Wednesday 21 August 2019

Review: Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale

Bloomsbury €21.35

CASE HISTORY: The story of Isabella is another fascinating
delve into a Victorian trial by best-selling Kate Summerscale
CASE HISTORY: The story of Isabella is another fascinating delve into a Victorian trial by best-selling Kate Summerscale


The award-winning number one bestseller The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008) by Kate Summerscale was always going to be a hard act to follow. In theory, the tale of a Victorian divorce doesn't hold a gas lamp to the whodunnit at Road Hill House but once again, with Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, Summerscale has delivered a book that works as both history and mystery.

In 1844 Isabella Dansey, a widow with one son, married Henry Robinson. The couple had two sons but, judging by extracts from Isabella's diary and the fact that Henry had two illegitimate children, the marriage was not a particularly happy one.

In 1855, while Isabella was deliriously ill, Henry read her diary which contained not only her low opinion of him but her extremely high one of her friend, Dr Edward Lane.

Isabella first met Lane, who was 10 years her junior, shortly after she and Henry married and moved to Edinburgh. In the intervening years, Lane had married and moved to Moor Park, Surrey, where he ran a fashionable spa which offered patients (including Charles Darwin) the newly minted practice of 'hydrotherapy'.

We know all of this because, unfortunately for Isabella, Parliament passed The Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857 and husband Henry was the 11th petitioner for a divorce. He claimed Isabella had committed adultery and used her private diary as proof.

That Isabella Robinson was smitten with Dr Lane isn't in any doubt but at no point in the diary does she explicitly state that they had sex. In the age of online blogs, Facebook and Twitter it's easy to forget that to read someone's diary without their permission was not just an invasion of privacy, but an act of defilement.

It was shocking that Henry would read his wife's private diary in the first place, but it was even more of a violation to make those words public by using them as evidence against her at trial.

Isabella's defence claimed that the diary was an experiment in fiction writing and that it was highly unlikely that she would have "written with her own hand a record of her infamy". The second barrel of the defence case was that Isabella was suffering from mental illness due to 'uterine disease', a handy catch-all that covered a multitude of women's troubles and troublesome women.

Diarists run the risk of sounding self-obsessed and, at times, poor Isabella sounds like a 19th-Century Adrian Mole. However, if Mrs Robinson hadn't such a flare for drama the extracts quoted by Summerscale (and in court) would be far less interesting for the reader. I have to admit I had little sympathy for Mrs Robinson herself but I did have an abundance for the situation she found herself in.

Although Mrs Robinson and her diary are central to the narrative they are, in many ways, beside the point. Summerscale treats us to a very broad view of mid-Victorian family and cultural life which is utterly fascinating.

Some of the walk-on characters are beyond the wildest imaginings of fiction writers, in particular Dr Lane's brother-in-law, George Drysdale, who successfully faked his own death and then returned to his stunned family a few years later. George went on to anonymously write the best-selling Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion and argued that it was far better for men to pay prostitutes than resort to masturbation.

Any woman who says she is not a feminist should read this book which shines a spotlight on just how powerless women were in the "good old days".

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