'In the Family Way: Illegitimacy between the Great War and the Swinging Sixties', by Jane Robinson - Review

By McDonagh, Melanie | The Spectator, March 21, 2015 | Go to article overview

'In the Family Way: Illegitimacy between the Great War and the Swinging Sixties', by Jane Robinson - Review


McDonagh, Melanie, The Spectator


In the Family Way: Illegitimacy between the Great War and the Swinging Sixties Jane Robinson

Viking, pp.336, £18.99, ISBN: 9780670922062

My father was handed over a shop counter when he was a day old. His aunt had tried to pass him off to a hospital and couldn't find any takers so she brought him into a draper's shop, put him down on the counter and declared she didn't know what she was going to do with him. The shop assistant piped up to say that her sister didn't have any children of her own and would quite like a baby. So off she went to fetch her sister, who took him off, tucked inside her cardigan, and that, dear reader, is how he ended up with his mother and father.

I mention this prior to discussing In the Family Way because it's about illegitimacy and some bits ring true to my father's experience in Ireland before the war. His natural mother never wanted to see him, for instance, and he declined to pursue her: she had, he declared, been tormented enough. The whole Magdalene Sisters phenomenon wasn't confined to Catholics; my natural grandfather was a respectable Protestant postmaster.

In the Family Way is about illegitimacy between the first world war and the 1960s. It covers the ground from several angles: the mothers, the children, the natural fathers, those who tried to abort the babies or to give them away and those who kept them, those whose families accepted the new arrival or disguised it as the mother's sibling or those who hastened to get rid of it -- though few were quite as thoroughgoing as the war veteran who drowned his wife's misbegotten child in a washtub when he returned home.

Jane Robinson has managed to elicit over 100 personal accounts of illegitimacy and it is these letters and interviews that give the book its force -- that, and the author's manifest warm-heartedness. The book is grounded in testimonies from real people -- heartbreaking, some of them.

From these various perspectives one thing is apparent, and that is that there was -- is -- no single right way to deal with the problem of illegitimacy. Often it was manifestly in the child's interests to stay with the birth mother; in others, it was perfectly plain that the mother would have been better off having the child adopted because she always resented its existence. …

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