As I said in my previous post, De Vries has three major themes: whether murder can ever be justified, why some people are prepared to risk everything to discover who their parents are/were and the secrets held by old houses.
Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the second theme. Why is it that a significant proportion of people who cannot identify their birth parents – such as those who have been adopted, or whose parents have been lost in war or some other catastrophe, or who have experienced the denial of parenthood by one parent (usually the father), or who are the offspring of a sperm donor or even who have been abandoned in early infancy – grow up with an insatiable desire to discover who their biological parents were, while others in a similar situation either display no interest in finding out or are actively hostile to the idea?
My first boss and his wife had three adopted children, each with different biological parents from the others. They were adopted in the 1960s, when adoptive parents had minimal contact with the biological parents and the latter had very limited rights. Adoption societies of the time made it clear that they were facilitating a ‘clean break’ from the natural parent (usually the mother) who had offered the child for adoption. Often the mothers were very young and coerced into giving away their babies by the demands of their parents and the disapproval of society as a whole. It was considered shameful to be an unmarried mother and the welfare state did little to help girls and women who found themselves in this predicament. The prospective mothers were often sent to unmarried mothers’ homes when they began to ‘show’. Spalding had such a home, Carisbrooke House in Haverfield Road. The girls who came to it were probably from other towns; similarly, Spalding girls would be sent to towns some distance away. Soon after the birth, the baby was adopted and the girls would return home as if nothing had happened – though the experience cruelly curtailed their education and there was little psychological support for the trauma of having had to relinquish the child. The headmistress of Spalding High School was considered to be very progressive for allowing one of my classmates to return to school after she had a baby. The year was 1969.
My boss’s two adopted sons showed no interest whatsoever in their biological parents. Like Kevan de Vries, they entered the family business at a young age and enjoyed the privileged lifestyle and well-heeled standard of living it offered. His adoptive daughter felt differently. She went to huge lengths to track down her biological mother and eventually settled in the USA, where her mother had emigrated, and changed her name to the name her mother had entered on her birth certificate. Despite having been brought up in a loving and affluent household, just like the two boys, she was never able to identify with the adoptive family.
During the same period, issues of parentage frequently became more convoluted, not to say dishonest, when the woman was older and married to a man who was not the father of the child. Divorce carried a stigma almost as powerful as unmarried motherhood, so few women would choose it; on a more practical level, most divorcees and abandoned wives were forced to live in penury. This was decades before British law changed and became almost always in favour of the woman if she had children and Britain became the ‘divorce capital of the world’. The alimony awarded by courts was usually meagre and little attempt was made to force defaulting husbands to pay.
A woman who bore a child whom she knew or suspected not to be her husband’s therefore commonly passed the baby off as his. Some husbands were complicit, knowing the child not to be theirs but still preferring to raise it as their own rather than end the marriage; others were genuinely taken in by the wife’s claims. As an adult, a friend suspected that the child of one of her neighbours was in fact her half-brother. The boy was small and fine-boned, with tight black curls like her own and those of her two siblings. The mother was a tall, heavily-built woman with fair skin and hair whose other children all looked like her. My friend later discovered that it had been an open secret in the neighbourhood that this boy was her father’s, but the woman’s husband had accepted responsibility for his upbringing and treated him exactly like the others.
In the 1950s and 1960s, some early efforts were made to identify fathers reluctant to acknowledge their children and make them contribute to their maintenance. Proving paternity was, however, largely based on the results of blood tests: it was possible to prove that a man was definitively not the child’s father, but, unless he had a very rare blood group, not to prove conclusively that he was.
The advent of the much more reliable DNA tests – though the earliest ones were not as reliable as claimed at the time – helped women to assert who the child’s father was, be believed and consequently obtain financial support, which became much more robustly enforced by the law than previously. Even more crucial, however, was the shift, from the 1970s onwards, in social attitudes towards parenthood. Gradually the stigma of being born outside wedlock was removed. More and more couples elected to have children without marrying and if they subsequently split up they were much more likely to agree on joint care – or at least joint financial support – for the children.
Kevan de Vries is fifty when De Vries begins. During his lifetime, the whole spectrum of social attitudes towards children not born to a conventionally married couple takes place. Viewed in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that as a young man he is happy to have his mother and grandfather sweep the question of his paternity under the carpet, whereas in middle age he develops a burning desire to understand the identity of his missing parent, even at the risk of losing his liberty and physical contact with his own son.
A brief footnote: John and Limming were the first and middle names of one of my close relatives. His mother named him after her own eldest brother, who was gassed in the First World War, and the father who refused to acknowledge him. She was determined that he would carry his father’s last name in some form, even though it was denied to him as a surname. He spent his whole life hating it and would omit it from official documents whenever possible.