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Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day

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Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day

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    Available in PDF Format | Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day.pdf | English
    Deborah Cohen(Author)

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.

Praise for Family Secrets:

'Absorbing. 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', 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.' Guardian

'Scrupulous research with cool analysis and a humane intelligence' Financial Times

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.

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')

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3.2 (12536)
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Book details

  • PDF | 400 pages
  • Deborah Cohen(Author)
  • Viking (9 Jan. 2013)
  • English
  • 3
  • History

Review Text

  • By K. Golding on 23 February 2013

    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. What is unclear, and everyone will have their own opinion on this, is whether the changes we thought so liberating at the time were not, but merely a different sort of prison for the self. A thought-provoking book which will make you look at your parents, and theirs, and your children, and wonder what you could all have done differently - and better, and make you wonder whether what the neighbours or facebook 'friends' think will always more important than the family...

  • By Kernow13 on 21 January 2017

    This is a well written, interesting and informative book and overall is a enjoyable read. Written by an American, who appears to have developed a remarkable insight into British cultural history and writes like a genuine Briton. The book covers some really interesting, largely previous uncovered new ground. It begins with stories from the day of the British Empire in India, then covers divorce, illegitimacy, learning disabled children and homosexuality. They are all written well, but regrettably the premise of each chapter changes - so what you start with on commencing the book is not necessarily what you get as you finish it.The days when single Britons went to create empire and ended up with mixed-race illegitimate children is exceptionally well told. Beginning in the 18th century and covering the Victorian era in some detail was very well done. Diaries, letters and family research brings real human stories to life with sensitivity and engages you straight away. This style is largely maintained, but moves to almost exclusively the nineteenth century - which is disappointing. Stories of divorce, shamed parents grieving for incarcerated disabled children, illegitimate children placed for adoption and the struggle of homosexual men for self expression in a world of hostile repression is well done. On one occasion, I thought she sailed too close to the muddle that homosexuality and Paedophilia are the same, which was a real pity.She then seems to move from the specific to the general without any warning and describes in detail the political develop of divorce and the psychoanalytic approach to family and individual psychotherapy. She also became focused on celebrity and the famous. This wasn't what I was looking for and is done better elsewhere. The details of ordinary people leading ordinary lives got lost. For me to have award a 5-star review I would have wanted more consistent individual family stories and an historical depth back beyond the Victorian era. However, having said, that I still enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone with a history in family or social history, particularly those looking for background context to their own stories.

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