Book Review: Family secrets (and some Victorian art)

I thought I would do something a little different this Friday, combine a book review with some Victorian art.


I have finished reading the most fascinating book called Family Secrets: Living with shame from the Victorians to the present day by Deborah Cohen (published 2013).  I would highly recommend this book to anyone interesting in the social history of Great Britain from the Victorian era onwards. It is not hard read but it is full of the most intriguing stories of what these families were willing to do to hide their secrets.  I will admit I did struggle to put this book down!!

We currently live in a society with very few secrets -- where the unmarried girl next door has a baby and everyone knows about it -- when the couple down the street gets divorced, no one is really surprised -- when a gay couple move in together, its accepted as normal. We gossip about these things, they appear on Facebook, in magazines, on TV (in reality shows) and most accept them as the norm with no desire to keep them secret.  We no longer have any shame or embarrassment, in fact we are often very eager to share family "going-ons". 

Painting by Henry Treffry Dunn in 1882
However, in previous centuries and well into the 20th century, families were very good at creating and keeping families secrets for many many decades (sometimes for several generations).  These families would do almost anything to keep the rest of society from finding out their "secret", whether that be an illegitimate child, a divorce, abusive husband, an affair, a disable child, a homosexual family member, even financial difficulties.  These were all considered to bring shame or embarrassment upon the family and possibly bring down a family, making it almost impossible for them to mix in polite society and to do business.  Sadly, the children (and often the mothers of these children) were hidden away, many forgotten and suffered badly. Even worse the children who suffered from physical and mental disabilities, placed in homes and removed from their families as if they didn't exist.

Just think of the book Jane Eyre and the woman hidden in the attic and who was the father of the little girl Adele in Jane Eyre?  

Poorer families didn't have the financial resources to hide family secrets and they lived in such close proximity to each others, everyone knew everyones business. They were also often in the sights of "authorises", whether that be government or church, making it even harder to keep their business private. However grandmothers suddenly had a "new" baby, or they became an "aunt" when a child was born illegitimately. Many single girls handed their babies over to maternity homes and never saw them again (often adopted illegally by the rich). A young single girl with a baby wouldn't be able to find work and she and her baby would end up in the workhouse - life was almost impossible for these young girls, they had very few choices.  The men who made them pregnant pay no such heavy toll.

Painting by William Powell Frith
Whilst shame on families should have been a deterrent, it didn't stop young men from "playing around" and getting girls pregnant with many a family paying the cost.   It didn't stop husbands having affairs and setting up second homes for their mistress and illegitimate children. It didn't stop homosexuality, that just went underground, it didn't stop divorce, it didn't stop the brothels (gentleman's clubs) etc...  As a results families became even better at hiding their secrets and worried for years that they may be found out.  The imagine of the Victorian family with its high Christian morals perhaps was an illusion for some, dig a deeper as Cohen does in this book and many of the great families of Britain held many a secret (or two) that they didn't want exposed. 

A excellent read.  Five stars. 


  1. Yes. I am always surprised the Victorians are held in such high regard in Christian circles. They had a very grubby underside & many of the really juicy family members ended up in South Africa ~ which makes fascinating reading too. I will have to look this one up, Jo. Thanks for sharing.

  2. There is a sordid side to every part of history - we live in a fallen world - however, the Victorian era has also been romanticised, and it is that side of it that people generally love and find fascinating. The façade that is often presented does seem quite interesting and good in that people often appeared to have had more honour than in other times of history. And yet the sinfulness of man has never changed and the Victorians were not exempt. Today that sinfulness is often not hidden but rather out in the open - I don't know whether that is an advantage or disadvantage because it certainly hasn't resulted in less sin... the fact that it is so open has possibly made it more widely acceptable, which in turn has led to a sense of apathy and a lukewarm-ness towards right and wrong that is abhorrent in God's eyes.

    1. As I was reading this book I also pondered the question of whether keeping some of these things secret was good or not. Sadly children and mothers really did suffer and it didn't stop men from making girls pregnant. But I do think though that we share far too much information these days (swinging in the other direction) - reality TV, Facebook even when gossiping. Somethings don't need to be hung out on the clotheslines. However the treatment of the disable was very sad and that has now come such a long way which is excellent.


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