Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain

Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain

by Deborah Cohen

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We live today in a culture of full disclosure, where tell-all memoirs top the best-seller lists, transparency is lauded, and privacy seems imperiled. But how did we get here?

Exploring scores of previously sealed records, Family Secrets offers a sweeping account of how shame—and the relationship between secrecy and openness—has changed over the last

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We live today in a culture of full disclosure, where tell-all memoirs top the best-seller lists, transparency is lauded, and privacy seems imperiled. But how did we get here?

Exploring scores of previously sealed records, Family Secrets offers a sweeping account of how shame—and the relationship between secrecy and openness—has changed over the last two centuries in Britain. Deborah Cohen uses detailed sketches of individual families as the basis for comparing different sorts of social stigma. She takes readers inside an Edinburgh town house, where a genteel maiden frets with her brother over their niece's downy upper lip, a darkening shadow that might betray the girl's Eurasian heritage; to a Liverpool railway platform, where a heartbroken mother hands over her eight-year old illegitimate son for adoption; to a town in the Cotswolds, where a queer vicar brings to his bank vault a diary—sewed up in calico, wrapped in parchment—that chronicles his sexual longings. Cohen explores what families in the past chose to keep secret and why. She excavates the tangled history of privacy and secrecy to explain why privacy is now viewed as a hallowed right while secrets are condemned as destructive.

In delving into the dynamics of shame and guilt, Family Secrets explores 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Deborah Cohen's Family Secrets is one of those rare histories that is as moving as it is intellectually challenging. Cohen wears her theoretical sophistication and depth of scholarship lightly, but has produced a striking example of a historical practice that ranges across histories of society, culture, politics, and economy, and makes the family central to broad processes of historical change." —Matt Houbrook, History Workshop Journal

"Compulsively readable. Cohen is as skilled a wordsmith as she is a scholar, and her story about the changing contours of secrecy is told through eloquent detail." —Sarah Igo, History Workshop Journal

"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. Cohen shows that the act of navigating between social and legal norms, everyday life and emotional worlds was itself a driver of change." —Claire Langhamer, History Workshop Journal

"Provides a new narrative arc for the history of the modern family and raises questions that go well beyond its immediate purpose." —David Vincent, History Workshop Journal

"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, author of Bring Up the Bodies

" [A] rollicking read through the hidden land of cultural morality and its fundamental institution, the family....intimate questions of how families defend and protect themselves become the block from which Cohen chisels a majestic book." —S. Lochlann Jain, Public Books

"Deborah Cohen's richly researched, wonderfully comprehensive, and incisive thematic study of British family secrets from the eighteenth century to the present reminds us that familiarity is always inextricably bound up with hidden histories of relationship. This book is a triumph of new social and cultural history, making us de-naturalize that most natural of our social units, the family unit. The book is a major contribution to our understanding of what it is to be a social person in the modern world." —Margot Finn, University College London

"With empathy and compassion Deborah Cohen brings her characters to life and through them offers a daringly original meditation on the shifting functions of secrecy and disclosure in British society. The result is a remarkably original study of great eloquence and insight." —Chris Waters, Williams College

"Family Secrets makes use of Cohen's eye for detail, human understanding, and writer's touch to craft a new synthetic narrative of private life in an arc of two hundred years from the later eighteenth century to the near present."—Journal of Modern History

"Cohen is certainly a talented writer, but she is an even better judge of what piques the curiosity of the masses" —5 stars San Francisco Book Review

"it reads like a guilty pleasure." San Francisco Book Review

"Family Secrets is history so beautiful and compelling, intimate and grand, generous in its empathy and unsentimental in its analysis, that you'll find yourself reading it out loud to your own family. Cohen explains the cruel alchemy that transmogrified beloved mixed race children of British nabobs in India into shameful Scottish secrets; why interwar Divorce Courts became confessionals for loquacious philanderers while parents hid their disabled children in institutions; the price 'bachelor uncles' paid for family love and feminists for 'consciousness-raising' revelations. This bravura performance makes sense of the dialectical dance of secrecy and openness, silence and speaking, privacy and permissiveness, shame and liberation in making modern Britain." —Seth Koven, author of Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London

"Deborah Cohen's Family Secrets takes us out of the streets and into the closets and archives where secrets have been both kept and disclosed, showing over and over again that truth is stranger than fiction. We now consider secrets repressive while cherishing privacy as an individual right, but Cohen returns us to a time when secrets and privacy went hand in hand, helped families cohere, and could even promote greater acceptance of difference. In chapters that are gems of archival ingenuity and subtle argumentation, Cohen politely demolishes received wisdom, deftly framing a genealogy of our confessional present that honors the complexity and strangeness of the past." -Sharon Marcus, author of Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England

"scrupulous research with cool analysis and a humane intelligence" —Henry Hitchings, Financial Times

"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 - and most importantly, the difference between the two." —Kathryn Hughes, Guardian

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Product Details

Oxford University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

Meet the Author

Deborah Cohen is Ritzma Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Northwestern University. She is the author of Household Gods: The British and their Possessions and The War Come Home: Disabled Ex-Servicemen in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939.

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