Monday, July 2, 2012

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace, by Kate Summerscale

Bloomsbury USA, 2012
303 pp

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is written by Kate Summerscale, whose book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher  provided me with hours of entertainment.   It dealt with a Victorian-era detective involved in the famous case of Constance Kent, who was accused of murdering her young stepbrother in 1860.   Remaining in the Victorian period, the author takes on another case that made the headlines back in the day and caused a huge and scandalous stir -- the case of Isabella Robinson, whose husband discovered and read her private diary and then sued for divorce on the grounds of adultery on the basis of its contents.  The diary, the ensuing trial and Isabella's inner turmoil are discussed in depth, as are changes in Victorian England that are starting to challenge the period's status quo.  The book is also filled with details that fill in what's going on outside of Isabella's life and her trial. It's a good read, but sometimes the details are a bit too thick when you want to get back to the meat of the book and the author's analysis.

Isabella Robinson grew up in a well-to-do family.  She was born in 1813, married young and had her first child before she lost her first husband in 1842.  Two years later, she married Henry Oliver Robinson, a businessman with whom she had two more children. Henry and Isabella lived well; before moving to Edinburgh they lived in Blackheath Park; Henry's business prospered and by marrying Isabella, he also gained money her father had settled on her.  But Isabella was not happy -- Henry was away a lot on business and  he also had a number of extra-marital affairs, and Isabella came to believe that Henry wanted her only because of her money.    In 1849, Isabella started keeping a diary, her "friend in loneliness and in sickness, a companion and confidant." She

"used her journal as a place in which to confess her weakness, her sadness and her sins. In its pages she audited her behavior and her thoughts; she grappled with her errors and tried to plot out a path to virtue."

But as it turns out, the story that took shape in her diary, "a serial in daily parts, in which she was the wronged and desperate heroine,"  turned out to be her undoing and the seeds of her own disgrace.  It was there where her unfulfilled romantic and sexual needs would be reworked and translated into passionate, flowery prose just like one would see in a romance novel of the time, as she set down her accounts of her strong attachments to and romantic involvements with various men.  Her record of her time together with Dr. Edward Lane at first consisted of innocent details about the two families and her trips to his hydrotherapy establishment. Then she started writing down descriptions of the first instances of mutual attraction between them,  their clandestine meetings, and the first kiss when suddenly  “something extraordinary happened: the fantasies that Isabella had nurtured in her diary crossed into life.”  Isabella also documented a possible sexual encounter with Lane, when she writes that “I rested among the dry fern. I shall not state what followed.”  Unfortunately for Isabella, while she was sick one day, Henry found her diaries, along with other papers Isabella had held on to, became furious,  and in 1857, he and Isabella were legally separated.  England's laws were changing, so that now it was becoming easier to obtain a full divorce; by 1858 Henry filed for his own divorce from Isabella, wanting nothing less than Isabella's complete ruin.   He would keep the two children from their marriage as well as the money; Isabella would have to fend for herself.  But first, he had to go to court.

During the somewhat complicated legal proceedings, Lane, of course, denied everything, citing Isabella's words as “a tissue of romances from beginning to end."   Isabella's own lawyers came up with the defense that  that their client was suffering from some sort of uterine sickness that was linked to nymphomania, causing her to write down what virtually amounted to romantic and sexual fantasies to use later.   How degrading --  at the time, many doctors believed that masturbation was the "chief symptom" of nymphomania, and that the scenes in her diary were written for the purpose of personal gratification.  The author notes that

"The medical witnesses in the Divorce Court suggested that Isabella had become mired in a circle of desire and excitement, recorded and created by her diary: her lascivious thoughts, translated to paper, took on an apparent reality that gratified her erotic impulses."

Not only did Isabella have to sit through this testimony day after day and have her space and personal life invaded by the reading of her private journals, noting 

 “That men, mere strangers, no ways authorised, should have considered themselves at liberty to pry into, to peruse, to censure, to select from, my private writings, with curious, unchivalrous, ignoble hands, I cannot understand,"

but the newspapers had a field day reporting some of the excerpts from Isabella's diary as they were read aloud in court, with only a few reprieves:  sometimes the court was cleared of women and reporters when the day's topics were deemed as too delicate or too indecent.  And after all of the legal proceedings were completed, after the trial and  Isabella's private thoughts dragged her through the very public mud, Robinson failed to get his divorce. Their marriage, however, would end some years later, interestingly enough when Isabella was caught in the act with one of her children's former tutors. 

While Isabella's story is fascinating, the book works on different levels. First, the diary reveals Isabella's inner turmoil as a middle-aged, married woman, desirous for any male affection, but with little or no accepted outlets for expression of her sexuality.  At the same time, the author explores a changing Victorian period, one where traditional ideas and established conventions were being challenged.   For example,  the changes to the existing  divorce law started in 1858 when the secular divorce court was established.  This change made divorce easier for the middle classes to obtain, and as the author states, Henry Robinson's divorce was one of 302 cases to go before the court within the first fifteen months.  Out of those cases, only six were denied, including Robinson's.

I got really involved in Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace -- the author has done an amazing amount of research, all duly footnoted.  Not only does she present Isabella's court case in the context of a changing society, but she takes the time to establish the lives of the major players, going into deep background, for example, with Dr. Lane's family and their relationship to the Robinsons.  There's also a bit of a who's who with people like Charles Darwin, whose own work was also upsetting the established scientific and religious applecarts, causing him a great deal of stress that had to be relieved with the new practice of hydrotherapy.  And the revelation that Isabella was caught with one of her children's old tutors made me wonder if in fact, there may have been some measure of truth in her diaries. Seriously, one of the things that kept turning over in my head the entire time was the question of "did she or didn't she?"  The double standard that existed for men and women is also a topic of discussion that pervades this book.  Aside from the positives, however, there is so much detail embedded in the book that there's a great temptation to skim, and I must admit I did this in a few places, especially in places where so much background started to feel a bit boggy.  And as much as I liked this book, it wasn't as personally appealing to me as her Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which I think was the better of the two. 

All the same, I'd definitely recommend it if Victorian history is your thing; I'd recommend it to readers who are interested in women's history as well. Overall I found it to be a good book, a bit weighted down with an abundance of detail but still very interesting.