I was so blown away by Fein’s beautiful novel People Like Us earlier this year, that I immediately jumped at the chance to read her new novel early. I was ready to be immersed in her incredible characters, historical background and unique perspective. At first glance this novel seemed different to her last novel. Set in England in the 1920s we meet a pair of sisters, Eleanor and Rose. Their parents died young, and as a result of supporting each other from then on, they have been inseparable. The book opens as Eleanor and her daughter Mabel set off on their pony and cart to meet Rose at the railway station. She is returning from a period of time in Paris, to live with Eleanor and her husband Edward. However, before Rose arrives something very strange happens to Mabel, as she sits quietly on the grass outside the station. One of the train guards notices first and alerts Eleanor, who rushes over to sit by her daughter. Mabel is making repetitive jerky movements, her eyes have rolled back and she is oblivious to Eleanor’s attempts to rouse her. Once it’s passed, Mabel seems exhausted and she travels back to the house, wrapped in a blanket and looking very sleepy. Eleanor’s concern is twofold: firstly, will Mabel be ok? Secondly, how will husband Edward respond if it happens again, considering he’s one of the leading lights of the eugenicist movement?
Eugenics was a movement that emerged in the aftermath of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. The idea was to improve the human species by actively encouraging breeding between people with certain desirable traits. Of course that also meant actively ‘breeding out’ invisible disabilities like epilepsy, as well as people thought to be the wrong colour, of low intelligence or mentally unwell. Even criminal tendencies and poverty were thought to be undesirable traits that could be ‘bred out’ of society. In the early 20th Century, eugenics was a legitimate area of scientific enquiry here in the U.K. but it was even more popular in the USA where it made its way into marriage legislation in Connecticut as early as 1896. It became illegal for those who were ‘feeble-minded’ or epileptic to marry. The Eugenics Record Office was then set up to track families and their genetic traits, concluding that those deemed unfit were a victim of negative genes not racism, economics or other social issues. This is the type of study that Eleanor’s husband Edward is undertaking. As a psychology professor he’s using eugenics to shape education policy. He’s studying children from poorer families to test their intelligence against those from middle-class families. He’s expecting the theory to hold and the poorer children to be genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. This will be the basis for streaming children into different educational programs and is the basis for our real life grammar school system; the top 25% of children are determined by the 11 plus exam and streamed into grammar school education, something that still happens in my home county of Lincolnshire. Yet eugenics took a very dark turn in America where there were thousands of forced sterilisations in mental institutions and for the Native American population right up till the 1970’s. So contrary to most people’s understanding, Germany were not the only proponents of eugenics theory, but their use of the theory to murder six million Jewish people, as well as members of the Roma community and disabled people, is the most horrific act of genocide the world has ever seen.
Edward isn’t just dabbling with eugenics. He’s a true believer. Eleanor changes considerably throughout the novel. At first she sees Edward as a saviour, looking after her and her sister Rose. We first see tension in the novel when Rose returns from Paris and announces she is in love with an artist. It feels as if Edward takes a more fatherly role, or saw his role as a old-fashioned protector of the sisters, especially since they have no parents. Eleanor agrees with her husband that Rose could make a far better match, someone with more money and prospects would be the ideal. As Edward denies Rose’s request to see Max or perhaps bring him to dinner, Eleanor is torn between them but trusts her husband’s judgement for now. She even allows him the final decision over Mabel’s care. These were the most difficult sections of the novel for me. They have to be there so that we understand the reality of epilepsy in the early 20th Century, but the treatments feel brutal and my heart broke for this little girl who is having all the spirit drained out of her. There’s some very impressive research behind this part of the story, not just into treatments, but into the theories and the superstition surrounding the illness. In my head I was screaming at Eleanor to follow her instincts and intervene, although even if she had, would she be listened to? I found the pompous and arrogant attitude of the doctors in the novel, sadly true to life. Neurology is a discipline I’m very used to and to some extent there is still a difference in the way some neurologists treat men and women. In fact, apart from Max, all the men in the novel are caught up in their own ego, and seem to want public credit for everything they’ve done, along with deference and respect from women and those lower than them on the social scale. They have full belief in their skills and methods, and will not be questioned on their decisions.
I wanted Eleanor to stand up and fight for her daughter, with both the institution and Edward. I was shocked at the lengths he was willing to go to, in order to prove his theories right. There needed to be a shift in his relationship with Eleanor where she starts to see him more as an equal, a fallible human being rather than a saviour. Only then could she decide whether she was willing to work on their relationship, where it felt to me he needed to be a husband rather than a father-figure. I felt so tense as we moved towards the ending, and I found it satisfying for these characters, but there was still that concern inside me, about how eugenics developed in horrifying ways. I knew I would be thinking about the novel for some time afterwards. I wondered what would Edward feel about eugenics a few years later with Nazism on the rise and Hitler’s dream of creating a master race in its first stages. I’d also thought of Max, Rose’s artist, and whether he stayed in England to be with Rose and missed out on the fate of many other Parisian Jews, who wrongly expected to be safe in France. As a person with a disability, the eugenics movement both terrifies and angers me. The thought of the suffering endured by people with disabilities, at the hands of scientists, fills me with rage. Even before WW2 the Nazi Party we’re starting their crusade for a master race. On July 14, 1933, the Germany passed the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.” The law called for the sterilisation of all people with diseases considered hereditary, including mental illness, learning disabilities, physical deformity, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism.
When the law passed the Third Reich also stepped up its propaganda against the disabled, regularly labeling them “life unworthy of life” or “useless eaters” and highlighting their burden upon society. Many people in the disabled community feel there is a similarity to 21st Century rhetoric around benefit claimants and fraud, framing disabled people as dependent on the state and drains on resources. I must admit that it drifted into my mind as I was reading. There is a claim that the withdrawal of benefits and support from the disabled community since 2006, has led to a genocide of disabled people. The figure often quoted is 120,000 additional deaths caused by austerity. Even before the the Final Solution, the Nazis were using the term ‘’euthanasia” for the systematic killing of the institutionalized mentally and physically disabled, even children. Using the term euthanasia made it sound as if death was a kindness for those who were really suffering or terminally ill, but this was not the case. The secret operation, code-named T4, in reference to the street address (Tiergartenstrasse 4) of the program’s coordinating office in Berlin, followed systematic sterilisation of groups in society they wanted to reduce or eradicate. I studied eugenics as part of my dissertation on disability in fiction in 2004 and it is an insidious theory that still hasn’t fully lost it’s influence on the world.
This book stirred up so many thoughts and feelings for me as a disabled reader. Knowing you are one of those people who would have been eradicated is unsettling and leaves me feeling very sensitive to the language used by governments and their attitude towards the disabled community. If people with disabilities are veterans or Paralympians they are acceptable, but otherwise their existence is problematic and I often wonder what it would take for the tide to turn and history to repeat itself. So, I appreciated the depth of the author’s research and the care she took in telling Mabel’s story. The First World War veterans struggling to adjust and live back in society, were a really interesting thread too. Edward is supporting one of his men financially, for reasons that extend all the way back to the battlefield. I enjoyed the adjustment that has to take place in Eleanor and Edward’s marriage once all the secrets he’s been keeping are out in the open. If they stay together they will have to start from a basis of honesty with each other. If Edward is not a war hero or an academic with integrity, who is he? Can Eleanor love the real Edward, especially now that she’s grown up and become a stronger, more independent woman? I loved the way Louise Fein takes this volatile part of history and creates a story that is both personal to these characters, but global in it’s reach and influence. It affected me profoundly, not just because of the disability issues, but because of Mabel who I fell completely in love with. I kept reading because I wanted the best resolution for her, safe and looked after with her family around her.
Meet The Author.
Louise Fein was born and brought up in London. She harboured a secret love of writing from a young age, preferring to live in her imagination than the real world. After a law degree, Louise worked in Hong Kong and Australia, travelling for a while through Asia and North America before settling back to a working life in London. She finally gave in to the urge to write, taking an MA in creative writing, and embarking on her first novel, Daughter of the Reich (named People Like Us in the UK and Commonwealth edition). The novel was inspired by the experience of her father’s family, who escaped from the Nazis and arrived in England as refugees in the 1930’s. Daughter of the Reich/People Like Us is being translated into 11 foreign languages, has been shortlisted for the 2021 RNA Historical Novel of the year Award, and has been long listed for the Not The Booker Prize.
Louise’s second novel, The Hidden Child, will be published in the Autumn of 2021. Louise lives in the beautiful English countryside with her husband, three children, two cats, small dog and the local wildlife who like to make an occasional appearance in the house. Louise is currently working on her third novel.
Website and newsletter sign-up: https://www.louisefein.com
Follow Head of Zeus: