Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain Essay

Submitted By amyanzsa
Words: 1848
Pages: 8

Deborah Cohen’s book Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain centers on families who have kept secrets from themselves and from the public over the past two centuries. She begins with how families would keep, or try to keep, illegitimate children hidden from the public eye and even from the children themselves. Her book goes on to discuss divorce courts, mental institutions, adoption, and so forth. These all tie into the central themes of secrets, shame, and privacy. Secrets kept families together because of the shame brought on by having an illegitimate child or by having a child that had Down syndrome. By WWII these secrets that once held a family together began to tear families apart. One dreaded secret at a time. These secrets cast a dark burden amongst those who knew. It brought shame to the family name. Children have no choice as to what family they are born into, what their ethnicity will be, or if they will be poor or rich. Deborah Cohen opens her book discussing how England obtained India as one of their colonies. Men from England would go over to India to work and have children out of wedlock. If their skin was light enough they could hide the fact that the child was illegitimate. Sometimes men even lied and said the child was not theirs and that they were doing a friend a favor. English men who had the money would send their child back to England or to Scotland to get the best education. The families knew of the child’s original origin but sometimes the child themselves had no idea who their actual parent was as in the case of Margaret Stewart. The case of Margaret Stewart proved that even though a family has this dreadful secret it kept them close. Margaret herself had no idea. Her father Robert Bruce kept this secret even from his family. Eventually he revealed Margaret’s true identity to his closest relatives but for the longest time they thought she was the child of one of his colleagues. His brother, John, tried unsuccessfully to keep this a secret after Robert’s death. This was the type of secret that kept families together back in the Victorian age. Cohen divulges into the depths of the Victorian era using personal letters, autobiographies, and many other sources of evidence since these keeps come from within the families.
“Empire was a hothouse for secrets of all kinds. India was famously the place where families banished their black sheep, hoping to keep their mischief far from home. But India loosened the morals of even otherwise reputable Britons, or so it seemed to scandalized contemporaries. There were over twenty thousand British men in India at the turn of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of them unmarried.” (Cohen, 14) Illegitimacy was the most common secret amongst families at the turn of the century. Keeping a child hidden was more common than not. If a child was illegitimate it would stay hidden from the world as well as child who had mental or physical handicaps. They would be sent away so that people wouldn’t associate terrible things with the family who had those kinds of children. Lower class families did not keep their children a secret as upper class families would. Back then illegitimacy was thought to be inherited. They looked at the woman who had children out of wedlock as “sexually immoral.” Through this middle portion of the book Cohen uses a lot of personal testimony from archives as her evidence. Even though illegitimacy rates declined at the turn of the century, there were still several thousand women who had children out of wedlock and these children were sent away to be adopted. Legal adoption was not introduced until 1926. These children were given away because there was the misconception that illegitimacy could be inherited. It was in the bloodline. It was believed that it showed moral weakness and that those children who were born out of wedlock would corrupt the whole family and that the status of the family would be ruined.
“Other people, they