I had already written A Hospital in the Clouds, a story driven by the theme of secrecy, when I discovered Michael Slepian’s research, now detailed in his book, The Secret Life of Secrets (Crown Publishing, 2022).
Of course, secret-keeping is a common practice in most societies, but the reasons are varied. There’s the more serious desire to avoid criminal prosecution, but secrecy can come from a need to save ourselves from embarrassment, to guard a reputation – ours or others, or even to protect someone’s feelings. Some might horde a greedy stash or choose to keep personal or professional ambitions hidden from would-be competitors.
Various cultural and environmental factors influence the type of secret a person keeps and the level of guilt that accompanies it. My novel, A Hospital in the Clouds, was written about the 1920’s post-war era when the Western world saw the return of soldiers who carried difficult battlefield experiences with them. It was also an era of transition in art, politics, science and culture when more women began to expect the right to have career and sex lives similar to men. The weight of keeping secrets in a conservative society becomes clear in my tale of Anna and her lover, Tom. By withholding their devastating secrets and living with the consequent guilt and shame, they undermine their budding relationship.
Secrets, particularly family secrets are a hugely popular theme in memoirs and contemporary and classic novels. In Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, the protagonist is a high-society wife and mother who dwells upon a secret – the woman she loved as a teen.
In The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, Jay Gatsby hides his humble upbringing by manufacturing an upper-class persona for himself.
The anti-hero in The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is a Hungarian count who helped German spies during World War 2, but this is conveniently masked under the guise of amnesia.
The attraction of the theme of secrecy in a novel perhaps is not just to do with the drama of whether it will be discovered, but more about how it is borne by the character. I’ll leave the last word on this to Michael Slepian:
‘The real problem with keeping a secret is not that you have to hide it, but that you have to live with it, and think about it.’ (Scientific American, February 2019).
© Mhairead Macleod 2023