Apr/May 2013  •   Reviews & Interviews

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace

Review by Ann Skea

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady.
Kate Summerscale.
Bloomsbury. 2013. 303 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 1241 9.

Kate Summerscale's book is more than just the story of a Victorian wife's romantic indiscretions and a scandalous divorce case. It is a glimpse of a changing society. One in which a woman's sexuality could be discussed in terms of hysteria and insanity caused by disorders of the womb. One in which gynecology and psychology were new medical disciplines, and homeopathy, phrenology, and hydropathy were accepted and resorted to by such eminent figures as the Brontes, George Eliot (Mary Evans), Darwin, Dickens, and even members of the Royal family. And one in which the new Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes was established, making divorce easier and less expensive to obtain on the grounds of adultery and (for women petitioners) one additional "matrimonial offence" (i.e. desertion, cruelty, bigamy, rape, sodomy, or bestiality). The law was beginning to recognize a married woman's rights and the need to protect her property, but a husband could still claim custody of his children and, as in the Robinsons' case, ownership of all his wife's papers.

Isabella Robinson was an intelligent, well-read, and imaginative woman. In 1844, as a 31-year-old widow with one child, she married Henry Robinson, a successful civil engineer, whose business building steam ships and sugarcane mills often took him overseas. Henry already had a mistress and two illegitimate children, and he proved to be, in Isabella's words, an "uncongenial partner... uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh-tempered, selfish, proud." He also persuaded her to hand him control of the money that had been settled on her by her father.

Isabella's real misfortune was that like many lonely, romantically inclined women of her day, she was fatally inclined to foster romantic obsessions and to confide her most secret thoughts to her "secret friend," her diary. How much of what she wrote there about her "wretchedest and wickedest hours" was romantic fiction, modeled on such books as Flaubert's Madam Bovary, we will never know, but when her husband discovered the diary and read it, he was incensed and determined to ruin the man Isabella had set her heart on. A divorce court judge, too, deemed it convincing enough to consider Henry's petition for divorce for three months before pronouncing judgment.

The case was a public sensation, and poor Isabella had to endure parts of her diary being read out in court and published in the newspapers. Fictional diaries were popular reading at the time, but Isabella's was, apparently, shocking fact. She was deemed by one newspaper editor to be either "as foul and abandoned a creature as ever wore woman's shape," or to be a madwoman. And insanity was one plea open to Isabella in her own defence.

Summerscale's research for this book sits lightly on a scandalous story, but her endnotes show the care she has taken. Like the well-known sequence of paintings "Past and Present" by Leopold Egg, which depict the discovery and the sad results of a wife's indiscretions, divorce was still a disaster for women and, too often, for their children as well. And although I never really warmed to Isabella in spite of her plight and the prolonged ordeal she underwent, Summerscale kept me reading to the end, when the result of the court case and the outcome for all those involved is revealed (a revelation I will not, in turn, reveal here).


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