Having read and loved The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House a few years ago, I jumped at the chance to read an advance copy of Kate Summerscale’s new book, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a fascinating account of a murder which took place in England in 1860. In a well-to-do house, a little boy is taken from his bed in the middle of the night and brutally murdered. The book details the investigation which followed and illustrates the development of Scotland Yard’s new detective branch, and the increasing (and often ghoulish) public interest in and the sensationalism of murder. I was hooked from the start. Summerscale’s weaving of the story of the murder itself and that of the much wider issues which it illustrates is masterful. Most of the poor reviews on Amazon seem to come from people who fail to understand the difference between non-fiction and a novel.
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is about a scandalous divorce trial from the late 1850s. The eponymous Mrs Robinson kept a diary, as did many ladies of the time, but what was unusual about hers is that in it she recorded details of her unhappy marriage and infatuations with male friends. Inevitably, her husband discovers the journal and sued for divorce.
As with Suspicions, the central story is compelling. Isabella Robinson is fascinating. She is not immediately likeable, but her unhappy situation and the impossibility of escaping it engages the reader’s sympathy. Summerscale uses the story to explore the wider historical issues. The Robinsons’s case was one of the first heard before the newly-established divorce court which was not controlled by the church. The book also tackles some of the issues surrounding the fundamental inequalities of marriage and divorce of the time. For example, a man would usually be successful in procuring a divorce if he could prove his wife’s adultery. A woman, on the other hand, would not have been able to get a divorce from her philandering husband on the basis of his infidelity. Indeed, Mr Robinson himself not only had a mistress, but had two children with her- these facts were not considered relevant at the time.
This may sound like a dry subject. I can’t say that I would have thought that nineteenth century divorce an inspiring subject, but I’d have been wrong. In Summerscale’s hands, it’s gripping. The diary in question is now lost, but much of the content was reported in newspapers and a legal journal and from these the author has pieced much of Isabella Robinson’s inner life back together. She has also drawn out fully fleshed personalities for all the main protagonists. Modern audiences will find the inherent, unashamed double standard of the legal system pause for thought, an insight into what life was like for even well-to-do women of not all that long ago.
But most importantly, it’s a thoroughly good read. I read it on my Kindle and was glued to it at every chance I could steal to read a little more- on the bus, on my lunch break. It’s utterly compelling and highly recommended. Isabella Robinson may have been all but forgotten before Summerscale’s book, but she’s been restored to her place in the annals of infamous women now.