In an Edinburgh town house, a genteel maiden lady frets with her brother over their niece’s downy upper lip. Would the darkening shadow betray the girl’s Eurasian (Half Indian and European) heritage? On a Liverpool railway platform, a heartbroken mother hands over her eight-year old illegitimate son for adoption. She had dressed him carefully that morning in a sailor suit and cap. In a town in the Cotswolds, a vicar brings to his bank vault a diary – sewed up in calico, wrapped in parchment – that chronicles his sexual longings for other men.
Drawing upon years of research in previously sealed records, the prize-winning historian Deborah Cohen offers a sweeping and often surprising account of how shame has changed over the last two centuries. Both a story of family secrets and of how they were revealed, this book journeys from the frontier of empire, where British adventurers made secrets that haunted their descendants for generations, to the confessional vanguard of modern-day genealogy two centuries later. It explores personal, apparently idiosyncratic, decisions: hiding an adopted daughter’s origins, taking a disabled son to a garden party, talking ceaselessly (or not at all) about a homosexual uncle.
In delving into the familial dynamics of shame and guilt, Family Secrets investigates the part that families, so often regarded as the agents of repression, have played in the transformation of social mores from the Victorian era to the present day. Written with compassion and keen insight, this is a bold new argument about the sea-changes that took place behind closed doors.
Born into a family with its own fair share of secrets, Deborah Cohen was raised in Kentucky and educated at Harvard and Berkeley.She teaches at Northwestern University, where she holds the Peter B. Ritzma Professorship of the Humanities.Her last book was the award-winning Household Gods, a history of the British love-affair with the home.