Saturday, July 14, 2012

Oh, Mrs. Robinson!

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: the private diary of a Victorian lady / Kate Summerscale
New York: Bloomsbury, c2012.
303 p.

This is a tale of the dangers of keeping a diary... assuming that one is a Victorian woman who has no right to her own privacy, and is in an unhappy marriage to a wealthy yet cold, mean and vengeful husband.

Isabella Walker, a young widow, married Henry Robinson in 1844. The marriage was not a success: though they had 2 sons quickly, Henry was most often away on work and was emotionally unavailable the rest of the time. Isabella, a passionate woman, was restless, bored and suffered from many infatuations -- the lengthiest and most documented the one with Dr. Edward Lane, a married man who ran a health spa in Scotland. She wrote about her life very candidly, including her dreams and wishes and circuitous descriptions of encounters which she interpreted as romantic and/or sexual. She suggests and hints, never coming right out and relaying facts coldly. However, when her husband found her diary (and immediately read it, of course) he sued for divorce on grounds of adultery.

The divorce was all in the timing: divorce had just become legal in 1858, and Henry had the money (lots of it Isabella's) to doggedly pursue a divorce. During the trial, the parts of Isabella's diary used as evidence were published in the newspapers. Her reputation and her intimate life were both ravaged by this, even while Edward Lane was found not guilty of adultery.

This was a disturbing read for me -- mostly for the societal conditions it reveals. Isabella was not a hugely sympathetic character, being very self absorbed and focused on her own needs (but, of course, this was her own private diary she was confiding in!) Edward Lane was married, and Isabella was friends with his wife and mother-in-law and entertained his children with her own. Yet all she could see was her need for his approval and romantic interest. He seems to have held off for a long time, until the encounter Isabella relates circumspectly in her journal... and then he steps back and drops most contact with her. She also notes infatuations with her sons' tutors, in England and in France (and indeed, years after the divorce is found to have stayed in a hotel with one of the tutors).

Yet, the constraints on her life were unbelievable. She had 3 young sons, had to keep house for a rude and demanding husband who spent all of her money on his industrial plans (and even cut his own brother out of the business later on) and she had no outlet for her intellect and passions. She was a great reader and was in correspondence with well known men regarding spirituality, health, intellectual developments and fads of the day such as phrenology. Stuck in her hasty marriage she had no way to live up to her abilities, rather had to make do with what she could grasp for herself. When she seemed to be finding a place for herself, her husband moved the family from Edinburgh back to England. The fact was that she was obliged to go where he wanted to go, do whatever he wanted to do, act in whichever way he demanded, and treat her sons in the way he decided -- and reading about all of this along with her diary entries really chafed at me. I felt her sense of imprisonment and unhappiness, and shuddered at the idea of being so constrained and having no personal freedom, not even to keep a private diary private. It's a good reminder of women's status then, and even now. This kind of power is still wielded over women and we have to acknowledge it.

Even during the divorce proceedings, Isabella adamantly claimed that Henry's reading of her personal diary was a worse insult and crime than his accusations of adultery against her. She believed that his invasion of her only privacy was a greater transgression than her flirtations. It was an attempt to control her, body and soul, and she would not allow him to claim a right to do so. I tend to have the same feeling when it comes to diaries and journals; it is a grave injustice to read someone else's diary. The soul needs privacy to commune with itself, and everyone has a right to that process. The independent individual needs freedom from prying eyes and to read another's personal writings is a way of selfishly pushing yourself in where you are most definitely not wanted -- that is my view.

Nonetheless, Henry succeeded in obtaining his divorce, even without a corespondent to "prove" Isabella's adultery. Edward Lane, called to give evidence, denied everything and attributed Isabella's diary to "wishes and dreams". Isabella agreed, likely to save his career as a ladies' doctor. Once again, the woman in the case ended up being found responsible and punished for everything, while all the men in question came out of it spotless and unharmed.

Kate Summerscale is a great writer, who knows which details to fill in to make the story come alive. I felt indignation on behalf of Isabella, even while not really liking her all that much as a person. The people in her social circle are all drawn deftly, including relatives and children and incidental characters. Many of them are shown to be moral cowards when Isabella is under fire, refusing to get involved and cutting off contact with her -- all revealed in just a few lines. It's shocking how much of Isabella's intimate writing was included in the newspaper records that Summerscale read, and a reminder that women's desires have been repressed and considered scandalous for a long, long time.

If you love to read diaries and/or history -- British, women's, social, literary -- this will be a great read for you. Just be warned that you may want to put a few Victorian portraits on a dart board by the end of it.


  1. I felt the same way about Isabella. I didn't like her much, but I certainly felt awful for her. The part that really got to me was when it appeared that the court could declare Lane innocent and Isabella guilty of an act that they either both did or neither did. Preposterous!

  2. Teresa - exactly! ridiculous and so typical of the way Victorian brains worked, grrrr.

  3. There are so many, many times when I want to throw darts at Victorians! And their ancestors.

  4. Excellent review here! I read another review of this book recently (in the NY Times, I think). It does sound very interesting and very informative, about Victorian marriage and the oppression of women during this period (and beyond).

  5. Melwyk -- please forgive me for using this space to speak of something unrelated to the particular blog itself... but I have to do it.
    Because I know you are a true lover of good Canadian fiction.
    I just finished reading a book called Curiosity by Winnipeg author Joan Thomas. I simply MUST recommend it to you, if you have not yet already experienced this amazing writer. I know you would love this book.
    It is CRAZY amazing... so well-crafted. I mean seriously seriously good. It is set in Lyme Regis, very early 1800's. Just before Darwin's Origin of Species made its impact. A GEM of a book!

  6. I must add this, actually, to my above comment.
    This book Curiosity also very much addresses the absurdity of the Victorian era, not only in the emphasis of [religious] superstition over science, but in the strictures that women [and, in turn, men] faced with regard to romance and marriage, etc.

  7. Hmmm, interesting complement to this book perhaps, Cip. I have had Joan Thomas on my tbr list for a while; maybe this is a good time to get to it!

  8. Aarti & Suko -- thanks for commenting! This was a great read but it made me twitchy ;)

  9. This book is on my request list at my local library and I can't wait til it is here!

  10. Jennifer - hope you'll share what you think of it once you finally get your hands on it... quite a book!


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