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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.

Henry was often away on business but even so Isabella found his bad temper and meanness intolerable. She also discovered that he had a mistress and two illegitimate daughters. She wrote ‘were it not that my darling Otway would be taken from me I would leave my husband for ever.’ George Combe had examined her head and told her that she had an enlarged bump of ‘amativeness’; in other words, that she was highly sexed. This was just what Victorian women were not supposed to be. An excessive interest in sex was regarded as a kind of mania in women. Isabella was certainly frustrated and confided to her diary her inappropriate feelings (can you tell I don’t like her?) for her sons’ tutors, first a Mr Thom and then their French master Eugene le Petit. She seems quite deluded as to their feelings for her, yet could show self awareness about her own nature, writing ‘I find it impossible to love where I ought, or to keep from loving where I ought not.’ and regretting her ‘unhappy turn of mind in clinging to shadows and delusions’. She needed Dustin Hoffman.

Isabella’s downfall was caused by her passion for Edward Lane. This began in Edinburgh and continued after both families moved south. She was close to Mary Lane and took the Lane children away on holiday with her own sons. To Mary and her mother, Lady Drysdale, she was a friend of the family. After she began paying visits to Moor Park, the relationship with Edward intensified, according to her diary. ‘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.’ But what did? Two other special encounters with Dr Lane are mentioned, one in his study and another in a coach but although Isabella described them in rapturous terms, she gave no detail. The risk she took in writing such a diary is astonishing. Did it never occur to her that it would be discovered? Did she secretly hope that it would be read by someone else? Matters came to a head when she was seriously ill and delirious. Henry looked in her desk, found the incriminating book and promptly cast her off, taking the children with him. He then began divorce proceedings.

At the trial it was stated that ‘he made an accidental discovery of an extraordinary narrative that at once opened his eyes to the impurity and infidelity of Mrs Robinson.’ Isabella was bitter about this. ‘Is the infamy of his own private life,’ she asked, ‘not to be taken into account?’ Dr Lane denied everything and witnesses, including his mother-in-law, attested that at Moor Park he had treated Mrs Robinson as he did any other woman patient. Everything hinged on the diary and whether or not it was a trustworthy account of actual events.

In writing about this one divorce case, Kate Summerscale is able to examine Victorian ideas on marriage, religion, medicine and women’s sexuality, and to tie everything neatly together. She refers several times to Madame Bovary (1856), a novel considered too shocking to be published in English. Whether or not you sympathise with Emma and Isabella, it remains true that when it came to sexual transgression, the woman always paid. Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace was never going to be as exciting as The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which is about ‘orrible murder. I was slightly irritated to be told what a dumpling is, that Scarborough is a seaside resort and Bournemouth is in Dorset (it was then in Hampshire and all right minded people consider that it still is) but I suppose these explanations are necessary for non-British readers. The book is a very interesting non-fiction work describing events which could have come out of a novel; a novel written in French, of course.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady
To be published by Bloomsbury Books on June 19th.
ISBN 978160819913
Read courtesy of NetGalley
Tags: history, kate summerscale, netgalley, victorians
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