“He has an easy grace, a birthright, like all of those of his class, suave sophistication and certainty of their own superiority being served up alongside their morning milk.”
The Hidden Child, by Louise Fein, tells the story of a well-to-do family living in leafy Surrey towards the end of the 1920s. The patriarch, Edward Hamilton, is a respected scientist with a particular interest in eugenics. His wife, Eleanor, supports her husband in his thinking. Her mother was murdered by a man who had suffered severely all his life due to mental health issues. When the couple’s young daughter, Mabel, starts having seizures, they must face the personal consequences of policies they have been vocally promoting as for the wider good.
The story opens on the day of Mabel’s first seizure. This enables the reader to see how gilded the Hamilton’s lives had been. Eleanor has taken the pony and trap to the local railway station to pick up her younger sister, Rose, who has been touring Europe as a way to complete her education. Edward has been supporting his sister-in-law financially but now hopes to find her a suitable husband. He and his wife are horrified to discover she has indulged in a liaison with a French artist. Rose, it turns out, has developed certain socialist leanings.
Friends, neighbours and colleagues are introduced at house parties, conferences and other meetings. These characters and their conversation serve to portray how the privileged view what they regard as the lower orders. With the advent of birth control and a growing demand to have their opinions listened to, wealthier women are choosing to have fewer babies. The eugenics movement draws support from those who observe how the poorer in society continue to have large families, and that they are believed more likely to develop criminal or other deviant behaviours due to inherited low IQs. Edward lectures and writes papers promoting possible solutions, which include incarceration of those with supposed defects alongside their sterilisation.
Edward suffers vivid nightmares that stem from his experiences during the war. He is a decorated hero but knows the truth of what happened in the trenches. This is not his only secret. Although accepted by polite society due to his education and subsequent career success, his background is not as salubrious as his peers may assume. Eleanor, although falling into a degree of hardship following the deaths of her brothers and parents, had a more privileged upbringing.
All of this adds depth due to the issues being explored within the story of a family in crisis. The eugenics movement believed good genes were key and that inheritable diseases could be eradicated by curbing procreation amongst those with defects. Epilepsy was on their list of conditions. For the sake of his work, and to protect Eleanor and their new baby, Mabel’s existence must become another of Edward’s dark secrets.
A loving mother and loyal wife, Eleanor struggles with the decisions Edward makes, especially when she discovers some of what he has kept hidden from her since they first met. With a potential knighthood on the cards, Edward ploughs on with the work he truly believes in. Eleanor starts to question all she had once viewed as certain – the sanctity of marriage and family, the efficacy of her husband’s research, the dehumanising of the ill and the poor – and must make some difficult choices.
I had some familiarity with the eugenics movement in England but this tale opened up just how prevalent such thinking became throughout the western world at the time, especially within circles of power and philanthropy. What is most chilling is how it still lingers, even after what is now known of the genocide in Nazi Germany. The current state of affairs in America makes this horrifically relevant.
A story, then, of a privileged family but one that digs deeper than much historical fiction. It is all the more effective for avoiding polemic and politics, presenting behaviours as perfectly normal during the time it is set. Although engaging and easy to read, it asks difficult questions around even the well intentioned plans for societal improvement – the effectiveness of state interventions and how this may be measured. Eleanor and Edward trusted the experts without considering fully how scientific knowledge is constantly changing, how research is skewed to ‘prove’ desired outcomes.
Much may have changed in the past century but the prejudices that drove the eugenics movement sadly remain. Fiction such as this has the potential to encourage readers to think about issues that do not have clear cut and easy answers, within the framework of a compelling tale.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Head of Zeus.