The inspiration for writing The Hidden Child came from two places. Firstly, through having a very young child who suffered from an extreme and rare form of epilepsy, and all the taboos which have traditionally surrounded that condition. Secondly, through the research I carried out for my debut novel, People Like Us, from which I learnt that the origins of the eugenical idea of the Aryan master race so loved by Nazi Germany, in fact originated here, in the UK and in the United States. Not only did it originate here, but in the first half of the twentieth century it flourished and became so widespread and accepted from all sides of the political spectrum, that eugenics principles became embedded in our society, education system and infrastructure. It seemed to me that this history has been rather conveniently forgotten. Indeed, it is rarely mentioned in connection with some of our most well-loved historical figures who were vocal proponents of the ideas which directly led to the holocaust, those including Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, Marie Stopes, George Bernard Shaw, to name but a few. Many of the characters in the book are real people, or have been based on them, including one of my main characters, Edward. More of this is explained in the author’s note at the end of the novel.
Put simply, the concept behind the pseudo-science of eugenics was the idea that with selective breeding, the human race could be ‘improved’. Thus, by not allowing the ‘unwanted’ (ie those considered less desirable due to class, race or disability) to have children, they could be bred out of society. This concept in turn led to the forced sterilisation of thousands of women in the US, and the lifetime institutionalisation of thousands more men, women and children, for often dubious reasons, in many countries around the world including here in the UK. Whilst the atrocities of the Nazi regime caused the mainstream to move away from eugenical ideas, some of these have persisted in some circles, government policy and nations to this day.
The Hidden Child, set in the socially and economically turbulent late 1920’s, focuses on the experience of one privileged family, the wealthy and socially important Edward and Eleanor Hamilton. Edward is a war hero, a psychologist and educationalist. He is redesigning the education policy of the nation to be in line with his eugenical beliefs. Eleanor has her own reasons for wishing to see ‘undesirables’ institutionalised, as a result of a tragedy in her own past. But when the couple’s beautiful four-year-old daughter, Mabel, begins to suffer from debilitating seizures, their perfect lives unravel. A stark choice awaits them – should they hide little Mabel away from the world in an epilepsy colony, or keep her close, thereby risking everything Edward has worked so hard to build – his education policies, his reputation and social standing.
The novel is told chiefly from the points of view of Eleanor and Edward. The choices around Mabel drive a wedge between the couple and as Eleanor discovers secrets about Edward’s past, she begins to question not only the man she deeply loves, but the very principles their lives have been built upon. Apart from their own personal tragedy, the couple and the novel’s cast of characters are also grappling with the changing attitudes of the time; a country still recovering from the horror of the first world war; the rise of the working classes; a new voice and freedom for women and the looming threat of the impending financial crash. The 1920’s was a time of huge social change.
There is one other point of view in The Hidden Child, and that is the voice of epilepsy itself. Since biblical times, epilepsy has been portrayed in literature, variously, as the vessel of the spirit of the devil or of the divine. Despite advances in our understanding of the condition, these depictions of epilepsy in literature have persisted into modern times. So, instead of the long-held view that the mind of the epileptic is itself afflicted, I have played with this long tradition by personifying the condition, separate and apart from the mind it inhabits. Epilepsy speaks directly to the reader in a second person narrative and gives an insight into our long history with this condition, our strange behaviour towards it. It also allows the reader to see what is happening to Mabel in the story. I had fun writing this character, whose narrative twists and turns interplay with what is happening in the story, perhaps in unexpected ways!
I hope that The Hidden Child will bring a less familiar side of the 1920’s to readers, and that it will invoke thought and discussion about attitudes and institutions which were part of our society for much of the twentieth century. Above all, I hope readers will enjoy the story.