[This review is based on a review copy from Netgalley. The review was originally posted at Iris on Books
In Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace Kate Summerscale chronicles the life of Isabella Walker, who at age 31 and already widowed, marries Henry Robinson in 1844. Her husband is often away from home and is unfeeling towards her when he is there. And so Isabella is left to record her life and thoughts in her diary. She is particularly in love with Dr. Edward Lane. Edward and his wife are friends of Isabella and they often spend time together. Over five years, Isabella records passionate and suggestive episodes between her and Dr. Lane in her diary. Until Henry stumbles upon it in 1858.
After reading Isabella’s diary, Henry petitions for divorce on the grounds of his wife’s infidelity. He is able to do so because of a recent change in the law. Their trial is widely publicised as Isabella’s diary is read aloud in court and people are shocked by what is considered the scandalous content in a Victorian society which celebrates female docility and fidelity.
In the first half of Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace Summerscale sets up the story of Isabella, her husband, and Edward Lane. The second half focuses on the divorce trial, and the arguments made about Isabella’s sanity in particular, with the discussion focusing on the possibility of Isabella having imagined her affair with Dr. Lane.
It is hard not to read Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace with high expectations. Summerscale’s reputation precedes her; while I have not read it myself, her previous book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher was widely celebrated. Add to this that the subject matter of her latest book is something that appeals to me personally: Victorian society and women’s rights and lives. We can fairly establish I was very much looking forward to this book.
I was not disappointed. Summerscale’s writing is incredibly readable. So much so that this non-fiction book reads almost like a novel. Moreover, there were quite a few moments where I found myself thinking “this is what I’d love to be doing”, because Summerscale manages to write about a moment in history in a widely appealing manner, without taking away from the complexity of the situation described.
And a complex situation it was. Because the Robinson trial took place at a time when very many of Victorian society’s certainties and rigid boundaries were challenged. As the introductory note reads:
"In France in the late 1850s, Gustave Flaubert was prosecuted for corrupting public morals with Madame Bovary - a novel considered ‘too repulsive’ for publication in Britain. In England, the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act made divorce for the first time a civil matter, affordable to the middle classes. And the godless ideas Charles Darwin was formulating about natural selection, published to accusations of heresy in 1859, would further undermine the religious and moral tenets of Victorian England.
The story of Isabella Robinson’s fall from grace unfolds against this backdrop of dangerously shifting social mores, in which cherished ideas about marriage and female sexuality were coming increasingly under threat."
The historian in me just wants to heavy a big sigh here and remark on what a wonderful case study this is, especially as the group around Dr. Lane included many interesting figures, with Darwin among them.
I admit I am a little divided on the manner of writing employed by Kate Summerscale. On the one hand I admire her approach greatly, and yet in some ways I was not entirely satisfied:
In Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, Summerscale made a conscious decision to try to portray the divorce trial impartially. She never champions one side over the other and overall assumes a detached narrative tone. In doing so, Summerscale introduces an interesting tool to help people make up their own minds about the circumstances at the time: she introduces comparisons with texts on accepted conduct of ladies, challenges to the Victorian worldview that were surfacing, and even the rise of novels about adultery, most famously the previously mentioned Madame Bovary. These stories offered a great contrast with the story being told and helped to get a sense of the impact of Mrs. Robinson’s “disgrace”.
I cannot help but admire Summerscale for the way in which she interweaves historical circumstance with the retelling of her case study. Nevertheless, there were moments where I would have liked to have more interference of Summerscale in the story, perhaps in the form of some meta analysis. I understand that Summerscale chose not to, but I feel my enjoyment of the book might have benefitted from an added analytical perspective. At times I would have liked to be told, or to have found broader hints, as to what the implications were of what was being described according to Summerscale.
Moreover, while reading I felt that Summerscale’s detached tone sometimes got in the way of a full immersion into Mrs. Robinson’s story. Thus, it was with some surprise that I realised that despite all this, I did in fact find myself caring about what happened to Isabella. There was, perhaps, at times, something lacking in making me feel I should care about her story as a whole, but in the description of her trial the difficult situation of women at the time comes across really well. The book really makes you feel that there is no true “solution” for Isabella: she would either lose everything in a divorce because of immoral conduct, or be declared mad in an effort to persuade the judges she was innocent. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that while I read the book, I often found myself puzzled as to which side I should cheer for, only to realise that the choice was quite impossible.
Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace was a satisfying read. It paints a fascinating picture of the times through the lens of one divorce trial. At times, I couldn’t help but sit up a little straighter and contemplate how Summerscale managed to write about complex historical subjects in such an appealing way. Nevertheless, I was not completely satisfied upon finishing it. In some ways it left me wanting more. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is rather a joy to find that upon finishing one book, you are left with questions that will make you want to seek out complimentary sources.