What I’m reading now: Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale.
This is a masterful reconstruction of the life and times of Isabella Walker Robinson, a well-educated upper-middle-class British woman married to a cold and difficult second husband.
No doubt many other women in the 1850s felt as lonely and frustrated as Isabella did – but she poured out her feelings in her diary. On its pages she confided her deepest secrets, including her hopeless passion for Dr. Edward Lane, a married man. Their two families were friendly, with the adults spending many long hours walking and talking together while their children played.
In 1857, the new Matrimonial Causes Act made divorce possible for middle-class Britons.
In 1858, Henry Robinson found and read his wife’s diary.
Outraged by the passionate outpourings of sensual desire that Isabella had written and convinced that they amounted to infidelity, Henry sued his wife for divorce under the new law. The trial was a public scandal and her diary was read out in court.
Mrs. Robinson’s diary threatened the Victorian ideals of womanhood. Was she a sign of the decline of the morals of a nation? How many other seemingly proper Victorian wives were secretly harboring lawless sexual fantasies and wicked cravings?
In this fascinating true story, one woman’s longing for passion, learning, and companionship rocked the very foundations of a society clinging to rigid ideas about the workings of the human brain, the rights of women, and the institution of marriage.
I picked this book up at my local library, because I have read—and enjoyed—Kate Summerscale’s bestselling The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, about the creation of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Division and one of the first modern detectives, Mr. Whicher, who correctly solved a horrific murder mystery in the 1840s. I’m enjoying this book just as much, if not more.
Isabella Robinson was a poetess, whose social circle included such notables as author Charles Dickens, obstetrician and pioneer anesthetist James Young Simpson, publisher Richard Chambers, and phrenologist George Combe. Her first husband, Edward Dansey, died of a brain tumor, leaving her a widow with a young son after only five years of marriage. Two years later, she met Henry Robinson, whom she finally married after he proposed for the third time. In the book, the author quotes from a letter Isabella wrote: “I suffered my scruples & dislike to be talked away by others.” No doubt she wanted more out of life than the restricted society of her parents’ home – being married was the closest most Victorian women ever got to independent adulthood.
As a rule, during the Victorian era most unmarried or widowed women lived in a male relative’s house, if the family was of middle class or higher standing. In that regard, Lucy Turner’s mother Herbertina Compton Turner was unusual. Widowed suddenly in 1847 after ten years of marriage and with two children and a third on the way, Lucy’s then-32-year-old mother was brought from her native India to Suffolk, where the Turner family had a large farmhouse. But after five years of living under her in-laws’ roof, Herbertina Turner moved herself and her three children to Kensington. She bought a villa on Victoria Road, where she raised her children and spent the rest of her life as widow. She lived to the ripe old age of 98 and was widowed for 66 years, even longer than Queen Victoria herself. Mrs. Turner evidently made the right choice not to marry a second time. Lucy Turner was close to her mother all her life, and Mrs. Turner will help (and sometimes hinder!) Lucy’s fictional investigations.
I highly recommend Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady to anyone who wants to read a fascinating account of one woman’s life and struggles during the mid-Victorian era.