Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale

Mrs R cvr

Kate Summerscale’s Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace analyses a celebrated scandal from the 1850s, using it to examine the role of married women at a time when they had no legal identity but were considered in law to be mere appendages of their husbands.  Isabella Robinson was a neglected wife.  Her husband Henry was an engineer (it would appear a good one from the number of patents to his name) who was often away, and when he was at home was disagreeable towards her.  He was also a philanderer with a mistress and two illegitimate daughters, and Isabella came to believe, with some foundation, that he had married her solely for her money.  Isabella’s main consolation in this emotional desert was the bond she had with her children.

She had friends though, and her mental stimulation came from correspondence and visits.  Particularly close were Edward Lane and his family.  Edward, married with children, was a physician who ran a spa at Moor Park, near Farnham in Surrey.  Those who stayed there occupied an ambiguous position between patient and guest as they received therapy for a variety of physiological and psychological conditions (Charles Darwin was an occasional visitor).  It was as much a retreat as a place for medical interventions, an element of which was a form of talking cure conducted by Edward.  His medical licence allowed him access to his lady guests’ rooms, and he would take long walks around the grounds with them unchaperoned. With Edward, Isabella could discuss literature and philosophy, topics in which her husband was not interested.  This companionship allowed her to assume an intimacy that might not have existed on his side; after all, she was not singled out for special treatment.

Unfortunately she confided her feelings to her diary in terms that suggested transgressive acts with Edward.  Henry read the diary while she was ill with fever, and decided to divorce her, Robinson vs Robinson and Lane coming to court in June 1858.  Isabella had come to despise Henry, and wrote that she stayed in the marriage only for their children’s sake.  By her actions she jeopardised her contact with them because as a result of the evidence of the diary Henry was able to obtain first a legal separation, removing their children from her, and then sue for divorce on the grounds of the adultery with Edward documented by her own hand, even though the writing was actually not graphic on this point and required inferences to be made.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace charts the course of the proceedings, in the process analysing the legal place of women in mid-century English society.  The case was devastating for Isabella’s reputation and quality of life, cast out from the family home, though it was entertaining for newspaper readers.  Edward was not the only object of her affections, but was the one she wrote the most realistic accounts about and the one who found himself cited as co-respondent.  References to the others enabled the prosecution to paint her as an aging seductress trying to compensate for her loss of physical attractiveness by setting her cap at younger men (her age was regularly exaggerated).

Henry was within his rights to take her papers, including her diary, because married women did not own their own property and therefore anything she produced belonged to him.  Even the apparent loophole that money left in trust to the wife could not be touched by the husband is shown to have been easy to circumvent.  Isabella’s father settled money on her at her two marriages (she was a widow with a son when she married Henry) and more when he died, and technically this should have been beyond Henry’s reach.  All he had to do was pressure her into providing him with blank cheques that he could make out for any sum he chose.  Isabella eventually complied with his demands in order to have a peaceful life.

Isabella’s marital lot was a difficult one, and by no means unique, but what makes this case particularly useful as a way of looking at the ways in which women were slowly beginning to win more freedoms in nineteenth century England is the changes in the law which occurred at the time Henry was seeking his divorce.  Previously an Act of Parliament was necessary to dissolve a marriage, a remedy out of the reach of most people.  The new legislation made it easier to divorce (too easy in the opinions of some) though it was still loaded in favour of men as the criteria were stricter for women.  A woman could not merely cite adultery, otherwise Isabella would have been able to divorce Henry.  She also had to prove cruelty, to an excessive degree, or abandonment.  A man on the other hand was able simply to file for adultery.  Summerscale provides some quite appalling quotes to indicate that there was a body of opinion which thought that the sanctity of marriage trumped the happiness of those within it, and women should put up with abusive husbands in preference to divorcing them.  On the other hand some of the heroic figures here are the humane judges who could see the iniquities in the law and sought to improve the lot of women, not least in terms of property rights.

The number of divorce petitions following the introduction of the legislation indicates the degree of unhappiness that had existed, but the changes in the law were aimed less to seek a wholesale alteration in what was acceptable in marriage than to preserve the institution by reducing the number of irregular unions that existed (George Eliot’s was a case in point) and making the divorce court a safety valve by focusing on the particularly bad examples of marriages, thereby preserving the legitimacy of the institution as a whole.  This was legislation on the hoof, with amendments made as the legislators grappled with various unintended consequences, not least the paradoxical situation that Isabella could potentially be found guilty and Edward innocent of the same act that they were both alleged to have committed together.  An amendment allowed Edward to speak in his defence, something not originally allowed to co-respondents.

The centrality of the diary presents an opportunity for Summerscale to examine women’s writing.  This had increased in scale since the late 18th century, both publicly for money, and privately in journals as an outlet for creative urges that could not be expressed in any other way.  Hours of enforced idleness could be alleviated by reading and writing, and Isabella was the type of person to think hard about her own situation as well as broader philosophical and theological issues.  She discovered that indiscretion could lead to dramatic consequences, yet just as the diary form had become a popular narrative strategy in novels, in part the trial hinged on the blurring of the line between fact and fiction in the diary.  Did a journal have to be the truth, or could it an outlet for fantasy?  How much trust could be placed on Isabella’s supposed written confession alone?

Isabella did the decent thing to make amends for her foolishness by endeavouring to protect Edward, who would have been obliged to pay damages if Henry had proved adultery against him.  She essentially confessed to having written the diary while of unsound mind, and creating an elaborate fiction.  While a noble act, the judges’ verdict hinged on the lack of detail and corroboration in the diary rather than the state of the author’s mind.  That was despite her mental condition, which was seen as intimately bound up with her physiology, having been the subject of prolonged explicit debate during the proceedings – it was argued that she suffered from ‘uterine disease’, which could produce florid sexual delusions.

Men clearly found women’s sexuality intensely problematic; too much could lead to immorality, too little could be socially disruptive as well.  Sexual frustration was considered a potential problem with negative consequences for female mental health, possibly leading to masturbation (it is startling to learn that clitoridectomy was occasionally practised to solve the problem entirely).  This issue had social implications because men tended to die younger than women and to emigrate more readily, leading to a surplus of single women in England.  As well as women’s sexuality Summerscale touches on other medical, and pseudoscientific, aspects, such as phrenology which was used to gauge personality by examining the shape of the head (Isabella was told she had an extremely large cerebellum, the seat of Amativeness).  Even Edward’s hydropathy was considered suspect in more conservative medical circles.

So did Isabella and Edward commit adultery?  In the first half of the book Summerscale seems to imply that she thought they did.  As the case proceeds, the weight of the evidence goes against it having happened in reality, the balance shifting to a probability that the accounts in the diary – despite the details giving it its air of plausibility which convinced Henry and which were made much of by the prosecution – were the product of her febrile imagination; unsavoury but not accurate.  Looked at from this distance, it seems unlikely that the pair did have sex.  Edward had too much to lose to make a few moments of pleasure with one of his patients worth the risk, whatever the quality of her mind.  More to the point, it would have been technically difficult with so many people around, the limited time available, and the amount of clothing involved.  Summerscale hints at a parallel with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (she and Isabella even shared a liking for the same book, St Pierre’s Paul and Virginia); the comparison seems unfair to Isabella.

Her husband lost his case, although he later managed to secure a divorce on the grounds of Isabella’s adultery with another man in hotel rooms (not Edward but someone who appears in the diary, which leads one to wonder, if she was prepared to go to bed with him then perhaps her diary entries about Edward were not a fantasy).  Henry was able to marry someone else and doubtless make her life miserable.  In the end Isabella was vindicated because according to family reports he became a lonely old man whom nobody much liked.  Her opinion of his character seems to have been accurate, though this can hardly have been any consolation.

There is much more to this rich book – the tight social networks among the upper middle classes, the frank private discussion which could be embarrassing if made public, the attempts to influence the case with lobbying of newspapers behind the scenes on Edward’s behalf.  It even includes a discussion of the dissemination of pornography.  The relaxing of the divorce laws coincided with a crackdown on smutty texts, however women were excluded while sections of the diary were read out but newspapers were free to print the salacious details that emerged in divorce proceedings.  Naturally a fierce debate on the seemliness of women and children being exposed to such information ensued.  Summerscale has consulted a wide range of sources and combined them in a gripping narrative.  The result is a fine blend of scholarship (the endnotes occupy over 50 pages) and accessibility which brings the case, and the society which generated it, to life.  This is popular history at its best.

Ironically, once the diary has been seized in Summerscale’s narrative, Isabella herself largely falls silent and her story is told by other means, private papers and the public record.  Isabella is thus accorded the status of object that Henry wished her to be.  Henry went to court because of what was written in a private diary, and his story is now the subject of a bestselling book.  He would be mortified if he knew that his humiliation had been so widely disseminated, a suitable punishment for his caddishness.  On the other hand, Isabella was deeply unhappy that her diary had been taken by her husband while she was ill, copied, and pored over by a variety of men during the court case.  Now it is available to millions.  She might have reasonably asked if she had not suffered enough.  Bella and Edward: very Twilight, but there was no happy ending for Mrs Robinson.

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