Friday, June 29, 2012

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary Of A Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale


"I think people marry far too much; it is such a lottery, and for a poor woman--bodily and morally the husband’s slave--a very doubtful happiness." - Queen Victoria to her recently married daughter Vicky. Headstrong, high-spirited, and already widowed, Isabella Walker became Mrs. Henry Robinson at age 31 in 1844. Her first husband had died suddenly, leaving his estate to a son from a previous marriage, so she inherited nothing. A successful civil engineer, Henry moved them, by then with two sons, to Edinburgh’s elegant society in 1850. But Henry traveled often and was cold and remote when home, leaving Isabella to her fantasies. No doubt thousands of Victorian women faced the same circumstances, but Isabella chose to record her innermost thoughts-and especially her infatuation with a married Dr. Edward Lane-in her diary. Over five years the entries mounted-passionate, sensual, suggestive. One fateful day in 1858 Henry chanced on the diary and, broaching its privacy, read Isabella’s intimate entries. Aghast at his wife’s perceived infidelity, Henry petitioned for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Until that year, divorce had been illegal in England, the marital bond being a cornerstone of English life. 

Their trial would be a cause celebre, threatening the foundations of Victorian society with the specter of "a new and disturbing figure: a middle class wife who was restless, unhappy, avid for arousal." Her diary, read in court, was as explosive as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, just published in France but considered too scandalous to be translated into English until the 1880s. As she accomplished in her award-winning and bestselling The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale brilliantly recreates the Victorian world, chronicling in exquisite and compelling detail the life of Isabella Robinson, wherein the longings of a frustrated wife collided with a society clinging to rigid ideas about sanity, the boundaries of privacy, the institution of marriage, and female sexuality. 


Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is a non-fictional accounting of Victorian woman’s diary and her secret love. Isabella Robinson was an upper middle class woman married to a successful businessman with whom she had three children. One could say Isabella had it all – a wealthy husband, plenty of servants, plenty of fashionable clothes and accessories, and the perfect family. Despite all this, Isabella was not happy. She was trapped in a loveless marriage with a difficult, cold man who was away from home most of the time. He had two illegitimate children, a sign that his own moral values were corrupt. Her unhappiness led to Isabella falling hopelessly and lustfully in love with Dr Edward Lane, the son-in-law of a family within her closest social circle. In a secret diary, Isabella diligently recorded her innermost feelings, desires, and thoughts as her passion for the married Dr Lane turned into obsession. As her marriage failed and led to divorce, her diary was used against her by her infuriated husband and mocked for its scandal in the media at the time. Her husband had stolen the diary and used it against her in his divorce suit on the grounds of her adultery. The case culminated in a choice for Mrs Robinson to declare herself sexually active and immoral or insane. She chose to be labelled immoral and be disgraced, thus erasing any moral after-effects on Dr Lane and his family. 

This book provides readers with an accurate depiction of how difficult and complex life for Victorian women was and the dilemmas they faced in matters of sexuality and married life. Excerpts of the diary are interspersed in in the factual, historical accounting of this famous case. All in all, it is a fascinating case story and an important historical event worth reading about.

From History and Women

1 comment:

Ms. Lucy said...

I have this book on my tbr list! I will definitely make time to read it. I hadn't realized that it was non-fiction!