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Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady Diary – 30 Apr 2012
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In June 1858, soon after the new Court of Divorce began sitting, Henry Oliver Robinson brought a divorce suit on the grounds of his wife's adultery, submitting her diary as evidence. Read aloud in court, the diary was more sensational than anything in contemporary fiction. Kate Summerscale tells the story of romance, scandal, the boundaries of privacy, and a diary in which Isabella Robinson 'seemed to have invited, and lovingly recorded, her own disgrace'.Slightly off-mint.
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Isabella Robinson seemed to be a clever, restless and highly sexed woman who was not a particularly good picker of men - lots of those still around. She did not come across as particularly likeable - admitting she had made two bad choices of husband. Why, as daughter of a well to do upper middle class family she elected to marry a much older, widowed junior Naval Officer with children from a first marriage is not clear. Perhaps she was desperate for sex and he was available and approved. His sad demise from mental illness and settlement of his considerable money on the children, leaving her badly off would mean she would perhaps marry the first available man subsequently, and although Mr Robinson is not portrayed in a flattering light, perhaps he wearied of being condescended to and reminded of his inferior social status. There is no suggestion that she was under any pressure to marry either of her husbands. Mental illness, another Victorian obsession, features heavily in the book as well, and you can sense the way they groped round for explanations in pre-Freudian times. Isabella's decision to set her cap at a younger, handsome family friend seems heartless, and she doesn't in all her outpouring or self examination (at least those available to us) seem to have any guilt at her behaviour to her female friend and her mother. Edward's motivation is also unclear - he seems to enjoy having intellectual discussions with her, and her company, but ultimately finding her rather needy and cloying, appears to almost sever the relationship when the Robinsons moved away. Nothing daunted, she immediately sets her cap at her sons' tutor. When the Robinsons and Lanes paths re-cross, she reinstigates the pursuit. Much ink is spilled over did they or didn't they, and was she mad, fantasising or just bad. I'd lay good money on Edward thinking he could get away with it - despite the obvious risk to his entire business if discovered. His later total renouncement of her when the case came to court was not attractive either - but then neither was Charles Dickens' treatment of his wife. The Court case was rather more interesting than the scene setting precursor, but I still didn't find it that gripping. The most intriguing part of the entire episode was that following another pursuit of another tutor (French this time) Isabella Robinson, having won her divorce case, was finally divorced when actually discovered having an affair with this same tutor some years later. Quite a lady!
I kept noting how little of the book percentage (annoying when Kindle doesn't do page numbers) was complete, although the case was over bar the round up of what happened to the protagonists. I was totally astonished to get a translation of Madame Bovary by Karl Marx's daughter thrown in. I read Madame Bovary, in French, when doing A Levels, and am possibly scarred for life by this experience! True, being the awful little intellectual snob that I was, I did elect to do so, and when struggling beyond measure, had recourse to probably the very same translation. I cannot, however, see a reason for this, other than to pad out the rather slight book.
The author reveals the background to the story first and we know that Isabella Robinson, a widow with a young son, married Henry Robinson in 1844. A fiercely intelligent and well-read woman it didn’t take her long to realise that perhaps she should have held out for a better match:
He was an ‘uncongenial man’ she wrote in her diary: uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh-tempered, selfish, proud.’ While she yearned to talk about literature and politics, to write poetry, learn languages and read the latest essays on science and philosophy, he was ‘a man who had only a commercial life’
We hear how the couple moved around but the real action starts once they moved to Edinburgh, where with young children in tow they made the acquaintance of Elizabeth Drysdale, a fantastic host who shared her splendid home with her daughter Mary and her son-in-law Edward Lane. Edward Lane had studied to be a lawyer but was now training to be a doctor (these upper middle class men seemed to be eternally switching careers!) With Henry often away on business which was to design and build ships and mills for sugar cane it is clear that Isabella craved company, what she soon commits in writing is that she particularly craved a particular type of company from Mr Edward Lane.
I’m not going to lie, although by the end I had a lot of sympathy for Isabella, she led a life at that time which many could only have wondered at; she enjoyed her children’s company, was forever being entertained, going on holiday and able to read and contemplate her navel and commit those thoughts to her diary, whilst being waited upon hand and foot. But, and here is where things get far more complex, she had nothing to call her own. Indeed her fateful marriage to Henry had been partly bought about that she wasn’t an attractive prospect, a widow with a child, especially as her deceased husband had settled most of his money on the offspring from his first wife. Henry was no saint, he had offspring by an unmarried woman and was clearly after the money Isabella was given by her family, an amount settled yearly to avoid the fact that otherwise she had nothing under the law of the land at that time. Isabella was one of the many unlucky women who had no outlet for her intelligence, although I have to say at times her ‘poor me’ attitude grated. But she was stuck, divorce was practically impossible until the summer of 1858. In the end it was Henry that applied to divorce Isabella using the evidence from he own diary as proof.
This book is teaming with social history particularly that of the richer members of society at this time, and it is this that really made this book so fascinating for me and kept me reading, especially at the beginning when at times I tired at times of Isabella, although all that changed when we got to court! During the unfolding of the story as told in main, through the words of Isabella, although I was surprised to hear that the original diary no longer exists, there are snapshots of contemporary Victorian life infused with the story of Isabella’s disgrace at her own hand. A woman who is judged not only in the court room but by her peers across the land as snippets of her diary make their way into the newspapers.
I love the style of writing, there is no emphasising certain facts in this books just a clear and neutral retelling of a woman’s life, her choices and the consequences. The additional historical details all of which are impeccably researched include atheism, phrenology, water treatments, insanity and of course divorce law which make this one of the most educational books of the Victorian period and far more readily digested than dry facts.
There is no-one who quite manages to keep their voice so neutral and yet deliver such a well-researched and compelling story as Kate Summerscale and although I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as the Suspicions of Mr Whicher this was a personal choice of subject rather than delivery. I am however delighted to hear that Kate Summerscale has a new Victorian crime to delight us with in May; The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer is on pre-order!
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