Sunday, November 20, 2022

The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames: A Memoir by Justine Cowan

Title: The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames: A Memoir
Author: Justine Cowan
Publication: HarperCollins, hardcover, 2021
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir/Social History
Setting: 20th century Great Britain
Description: Justine Cowan, an environmental attorney, grew up in a privileged home in Northern California, with a quiet, respected lawyer father and a British-born mother who was hypercritical of her daughters. Embittered by their troubled relationship, Justine distanced herself from her parents after leaving for college and it was not until after her mother’s death that she learned her mother had been raised in the famous Foundling Hospital in London, founded by Thomas Coram in the 18th century. Fueled by a mixture of curiosity and guilt at not having paid attention to an effort by her mother to share this background, Cowan laboriously researched her mother’s background. She learned that the Foundling Hospital had been an abusive experience for many of the children it purported to rescue: even as late as the 1930s, these foundlings were farmed out as babies to often-indifferent foster families, deposited at the Foundling Hospital when the children were five, and then raised in a repressive and sometimes brutal atmosphere. Cowan’s mother, named Dorothy Soames, was often disciplined for minor infractions with solitary confinement or physical punishment. Although Soames’ mother wrote and asked to see her, they were never allowed to meet, although the child did receive occasional gifts. The harshness of this institutional upbringing prevented Soames from forming emotional attachments, even with her own children.

Children left the Foundling Hospital at 12 to receive training elsewhere for jobs. The girls were trained for domestic service while boys became laborers or entered the military. Soames was reclaimed by her birth mother but Cowan could not locate information on their life together in the country. In the 1950s, Soames emigrated to America, eventually settling in San Francisco where, known as Eileen Weston, she met and married John Thompson, a former GI.

My Impression: I visited the Foundling Hospital in June and commented then it was obvious the children received no more than the bare necessities. Learning about this book was serendipitous.  It is disturbing to read about children deprived not only of affection but reared in such harsh circumstances. However, it was better than the workhouse that might otherwise have been their destiny. Cowan explains that part of the brutal treatment of these children was caused by the fact that most were illegitimate and their mothers’ disgrace was shared by the innocent offspring. There was a belief:
that foundlings needed to be brought up separately from children born of respectable parents, not raised as their equals. The belief that the illegitimate child occupied the lowest echelon of society was so ironclad that it too was written into the hospital rules: foundlings should often be reminded of “the Lowness of their Condition, that they may early imbibe the Principles of Humility and Gratitude to their Benefactors.”
Fictional orphans and foundlings invariably escape from their oppressors!  Soames and a fellow foundling did run away but were returned to the Hospital.

Cowan is embittered by her upbringing and although her research means that she understands her mother’s traumatized history and how that affected Soames’ ability to raise her own family, she does not seem able to forgive, even years after her mother’s death. Cowan comes across as very self-centered:
Other questions I pondered revolved around me. Had my grandmother known she had a granddaughter? Had she written to ask about me?
Is Cowan forgetting she has an older sister? Surely the grandmother would have been interested in both granddaughters? The book is fascinating in its revelation of the systemic abuse of Soames and other foundlings but also in Cowan’s inability to move past her mother’s critical attitude and her father’s inability to stand up to his wife to protect his younger daughter. Cowan appears to be estranged from her older sister but it would be interesting to hear what her take on their mother is. Many years after Cowan left home, her mother reached out, first by letter and then by phone, inviting Cowan to go to London with her to explore her past. Cowan said it was too late but this book is her belated attempt to carry out that pilgrimage on her mother’s behalf. The reader can only pity both mother and daughter, both unable to move past their difficult childhoods.
One thing I share with Cowan’s mother: a fondness for See’s chocolates; I was introduced to Scotchmallows by a college friend and fellow football manager who brought them from San Francisco to me for my birthday. Thank you to Farah Mendelsohn for recommending this interesting book which is part of my Nonfiction November reading!

Source: Library

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