Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace : The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady
by Kate Summerscale

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"I think people marry far too much; it is such a lottery, and for a poor woman--bodily and morally the husband's slave--a very doubtful happiness." -Queen Victoria to her recently married daughter Vicky

Headstrong, high-spirited, and already widowed, Isabella Walker became Mrs.  Read more...

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More About Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

"I think people marry far too much; it is such a lottery, and for a poor woman--bodily and morally the husband's slave--a very doubtful happiness." -Queen Victoria to her recently married daughter Vicky

Headstrong, high-spirited, and already widowed, Isabella Walker became Mrs. Henry Robinson at age 31 in 1844. Her first husband had died suddenly, leaving his estate to a son from a previous marriage, so she inherited nothing. A successful civil engineer, Henry moved them, by then with two sons, to Edinburgh's elegant society in 1850. But Henry traveled often and was cold and remote when home, leaving Isabella to her fantasies.

No doubt thousands of Victorian women faced the same circumstances, but Isabella chose to record her innermost thoughts-and especially her infatuation with a married Dr. Edward Lane-in her diary. Over five years the entries mounted-passionate, sensual, suggestive. One fateful day in 1858 Henry chanced on the diary and, broaching its privacy, read Isabella's intimate entries. Aghast at his wife's perceived infidelity, Henry petitioned for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Until that year, divorce had been illegal in England, the marital bond being a cornerstone of English life. Their trial would be a cause celebre, threatening the foundations of Victorian society with the specter of "a new and disturbing figure: a middle class wife who was restless, unhappy, avid for arousal." Her diary, read in court, was as explosive as Flaubert's Madame Bovary, just published in France but considered too scandalous to be translated into English until the 1880s.

As she accomplished in her award-winning and bestselling "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher," Kate Summerscale brilliantly recreates the Victorian world, chronicling in exquisite and compelling detail the life of Isabella Robinson, wherein the longings of a frustrated wife collided with a society clinging to rigid ideas about sanity, the boundaries of privacy, the institution of marriage, and female sexuality.

  • ISBN-13: 9781608199136
  • ISBN-10: 1608199134
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publish Date: June 2012
  • Page Count: 320
  • Dimensions: 8.52 x 5.8 x 1.13 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 0.88 pounds

Related Categories

Books > History > Europe - Great Britain - General
Books > History > Social History
Books > Biography & Autobiography > Women

Publishers Weekly Reviews

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)

BookPage Reviews

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.

BAM Customer Reviews