By David Vincent
Professor of Social History, the Open University
To follow Isaiah Berlin’s classification, Family Secrets is a hedgehog rather than a fox of a book. On the surface it is about diverse topics pursued down many archival by-ways: miscegenation, divorce, bastardy, child disability and adoption, homosexuality, the confessional press, the marriage guidance movement, feminism and gay liberation. But at its heart is one big, resonant theme. The question is the evolving relationship between privacy and secrecy from the Victorian era to the recent past. The answer is that where once secrecy was seen as the ‘handmaiden’ and the ‘bulwark’ of privacy, over time first secrecy becomes opposed to privacy, then privacy itself is tarred with the negative connotations of concealment. Transparency about relationships becomes the condition of personal fulfilment.
What Deborah Cohen has recognised is that both privacy and secrecy are forms of blocked communication. The proliferating conceptual and legal debate about privacy has at its centre some sense of patrolling the boundaries of the personal archive. And whether it is undertaken by governments, groups or individuals, keeping secrets requires the prevention of access to information. In both cases there is an erotic excitement in exposure. The most obvious distinction is not one of process but of value. Privacy’s closure is a necessary virtue; secrecy’s obstruction is at best a necessary vice. The insight of Family Secrets is that this contrast is both historically specific and inherently unstable.
The book provides a new narrative arc for the history of the modern family and raises questions that go well beyond its immediate purpose. In particular it focuses attention on the complex relation between the individual and the social in the definition and management of privacy. This has been at issue down the long centuries since the medieval courts gave protection to urban households from invasion by noise, sight or smell, and men and women began to seek quiet places for reflection, reading and prayer. Where the stress is on withdrawal from society, on the ‘right to be let alone’ as it was defined by Thomas Cooley and Warren and Brandeis at the end of the nineteenth century, the information that is protected is implicitly self-referential, and the road is open to the assertion of privacy as a form of personal autonomy that Deborah Cohen observes rather than commends. But where the emphasis is on sustaining intimate relationships there remains an agenda of managed communication between trusted partners. It is a matter of protected space and time, ‘sanctuaries from the gaze of the crowd in which slow mutual self-disclosure is possible’ as Jeffrey Rosen puts it. The family in this case, whether the sprawling Victorian patriarchy, or the tight mid-twentieth-century unit, or the transitory modern domestic arrangement, is just one locus of the social networks that flourish on the basis of confidences shared only between their members. What Family Secrets implies is that we are further from striking a stable balance between the personal and the intimate than we have ever been.