Viking, £20

Review: Family Secrets, By Deborah Cohen

 

Victorians were the very model of English secrecy, covering up everything – starting with table-legs, as we know.

As we also know, historians love to demolish our most cherished beliefs. Deborah Cohen demolishes this one, and springs several other surprises. Did you know that for nearly half its 150-year life the Divorce Court awarded divorce to innocent partners only, and punished adulterous ones by making them stay married?

Cohen's book considers key trouble spots: the consequences of Empire (illegitimacy and race); divorce; mental deficiency; illegitimacy and adoption; and homosexuality. In the first, there are few surprises: with money and social standing, men could get their white bastards accepted, but black (ie Eurasian) ones, never.

The chapter on divorce is a comedy, or rather tragedy, of unintended consequences: the aim of punishing adulterers led to lying and collusion. The foundations for consensual divorce were laid down only in the 1940s, when factors such as the welfare of the children were at last allowed to count.

Cohen's chapter on illegitimacy and adoption charts a similar progress from the punishment of adults – mothers again – to the care of children. That on mental deficiency I found the saddest, and most extraordinary. The story of the Langdon Down family, of whom two generations cared for mentally handicapped children (hence Down's syndrome), is an astounding tale of secrets and lies on its own.

This chapter and that on homosexuality are the main loci of Cohen's argument that the Victorians were more tolerant of deviance than later generations, rather than less. The book sits a bit uneasily between academic argument and colourful story-telling. Wider lessons – that hope makes us kinder than knowledge, that however often punishment is shown to be the worst policy, it will be tried again – are not explored. Cohen also avoids the obvious question: What are we ashamed of now? But overall this is an impressive piece of history; best leave the present to others.

Order for £18 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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