Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: Kate Summerscale

★★★★

The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady

When Isabella Robinson began to keep a diary in 1849, at the age of thirty-six, she could have little imagined the scandalous role it would come to play in one of the 19th century’s most salacious divorce cases. In fact, the prospect of scandal or any kind of excitement entering her life must have seemed depressingly small.

Isabella was firmly ensconced in the Victorian middle-classes: the wife of a civil engineer, with three sons, servants and consequently nothing to do except spend the long, tiresome days meditating on the disappointing hand life had dealt her. Unfulfilled by her husband, and possessed of a particularly febrile and romantic mind, Isabella found her frustrations spilling out in the form of unsuitable, passionate crushes on the young men around her.

One of these in particular caught her eye: the handsome young doctor Edward Lane, whom Isabella first encountered while living in Edinburgh in 1850, and then met again later in the decade, when he took over the hydropathy establishment at Moor Park in Surrey. Intellectual, attentive and well-connected – his patients at Moor Park included Charles Darwin – Edward Lane swiftly become the focus of Isabella’s yearnings. He was married, but nevertheless she thought she detected sympathy for her plight – bound to an ignorant, frequently absent husband – and, moreover, she thought she saw signs that her interest was returned. Her frequent visits to Moor Park paid off, and over the following months she would record in her diary the progress of a feverish and overwhelming love affair.

But then everything went wrong. Edward remembered his duty to his family and began to keep her at arm’s length. And then, during a stay in Boulogne with her family, Isabella was confined to bed with an incapacitating fever. As she slept, her husband Henry discovered – and read – her diary. He saw proof of his wife’s adultery in her own hand and, driven to a fury, resolved to divorce her. Taking the diary, he embarked on a case that would challenge the nascent English divorce laws, drag the deepest secrets of his marriage into the public eye, and force his wife to take drastic steps in order to protect her lover’s reputation. The stage was set for Robinson v. Robinson, and the country was riveted.

I haven’t yet read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and so this was my first introduction to Kate Summerscale’s brand of history. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It helped enormously, of course, that this is very much the same ground as I’ve been covering in my own research on the Original Idle Woman, to the point that some of the same historical figures crop up (I was particularly delighted to see Dr Addams make an appearance, as I’ve grown rather fond of him through my studies).

By using this colourful case as her focal point, Summerscale manages to make dry legal history extremely gripping: turning on that critical moment in 1858 when the Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes was introduced, and divorces became affordable for the middle-classes. What she does very well is to draw us into sympathy with Isabella, by presenting her side of the story first, and then to plunge us into the court proceedings – which were all reported in the newspapers of the time – forcing us to question everything we’ve just read, as the prosecution and defence wrangled over the reliability of Isabella’s own testimony. Diary-keeping was a relatively new fashion at the time and it had a reputation as a woman’s hobby: something sentimental, romantic and perhaps not all that faithful to reality. How far was Isabella’s testimony the record of what really happened, and how far was it the product of a feverish, frustrated mind?

That brought the court into other, more uncomfortable areas. In the days before psychoanalysis, there was no satisfactory explanation for the presence of subconscious desires and urges. Isabella’s fantasies – if that’s all they were – were laid bare by men, before men, for the benefit of men, as either the result of uterine disease, or of insanity. It’s a shocking picture of a world in which women’s expression of their sexuality was deeply unsettling, striking at the very root of Victorian society: the sanctity of the family and the inalienable authority of the paterfamilias. A married woman had no property of her own: her husband controlled her bank accounts and, even if the woman was an artist or novelist, the proceeds of her work went directly to her husband. Isabella was furious that Henry had read and taken her diary, but in fact the diary – like everything else she possessed – was Henry’s. Her anger was justified morally, perhaps, but not legally.

With plenty of quotes from Isabella’s diary, and from letters from her circle of friends, this is a remarkably vivid picture of an age which seems staggeringly unfair to us. It will never be entirely clear whether Isabella’s romance with Edward Lane happened in reality, or only in her mind, but Summerscale uses it as a way to explore the social challenges faced by the comfortable status quo in the mid-19th century. She conjures up a picture of a time when the established Christian, patriarchal worldview was being challenged – by Darwin’s theory of evolution; by the science of phrenology; by the increased ease of divorce; and by the growing awareness of women’s sexuality – and of Isabella herself, whose dreams, desires and transgressions became the stuff of public consumption.

If you’ve any interest in Victorian history, women’s history or simply in reading a very good example of how to bring history to life, this is definitely worth a look. Now I must seek out The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which I’m sure is just as absorbing.

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3 thoughts on “Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: Kate Summerscale

  1. Landing Tales says:

    I'd highly recommend 'Mr Whicher' if you get the chance. Fascinating account of the murder and the rise of the plain clothes detective. I haven't read this one yet, so thanks for review.

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