In her previous book, Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions (Yale University Press, 2006), Deborah Cohen took us into the homes of Britons and examined their relation to their habitat and its artifacts from 1830 onwards. In her new book, Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain (Oxford University Press, 2013), Cohen focuses on the family cupboard of skeletons. As she airs its content, she asks what families tried to conceal in the past and why. Her journey begins in the eighteenth century, in the vast imperial lands of India where men attempted to hide their local wives and children from relatives back in Britain. Cohen then travels to mid-nineteenth century Britain and enters the Divorce Court where she traces how dissolving unhappy marriages came at the price of publicly exposing domestic failure. The heart of the book beats most ardently in three chapters that consider how families dealt with disability, adoption and homosexuality from the Victorian period till the 1970s. Cohen brings to life the hushed voices of heartbroken mothers, adoptive parents and children who didn’t live up to society’s standards. Cohen ends the book with an examination of the rise of the modern confessional culture from the 1930s through the 1970s.
The book situates secrets as a category in flux. It traces the role of families in the transformation of social norms from the Victorian era to the present day. Families are portrayed as active historical agents whose struggles to conceal and live with shameful details often softened social stigma such as that attached to illegitimacy, adultery or homosexuality. Cohen records how secrecy was transformed from a pervasive practice to its rejection as harmful. Cohen demonstrates insightfully how while secrecy was derided, privacy became entangled with personal freedom and public confession is championed as an avenue to greater happiness.