Family Secrets is a book that takes everyday family strategies seriously. Rather than dismissing secret-keeping as symptomatic of dysfunctional past lives, Cohen explores the utility of secrets across a range of sites and moments. The book is built around questions of motivation – why were secrets kept, who kept them and through what mechanisms were they managed? Change over time is of course crucial to a book that spans two centuries. While there is clear historical movement here – broadly from secrecy to disclosure – the author refuses to present this shift as an unproblematic narrative of linear progress.
The story of intimate secrecy does not always unfurl as we might expect; unintended consequences abound and overlapping currents and counter currents provide a story of constant, but unpredictable, motion. It is striking, for example, that interwar parents were far more secretive about, and unaccepting of, mentally disabled children than were their Victorian predecessors. As Cohen puts it, ‘secrecy tends to run in circles rather than straight lines’. Secrecy is also, in this reading, contingent. It was an evolving response to new sets of circumstances and required ways of being in the world. Certainly, as we move from the secret children of imperial couples and the disclosure of the divorce court, through stories of mental disability, adoption and homosexuality, and on to the rise of modern confessional culture, it is clear that the recent valorisation of transparency is just as historically specific as was any earlier emphasis upon concealment.
The way complex family lives are ventilated is a particular strength of the book. Cohen has amassed an impressive range of divergent source material and uses it with sensitivity to tell many individual stories – each fully contextualised – within one larger overarching narrative. There is no sense here of illustration for its own sake. Many of these stories are deeply moving, not least because the complexity of individual motivation is so well mapped. The willingness of some British people to quietly side-step prescribed ways of being, when they conflicted with their own experience is striking. The power of silence as a tool for subversion, as well as oppression, is apparent throughout. So too are the unintended consequences of state intervention within private lives – the role of the Queen’s/King’s Proctor within the divorce courts is a particularly good example.
Of course the book is not simply a history of secrecy. Secrecy is explored within the context of the shifting meaning of privacy. Both are considered as historically dynamic concepts with distinct but interlinked histories. Within the first part of the period secrecy could be an essential strategy for the maintenance of privacy, in the second part it became a damaging obstacle to a privacy ‘defined as the right to live as you wish.’ Nonetheless for me the strength of this book rests in its claims about the role of lived experience in the re-making of social mores. Cohen shows that the act of navigating between social and legal norms, everyday life and emotional worlds was itself a driver of change. By attending to ‘the sea-changes that took place behind closed doors’, Cohen demonstrates how private lives and public discourse were in constant, if sometimes rather discreet, dialogue.