Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace – Kate Summerscale

I have read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House  which made me keen to read Ms Summerscale’s next work. I checked out a large print version from the library and there wasn’t any images – were the images in the normal version? Anyway, this was quite a fascinating story. Did she commit adultery (I suspect so) or did she just write her fantasies in her journal? The time the story took places also adds to its appeal. Divorce is easier to obtain now than ever before, the pseudo science of phrenology and hydropathy (and what is uterine disease?)  plus the other famous people in the story (e.g. Charles Darwin).

Here is the blurb …

 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.

 This book gives a snap shot of what life was like in educated circles in the 1840s, 50s and 60s. It is clear that a lot of research went into the novel, but it is easy to read and very entertaining. It is definitely worth reading if you like social history, women’s history or the victorian era.

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