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Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day (Themes In British Social History) [Kindle Edition]

Deborah Cohen
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A Sunday Telegraph and Times Higher Education 'Book of the Week', Deborah Cohen's Family Secrets is a gripping book about what families - Victorian and modern - try to hide, and why.

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 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.

Product Description


A well-researched, timely and absorbing book, it challenges many of our prejudices about how our immediate ancestors thought, and invites us to enquire more closely into how and when and why families keep secrets and guard their privacy. (Hilary Mantel)

A 'book of marvels'. What marks out Family Secrets as an important book is not so much its breadth as its depth ... the result is a clear sighted investigation into what our forebears felt was private, and what they kept secret. (Kathryn Hughes Guardian)

Scrupulous research with cool analysis and a humane intelligence (Financial Times)

Fascinating reading (The Scotsman)

A fact-packed and fascinating history of secret-keeping (Evening Standard)

Cohen is a formidable researcher, and she narrates the stories she has uncovered with infectious delight. A find (Judith Flanders Sunday Telegraph)

An excellent and illuminating book. . . [It is] in the fastidious detail that her book comes alive (Salley Vickers Observer)

The history of secrets and their relation to the family turns out to be far more complex and vastly more interesting than might be imagined. Family Secrets is thought-provoking, well-written and remorselessly intelligent. . . an important book (The Spectator)

A stylishly written, multilayered, broad-sweep book . . . essential reading for students on history, sociology and social policy courses . . . at a time when family "breakdown" is a matter of public concern, this book casts an illuminating light on a complex issue (Times Higher Ed (Book of the Week))

A riveting study of secrecy and shame (Daily Mail)

A rich and rewarding study. Cohen is an accomplished scholar and reconstructs the lives she uncovers in the archives with empathy and imagination (Literary Review)

A riveting book that is both a history of aspects of British culture that are swept under the carpet and a meditation on the relationship between secrecy and privacy (Joanna Bourke BBC History Magazine)

Everyone who reads this lucid book - a memorable sentence on every page - will understand their world more clearly (History Today)

An impressive piece of history (Independent)

Deborah Cohen opens up the role of the family . . . raising new questions and perspectives in this mysterious, important area of history (Times Literary Supplement)

A thoughtful critique of privacy . . . blows apart our patronising attitude towards the Victorian family (Jane Ridley Spectator)

Rigorous and relevant (TLS 'Books of the Year')

Pries open the most astounding archives to uncover what our recent ancestors tried to hide (Sunday Times 'Books of the Year')

About the Author

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.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 4095 KB
  • Print Length: 367 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (9 Jan. 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #171,769 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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More About the Author

Born into a family with its own fair share of secrets, Deborah Cohen was educated at Harvard and Berkeley. She teaches British history at Northwestern University, where she holds the Ritzma Professorship of the Humanities.

Her last book was the award-winning Household Gods, a history of the British love-affair with the home.

Her website is She tweets from @deborahacohen.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Name and shame 23 Feb. 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I read this book avidly. Perhaps only an American academic could have been objective about the topic of British society and secrets, and how especially interesting it is in the age of Leveson. There is inevitably a considerable amount of repetition, and occasional undergraduate essay-style conclusions to early chapters where preceding information is rehashed and which feels like padding, but Cohen has done a formidable amount of research - there are nearly a hundred pages of references and bibliography. She lucidly explains how Britain evolved from a society which kept secrets to protect family members to one obsessed with reality tv and misery memoirs - one in which mentally ill family members would be hidden away to one in which every celebrity wants to proclaim their bipolar state. My father's secret situation - born illegitimately, brought up believing his grandparents were his parents and his mother was his aunt until he was 18, at which point he ran away to sea and became an alcoholic, renouncing his mother so that I was unaware I had two living grandmothers - was apparently by no means unusual, and Deborah Cohen's careful unpicking of the social factors which created this sort of family saga, and others involving idiocy, homosexuality, etc., is fascinating, as is her analysis of our journey from secrecy to privacy - she describes her book succinctly at one point: 'It puts thousands of hidden-away familial encounters alongside the public-turning-points of protest movements and new laws to argue for the significance of an intimate history of why social mores changed'. And indeed, the various protest movements of the 60s, the emergence of R. D. Laing and the new ideas about parents being not beyond reproach but responsible for each new generation's misery, did much to change laws and attitudes. Read more ›
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Chequered family history 2 Jun. 2013
By reader 451 TOP 1000 REVIEWER
It is surely a feat of research to have been able to bring to light so many long-hidden family stories. Not only were these intended to remain secret, but the lives of ordinary people are rarely the object of the kind of record-keeping official acts attract. Deborah Cohen seems to have been able to force her way into hitherto close archives, such as the collected correspondence of the Normansfield institution for mentally handicapped children. Diaries, divorce court records, letters salvaged from attics somewhere form the rest of her sources, alongside press clippings and more conventional sociological literature. Family Secrets also has merit for the sheer curiosity, the prurient interest it manages to invoke. Ranging from the life stories of the mixed-race children of India Company officers to scandalous divorce cases of the late Victorian era, and to the hidden and illegal adoptions almost openly mediated by such institutions as the Mission of Hope in the 1920s, the book makes for good reading. The chapter on Normansfield and mentally handicapped children is particularly poignant. And the chapter on bachelor uncles, gay men concealing their sexual orientation, is the only one perhaps lacking in originality.

The problem with Family Secrets, however, has to do with its consistency as a cultural history book. The topics discussed change alongside the chronological framework, so that one type of family secret is never comparable to the next. It seems Cohen's wider point is that family privacy was respected under the Victorians because they had a strong sense of shame. This created a space for deviance from the norm, and could help people live with difference - in accepting a half-Indian sibling, for example, or providing at home for a mentally handicapped child.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Family Secrets in changing times 31 Mar. 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I read this book against the backdrop of my adult daughter and her close friend trawling through Facebook to find out whether a rumour they'd heard about a school friend was true or not - it wasn't, but it certainly leant weight to Deborah Cohen's affirmation that there is a difference between privacy and secrecy. As an amateur genealogist I have delved into the papers of the late 19th century and wondered how some of those whose actions were written about continued to live in their tight-knit communities with little opportunity of escaping their past misdemeanours, but of course they just had to, particularly if they were poor.

The subjects of this book tend to be the middle-classes, those who had the money and the means to hide their secrets or at least have some measure of control over how much of their secrets were exposed. The book starts in the late 18th century detailing the ways that men who had relations with women in India integrated their sons and daughters into society. Deborah Cohen then moves through the decades detailing those secrets that were important to their times; divorce, mental disabilities, adoption and homosexuality alongside careful explanation of popular views of the times, laws and the importance to the family that these were either kept secret or not.

The last section deals with the views of RD Laing and how his views helped to change society's view of the family to the re-drawing of boundaries about what today is viewed to be privacy and an individual's right to keep secrets which is not the same as the requirement to keep the family secrets.

This is a fascinating and accessible way of presenting social history, well researched using some previously closed records it is well written has enlightened me about each of the areas covered.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars a very good insight into our victorian forefathers especially how they...
a very good insight into our victorian forefathers especially how they treated their mentally ill
Published 17 days ago by annie
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Good item, fast delivery, excellent communication, many thanks
Published 6 months ago by Karen Robinson
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Walking in other worlds - very well written. Just creates an earge to go family tree tracing!
Published 6 months ago by Elizabeth Moon
2.0 out of 5 stars Little surprise here
I found this book disappointing - the author had not gone into the subject very deeply and gave only a few desultory examples under predictable categories ( divorce, illegitimacy,... Read more
Published 12 months ago by pecheur
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read
I enjoyed reading this book and it has come in very useful for research purposes. One of those books one can just keep dipping into
Published 14 months ago by Mollie Lyons
4.0 out of 5 stars Wide ranging
An easy read with lots of interesting tit-bits of information. Outlines much sadness and prejudice in the past and one wonders just how much there is today.
Published 17 months ago by Mr. John F. Marcham
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting
This is a very interesting study on how social attitudes have changed over the centuries to such things as illegitimacy, divorce, adoption, disabilities, homosexuality etc. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Mungo
4.0 out of 5 stars excellent review of social history of divorce, mental illness,...
this is an interesting read which gives the reader a really good perspective on how we got to where we are in regards to divorce, mental illness, homosexuality conduct in society. Read more
Published 21 months ago by mgrinyer
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent slice of social history
This book is a fantastic illustration of how social attitudes to issues such as illegitimacy, adoption, divorce, disability and homosexuality have changed since the Victorian era. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Edward Kent
4.0 out of 5 stars A very interegin read
This is a very erudite book full of interesting facts about family life and I found it very useful for a presentation I had to prepare
Published 23 months ago by Mrs. L. Tischler
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