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Review: Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale


Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

Category: Non-Fiction/Biography/Politics – Hardcover: 320 pages – Publisher: Bloomsbury – Source: Publisher via NetGalley
First Published: 2012

On a mild winter’s evening in 1850, Isabella Robinson set out for a party. Her carriage bumped across the wide cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town and drew up at 8 Royal Circus, a grand sandstone house lit by gas lamps. This was the home of the rich widow Lady Drysdale, a vivacious hostess whose soirees were the centre of an energetic intellectual scene. Lady Drysdale’s guests were gathered in the high, airy drawing rooms on the first floor, the ladies in dresses of glinting silk and satin, bodices pulled tight over boned corsets; the gentlemen in tailcoats, waistcoats, neckties and pleated shirt fronts, dark narrow trousers and shining shoes. When Mrs Robinson joined the throng she was introduced to Lady Drysdale’s daughter and son-in-law, Mary and Edward Lane. She was at once enchanted by the handsome Mr Lane, a medical student ten years her junior. He was ‘fascinating’, she told her diary, before chastising herself for being so susceptible to a man’s charms. But a wish had taken hold of her, which she was to find hard to shake…A compelling story of romance and fidelity, insanity, fantasy, and the boundaries of privacy in a society clinging to rigid ideas about marriage and female sexuality, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace brings vividly to life a complex, frustrated Victorian wife, longing for passion and learning, companionship and love.

A Sample Quote: ‘You knew that you were mortal, & might be killed in a railway train, drowned in a storm, or die of spasm of the heart or apoplexy in a moment, or as actually happened fall ill of fever and become delirious. In any one of such cases your records of your own shame & your friend’s destruction would be certain to see the light. I tell you freely, therefore, that all my knowledge of human nature is baffled to account for your conduct in writing down such descriptions if they were true.’
(Page 180, George Combe’s letter to Isabella Robinson subtly trying to advise her to play mad)

Isabella Robinson, a married woman with three children, an unloving and greedy husband and too much time on her hands, keeps a diary. As she meets the Lane family in Edinburgh and later becomes an intimate friend of the couple in England she writes increasingly of her ardent admiration and desire to steal Edward Lane away from his wife Mary. Edward, aware of Isabella’s interest gently but firmly resists her until, for a few short weeks, he succumbs to her. Afterwards, when he realises the risk he runs to his marriage and reputation as a doctor he tells her to forget anything ever happened.

No one should have ever known about any of it.

But Isabella got sick and her greedy husband Henry, on the hunt for money, broke open her desk. He found the diary instead and set in motion one of the most notorious legal cases of the day. A trial in which the court tried to argue that Isabella was guilty of adultery but Edward Lane was innocent, in which Henry had the diary transcribed for the court to read and the press to print excerpts from, dragging Isabella’s name through the mud in his determination to ruin her and destroy Lane’s career.

Summerscale has done it again. Just as The Suspicions of Mr Whicher sucked me into another time and place to try and understand how society worked then for the people involved in a sensational murder case, so Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace took me into 1850s England and a world where a woman’s writings were her husband’s physical and intellectual property, where Isabella’s diary (perfectly normal except for a few references to kisses and oblique notes about pleasure) had to be explained away by madness. A world in which divorces were so new that the laws were being written as the Robinson vs Robinson vs Lane trial was being heard.

The book is divided into sections. The first part of the book deals with the back story of Isabella and Henry’s early lives, meeting and marriage before going onto the period of time covered by the diary with extracts of the entries included – life in Edinburgh, meeting the Lanes, falling for Edward Lane, moving down to England for Henry’s work and being lonely, the joy when she heard the Lanes were coming down to England too so they could set up a hydrotherapy hotel and pursuing Edward again. The second part of the book deals with the court cases (there were actually two – one ecclesiastical and one legal) and the aftermath. Finally the book finishes with a note of what happened to everyone after the trial and the immediate aftermath.

It works perfectly. You see Isabella for the lonely, unhappy daydreamer she really was, lost in the desperate desire to be swept off her feet by someone who appreciated her. You see just how naive she was to leave any tangible evidence, even in a locked desk, with Henry prowling around. You see just how vicious the press was, just how *wrong* it was to have her private diary published for everyone to read and debate over. And the fact that it feels as if you are watching this drama unfold as it truly happened with few or no embellishments, at the spa hotel, in the summerhouse, in the courtroom, shows you’re in the hands of a very talented non-fiction writer indeed.

List of books read in 2012 / Index of Non-Fiction

Author: Alex in a Library

Reader, book blogger and adventuress. My home appears to be morphing into a library... I can be found on Twitter as @AlexInALibrary.

4 thoughts on “Review: Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

  1. This sounds like a great read, although I’m glad society has changed at least a little bit since then….

  2. I have this book from Netgalley too and I’m really looking forward to reading it – I loved Mr Whicher!

  3. Wonderful review – and I completely agree. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this one as much as Mr Whicher, and I did – perhaps even more so. I felt that when she got onto the court cases, Kate Summerscale came into her own. She is brilliant at parsing the implications out of what must have been pretty tough-going legal documents. I also enjoyed the world she evoked around about the main story, with its fascination with hydropathy and phrenology and all sorts of new sciences.


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