Saturday 19 May 2012

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale - Book Review

Title: Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady
Author: Kate Summerscale
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: 19th June 2012
Pages: 320
Format: E-Book - PDF
Genre: Non-Fiction
Source: ARC from NetGalley

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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. (Goodreads Synopsis)

This book was a fascinating read that not only documented the case of Mrs Robinson, but also gave some great insight into the rise in popularity of diarists in the Victorian era, the establishment of the Divorce Court, and the medical beliefs of the time.

The book tells us the story of Mrs Robinson from start to finish, with brief pauses in between sections to comment on the prevailing views of the time. The prose was very readable and the book offered a large number of notes and bibliographical references at the end, showing the extent of Summerscale's research for the piece. I found it quite riveting reading.

This is a well-presented account that will be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the Victorian period in general, the changing roles of women at that time and Victorian medical practises.

1 comment:

  1. I've got this one to read too from netgalley. It sounds an interesting read about the period. Thanks for reviewing.