Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Review: Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, Kate Summerscale (2012)

My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress (2020), is about Lydia Robinson, the married woman who had an affair with Branwell Bronte, the Bronte sisters’ brother. So I was intrigued to read a (non-fiction) book about another real Mrs Robinson—Isabella Robinson—whose divorce scandalised the nineteenth-century press.

Kate Summerscale’s 2012 book, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, is less of a biography of Isabella, and more of a social history about the advent of divorce in Victorian Britain, which takes the Robinson vs. Robinson & Lane case as its centrepiece. 

Like my Mrs Robinson, Isabella was in her forties when she began an affair with a younger man. However, in this case, the object of her passions was also married and her social equal—a doctor and proponent of hydropathy, whose business would be significantly damaged if courts found he had committed adultery.

But, wait, you might be thinking—wasn’t divorce illegal in England? It was during the 1840s when Branwell and Lydia engaged in their ill-fated affair but, in 1858, when Henry Robinson read his wife’s private diaries and exposed her infidelities, the legal system had just provided a provision for a total separation, albeit with caveats. 

Divorce still couldn’t be procured due to incompatibility or unhappiness. But a man could now divorce his wife for adultery. For wives things were harder. They had to demonstrate that their husband had been guilty of an additional crime (e.g. abandonment or cruelty)—breaking the marital vow was not enough. 

In practice then, divorce was complicated and expensive, so it was largely the upper middle classes who flocked to the court. The Robinsons were wealthy and well connected. Henry was fixated on revenge. The story was one designed to capture the public imagination.

A curiosity of the case was Mrs Robinson’s written confession—her diary, a document she’d assumed her husband would never read. Isabella’s legal counsel ultimately “defended” her from the charge of adultery by arguing that she was insane. She was, they claimed, a nymphomaniac who had blurred the lines between fact and fiction in her journal, an adulteress in her heart, but not in reality. 

This Victorian refusal to accept the simplest explanation for women’s actions, especially when this involved acknowledging their sexual appetites, is one I’ve written about previously on this blog, for instance in my 2013 Women in the Witness Box series. This pattern played out in both literature and life, from the notorious murder trial of Madeleine Smith to Isabella’s divorce hearing.

The testimony about the diary also reveals public uneasiness about the influence of novels on their (largely female) readership. Women were considered prone to hysteria, exaggeration and dangerous excitement. And Isabella Robinson was seen as having novelised her own life, whether by acting out her fantasies or just indulging in them privately. As Gwendolen Fairfax notes in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

Overall, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is a good read if you’re interested in the history of divorce and/or women’s rights in the nineteenth century. There are also great passages on Victorian medicine and pre-Freudian psychology, as Summerscale discusses how the Robinsons and their circle engaged with phrenology and sought “cures” for masturbation (spoiler: prostitutes). But don’t pick this up expecting titillation. Isabella and the men she desired don’t leap of the page. This is a scholarly, if accessible, work; Summerscale leaves sensation to the novelists. 

What book would you like me to review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. If you’d like to read a novel about Lydia Robinson, whose disgrace preceded Isabella Robinson’s, make sure to check out Bronte’s Mistress in hardcover, audiobook and e-book. And, for updates on my writing and blog, subscribe to my monthly email newsletter below. 

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