THE HIDDEN CHILD
Londoners Eleanor and Edward Hamilton have wealth, status, and a happy marriage—but the 1929 financial crash is looming, and they’re harboring a terrible, shameful secret. How far are they willing to go to protect their charmed life—even if it means abandoning their child to a horrific fate?
Eleanor Hamilton is happily married and mother to a beautiful four-year-old girl, Mabel. Her wealthy husband, Edward, a celebrated war hero, is a leading light in the burgeoning Eugenics movement—the very ideas that will soon be embraced by Hitler—and is increasingly important in designing education policy for Great Britain.
But when Edward and Eleanor’s otherwise perfectly healthy daughter develops debilitating epileptic seizures, their world fractures. Mabel’s shameful illness must be hidden or Edward’s life’s work will be in jeopardy and the family’s honour will be shattered.
When Eleanor discovers Edward has been keeping secrets, she calls into question everything she believed about genetic inferiority, and her previous unshakeable faith in her husband disintegrates. Alarmed, distressed, and no longer able to bear the family’s burden, she takes matters into her own hands.
Inspired by the author’s personal experience, The Hidden Child illuminates the moral and ethical issues of an era shaped by xenophobia, prejudice, fear, and well-intentioned yet flawed science. Vividly rendered, deeply affecting, and impeccably researched, Louise Fein’s new historical novel is a sweeping story and a richly drawn portrait of a family torn apart by shame, deceit, and dangerous ideals.
Much of Louise’s childhood was spent with her nose in a book, or escaping the mundane of everyday life in the vastly more interesting world of her imagination, although writing was always just a hobby, as in adulthood she needed to earn a living and had never once considered it could be a career.
After finishing university, she took some time out to travel, qualified as a lawyer and worked in finance. Life became busy with a career, husband and three children and she had little time for writing. But the bug wouldn’t leave her alone, so she took an evening class in creative writing at the CityLit and thought one day.
By now running her own consultancy business, one day came when Louise saw an advertisement for a master’s degree in creative writing, aimed at writing a first novel, at St. Mary’s University, London. She signed up for it, certain she could get a novel written within the year, and then go back to her job.
Of course, the year turned into a few, but the result was People Like Us (Daughter of the Reich in the USA) and since then she has not looked back. Louise considers herself incredibly lucky in having a supportive spouse and she now writes full time around family commitments. The Hidden Child is her second novel.
Louise lives in Surrey with her husband, children and small dog Bonnie, who is the best writing companion, always at her side when she writes and willing to listen most patiently when she needs to talk through a tricky plot problem.
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“This is a narrative borne of my own experiences raising a child with epilepsy. When looking into the history of the condition, I was horrified to read of the treatment that those with epilepsy faced as well as its ties to the wider eugenics movement. I hope to raise awareness of epilepsy and the still prevailing stigma as well as of the eugenics movement and its lasting impact on our world today”
PART ONE – JULY 1928 – ELEANOR
Mabel grips Eleanor’s arm tight as the bowl fast along the country lane, Dilly’s hooves kicking dust into sultry July air. Limbs of the trees which stand like sentries beside the lane reach out and curl above them, joining like the high arches of a cathedral to form a cool green canopy, shading the little pony and trap and its occupants from the fierce heat of the afternoon sun. ‘Faster!’ giggles Mabel, glancing up at her mother with sparkling eyes. ‘Make Dilly go faster!’ She turns back to look at the road, laughing with glee as the wind lifts her curls, almost translucent where the sunlight catches them, her little bottom bouncing with excitement on the seat beside her mother.
Eleanor steadies the reins in her hands. There is a creak of leather and the faint tang of equine sweat. The pony is trotting fast enough for this heat. Besides, they are plenty early enough to meet the 4.25 from London. ‘Dilly can’t go any faster, Mabel,’ Eleanor answers. ‘It’s too hot. And besides, she’s quite old now, so it wouldn’t be fair.’ Dilly’s chestnut sides are darkening with sweat, but she maintains her fast pace, pulling eagerly against Eleanor’s hands; ears pricked, head raised, as though she is as elated as Eleanor at the thought of Rose coming home. Happiness swells as she thinks of her sister’s reaction when she shares her news. News even Edward doesn’t know yet.
“But still… Edward carries the whiff of new money about him, something the Americans rejoice in, but the English aristocracy regard with varying degrees of disdain and suspicion”
“Lord Henry Grant-Parker jumps down from the car and walks languidly around to open the driver’s door for his wife. 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”
‘So, if we are no longer allowed to see Mabel, and we must keep her very existence quiet for fear of her whereabouts being discovered, why don’t we simply imagine she is dead/ She may as well be.’ Her words shatter inside him like a pane of glass. Dead. Mabel, dead, in all respects but fact. She is not in their lives any more, nor is she ever likely to be again, however much he dresses that up now. Eleanor has put into words what they both know, but he has been too cowardly to say, or even think. The sooner they both accept this, he supposes, the better.”
“People treated Edward differently when they considered him to be brave and worthy and he wallowed in their respect. For the first time in his life, he mattered”
“This is his life’s work, not Eleanor’s, and sometimes things must be done for the sake of the greater good. A little bit of tweaking of the data to prove what they all know is correct isn’t so wrong, is it?”
“Lies have a habit of catching up with people, you know.” She stares at him, unblinking, then, through lips stretched thin, she says, “The truth, Edward, is a platform that will never let you down.” With that she turns and slams her way out of the room, leaving Edward staring after her, his drink resting in one hand.
“He’s never believed in fate. But it seems he was wrong. His two worlds are colliding as though they were meant to all along, and he has been powerless to stop them. He has done a terrible wrong and this, in the end, is how he is to be punished”
“Mon Dieu, I don’t. But I know something of the human condition. And that, my friend, is to ignore the mess we make of things and to merely hope everything will somehow turn out OK in the end. But for sure it never does”
“Will the truth destroy everything?”
OMG! I am almost at a loss for words and that’s unusual for me! There were times when I really didn’t think I would be able to finish reading this book. However on reflection, now that it is over, I truly believe this to be my best storyline of 2022 so far and a ‘must read’ for any historical or social history, fiction fan.
My often bumpy journey, evoked just about every emotion there is going, from extreme shout out loud rage, through to emotional sobbing meltdown, and just about every stage in between. Rating the book is really almost superfluous, any review purely and simply subjective and so much a matter of personal opinion, which I can guarantee for most, will be as divided as my own thoughts were. I think the whole experience was made even more troublesome because of my recent, lengthy run of WWII stories, which have predominantly focussed on the Nazi’s single-minded goal of creating a superior Aryan race and the lengths to which they were prepared to go to achieve it; without me realising that here in the UK, we had already researched and countenanced such a terrible scenario for our own future, long before Hitler had even come to power. Finding the right words to offer any true justice to the review of a storyline so disturbingly controversial, challenging, and so bravely written with such authority, is difficult to the point of being almost impossible, without being disingenuous to the author, who has based the story on some of her own personal life experiences.
In my effort not to give away too many spoilers, here is just a sketchy overview of the storyline…
Coming from a lower middle class background and with the cruel hand of fate having struck her unfortunate family so many times, Eleanor and her younger sister Rose, find themselves alone in the world. Eleanor is therefore overjoyed, when she meets and falls in love with, the much older Edward Hamilton, a war hero who falls head over heels for Eleanor at first sight and is also willing to welcome Rose into the family, when she becomes his sister-in-law. Edward always admits to his ‘new wealth’ status, inherited from his frugal father, however just how humble his beginnings were, is one secret amongst many, which he guards well, even from his new wife. Unfortunately it transpires that much of Edward’s life is built on deception and lies, one of which, if it ever became public knowledge, would damage his moral compass beyond repair. The other has the power to destroy his carefully garnered reputation and status within government, the education establishment and society, among his many esteemed friends and colleagues.
The circumstances which drew the couple together have also decreed that they have a shared interest in eugenics, with the development of a tiered education system for the country, based on a child’s physical and mental capacity; the development of special schools for the under-achievers; enforced sterilization for the parents of ‘defective’ children; and residential colonies for those adults and children who don’t meet the criteria for this new society without misfits. Unfortunately, after a few happy years of recognition and reward, the couple’s lives begin to unravel spectacularly, when their own four-year-old daughter, Mabel, is diagnosed with epilepsy. In their utopian view of the country, this infliction can only be the result of inherited bad genes, so Edward immediately questions Eleanor’s family credentials, without considering his own background to be of any significant worry. Mabel has to be hidden away at all costs, especially when Eleanor declares herself to be pregnant with their second child, so a mystery illness is invented and Mabel is shipped off to one of the specialist ‘colonies’, where the concoction of drugs, so barbarically administered, seems sure to kill her much more quickly than the epilepsy itself.
As Mabel’s reported decline hastens by the month and with Eleanor banned from visiting her ever again, the usual mother’s love for her new baby son, Jimmy, is difficult to muster. So Eleanor decides to fill her days helping her husband by writing up his research papers, although relations between them are at an all time low, with every fibre of Eleanor’s being screaming at her to save her daughter. Edward has not been quite as careful at covering his tracks as he thought he had been, when it comes to some of his shady dealings and an ever meticulous Eleanor, soon notices some alarming discrepancies, both in Edward’s research findings and in their own personal finances. When confronted, Edward tries to deny any perceived wrongdoing and a hitherto supportive Eleanor finally snaps. Standing up to her husband in a very unusual show of strength and with the help of Rose’s French partner, Marcel, of whom Edward is most disparaging without ever having met the man, and two very supportive and forward thinking doctors, Eleanor snatches Mabel from the colony and disappears with her, as a new programme of non invasive treatment is organised in an attempt to reverse or subdue some of the more violent epileptic tendencies.
Left alone with his baby son, the predicted financial crash finally happens and Edward’s despair and sense of loss knows no bounds. He takes a long, hard look at himself and his code of ethics and decides that he doesn’t much care for what he sees. What he really wants from his life, is the love of his wife; to raise his family, including Mabel, in the best way he knows how to; to concentrate his efforts and dedicate resources to the reform of a fair education system for all; and to welcome Marcel into the extended family without judging him and finding him lacking. Methodically, Edward sets about unravelling his past misdemeanours and extricating himself from a potentially toxic regime, where everything is black or white and there is no ‘middle’ ground. Now all he needs to do is win back the trust of those he loves and holds most dear – but how?
An important and unconventional work of historical and societal fiction, which has meticulously researched details being deftly and intricately woven into the fabric of a well structured and highly atmospheric, family saga of monumental proportions, despite its relatively few number of pages. Sympathetically written from the heart, with some beautifully descriptive narrative and dialogue offering a wonderful sense of time and place, despite the short time span of events, which seemed a lot longer than the two or three years it actually was. Concise chapters are well-paced and fluently narrated alternately in the voices of Eleanor and Edward, with a few ‘guest appearance’ interludes by the voice of epilepsy itself, which added authenticity and realism to the storyline, as if I really needed reminding of the horrific vision of the humanity for the future, I was bearing witness to.
Powerful, intense, highly textured and thought provoking, this immersive, multi-layered storyline also touches upon and challenges, so many other moral issues and societal mores of the times. Edward has rigid pre-conceived ideas about the politics of the left and has made his mind up not to countenance accepting Rose’s partner, Marcel into the family, as their relationship is so different from the norm, with Rose willing to work to keep them, whilst Marcel makes his name and builds his reputation, as an artist. It isn’t until he knows of Marcel’s family background and pedigree, that he is willing to extend the hand of friendship, although by then Eleanor and Mabel have already been adopted as honorary French in-laws. Edward also learns the hard way what it is to have a wife, who although generally compliant and submissive to her place within the household, finds sufficient voice and resources to challenge his views when she needs to, particularly when it comes to protecting her young. He discovers a quiet admiration for this new and assertive Eleanor, vowing to treat her as more of an equal, with a much louder voice, in the future. He also learns the hard way, what a lack of moral compass exists in the self-styled ‘upper’ classes, where ‘do as I say, not as I do’ must surely be their motto, placing his relationship with their rather shallow nouveau riche friends, into a completely different perspective. Edward also discovers the true meaning of humility and bravery overcoming cowardice, although it comes ten years too late and when there is precious little time left in which to make reparations.
Not too large a cast of characters to keep track of, meant that I was able to stand back and assess their individual merits, as there were so many complex personalities. There were many amongst their number, who were duplicitous, shallow and completely unreliable. Whilst others were easier to empathise with, as they were more emotionally vulnerable and genuinely believable. Author, Louise Fein, did an excellent job at visually defining them in their individual roles, so that either love them or hate them, they were all addictive and authentic to the part they played in the storyline. What really came through for me, in the development of the main characters of Edward and Eleanor, was that no matter how much status and wealth you create for yourself, your true roots and instilled principles, will always be at the core of everything you do, no matter how much you try to deny them, and you will only make yourself miserable by attempting to change them and indeed, yourself.
What always makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every new book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who fire my imagination, stir my emotions and stimulate my senses. This story was definitely one of a kind, having the power to evoke so many feelings, that I’m sure I won’t have felt the same way about it as the last reader, nor the next, so I can only recommend that you read The Hidden Child for yourself and see where your journey leads you!
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 5 out of 5 stars!