Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of A Victorian Lady. Kate Summerscale. 2012. Bloomsbury. 304 pages.

In the evening of 15 November 1850, a mild Friday night, Isabella Robinson set out for a party near her house in Edinburgh.

Did I enjoy this one as much as Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher? No. Not even close. But that doesn't mean it wasn't interesting and at times thought-provoking. Mainly it made me very thankful to be living in this century. So what is Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace about? A little bit of everything:

science, evolution, "modern" medicine, mental illness and insanity, phrenology, homeopathic medical treatments, marriage, divorce, adultery, double standards, court systems, scandals, conformity and nonconformity, women's roles and women's rights, diaries and journals, creative act of writing, famous authors, famous books, etc.

Mrs. Robinson kept a diary. In her diary she wrote about the men--married and single, young and old--whom she fancied. She was a married woman, a mother of three. And it might not have been exactly mature to write about each man she had a crush on--some of them were her son's tutors--and to record each interaction--mainly conversations in a group setting, perhaps a walk or outside excursion--again in a group setting often with the children or others. What she wrote about one married man, a Dr. Edward Lane, went beyond that. She was seeking treatment at Moor Park, a health resort where Lane practiced his methods. She wrote of a handful of private walks where they kissed and confessed longings. She wrote of an interlude in his study and another in a carriage. Several years later, her husband read his wife's diary and discovered that his wife hated him--completely and absolutely--and lusted after all these other men. He sought a divorce with his wife's stolen diary as the only proof or witness to adultery. But was the diary enough proof to condemn his wife and grant him the divorce?

The first half of Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is a reconstruction of events leading to the diary's discovery. Readers learn very briefly about Isabella's childhood and upbringing, about her first marriage and first son. Then readers learn of her marriage to Mr. Robinson and the birth of their two sons. They learn of her disgust and hatred of her husband. They learn of her delight in seeking out the company of handsome, intelligent, often-younger, sometimes-married men. They read of her interest in science and medicine and literature; Also of her complete rejection of God and Christianity. She's encouraged, for example, by George Combe and phrenology. His reading of her skull confirms--in her mind--her particular weaknesses. Though later he goes a long way in distancing himself from her and seems repulsed and worried when he learns that she has written about him quite a lot in her diary. Readers learn about Mrs. Robinson's "uterine disease." Turns out that "uterine disease" is code for a woman being insane.

The second half of Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is a reconstruction of the divorce trial in the courts. Readers learn about the three (or so) lawyers involved in the case. Those representing Mr. Robinson, Mrs. Robinson, and Mr. Lane. Particular attention is paid to the defense of Mrs. Robinson. In addition, it chronicles what the press said about the case, etc. It concludes with the verdict and the aftermath of the case.

One thing I liked about Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is that readers do get to decide on their own how they feel about it. She presents the facts, but lets readers make up their minds as to what those facts mean. Was she insane? Was she telling the truth? Was she embellishing and exaggerating things for her diary? Did she know if she was? Did she see the diary as being truth or fiction or a blend of the two? Was Mr. Lane lying? Was he trying to cover up his indiscretions and protect his family and reputation? Or was he a victim of one woman's obsession?

Read Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace
  • If you want to be equally disturbed and fascinated 
  • If you have a wide interest in all things Victorian; Summerscale does ramble and introduce many off topic subjects. 

© 2012 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Heidenkind said...

Hm, I wonder if this inspired Kate Chopin's Her Letters.

Claudia said...

I heard a lot of things about this book lately. Your review makes me want to read it even more.