Book review: Kate Summerscale relays a riveting tale of adultery and divorce in 'Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace'
The mark of any good book, especially one that sheds light on historical events, is that the issues it raises remain relevant for contemporary readers. Kate Summerscale's "Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady" is just such a book. Although its focus is to provide a detailed account of a scandalous divorce between two individuals, its scope is far wider, touching on the foundations of rights (real and perceived) that we take for granted. As such, it is illuminating reading for a far wider audience than its title would suggest.
Ms. Summerscale's talent is in providing the reader with plenty of fascinating background information to stimulate interest in the era in which these protagonists play out their sadly riveting divorce. If at first you are drawn in to the book based on the detailed glimpse into Victorian life it provides, you will soon become gripped by the case at hand. I won't disclose how it ends except to say that it is unexpected -- a gift to the reader enabled by Ms. Summerscale's sense of drama and the careful impartiality with which she handles the material.
It is a real-life play populated not just by these characters with which we become intimately familiar, but by luminaries who played roles on the periphery of Isabella and Henry Robinson's troubled relationship, such as Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin. Their inclusion provides a fascinating context that allows you to appreciate some of the obstacles of public opinion with which they had to contend, and from which their work originated. The "science" of phrenology, for example, which was very much in vogue during the latter half of the 19th century, had a great deal of influence on thinking about the biological basis for criminality (or one's ability to control lust in a social context). It was an era in which the shape of one's head could be entered as evidence for behaviors being prosecuted in a court of law.
If this seems astonishing today, then it will be equally outrageous to consider the circumstances upon which the Robinsons' notorious divorce were based.
Mismatched and unhappily married, Mrs. Robinson developed a powerful crush on a friend, Edward Lane, a well-respected doctor and family man whose hydrotherapy spa was frequented by the cream of Victorian society. After many years of unrequited longing, it appears (according to the diary in which Mrs. Robinson kept detailing her daily actions and feelings) that she and Dr. Lane consummated what she believed to be a mutual attraction.
When, some years later, her husband chanced upon her diary while she lay delirious with a fever, he discovered both her hatred of him and her supposed adultery, he immediately took steps to excise her from his life. Never mind that he had two illegitimate children of his own from an extramarital affair; he was intent of gaining a divorce, something which had only just been made accessible to the British population.
As one of the first to be heard by the newly appointed secular divorce court, the Robinsons' case was complex enough to require a number of delays so that amendments to the law could be passed in Parliament to allow for certain evidence and testimony to be heard. As such, it literally helped establish how divorce could be handled.
One of the telling words in Ms. Summerscale's title is "private." This is a case whose foundations centered around the notion of what privacy is and what its real boundaries were. It turns out there were practically none; as her husband's legal chattel, all of Mrs. Robinson's possessions (including her "private" diary) belonged to him to do with as he wished. What he wished was for them to be made as public as possible so as to bolster his case for her adultery. That Mrs. Robinson had been so reckless as to write down her personal feelings in a journal she considered private, was actually offered as proof of her insanity as a defense. You must be crazy, people thought, not simply to lust after another man, but to have the temerity to write it down.
This case hinged on the idea that you could be found guilty of a crime simply because you suggested in a personal memoir that you had transgressed. Writing in the floridly emotional and literate style of the day, Mrs. Robinson only ever vaguely suggested that she and Mr. Lane had touched improperly; nowhere did she specifically claim to have had sexual relations with him. Was this enough to prove her infidelity in the new Court? The trial was a disaster for all concerned; not least for Dr. Lane, whose reputation stood to be ruined by his implication as a philanderer.
In truth, a contemporary reading of Mrs. Robinson's diary entries sounds very convincingly as if she and Dr. Lane did get up to no good. But in Victoria's Britain, men and women were not equal under the law, and so it fell to the woman to accept the burdens of proof and all of the blame. Adulteresses were forbidden from retaining custody of their children; the issue of a marriage was still considered as belonging to the father, no matter how incompetent or neglectful he was.
Ms. Summerscale helpfully provides the example of other cases in order to explain and contextualize the Robinsons' plight. (They are eye-openers, too -- such as the revelation that simply expressing relief that a violently abusive husband had finally left home to your own mother could be held as evidence against you because it invalidated a ruling of desertion, regardless of the actual fact of the desertion itself -- that divorce was denied.)
Ultimately, this book is about our dominion over our own thoughts -- our human nature to think them, and our right to express them under the law. It is a topic that was being wrestled with when the Robinsons changed divorce, and struck at the very heart of the divide between the religious and secular world that had been boiling under the surface for years, getting ready to erupt and tear those two almighty forces asunder. The Robinsons' matrimonial divorce was just a microcosm of everything that became divorced in the years that followed. And everything eventually did.
First Published August 5, 2012 12:00 am