Cowan comes to understand why her mother found it difficult to bond; her childhood all but guaranteed it. Established in the 18th century as a cleaner, safer alternative to the poorhouse, the hospital was initially overwhelmed by mothers desperate to hand off their infants, and many of the infants accepted in the first few years died of disease.
By the time Cowan’s mother came along, the hygiene was better, but the approach to child-rearing was driven by a Victorian passion for discipline. At the time, social scientists actively preached against physical contact with newborns; new mothers were taught not to kiss their babies, or pick them up when they cried. Psychologists dreamed of raising children according to scientific principles, and the Foundling Hospital provided them with a laboratory.
Like an experienced litigator, Cowan shows us one exhibit after another, building a case that her mother was a victim of this harsh system. Sections of the book feel padded with term-papery digressions. I found myself longing to hear less from the card catalog, and more from Cowan’s mother.
Her mother comes off as troubled, brittle, unreasonably tough on her daughter. She acknowledged as much to Cowan, once, telling her that she was “grateful and proud that despite my bad parenting you managed to become a remarkable person.”
But Cowan sometimes paints her as a villainess without providing the evidence to support it. The simplest explanation is that mother and daughter never found a way to connect. And then their time ran out.
In fact — and this is a heartbreak — Cowan could have avoided the archives if she had sat down to interview her mother. Before she died, her mother had written a memoir, and even invited Cowan to London to investigate her past together. But at the time, their relationship was so broken that Cowan declined the offer. “I had no interest in learning about my mother’s past,” she says.
“The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames” is a frustrating endeavor, in the end. It does evoke sympathy for Eileen — Eileen was her mother’s real name — just as Cowan clearly hoped it would.