The Hidden Child by Louise Fein

deeply moving | emotionally shocking | morally awakening

what it says on the cover …

From the outside, Eleanor and Edward Hamilton have the perfect life, but they’re harbouring a secret that threatens to fracture their entire world. 

London, 1929

Eleanor Hamilton is a dutiful mother, a caring sister and an adoring wife to a celebrated war hero. Her husband, Edward, is a pioneer in the eugenics movement. The Hamiltons are on the social rise, and it looks as though their future is bright.

When Mabel, their young daughter, begins to develop debilitating seizures, they have to face an uncomfortable truth: Mabel has epilepsy – one of the ‘undesirable’ conditions that Edward campaigns against.

Forced to hide their daughter away so as to not jeopardise Edward’s life’s work, the couple must confront the truth of their past – and the secrets that have been buried.

Will Eleanor and Edward be able to fight for their family? Or will the truth destroy them?

PUBLISHED: 2nd September 2021
SHELF: Historical Fiction
AUTHOR: Louise Fein
PUBLISHER: Head of Zeus
FORMATS: Hardback | Kindle

Thank you to @FeinLouise for making me a very happy book-lover indeed … the signed, limited edition proof copy of #TheHiddenChild couldn’t have been a more hotly anticipated read of mine!
Another publishing triumph by @HoZ_Books

my review

Having read Louise Fein’s debut novel – People Like Us – in October last year, it’s fair to say I was beside myself when I learned (through a spot of author-stalking on #BookTwitter) that she’s about to publish her second. Already, the author has established an incredibly powerful literary signature, drawing upon defining moments in history, with central characters whose viewpoints are alien, unpalatable and deeply controversial.  (For those who’ve not yet had the opportunity to read People Like Us, the story follows the Nazi-supporting Heinrich family, and the painful moral awakening of their teenage daughter, Hetty … it was a profoundly moving book, an absolute must-read.)  So when I learned that this new novel – The Hidden Child – was centred around the abhorrent Eugenics movement, I felt a frisson of anticipation that the author was about to publish another emotionally complex, historical masterpiece. 

Eugenics is the practice or advocacy of improving the human species by selectively mating people with specific desirable hereditary traits. At its most ‘passive’, it aimed to reduce human suffering by breeding-out disease, disabilities and so-called undesirable characteristics from the human population. But at its most aggressive it stretched to incarceration, enforced sterilisation and even the consideration of euthanasia of ‘defective’ humans.  With most eugenists being affluent, white men, you’ll not be surprised to learn that most of the ‘undesirable’ characteristics they targeted affected people who weren’t one of them! It’s founding principles originated in the UK and US … yes, that’s the shocking truth of it.  But it gets worse, because if you think this ideology sounds familiar, you’d be right … the principals of eugenics were adopted with horrific consequences by the Nazi party.

‘Put simply,’ Edward says, giving his well-rehearsed answer to the uninitiated, ‘eugenics is a science inspired by Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. The aim of the Eugenics Movement is to improve the human population by increasing reproduction of the most desirable characteristics in human beings and suppressing reproduction of the least desirable – for example, inherited diseases, mental retardation and so forth.’
extract from The Hidden Child

The Hidden Child is set during the late 1920’s, with the spectre of the first world war still haunting the hearts and minds of the nation, and the country on the brink of enormous socio-political upheaval. It’s an incredibly abundant era in which to set a novel, and the author exquisitely captivates the reader with a potent combination of beautifully crafted storytelling, and shocking factual truths. Prevailing opinions of class, wealth, education, race, and female emancipation are all brought to bear on the plot line, each playing a contextual role in framing the actions and opinions of its characters. Never one to shy away from weighty topics, the author weaves these themes into her story with considered precision, balancing the narrative through intellectual debates between her most influential characters.

In creating Edward and Eleanor Hamilton, the author presents us with two inherently good and – on the whole – relatable characters, albeit with strong beliefs that are entirely unconscionable.  Edward’s profound conviction in the Eugenics movement, his single-minded ambition, his secrecy, his hypocrisy, and deceitfulness should all make him an easy chap to dislike – hate even – but the author never quite allows that opinion to take root in her readers, gently reminding us of his private internal conflicts, his war trauma, and his misguided attempts to build a better life.  Eleanor, meanwhile, is distinctly easier to warm to, although her lack of conviction in her own opinions is infuriating; a mindset illuminated perfectly by the dynamic between Eleanor and her forward-thinking younger sister, Rose.

The heart-wrenching cruelties of the Eugenics doctrine are brought to bear on the book’s smallest, most adorable character; two-year old Mabel. She’s Edward and Eleanor’s first child, and the centre of their world … blond-haired, spirited, fun-loving perfection … every eugenicist’s image of ideal genes and excellent breeding.  Mabel’s seizures arrive in the very first chapter of the book, bringing with them a sickening fear and insidious prejudice that escalates and distorts as the plot progresses. Epilepsy is a condition the eugenists are keen to eradicate; they believe it’s the foundation of crime, sexual promiscuity, and weak mindedness; that it’s something to be ashamed of; that it’s hereditary; and that it should be tackled with some truly awful treatments. This is when the story takes a deeply distressing turn – the passages describing Mabel’s treatments were incredibly difficult to read; her fear and sadness are overwhelmingly palpable.  It’s impossible not to be affected by her fear and confusion, and although the book is narrated by Eleanor and Edward, I found myself viewing their unfathomable actions from little Mabel’s perspective, making it all the more heart-rending.

I found Edward and Eleanor incited extremely strong, visceral reactions in me; on many occasions I was absolutely raging at them … at Edward for his bloody-minded, egotistical ignorance, and at Eleanor for allowing her maternal instinct to be smothered into passive acceptance by pseudo science and patriarchal oppression. But this is an enduring story of hope and love and compassion, so whilst there are times when the author takes the Hamiltons to some very dark places, you can be assured of a hard-won enlightenment and redemption for them. 

Now feels like a good time to comment on a stroke of unique authorly genius, which enhanced the story with remarkable elegance … epilepsy itself has a voice in the book, acting almost as an off-stage narrator.  Nestled between the alternating portrayals of Eleanor and Edward, it forces the reader to entertain the idea that the seizures can be illuminating and not just debilitating, whilst creating a wholly unexpected view of what was happening to Mabel. It was an extremely manipulative, divisive voice that reflected my own  disdain of society’s prejudices, whilst also serving as the driving force behind the escalating tension in the latter chapters. An absolutely inspired touch!

‘There could be no greater supporter of any negative eugenics model than Mrs Stopes here,’ he tells the others. ‘So great is her passion for curbing over-breeding by the lower orders and inferior races that, in the absence of forced sterilisation being an option, she has funded the expansion of her clinic to offer free birth control for any woman who would qualify as a defective.’ As far as Edward can see, that includes any woman who isn’t rich.

extract from The Hidden Child

I first became aware of the concept of eugenics and its high profile followers a few years ago when I read Anna Hope’s stunning novel, The Ballroom. Whilst it wasn’t a main theme in that particular book, it piqued my interest. In The Hidden Child the author deftly exposes the ugly truth of eugenics as a British-born school of thought, refusing to allow it to be swept under the moral carpet by a carefully silenced bypassing of historical events. Placing the Hamiltons in real and imagined scenes amongst notary figures of the era (Marie Stopes, Winston Churchill, Leonard Darwin, John Rockefeller Jr to name a few) adds to the integrity and voracity of the story whilst demonstrating the exemplary research and plotting that’s been poured into this superb novel.

I’ve come to realise I’ll always close Louise Fein’s books feeling emotionally and intellectually stimulated and enlightened. The Hidden Child is a thought-provoking, enthralling and morally challenging novel which exquisitely focuses your attention on themes which resonate as strongly today as they ever have. The enormity of its scope, and the moral significance of its context, has been encapsulated with a beautiful fluidity, enveloping the reader in a work of historical fact-fiction that reflects the sentiments of the era so well.  An unforgettable and breathtaking triumph of powerful storytelling.


author bio

The Hidden Child is Louise’s second novel and, like her first, it has deeply personal roots … Louise’s own daughter developed debilitating seizures aged just two years old, at one point suffering around thirty seizures on a good day, and over a hundred on a bad. The condition has had a profound impact on the whole family. The Hidden Child examines the prevailing treatments, marginalisation, and stigma of epilepsy in society one hundred years ago, some of which still exist today.

Born and brought up in London, Louise now lives in Surrey with her husband, three children and a small dog.  She’s embracing country living, gradually getting used to the mud, lack of street lights, and the wildlife who like to make an occasional appearance in the house.

Louise harboured a secret love of writing from a young age, and has always preferred to live in her imagination rather than the real world.  After a law degree, she worked in Hong Kong and Australia, and enjoyed travelling the world before settling down to a career in law and then in banking, before finally gaving into the urge to write, taking an MA in creative writing. Published in May 2020, her first novel – People Like Us – was inspired by the experience of her father’s family, who escaped from the Nazis and came to England as refugees in the 1930’s.

6 thoughts on “The Hidden Child by Louise Fein

      1. ☺️ You don’t hang about! The first book – People Like Us – was superb too. It was set in the run up to WWII, and the book’s main character was a teenage Nazi supporter … who was falling in love with her childhood Jewish, friend. An unforgettable and powerful story

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s