The dish in the diary
A few years ago, Kate Summerscale scored a deserved bestseller hit with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. In that book, she took an obscure murder in the bucolic English countryside and used it to reveal a wider story encompassing the birth of Scotland Yard, the origins of the modern detective novel and the impact of madness on one very proper English home. The result was page-turning whodunit that appealed to mystery readers and history buffs alike. Many of the same themes are evident in Summerscale’s newest title, Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace which, like the earlier book, focuses on two key fixations of any lover of British history: the Victorian era and sex.
First, the sex. The titular Mrs. Robinson is Isabella Robinson, a wealthy thirty-something wife and mother who was drawn to the intellectual circles of her day, counting Charles Darwin and George Eliot among her circle. A second marriage to Henry Robinson earned Isabella respectability, but his greed and emotional coldness turned Isabella to take up with a young married Dr. Edward Lane in 1844. A smitten Isabella confessed to her diary scenes of stolen kisses, intense tete-a-tetes and even a cryptically noted episode in a cab—all in the romantic and scandalously suggestive language for the day. There was enough in the diary that when Henry discovered and read it late in 1855 it prompted a case for the newly established Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Cases.
With her ability to tease even the thinnest of threads into narrative, Summerscale does her best work with the impact that diary’s discovery had on all connected to Isabella. Presented with the diary as the sole proof of Isabella’s infidelity, court judges were at a loss how to proceed. Was the diary proof of a relationship between Isabella and Lane or simply the romantic ramblings of a lonely, perhaps mentally unbalanced woman? Using the science of the day, Robinson mounted an unlikely defense which scandal reporters soaked up for the daily papers. Summerscale doesn’t have all the facts (the trial often convened behind closed doors), but rather than speculate on the gaps, she includes little tangents that reveal as much about Isabella’s world as her diary does. Phrenology, women’s property rights (or the lack of them) and diary keeping shed more light on Isabella’s world and the double standards women had to navigate successfully, or suffer the consequences.
Summerscale, in a recent interview, originally thought that Isabella’s story was too slender to build a book around, and I sometimes felt that the narrative was padded out. But Summerscale again reveals that the merest threads can lead to seemingly obscure but rewarding stories. “Reader,” Isabella wrote in her diary, “you see my inmost soul.” Thanks to Summerscale, Isabella’s words again come to life and allow a different, more passionate perspective on a buttoned up society.