In June 1858, the newly established divorce court in London heard the case of Robinson vs Robinson and Lane. Henry Robinson was seeking a divorce from his wife, Isabella Robinson, on the grounds that she had committed adultery with Edward Lane, a physician who ran a water-cure spa called Moor Park. As evidence, Henry Robinson presented his wife’s diary, in which she chronicled her long-standing affection for Edward Lane and their eventual affair. InMrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, Kate Summerscale uses the story of the diary and the divorce as a jumping-off point for discussing life, health, marriage, and sex among the upper classes in Victorian England.
Having recently read a couple of pre-Victorian novels about women and their romantic desires, I was struck by how similar Isabella Robinson was to these fictional women. She’s romantic and passionate and feels ill-used by society. Sometimes her romantic expressions, like those of Emma Courtney, seem over the top, but given her husband’s treatment of her, it’s not surprising that she felt desperate for affection. From the very start, it’s evident that Henry Robinson married Isabella for her money. Isabella brought a good deal of money of her own into the marriage, and Henry arranged their finances so that all of her money would be funneled through him. He had a mistress and two illegitimate children and spend much of his time away from home, working. When he was home, he was “sulky” and critical of Isabella’s management of the household. Isabella wrote in her journal of one incident:
Read to children after dinner, and then had a long discussion with him as to the causes of his discontent. He railed at the servants, wanted a man-servant (with whom he would disagree in a month); wanted a study; wished I was a more active housekeeper; complained of cold, and planned how to spend less of his time here and more in London.
Of course, most of what we know of Henry comes from the existing extracts from Isabella’s journal and newspaper reports of the trial, so it’s impossible to know just how typical of him such behavior was, but Henry does not come across as an ideal husband.
Although Isabella’s recounting of her relationship with Edward Lane and the Robinsons’ eventual divorce forms the narrative core of this book, Summerscale does not focus entirely on the Robinsons and Lane. She uses their story as a framework and surrounds it with digressions into a variety of related issues. When, for example, Edward Lane begins his work at Moor Park, Summerscale takes the opportunity to write about water cures. She delves into theories about women’s sexuality and what the then-popular “science” of phrenology revealed about desire and temperament. When the lives of the Robinsons and Lanes intersect with notable figures, such as Charles Darwin, a patient at Moor Park, Summerscale points out those connections. She also draws in literature of the time, such as Madame Bovary, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, showing readers how ideas that come up in the Robinsons’ story are reflected also in the wider culture.
Although I suspect that readers who are mostly interested in the “scandalous” material presented in Isabella’s diary will find these digressions tedious, I was fascinated. To me, the Robinson story is interesting not so much because it is unusual, but because it reveals so much about mid-Victorian life and thought. And Summerscale hardly ever seems to be reaching to make these connections. She relies on the historical record, rather than on her own speculations and opinions about what happened or should have happened.
One of my favorite digressions involved the act of diary-making itself. We learn that the worddiaristwas first coined in 1818, and diary-writing had become something of a craze, with the publication of fictional and actual diaries on the rise. But whether published or not, the act of keeping a diary could alter the life of the diary-keeper:
Diaries (from the Latin dies) and journals (from the French jour) were by definition daily records, yet their air of immediacy could be misleading. They could only approximate real time, as they could only shadow and catch at the feelings that they sought to pin down. A diary worked upon its author, tending to intensify her emotions and alter her perceptions.
As a sometime diarist myself, I’ve noticed that journaling sometimes causes me to dwell on and obsess over certain aspects of my life when I’d be better off just getting on with life. With this in mind, I wondered whether Isabella Robinson’s writing about her feelings for Edward Lane made those feelings even more intense. The diary provided the impetus for the divorce, but might it also have been behind the affair itself?
The book’s final chapters cover the divorce trial. Because the divorce laws had just changed, you get the sense that the lawyers and judges were still feeling their way. At one point, the court determines that the diary could not be used as evidence against Edward Lane but that it was admissible as evidence against Isabella Robinson, creating the preposterous situation in which Isabella might be found guilty and Edward innocent of an act they committed together, if they committed it at all.
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is exactly the kind of history I enjoy reading. It’s the kind of story you won’t find in many history books, but it touches on so many aspects of Victorian life that it gives you a real taste of the time. Using this one marriage as a framework enables Summerscale to create a storyline with characters whose lives readers want to follow, making the book more engaging than a compendium of facts about Victorian life might be. It’s a terrific read.