Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

March 8, 2013

Summary (from the publisher): “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.

Liked:

  • This book provided an interesting look at the plight of married women in the Victorian Age. It’s scary to think that they had no legal recourse to escape abusive, unfaithful, or indifferent husbands at that time. Even after he Divorce Act was passed, it seemed easier for men to be granted a divorce than women.
  • The account of the court proceeding was fascinating. Robinson vs Robinson & Lane seemed to attract as much attention as any celebrity divorce that happens now, and was often given prominent coverage in leading London newspapers. I doubt that Isabella, Henry, or Edward could have guessed that people would be reading about their divorce 150 years after the fact.
  • I thought the author treated Isabella in a balanced way. She was not made to be overly sympathetic, nor was she cast as an evildoer. That approach allowed the reader to approach the topic in an unbiased way as well. Though I didn’t identify with Isabella, I was horrified at the public shame and humiliation she was subjected to just for doing something that plenty of others were doing also.
  • The notes at the end of each chapter were helpful. I just wish they had been annotated like traditional footnotes for easier and immediate reference.

Disliked:

  • The subtitle of the book — The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady — led me to believe I would be reading a transcribed copy of Mrs. Robinson’s own writing. At the very least, I expected numerous and extensive passages straight from the lady’s own pen. But readers are actually only treated to short excerpts, lines, and snippets here and there, with most of the text consisting of Summerscale filling in the blanks with background info and exposition. To top it off, readers are only told at the end of the book that neither the original diary nor any of the full copies taken for the court proceedings survive.
  • Summerscale frequently veers off into tangential territory. Sometimes the tangents were helpful, as when describing how the Divorce Act came to be, but sometimes they were just dull and wasteful, as when talking about George Drysdale’s sexual history and the publication of his book.
  • Nothing highlighted the unfairness and hypocrisy of the age more than the fact that Henry Robinson had a mistress (and two children by her), yet still claimed to be the aggrieved party in the divorce — all based on nothing more than a few diary entries. He won and got the bulk of Isabella’s finances, which was ridiculous.

Rating

Although Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace wasn’t quite the book I expected it to be, I’m glad I gave it a chance. It was very readable, and despite not being anywhere near the prurient and private look at the lady’s secret passions that the title suggests, it was interesting enough to warrant sitting through 225 pages. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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