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Review: Mrs Robinson's Disgrace, by Kate Summerscale

Pages: 294
Original date of publication: 2012
My edition: 2012 (Bloomsbury)
Why I decided to read: Offered through the Amazon Vine program
How I acquired my copy: Amazon Vine, April 2012

Isabella Robinson was a housewife in the mid-19th century. Her husband moved her and their family to Edinburgh, where she met Edward Lane, a doctor who specialized in hydrotherapy (Charles Darwin was one of his patients and supporters later on). Although Dr. Lane was married, Isabella began spending a lot of time with him. She began keeping a diary, detailing her friendship/relationship (real or imagined) with him. When Isabella fell ill, her husband found her diary and began divorce proceedings against her. The diaries were nearly pornographic in nature (the women in the courtroom had to be cleared out before the diaries were read) and indicate a woman who was caught up in her emotions as well as had a strong sex drive.

These are the broad strokes of a fascinating incident—almost a blip in history, but related to so many other, bigger events. In the 1850s, a new Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes was created in order to expedite the process of divorce and make it cheaper and therefore more accessible to more people. Prior to the new law, Henry Robinson, as a middle-class businessman, would probably not have been able to afford a divorce.

Isabella was interested in phrenology; her analyst had discovered that a part of her skull indicated that she had a strong sex drive—and important part of her case. The third social event that had relevance to Isabella’s case was the huge growth in diary-writing in the middle of the 19th century—as well as the rise of the diary-format novel. Isabella Robinson wrote poetry as well; could she have allowed her imagination to get away with her in the pages of her diary? “In the loneliness of her marriage, ‘what was my resource?’ she asked. ‘What my consolation? Solitude & my pen. Here I lived in a world of my own, one that scarcely any one ever entered. I felt that in my own study, at least, I was a ruler; & tall I wrote was my own.’” (p. 167). Imagine how Isabella must have felt, then, to have her diaries disseminated and read by many.

From this book, we don’t get to see much of Isabella herself. It’s hard to get a clear picture of her in her own words because the originals of her diaries are lost. All that’s left are the 9000 words or so that were reprinted in the newspapers. I wish that the author had included more of the diaries, though, instead of quoting outside sources, such as contemporary novels, so much. While contemporary fiction serves to illustrate the mores of a society as a whole, I felt that the author relied on them too much in this book as filler. Because the diaries are so sparse, the reader has to read between the lines about what was really going on. I judged Isabella to be quite hysterical, imaginative, selfish, narcissistic, a bad judge of character, ruled by her own emotions, narrow-minded, and stubborn. So she doesn’t come across well at all, which made it hard to really empathize with her.

What’s also unclear is Edward Lane’s frame of mind (though one can imagine). Isabella Robinson also came on to her sons’ two tutors, both men much younger than she was. It’s not said explicitly, but her behavior towards them was presumably very embarrassing—although Isabella was totally blind to the fact. She was also very blind to Dr. Lane’s attitude towards her; at times he tried to pull away from her. But it’s a sad underlying message that although Dr. Lane spent a lot of time trying to preserve his own professional and personal reputation, neither he—or Henry Robinson—tried to help Isabella when the time came for it. My view is that Isabella got everything she deserved, but I think that this fact illustrates the way that people viewed reputations in Victorian society. What this book also illustrates is Victorian attitudes towards sex. Mrs. Robinson’s case hinged on the defense of insanity (uterine disease), which brought on sexual delusions.

In all, I enjoyed this book; it seemed a little bit short, though, more of a case study as opposed to being full-book-length. But I think it’s an interesting view into a little-known historical incident that had so many connections and connotations to Victorian social history.


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