Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of A Victorian Lady – Kate Summerscale

Published April 15, 2013 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Headstrong, high-spirited, and already widowed, Isabella Walker became Mrs. Henry Robinson at age 31 in 1844. Her first husband had died suddenly, leaving his estate to a son from a previous marriage, so she inherited nothing. A successful civil engineer, Henry moved them, by then with two sons, to Edinburgh’s elegant society in 1850. But Henry traveled often and was cold and remote when home, leaving Isabella to her fantasies.No doubt thousands of Victorian women faced the same circumstances, but Isabella chose to record her innermost thoughts-and especially her infatuation with a married Dr. Edward Lane-in her diary. Over five years the entries mounted-passionate, sensual, suggestive. One fateful day in 1858 Henry chanced on the diary and, broaching its privacy, read Isabella’s intimate entries. Aghast at his wife’s perceived infidelity, Henry petitioned for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Until that year, divorce had been illegal in England, the marital bond being a cornerstone of English life. Their trial would be a cause celebre, threatening the foundations of Victorian society with the specter of “a new and disturbing figure: a middle class wife who was restless, unhappy, avid for arousal.” Her diary, read in court, was as explosive as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, just published in France but considered too scandalous to be translated into English until the 1880s.

What did I think?:

I have the beautiful hardback edition of this book with what resembles a Victorian miniature painting of a woman with her back turned. Although I haven’t read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by the same author (I have it on my bookshelf just waiting to be devoured), I was really looking forward to digging into this story. Isabella Walker is a frustrated and passionate woman stuck in a loveless and unhappy marriage. Probably her first mistake is allowing herself to become quickly enamoured by young men that she comes into acquaintance with – most notably Dr Edward Lane, but she also imagines herself attracted to other young men including her sons tutors. Her second mistake perhaps is writing all her feelings of contempt against her husband and the circumstances of passionate meetings with other men into a journal which of course her husband finds, leading to an acrimonious, bitter and very nasty divorce case.

Isabella appears to understand her own flaws, even chastising herself for being so susceptible to a man’s charms. Once every detail of her private life is made public, her reputation and dignity is ruined and I found myself feeling terribly sorry for her. Yes, her behaviour was a bit foolish and at times quite rash, however she was obviously incredibly lonely and did not feel appreciated or loved by her husband. Furthermore at the court case, her most secret words are thoughts are displayed for the world to see, analyse and be used against her to protect the “married gentleman Edward Lane,” (not as gallant or innocent a man as you may think!). This goes to the extent of interpreting her words as the delusional meanderings of a sex-crazed mad woman, definitely not what a good Victorian wife should be like. This was such an interesting and educational book for me, and I am now eagerly anticipating both Mr Whicher and any future works by Kate Summerscale.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

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