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?’
Today is my stop on the blog tour for The Hidden Child by Louise Finn, published by Head of Zeus!
As with Fein’s first novel, People Like Us, The Hidden Child is a book that I found impossible to put down. It follows the lives of Eleanor, Edward and their daughter, Mabel, who begins to have seizures in her early years and experiences them with increasing frequency while her mother – who loves her fiercely – in particular struggles to accept what is happening. To them, it seems their only course of action is to keep Mabel’s condition a secret and avoid directly referencing fit or what it is as much as possible, ensuring that she’s not seen by those outside the household and that anyone who learns of her epilepsy is sworn to secrecy. As Mabel’s health deteriorates and Edward continues to prioritise his work and the beliefs of the ‘academic’ crowd he is a part of, Eleanor is faced with the choice of accepting her husband’s decisions or fighting for what is best for their daughter – and hopefully making him see a better future for her and their family than the one he seems determined to cling to.
What predominantly shines through in The Hidden Child is Eleanor’s love for Mabel and her desire to do the best she can for her when faced with ‘advice’ and paths for her that seem more designed to make her less of an issue for society than thought out to give her a chance at a good future. When Mabel’s seizures begin, she doesn’t attempt to sidestep their existence because she is negligent, but because she is frightened about what they mean for her child and what they are doing to her. She may have worked in the same field as her husband and harboured the same prejudiced views, but her concerns consistently revolve around Mabel and her wellbeing, with the effect on Edward’s work seemingly a secondary concern. Her pain at seeing the treatments that Mabel is made to endure through various attempts to treat a condition that the medical profession simply doesn’t know about in the era in which the novel is set is increasingly heartbreaking and it is a huge relief that she does not let her former views about those with epilepsy control her response to her daughter. She is the one who insists that there must be better treatments available for her and that different opinions matter, fighting against a husband who would much prefer that Mabel be settled in an institution, so that he need not explain her condition to his colleagues. As the narrative unfolds, Eleanor increasingly becomes a woman of clearer moral integrity and finds the strength to fight for her child, a devoted mother in the face of society’s condemnation and her own mental health struggles.
For much of the story, Edward is a character who is difficult to sympathise with, especially considering his views about those he sees as less mentally capable and his ideas about forced sterilisation and genetics controlling potential. It’s his insistence that he cannot possibly be the ‘reason’ for why Mabel has epilepsy – repeatedly backtracking to his genetics being absolutely unable to be a contributing factor, being supposedly ‘superior’ – that makes him particularly repulsive at times. He sees Mabel less as his daughter and a child who needs him to protect her and look out for her best interests, and more of a burden and an embarrassment that he must conceal if he is going to be successful in pushing his troubling agenda. Edward is a man contending with shame that has nothing to do with his daughter, and he lets his previous patterns of behaviour lead him into making similar mistakes that threaten to be just as irreversible as those that he wishes he could undo. His journey feels not as focused on Mabel and his family as Eleanor’s is, as he seems driven by different factors, such as the aforementioned shame, trauma experienced in combat, and his determination that his views be accepted as fact, but he slowly learns that the reality he so wants to reject needs to be considered from different viewpoints – and with different priorities. There are moments when Edward appears to be a lost cause and it is easy to intensely dislike him for what he says and the choices he makes, yet it is satisfying to see him begin to take responsibility for the mistakes he has made and re-evaluate his beliefs.
Fein’s writing is brilliant and emotive, her characters crafted in a manner that, in the case of Eleanor and Edward, makes them not defined by the views they have at the novel’s beginning, but by the ways that they respond to what they experience and learn, and their capacity for growth. They are, in many respects, the products of their era, but they are also human and their beliefs and attitudes do not remain static. They are affected by the events around them, if in different ways and at different rates, and the character development over the course of the story is absolutely one of its many strengths. One of the structural features I found most effective is the use of short chapters from the point of view of epilepsy itself, created as a being that sees all of what Mabel experiences and highlights the pain caused by some of the attempts to manage it.
The Hidden Child is a book that I cannot recommend enough (along with People Like Us) and is one that I know will stay with me for a long time. It is simply an incredible read. Thank you very much to Head of Zeus for the chance to be part of the blog tour!