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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-02-20
- Reviewer: Staff
With intelligence and graceful prose, Summerscale gives an intimate and surprising look into Victorian life. A century before Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” a financially comfortable Victorian named Isabella Robinson defended herself in the newly created English divorce court over a mislaid diary filled with passionate erotic entries, philosophical musings, and complaints against her husband. Summerscale (The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher) suggests that Isabella fought to maintain her marriage to a controlling, tight-fisted husband (himself an adulterer) to protect the reputation of her alleged lover, Dr. Edward Lane, a hydrotherapist who treated her, as well as an ailing Charles Darwin and popular phrenologist George Combe. In two sections, the book first describes Isabella’s flowery, coy memories of the doctor and others who offered her distraction; the second part focuses on her trial on an adultery charge and the scrambling of her male friends to preserve their reputations. Questions raised in the newspapers about Isabella’s sanity and desperate need for attention, coupled with Lane’s firm courtroom denials, clouded the truth for contemporary spectators concerning Henry Robinson’s charge of adultery, resulting in a highly unusual 19th-century divorce case filled with salacious details and unsympathetic characters on both sides of the aisle. 8 pages b&w photo insert. Agent: Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd (U.K.) (June)
The secret voice of Victorian divorce
Until the mid-19th century, the only way to obtain a divorce in England was through a private act of Parliament. Given the difficulty of such a process, it made divorce effectively impossible for anyone but the rich and powerful.
Then, in 1858, came the revolution: Divorce Court. The unhappy rushed to take advantage of the new law, and domestic secrets were exposed to all. Perhaps the most sensational resulting scandal involved Henry and Isabel Robinson, the subject of Kate Summerscale’s riveting Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady.
It started when Henry Robinson, a prosperous manufacturer, read his wife’s secret diary and found what he believed was evidence of her infidelity with a respected doctor who ran a flourishing health spa. Henry filed for divorce, naming the doctor as co-respondent. With the diary—emotional, erotic, but not specific—as evidence, the newly appointed divorce judges had to decide whether the marriage should end and who should pay the cost.
Summerscale, whose earlier book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, focused on the same period, has found a story that wonderfully encapsulates much of the social ferment of the time. Isabel was a talented but frustrated woman whose friends were among the progressive intelligentsia. Her marriage a disaster, she lost her religious faith and found comfort in phrenology. Her putative lover—who denied everything and told everyone she was crazy—was a pioneer in health care.
Summerscale uses the diary, private letters, newspaper stories and public documents to seamlessly and dispassionately tell Isabel’s still-poignant story.