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3.4 out of 5 stars
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on 29 January 2013
This is a case of successful extreme research and cleverly stitched historical information apparently about the marriage of an individual woman. It is actually much more than that, providing insight into both men and women, the way society is organised, and how established values can dominate fragile human beings. The profiling of individual persons, victims or lawyers, is fascinating. Read the notes.
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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.
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I have to admit that I enjoy a good Victorian scandal, one that ended up in court, made headline news and left reputation tattered and torn, so I settled down to enjoy. What I didn’t bank on was my growing sympathy for poor Isabella’s plight.

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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on 5 February 2013
This book has really gripped me despite my misgivings about the violation of privacy in reading someone's (highly edited) diary. That aside, Kate Summerscale does a great job in contextualising the diary's contents. It gives a sobering account of the plight of even quite wealthy women in the 1850's if they had the misfortune to be unhappily married. This all sounds a bit worthy but I can truly say I found it an absorbing read and am very grateful for the freedom and independence women have always enjoyed in my lifetime. The Kindle edition also contains the full text of Madame Bovary with an introduction by KS which makes it particularly good value.
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on 23 August 2014
After reading the glowing reviews from other authors and critics,I was very disappointed with this book. I was expecting some sort of diary. It isn't often that I choose a book which I find I don't particularly want to finish, but this, sadly, didn't hold my interest and I was glad to get to the end. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find Madam Bovary at the end which is one of my favourite books, so rereading that was a reward for staggering through poor Mrs. Robinson's little tale.
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on 16 June 2016
I am a great admirer of Kate Summerscale's work. Her research is so thorough and she is so scrupulous about drawing evidence based conclusions. Her depiction of the context of the work is engrossing too. I find I cannot read books about the historical rights, or lack thereof, of women without raging and this one was no exception - a woman pilloried and persecuted by her husband based on the contents of her private diary which he had every right at the time to purloin. It made me want to give thanks for being a late 20th/early 21st century woman in the UK.
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on 15 April 2013
To learn more about middle/upper class Victorians. This book shows the double standards in Victorian society, men appear to have had different rules they lived by, whilst women were deemed of no consequence and not supposed to have views on any subject other than their children and running of the household. And to have actual feelings of passion was shocking.
This book is an excellent record of victorian marriage and divorce, based on a genuine divorce, not a novel so many will be disappointed, the language is different, more stilted, many would struggle with it. The book is quite short pity another case is not included. If you like light chick lit this is not for you, students of history will find it a helpful reference of research.
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on 19 December 2015
Like many other readers I bought this book in the back of Mr Whicher and I am hugely disappointed. It is slow, unengaging and deals with a delusional Victorian woman's fantasy loves. Not much given of the 'Private Diary' of the title. And then - about a third of the way through - the book stops, notes follow and then at 46% Flaubert's Madame Bovary starts. I didn't want to buy this book, nor read it.
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on 6 August 2014
One or two reviewers have criticised the book for not being the diary itself, but a quick glimpse at the description would show that it's a book about the diary and its author, with diary extracts, so I think that's a little unfair.

I found it a fascinating story and couldn't help feeling for both Mrs Robinson and Victorian women in general because of the outrageous way in which they and virtually everything they 'owned' legally belonged to their husbands.

There is some padding, as there so often is in this kind of story where there isn't quite enough material to fill a whole book. Background information is one thing, but some of the sidetracks the author goes down seemed to me to be largely there to increase the word count.

My other gripe is that it fizzles out at the end. We get quite detailed insights into the lives of the main characters for most of the book, presumably mostly culled from newspaper accounts as well as the diary. But once the trial was over and they were out of the limelight, there seems to have been little more information to go on but for the barest facts, and it all feels like a hasty summing up.

I'd still recommend it as a worthwhile read, though.
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on 14 May 2012
I was really looking forward to this book - but was very disappointed.

What I found was not the private diary of a Victorian lady but the author's explaination of it with the odd quote from the diary itself written in, followed by a usually glaringly obvious explaination as to what said quote meant within that context.

I felt like I was reading a very long essay on the book.

The story is interesting, but I would rather have read more of the diary itself.
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