Book review: Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale

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A Victorian woman’s place is in the divorce courts when a scandalous diary comes to light

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady

by Kate Summerscale

Bloomsbury, 303pp, £16.99

In the summer of 1856, a well-to-do engineer called Henry Robinson took advantage of his wife’s feverish illness to look through her personal papers and seize the diary she had been keeping for the previous five years. It made eye-popping reading for the lawyers he handed it on to — and for everyone who followed the subsequent divorce reports in the newspapers — but perhaps Robinson was less surprised than anyone at its contents. He didn’t care for his wife and wanted to be rid of her.

This is the story of Victorian scandal and double standards expertly presented by Kate Summerscale in her first book since the genre-busting The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and it makes a suitably gripping follow-up. Bored and lonely mother-of-two Isabella Robinson (a “real-life Madame Bovary”) used her diary to vent her frustration and resentment against her chilly husband and insufficiently stimulating life: “My darling boys are the only ray of comfort I possess,” she wrote self-pityingly.

Well, not quite. Isabella was keen on befriending the darling boys’ tutors and had a flirtation with one, the wonderfully named John Thom, whom she sent off to a water-cure clinic at Moor Park after he was abruptly dismissed by her husband. Moor Park was run by Edward Lane, a doctor in the Robinsons’ social circle whom Isabella fancied something rotten, and she relished what she thought were minute signs of jealousy between the two young men.

Isabella was vain and idle and thought about sex a lot, but she wasn’t stupid, and the pathos of her diary is in her awareness of the gap between her own feelings and those of her would-be lovers. “How widely different is the tame friendship he feels and professes for me and the absorbing regard I feel for him,” she muses after re-reading Lane’s letters. “My life is one tissue of excitement, of suffering, of inconsistency. What shall I do?”

What did she do? The more of her diary we read (and the only bits that remain are the quotes used in the divorce proceedings), the less clear fact and fiction become. The lawyers themselves were flummoxed: was it likely that a respectable middle-class wife would obsess so much about sexual conquest, never mind write it all up? When she breathlessly described passionate kisses with the doctor, trysts in the shrubbery and meetings in his room, had they actually taken place or was she just fantasising?

Edward Lane violently denied committing adultery with Mrs Robinson – whom he had met at his mother’s house in Edinburgh’s Royal Circus – calling her “a vile and crazy woman” given to “moonshine lucubrations”. The evidence of her diary was not enough to condemn him and, at one extraordinary point in the proceedings, only one of the couple stood accused of having had illicit sex. Summerscale puts this peculiar case in a rich context of fads of the day, like hydropathy and phrenology, other troubled marriages (such as those of Caroline Norton or Charles Dickens), and other diaries (such as Gladstone’s). Her courtroom reconstructions are vivid and enthralling, her research impeccable and her narration coolly authoritative as she draws together what was happening around her subject and makes Mrs Robinson’s volatile state of mind much more explicable.

For what the Robinson divorce came down to was not whodunit or what, but the “unhappiness of soul” that affected so many women of the time. One of the judges ruled out the possibility that Mrs Robinson was mad or deluded on the grounds of the diary’s realism about “imperfect pleasure or painful disappointment”, but he clearly felt that the writer was guilty, not of adultery perhaps, but of being overwrought and oversexed. As the panting matron herself observed, she was being “punished, as oft before, for over-adhesiveness. When shall I be calm, cold, tranquil, praiseworthy? Never”.