book review

“Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace” by Kate Summerscale

Summerscale, Kate. Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady
Bloomsbury, 2012
Hardcover, 303 pages 
ISBN 978-1-608-19913-6


Kate Summerscale’s book showcases the precarious position of women in Victorian England. When Isabella Hamilton Walker married Henry Robinson in 1844, she was a 31-year-old widow with a young son. Her first husband had willed his estate to a son by a previous marriage, leaving Isabella with no inheritance and a child to support. Robinson, six years older than Isabella, was a successful civil engineer with a thriving business. The Robinsons had two sons, born in 1845 and 1849. In 1850 Henry Robinson moved his family to Edinburgh, where he intended to build a grand house and live among the city’s elegant society. 

Henry Robinson and his brother built boats and sugar mills that were transported in pieces and then assembled at destinations as far away as Calcutta. Supervising this work often required Henry to be away for months at a time. Isabella enjoyed the social life that her husband’s money and position provided and did not let his frequent absences keep her at home. Soon after the move to Edinburgh Isabella attended a party at the nearby home of Lady Drysdale, a popular hostess whose gatherings attracted progressive social thinkers including physicians, publishers, artists, writers—even novelist Charles Dickens—, and naturalists who made up the city’s intellectual social scene. That night Isabella met Lady Drysdale’s daughter, Mary, and Mary’s husband, Edward Lane, a lawyer then training to become a doctor. At the time of this first meeting Isabella was 37 years old, Edward Lane 10 years younger. Soon Isabella was visiting the Drysdales and the Lanes almost every day, discussing philosophy and poetry with Edward and encouraging him to write essays for publication. She continued to orchestrate meetings, especially with Edward, over the next five years.

Like many Victorian women, Isabella Robinson kept a personal diary in which she documented the intimate details of her life. The diary described a situation probably not unusual for women of her era. Married to a man whom she described as an uncongenial partner, uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh-tempered, selfish, and proud, she was attracted to the younger Edward, who, she wrote, was handsome, lively, good-humored, and fascinating. She continued to document their meetings until one day in May 1856, when Henry heard her, delirious with fever, murmuring other men’s names. He went to her desk, found her diary, and read it with horror. 

Before 1857 divorce had been possible in England only by an act of Parliament, a process so expensive as to be out of the reach of the middle class. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 established a court to facilitate the dissolution of unsuitable marriages if adultery could be proven. In June of 1858, one month after the court had begun hearing cases, Henry Robinson applied for a divorce along with child custody. The only evidence offered was Isabella’s diary. The trial lasted for five days and titillated London society. Passages of the diary were read in open court to incriminate Isabella. The judges had to decide whether this unusual evidence was sufficient to prove adultery.

According to the divorce attorneys for her side, Isabella’s diary itself has disappeared, but Summerscale used newspaper reports of the diary contents along with other documents such as personal letters to reconstruct the case. Here she presents the key passage of Henry’s claim: “Isabella suggested that they climb out of the still, close valley. ‘I proposed leaving the grounds (as the air was hot and moist) and getting a breeze on the hill. We climbed it slowly, and I rested among the dry fern. I shall not state what followed’ “(p. 84). 

Was “what followed” adultery? Or are these words merely the wishful fantasies of a crazed mind or the frustrated longings of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage? 

In considering these questions, Summerscale discusses the Victorian fascination with diaries and examines the history of this literary form. Summerscale also places Isabella’s life in the context of Victorian culture, which gave a husband control of his wife’s property, her body, and, at least in Isabella’s case, her innermost, private thoughts.

As an avid journaler and journal-writing workshop facilitator, I was initially appalled to learn that Isabella’s privacy had been so ruthlessly invaded, first by her husband and later by the court, where the judges heard much of the diary read into evidence. Even more appalling is the fact that these men had the legal right not only to so violate a woman’s privacy, but also to pass judgment on her sanity on the basis of what they learned from that violation. 

But, as Summerscale points out, Isabella Robinson’s society was different from our own, and we must try to understand her diary writing in its literary and political historical context. It is quite possible that Isabella’s diary entries contained as much fantasy as reality. But even if that were true, making her diary a legal document read into the public record now seems reprehensible. Reading this book made me once again appreciate our foremothers’ hard work in establishing a woman’s right to respect and personal autonomy.

© 2012 by Mary Daniels Brown

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