The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames

Harper. Jan. 2021. 320p. ISBN 9780062991010. $27.99. BIOG
Cowan’s mother possessed an elegant bearing, a mysterious past—and a volatile personality that left Cowan with psychological scars and eventually led her to cut off contact, including ignoring a handwritten manuscript her mother sent her years later. Only after her mother’s death did she examine the document and learn the truth: far from being a secret aristocrat, Cowan’s mother had been surrendered by an unmarried farm woman to London’s Foundling Hospital, an institution established to raise “deserted” illegitimate children and prepare them for lives in service or industry. In this debut, the author tells of her experiences traveling to London to view her mother’s records and explore family history. Given the name Dorothy Soames, her mother was raised in an environment of physical and emotional abuse where educational and practical needs were frequently neglected. Drawing on her mother’s manuscript and her own personal research, Cowan unpicks the threads of the hospital’s history and how decisions made by its founders and governors decades and centuries earlier irrevocably shaped her mother’s life and her relationship with Cowan.
VERDICT There are no easy resolutions in Cowan’s story, but this title should appeal to readers interested in family histories and complex mother-daughter relationships.
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