Top critical review
Initially disappointing, ultimately fascinating, but if I'd wanted a copy of Madame Bovary I'd have ordered it
on 12 June 2016
Like many other reviewers, I was drawn to this through my enjoyment of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I don't baulk at contemporary journals, and was familiar with the inequities of middle class Victorian life, particularly with regard to the position of women. So I was surprised at what a hard read I found it, and how I plodded along without any great sense of engagement. I reminded myself that these sort of factual books are never best read on Kindle editions - it is annoying to have to do the footnotes in a lump at the end, and it was some time before I fully dawned that this was actually only excerpts of the diary, as published for the trial. It was well written and well researched, and for a while I just couldn't work out why I wasn't enjoying it. It was quite hard to follow the motivation of many of the characters until the light bulb went off and I realised that these were Sunday Times folk. The well to do, leisured chattering classes, with the time, money and brains to pick over the latest theories, books and exhibitions. Throw in an addiction to the latest pseudo scientific wellness fads, odd diets - well you can find that in the glossy supplements any week, but with the added advantage in this case of that insatiable Victorian thirst for knowledge and improvement, their willingness to up sticks and move around, and the extra frisson of lots of sex. And some of the peripheral characters were big hitters - Darwin's belief in hydrotherapy led to him attending the "spa" run by Isabella's inamorata. Goodness, the Victorians were as obsessed with sex as any other era, but equally obsessed with not talking about it. This of course was part of the problem - although the romantic view of marriage was quite popular, it was still about money, legitimate children (of the marriage) and property. Divorce was too expensive for even the well to do upper middle classes, until with supreme irony, the unreformed old Regency rake, Lord Palmerston presided over some more accessible legislation.
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.