May 25th, 2012


Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, Kate Summerscale

‘Over the five days of the trial, thousands of Isabella Robinson’s secret words were read out to the court, and the newspapers printed almost every one. Her journal was detailed, sensual, alternately anguished and euphoric, more godless and abandoned than anything in contemporary English fiction.’

The trial referred to was the divorce case of Robinson v Robinson and Lane. It was scandalous, as any divorce was then, and only made possible by the ’Matrimonial Causes’ Act of 1857. What made it such a curious case was that the evidence against Mrs Robinson was based entirely on what she had written in her diary. The learned judges had to decide whether what she wrote was fact or the product of a fevered imagination. In effect, she was either guilty of adultery or mad.

Isabella was a widow with a son when she married Henry Robinson, a prosperous engineer. The couple had two more sons, but the marriage was not a success. They lived for a while in Moray Place, Edinburgh; Cornflower has kindly provided some location photos here. This was a good address. ‘To rent a house in Moray Place cost between £140 and £160 a year in 1844, according to Black’s Guide’. The Robinsons moved in professional and upper middle class circles of the ‘rational thinking’ and progressive kind, people interested in science and ‘improvement’. Their friends included the phrenologist George Combe and Robert Chambers, the publisher, and their closest relationship was with the family of Edward Lane. Dr Lane was an advanced thinker, a believer in hydropathy and the benefits of letting nature cure sickness. His wife Mary was born a Drysdale and her brother George wrote a book on sexual philosophy. Lane later set up his own clinic at Moor Park, Farnham in Surrey, where Charles Darwin was frequently treated. I mention all this to highlight the double standards which prevailed at the time of the trial, when men who held advanced views and had been happy at one time to enjoy Mrs Robinson’s conversation, were quick to distance themselves from her once her reputation had gone.
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