In Kate Summerscale’s latest work of non-fiction, we are invited to consider Mrs Isabella Robinson as the original Madame Bovary, a woman whose poor choices in marriage coupled with her compulsive desire for an exciting life, led her into all sorts of desperate liaisons. To compound the error of her ways, Isabella Robinson kept an intimate diary, recording her thoughts and feelings and, somewhat coyly, the events that occurred between her and her paramours. The diary was an important player in her situation, as necessary and significant as the men themselves. It gave Mrs Robinson the sensation of being in touch with a ‘truer’ self, and of watching that self grow and flourish, in suffering and in pleasure. But alas, it was also to be the instrument of her downfall in the law courts, evidence of a new and ambiguous type, in the equally new and uncertain world of divorce.
Isabella Robinson is a woman who makes hasty marriages, and the one she is in when the story begins is a misalliance that she reproaches herself for – she allowed herself to be talked into it. But at the same time, Summerscale shows us in no uncertain terms that the mid-1800s were a dreadful era for women, who had no rights, no possibility of earning a living, and who were tied hand and foot in all matters of behaviour. Before this marriage, Isabella was a widow with a small child; her options were extremely limited. And she wanted adventure. It was probably not that hard to talk herself into marriage with Henry Robinson, a man of bad temper and avarice, who would sit in the gallery during court proceedings for the simple pleasure of watching the downfall of other men. He was ambitious, an engineer busily trying all sorts of get rich quick schemes in the developing markets of the wider world. So he wasn’t often home.
While the family was living in Edinburgh, Isabella Robinson made the acquaintance of Edward Lane, a lawyer soon to turn doctor, and his family – his sweet ‘innocent’ wife, Mary and her delightfully sociable mother, Lady Drysdale. Lady Drysdale ran the equivalent of a salon, hosting the intellectuals of the day, and all sorts of interesting individuals walk through the pages of this book, ushered in by the burgeoning network of new thinkers – among them Charles Darwin, George Eliot, and the less well-known to us George Combe. George Combe had an important role to play in the unfolding drama, as a specialist in phrenology. This is a now discredited science that believed people’s characters could be read from the bumps in their skulls. Isabella’s skull boded no good – she was reckless, much desiring the good opinion of others, and cared little for convention. A recipe for disaster, in other words. In fact, Isabella was more than ready to fulfil this prophesy by falling quickly into a profound infatuation with Edward Lane, whom she thought ‘fascinating.’ For a long time the relationship was quite chaste and friendly – much to her frustration. She was forced to fall back on the insipid young men who came to tutor her sons for shreds of affectionate regard. There were not that many shreds available.
In the meantime, Edward Lane had qualified as a hydropath, another of those outmoded sciences, one that was regarded with the distrust of alternative medicine even in its day. The belief was that water had all sorts of balancing effects on the nervous system, and by a schedule of hot and cold baths and their variations, in a safe, welcoming and stimulating environment, the patient could be returned to serenity. As ever, the alternative approach, whatever the value of the actual treatment, probably did do a lot of good by nurturing patients with accessible and forthcoming doctors and providing a secure, healing environment. Well, Isabella visited regularly, in the hope of her own kind of healing. Out of the blue, during one such visit, Edward Lane returned her affection. Quite what occurred between them we will never know, as the rhapsodic rhetoric of the diary promises much but delivers only innuendo. And in any case, Edward Lane soon seemed to come to his senses and withdrew his affection entirely from poor old Isabella. But of course, it had to be after this that she fell ill, probably with diptheria, and Henry, going through her drawers in search of cold hard cash while she was in a delirium, found the diary.
Kate Summerscale is brilliant at court cases, and I will leave off recounting the events of the book here so that readers can enjoy her parsing intelligence to the full. There are two points that I wanted to ponder, the first coming from a review in The Spectator in a comment I so wish I had thought of myself. The review suggests that Isabella Robinson is as much like Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch as Emma Bovary, a woman who is seeking the stimulation of intellectual learning, but who ends up being met with uncertain romantic adventures. This is brilliant only I can’t quite get to the bottom of it. The environment in which the events of the book take place – the setting that Mrs Robinson craves – is an intellectually innovative one. She loves Edward Lane as much for his stimulating conversation as for his personal qualities. Would she have been happier if she could have had more reliable access to intellectual endeavour? Was Mrs Robinson an intellectual manqué as Dorothea Brooke is? Well no, not really. But she wanted to be proud of herself, to view herself as something more than the ordinary, ageing woman she was, and romantic adventure has traditionally been the only adventure open to women.
It is so hard for us now, looking back at this great distance, to understand the way women were so thoroughly stitched up in the Victorian age, to understand how odd and deformed was the image reflected back to them from their culture. Summerscale paints a convincing, well-documented picture of how bizarrely Victorian men treated their women – they were more ready to believe Isabella was mad for recounting her feelings to a diary, than to begin to consider the frustrations and privations of her life. And the sexual policing was extraordinary. Henry Robinson, before anyone should feel he was actually the wronged husband here, had a mistress and daughters whom he maintained alongside his orthodox marriage and this was just fine and dandy. But Isabella’s imaginative lust for other men was grounds to cast her off without care for her fate. Yet despite the risks she ran, despite the censure she knew she would incur, Isabella Robinson did pursue romance, with a determination that is all the more poignant when we consider the humiliations she was forced to undergo in its name.
Which leads me to the other point about this clever and intriguing book. Kate Summerscale handles all her material with intellectual accuracy but emotional neutrality. She does not plead anyone’s case – she perhaps wisely thinks there is enough of that going on. But it also fits in with the new levels of ambiguity that this Victorian society, in the throes of rethinking itself, will have to deal with. Is the diary a record of true events, for instance, or a fiction? Does its embellished and embroidered nature make it an inaccurate witness? Is the woman who writes it out of her mind, or chaste but overly imaginative, or downright wicked? Once we start to question the transparency of language to truth, the world becomes a very uncertain and unmanageable place – but also a much more interesting, accurate and unguessable one. Things are no longer black and white, Mrs Robinson is neither a good woman nor a bad one, but an ordinary woman, one who does both good and bad things as is the compulsion of all humanity. Ultimately, that was what I appreciated most about this book, amongst many things that I appreciated – the cleverness of a biography that is less interested in judging, than in considering the irreducible multiplicity of real life.