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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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Filed under Non-Fiction, Recommended

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House – Kate Summerscale


I haven’t read much True Crime. I’ve read Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation – which was fabulous. Helen Garner is brutally honest about herself and her motivations. She is very much part of the story she tells. Kate Summerscale doens’t intrude into the story at all. It is written in a lovely conversational tone – very matter of fact, but compelling reading none the less.

Here is what Bloomsbury had to say about it …

It is a summer’s night in 1860. In an elegant detached Georgian house in the village of Road, Wiltshire, all is quiet. Behind shuttered windows the Kent family lies sound asleep. At some point after midnight a dog barks.
The family wakes the next morning to a horrific discovery: an unimaginably gruesome murder has taken place in their home. The household reverberates with shock, not least because the guilty party is surely still among them. Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, the most celebrated detective of his day, reaches Road Hill House a fortnight later. He faces an unenviable task: to solve a case in which the grieving family are the suspects.

The murder provokes national hysteria. The thought of what might be festering behind the closed doors of respectable middle-class homes – scheming servants, rebellious children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing – arouses fear and a kind of excitement. But when Whicher reaches his shocking conclusion there is uproar and bewilderment.

A true story that inspired a generation of writers such as Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, this has all the hallmarks of the classic murder mystery – a body; a detective; a country house steeped in secrets. In The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Kate Summerscale untangles the facts behind this notorious case, bringing it back to vivid, extraordinary life.

This is an amazing story. You feel that it is somehow familiar, but that is just because so much detective fiction is based upon this case. I can almost imagine Miss Marple popping up with her knitting at some stage to solve it all neatly. It’s not neat though. Mr Whicher doesn’t even arrive on the scene until nearly two weeks after the crime. The local police seem incompetent (or maybe just inept) and then class enters the equation – how can a working class detective accuse a middle class young girl?
Anyway, I don’t won’t to ruin the story for anyone I’ll just say if you like crime fiction, true crime or social history, then you’ll enjoy reading this book.
Here are some other reviews …


Filed under Non-Fiction, Recommended