life as a very modern concept. “What is noteworthy is the desire many people felt – very evident first in the 1930s, today a cultural mainstay – both to talk out loud about shameful subjects and to stake a claim to their inviolable privacy… As the line between what was sinful and what was merely socially unacceptable was being redrawn, talking and reading about other people’s secrets wasn’t just the site at which governance was made intense. It was also the way norms shifted.”

    Accepted wisdom soon held that at the heart of every social problem lay the family. The first ever Reith lecture, by Edmund Leach, in 1967, set out the idea that “the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents.”

    Ultimately, Cohen arrives at television’s Who Do You Think You Are, invented by Glaswegian Alex Graham. By sending celebrities off to discover their antecedents, the show turned amateur genealogy – roughly one third of all Britons have researched their ancestors online – into popular entertainment. It’s goal is precisely to uncover a secret, such as JK Rowling’s discovery that she comes from a long line of single mums. Today, writes Cohen, such findings are no longer dread embarrassment, but “the reward at the end of a determined search.” They point to some essential truth in one’s own make up. “The family secret that was once an indictment becomes, when exposed, the bond and also the explanation.”

    For those of us living in 21st-century Britain, Cohen concludes, “privacy is not the ability to hide but the right to tell without cost. Confessional culture marks not the end of privacy but its broadened expression: the right to be let alone shorn of the shame and secrecy.”