Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale: review
A fascinating personal diary opens up the world of the middle classes in 1850, says Philippa Gregory, reviewing Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale.
By Philippa Gregory / 07 Jun 2012 / The Telegraph / http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9316823/Mrs-Robinsons-Disgrace-by-Kate-Summerscale-review.html
Isabella Robinson was a Victorian wife who married for convention; a mother of three boys; a romantic; a diarist; a highly sexed woman who described herself as “an independent and constant thinker”.
“Aha,” says the blue-stocking reader (for this is she), “one of our own. This is a woman who is going to think and imagine and write herself into trouble.”
And so she does. She buys one of the new stationery products, a personal diary, and she follows the advice of the manufacturer, Letts: “Use your diary with the utmost familiarity and confidence, conceal nothing from its pages nor suffer any other eye than your own to scan them.”
In this diary, Mrs Robinson narrates the progress of her crush on a young married man; her erotic dreams of him; and the high point of their affair, in a closed carriage – “I leaned back at last in silent joy in those arms I had so often dreamed of and kissed the curls and smooth face so radiant with beauty that had dazzled my outward and inward vision.”
She wrote in the language and literary conventions of a romantic novel, with herself as a narrator-heroine. This diary created a record of her inner, secret life which could be read in so many ways: by her enraged husband as a court document to prove her adultery; by the newspaper readers for scandalised titillation; and now by Kate Summerscale as a chronicle on which to base a new book analysing reality, literary versions, and history.
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace describes the affair between this lonely, passionate, intelligent woman and a younger man, from their first meeting in Edinburgh when she was a regular and welcome visitor in the house where he lived with his wife and mother-in-law to the time when, at a hydrotherapy spa run by him as the resident doctor, they walked together alone, lay on dry fern, and – as she wrote in her diary – “I shall not state what followed.”
This highly wrought account of their encounters was stolen by Mrs Robinson’s husband, a vindictive and bad-tempered man whose own moral position, as father to two illegitimate daughters, did not prevent him taking the high ground with his wife, and suing for divorce on the grounds of her adultery. He offered her own writing as the only material evidence.
Mrs Robinson’s defence was to claim that the diary was a fiction – a hallucinatory account of dreams and fantasies. Her lawyer explained that she suffered from nymphomania or erotomania, that a uterine condition had driven her mad with lust. Her private writing had to be offered up by herself as proof of her own madness. Faced with the choice of describing herself either as a sexually active woman or as insane, Mrs Robinson chose to save her reputation for chastity by sacrificing her reputation for sanity. In so doing, she cleared the reputation of the man she loved, and saved his marriage and his business.
Summerscale has rescued this extraordinary story from the archives, and set it into the context of a time when the debate about women, sexuality and marriage reached a new level of anxiety. She takes us into the heart of the sexual double standards of Victorian England, where a woman would lose her husband, children, property and reputation if adultery was proved. Meanwhile, a husband’s adultery was condoned: he could only be divorced if he was guilty of sexual or physical abuse of his wife. A conduct book of the time advised of the “inalienable right of all men to be treated with deference, and made much of in their own houses”.
Summerscale gives us a considered and complex view of Mrs Robinson’s world – Madame Bovary and Charles Darwin walk through these pages; her lover’s brother-in-law fakes his own death because of his horror of masturbation; gynaecologists avoid using a speculum for fear of their patients’ pleasure; and the divorce courts have to clear women from the public gallery because the material is so disturbing.
As one would expect from the author of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008), Summerscale’s prize-winning analysis of a Victorian murder and its detective, the material here is handled with confident subtlety. The history goes from the individual to the individual’s world with seductive ease. Mrs Robinson is no cardboard feminist heroine in this account: Summerscale is unsparing about her heroine’s silliness, flirtatiousness and emotional neediness. The judges at the divorce court, ostensibly the very bastions of patriarchy, are thoughtful and considerate, and their even-handed ruling is described in detail.As in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, readers are allowed to form their own opinion as to guilt and motive. This is a highly considered social history teased out from a fascinating personal document, and Summerscale takes the reader through layer upon layer of understanding as this extraordinary divorce case opens up the world of 1850 middle-class England and the women who fitted themselves into its strictures.
Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale – review
This fine cultural history uncovers an engrossing landmark divorce case
The Guardian, Wednesday 9 May 2012/ http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/09/mrs-robinsons-disgrace-kate-summerscale-review
The chief exhibits from Kate Summerscale's deservedly bestselling and prizewinning last book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, are still hanging about rather grotesquely in my mind. The mutilated body of a boy in the water closet, a sash window slightly open, a bloodstained nightdress stuffed into the boiler. Summerscale's reconstruction of the infamous murder investigation at Road Hill House was also a cross-examination of Victorian domestic life and its most disturbing secrets. Now, in Mrs Robinson's Disgrace, she uses the same techniques of historical sleuthing to reconstruct the events that brought one couple to the divorce courts in 1858. As before, she follows the clues outwards from this one case to the larger anxieties, prejudices and cover-ups that shaped it. Summerscale puts Victorian middle-class society back in the dock, and again it is both horrifying and salutary to follow the questioning from the gallery.
The chief exhibit this time is a diary. No blood, no corpse in the privy, just an ordinary Letts diary of the sort that is currently half price in Smith's. But this too is a relic of passions that could not be contained and which are exposed in the end to the scrutiny of a nation. The unfortunate diarist, Isabella Robinson, fell in love with a man who was not her husband and wrote her feelings down. That was her crime, that was her ruin, and that was all it took to cause a scandal of major proportions. Her husband, the industrialist Henry Robinson, had a range of mistresses and two illegitimate children, but no matter. For a woman the standards were different. After all, she didn't even own her diary.
The man she loved was the married doctor
pioneer homeopath and proprietor of an advanced hydropathy establishment in Surrey where patients were prescribed a bewildering
number of different kinds of bath. Isabella spent time at Edward's spa, and in
his study, but did they embark on an affair? Nothing in Edward's letters proved
it – he was too careful a correspondent. Isabella, on the other hand, wrote in
her diary a day-by-day narrative of her erotic longing and the dreamed-of
reciprocation that began one afternoon in the Surrey
countryside when Edward turned to her on the plaid picnic rug and kissed her.
In her diary Isabella was the heroine of her own romantic novel. She described the misery of her marriage to the insensitive Henry, her ennui and entrapment, the great redeeming joy of evenings spent reading poetry with Edward. She wrote out her fantasies and expressed the full force of her desire. She stopped just short of recording everything ("I rested among the dry fern. I shall not state what followed"), but she included in her diary much more than was licensed in any contemporary fiction. In
Gustave Flaubert was at work on his great novel of adultery, Madame Bovary, but
it would be banned from publication in , deemed too repulsive and
corrupting for English eyes. England
Henry Robinson was one of the first to sue for divorce under the new Matrimonial Causes Act of
1857, a landmark act that
for the first time made divorce a possibility for middle-class couples. If Mr
Whicher's investigation at Road Hill was the original whodunnit, Robinson v
Robinson & Lane was the "original" divorce, the ancestor of more
than 100,000 divorces that took place in the in 2010 alone. UK
And what an agonising mess it was. Isabella's diary was proof of her lustfulness but it did not prove anything conclusively against Edward. Could it be used against her and not against him? The only way to save Edward's reputation (as everyone was eager to do, at Isabella's expense) was to discredit the diary as the raving of a sex-obsessed lunatic. By a skewed logic more perverse than anything Isabella could dream up, a sane woman was now reinvented as an erotomaniac driven mad by a conveniently identified uterine disease.
At every stage this "real-life" story is a skein of fictions. Coleridge and Shelley taught Isabella what a love affair might be, and how she might construct herself as its heroine. The lawyers, too, learned their lines from literature. In court they fantasised a gothic tale in which Isabella's madness poisoned a whole respectable milieu. Summerscale is a subtle interpreter of the interplay between action and literary imagination, as was clear in Mr Whicher. A large part of her fascination with the Road Hill case lay in its influence on subsequent detective fiction. If the literary connections in Mrs Robinson are less compelling (and it should be said that Isabella is not going to vie with Emma Bovary for literary immortality), they are crucial to the vivid anatomy of an 1850s mind.
Summerscale might have been more upfront about her own methods of narration in a book so concerned with reading, writing and the interpretation of documents. There are potentially significant gaps and doubts in a story she strives hard to render as a polished whole. It comes as a surprise, for example, late in the day that Summerscale has not read Isabella's diary, the fateful book having been lost or, more likely, destroyed. She has had to piece together her account from extracts published in legal reports. She has made careful use of correspondence, but how representative are the letters that survive? Foraging in the footnotes in an effort to find out, I couldn't help feeling that discussion of these matters would have left us better equipped to read Isabella and her times.
As a guide to mid-Victorian cultural life, however, Summerscale is simply superb, and she sets a fine example of what cultural history can do. Isabella has her head examined by a phrenologist, so we get a miniature history of phrenology and its implications. (A large cerebellum meant excess "amativeness"; Isabella's cerebellum was very large indeed.) To understand Edward and his
spa we need to know
about hydropathy, so we go on a course in alternative medicine and curative
bathing (chair baths, hot air baths, wet towel baths, secretly sensuous baths). Moor
In other hands, admittedly, this might become tiresome. But Summerscale has a knack of judging just how much we want to know. So she keeps adding strands to the web: divorce law, diary-writing, Victorian dream theory, gentlemen's advice on the advantages of erotic encounters in bumpy carriages. She knows that the settings, too, are eloquent: Henry's big white villa in Caversham where nobody is happy, the sandy soil of the Surrey hills, the precise qualities of Edward's study with its many doors, and the foul smells from the Thames that filter into a hot Westminster courtroom at the stinking centre of the British empire.
Sensing a silence or slight misunderstanding between two characters, Summerscale prods a bit, and the door flies open to a whole new set of stories. It's like watching someone going straight to the secret compartment in a many-drawered cabinet. Edward's friend and brother-in-law, George Drysdale, needn't have figured at all in Isabella's story, except that he turns out to cast a shadow across the whole affair. He faked his own death out of shame for his sexual fixations, resurrected himself, failed to cauterise his penis, and went on to write the first guide to contraception. That's the kind of obscure but astonishing life story we keep glimpsing in the background.
And we glimpse too, at a distance, famous people going about their business, like Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. When not decoding Isabella, the phrenologist is feeling George Eliot's cerebellum; Charles Dickens is leaving Boulogne just as Isabella gets there; and who should be strolling at Moor Park but Charles Darwin, so relaxed by his bath treatments that he said he "did not care one penny how any of the birds and beasts had been formed". He didn't stop caring for long, of course: he was at work that year on The Origin of Species, refining his theory of evolution even as Isabella reconciled herself to atheism and wondered what the absence of God might mean for the future of sexual relations.
At every turn Isabella's experience is contiguous with that of the people who were deciphering and shaping her world. But ultimately it is Isabella herself who stands as exhibit A in this engrossing investigation of a society casting judgment on itself and trying, with much confusion, to make up the rules.
• Alexandra Harris's Virginia Woolf is published by Thames & Hudson.
June 22, 2012 /
The Scarlet Diary / The New York Times
By ANDREA WULF / http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/24/books/review/mrs-robinsons-disgrace-by-kate-summerscale.html?pagewanted=all
MRS. ROBINSON’S DISGRACE
The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady
By Kate Summerscale
On Nov. 15, 1850, 37-year-old Isabella Robinson went to a party in
where she was introduced to Edinburgh Edward Lane. Later
she noted in her diary that he was “handsome” and “fascinating,” the first of
many entries describing her feelings for Lane, a married medical student 10
years her junior.
Isabella was herself unhappily married to Henry Robinson, a curmudgeonly businessman and civil engineer who also had a mistress and two illegitimate children. In fact, Isabella despised this “uneducated,” “selfish” and “harsh-tempered” man, who, in turn, treated her with contempt. Robinson was, she told herself, only interested in money, while she yearned for the intellectual stimulation that could be found at the home the Lanes shared with
mother, Lady Drysdale, among their circle of literary and scientific friends.
Upon finishing his studies, Lane opened a fashionable spa for hydropathy at
Park in Surrey,
where his patients — including Charles Darwin — underwent a fanciful range of
water cures to calm their irritable nerves. Isabella visited regularly,
sometimes to be treated, sometimes just as a family friend — but always, as her
diary revealed, to be nearer to Lane. In those years, her journal’s pages were
infused with unrequited longing for the young doctor, whose every word and
gesture was weighed and judged. Isabella was downhearted when he “hardly looked
at me,” ecstatic when she sat next to him at a lecture. They talked about
Byron, God, hot-air balloons and Coleridge’s poems, and went on walks that left
her “too much roused to sleep.”
There was much sadness in Isabella’s diary, moments when “all is dark to me,” but also descriptions of dreams “of romantic situations, and
Kate Summerscale argues, convincingly, that these pages, like a novel, could
“conjure up a wished-for world, in which memories were colored with desire.”
Then, in October 1854, during a visit to ,
Isabella suddenly wrote of passionate kisses in the nearby woods and in Lane’s
study. “Oh, God,” she declared, “I had never hoped to see this hour.” From here
on, the diary was filled with even more romance and desire, though Isabella
refrained from describing a sexual act — if, that is, there ever was one. On
their walks, she and Lane kissed, caressed and rested on a bed of dry ferns.
But, she wrote, “I shall not state what followed.” Moor Park
A little more than a year later, in the spring of 1856, those words were enough to shatter her world. When Isabella fell ill and, delirious with fever, mumbled the names of other men, her suspicious husband read the diary. He promptly took it and their children and left her, then filed for divorce.
In her hugely enjoyable account of a sensational 1860 English murder case, “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,” Summerscale demonstrated her talent for forensic investigation. Once again, in “Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace,” she prods, scrutinizes and examines, employing a real-life historical episode to shed light on Victorian morality and sensibilities. This time, however, the chief evidence she presents to tell her fascinating story isn’t a corpse but a diary. Just as she used the killing of a child in her previous book to provide insight into mid-19th-century domestic life and the rise of detective novels, Summerscale now uses Isabella and Henry Robinson’s scandalous divorce case to explore such diverse subjects as the era’s romantic novels, peculiar health fads and views of marriage.
Until 1858, the union between a husband and wife could be dissolved only by an individual act of Parliament, which was extremely expensive and therefore unobtainable for all but the very rich. Yet in that year, the new Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes made the severing of such bonds affordable, thus bringing it to the middle class. The Robinson case was one of the first to arrive at the court.
Summerscale is graciously evenhanded in her depiction of Isabella, who, despite being vilely neglected in her marriage and treated appallingly during the trial, was also a flawed character. It’s difficult to warm to her when, for example, she fumbles around with Lane inside a carriage while her son is perched up top with the driver or when she writes about “dear little innocent Mrs. L,” sitting with her baby just after Isabella has amused herself with Mrs. Lane’s husband in the shrubbery.
The court proceedings make for disturbing but engrossing reading. The contents of Isabella’s diary were divulged to the lawyers and judges and reprinted in the newspapers. Her innermost feelings, wishes and dreams were revealed at breakfast tables across the country. And, as if her situation weren’t awful enough, her lawyers argued that she was a sex maniac who had created an imaginary erotic life. Since the diary was Henry Robinson’s only proof of his wife’s adultery, her lawyers insisted that parts of it were fictional — the product of her “uterine disease,” evidence merely of temporary insanity. Medical witnesses explained that her condition could cause sexual delusions and nymphomania. The newspapers gorged on every detail.
“Isabella’s defense,” Summerscale writes, “was far more degrading than a confession of adultery would have been.” By agreeing to her lawyers’ strategy, she sacrificed herself for Lane, whose career was at stake. If Isabella wasn’t lying, how many female patients would be willing to seek treatment at his spa? Desperate and decidedly ungallant, Lane described his reputed paramour as “a vile and crazy woman” who was “goaded on by wild hallucinations.”
The question was and is — did Isabella really have an affair with
Lane or was it all wishful thinking? The end of
the court case is surprising, and to give it away would be an insult to
Summerscale’s cleverly constructed narrative. But she stresses that one thing
is clear: the diary “may not tell us, for certain, what happened in Isabella’s
life, but it tells us what she wanted.”
Andrea Wulf’s latest book, “Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens,” has just been published.