Kate Summerscale is responsible for the true crime classic “The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher” (2008) in which she took a case from 1860 and provided us with a leisurely trawl through all the facts and relevant documents in a highly readable, engrossing style. I was just as impressed by 2016’s “The Wicked Boy” which featured an 1895 crime involving a thirteen year old. I was aware at the time that I had skipped reading this work which arrived between the crime studies but I have now put that right.
This is, on the surface, more sedate than the lurid crimes I’ve enjoyed Summerscale re-exploring. Subtitled “The Private Diary Of A Victorian Lady” this is the true tale of an 1858 divorce which got much press attention at the time. It took place in the very early days following the 1857 Divorce Act which feasibly made it easier for married couples to go their separate ways. This, of course, being the Victorian era means the odds are stacked very much against the woman who faces complete loss of reputation should adultery be proved.
Enter Mrs Isabella Robinson. The author cleverly splits the background, much of which come from Robinson’s diaries from the court proceedings which bases its evidence almost exclusively from the same diaries and weaves a tale of infatuation and illicit romance. Whilst living in Edinburgh, Isabella, trapped in a fairly loveless marriage to a husband who cares more for her money meets Henry Lane, a younger married man. Their children strike up a friendship and this is used as a pretext for home visits, excursions and longer holidays. Isabella becomes besotted with Lane over a period of years during which time he becomes a doctor and opens a health spa to which prominent Victorians, including Charles Darwin, become regular patients. Mrs Robinson, as can be guessed from the subtitle uses her diary to confess her affair. This is discovered by her husband (under Victorian law it is his property anyway) and legal proceedings ensue. Was Isabella Robinson recording actual events or letting her imagination run away with her?
There’s a lot at stake here and Summerscale has carried out extensive research both of the details of the case and the context, which pretty much fits into what we now acknowledge as the double standards of Victorian society.
It has all been done very well and once again is very readable but on this occasion the case lacks the punch of those in her other books I’ve read so did not create such a strong impression. As an example of a thoroughly researched study into Victorian life it is highly illuminating.
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace was first published by Bloomsbury in 2012