Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace

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.



28 thoughts on “Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace

  1. It sounds fascinating, complex, and sad. The social constriction reflects the fashion constriction of the time. But as my older d heads toward high school, I’m facing the fact that the old double standard still exists and I have to advise her accordingly. It’s frustrating and aggravating.

    • The old double standard about clothing, Lilian? Which double standard do you mean – there are so many! I have often wondered what it would have been like to bring up a son rather than a daughter, and in some ways, I think it is easier with boys. There are far fewer mixed messages sent to them by the culture.

  2. Nymeth posted about this the other day too. It sounds really good! You say she wanted adventure, perhaps romance was the only kind of adventure truly available to her? These days she’d be soem sort of scientist working in the field or something, but then, she didn’t have much of a chance, poor woman.

    • Stefanie, yes, that’s the general opinion on women’s possibilities for adventure, right up until the 1960s or so. Marriage was the great roll of the dice. Of course there were extraordinary Victorian women – particularly the world travellers. But to break out of the mould like that cannot have been easy! And impossible for a woman with a child, I expect.

  3. Oh, I wish I’d thought of the Dorothea comparison too! That makes a lot of sense, and it gives me a whole new angle from which to consider the book. It does seem from the diary excerpts that there was more to her connection with Lane than physical attraction – that she wanted to be part of a world that provided the stimulation her usual sphere lacked.

    • My old head of department used to say that there was no more sincere form of flattery than saying, Darn it! How I wish I’d been the one to write/think of that! I’m so glad you liked the comparison – I thought it was very cool.

    • David, this is one I feel really confident about recommending to you. You would appreciate how very cleverly Kate Summerscale thinks her way around the whole topic.

  4. Thanks for a thorough analysis, litlove. This sounds like an intriguing documentation of society during that time with all the limitations and inequality. Reading your review makes me think of Virginia Woolf’s lecture A Room With A View. The 19th C. social mores were so constraining for women, but there were those who rose up above them and achieved as they wrote their novels and set their imagination free. It’s interesting to see while most women pursued romance and marriage as their goal, there were those women who chose to observe them and write about such pursuits. Just imagine if it were not a diary, but a creative work of fiction that Mrs. Robinson wrote, however autobiographical, maybe she could have gotten away with it and gained some literary fame along the way. 😉 Just thinking…

    • Arti – you really must read this book. It was the claim of the defence lawyers that the diary WAS a work of fiction. You should see for yourself how that plays out.

      Have you read the biographies of either Fanny Trollope or Mary Braddon? They were both prolific 19th century authors (incredibly prolific) who both had huge families to bring up as well. I’m not sure that their lives can be described as a soaring above circumstances, but they do make for fascinating reading!

  5. Excellent review. I didn’t take to Kate Summerscale’s first book but was already intrigued by the sound of this one, and now I really want to read it. Thanks.

    • Harriet, I enjoyed the first one, and wasn’t so sure that I’d enjoy this. But I really did, and I think that the books are sufficiently different that there is hope you would find this more to your taste!

  6. Having just read Madame Bovary and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (set in the deep south of America, but on a similar theme), this sounds just the ticket to continue the theme. Thank you for the review.

    • Oh my, I read The Awakening absolutely years and years ago. I recall it being a very interesting novel – and one I should revisit. I hope you enjoy this, Karen; the context in which Mrs Robinson moves is brought out excellently and gives a real insight into the times.

  7. Oh that poor woman. This sounds extremely sad. It must have been awful to be a woman in Victorian times and have to put up with all this foolishness. The book sounds really good though — I think it’s really neat how Kate Summerscale writes these little microhistories about small things.

    (I know multiple murders are not small small. But small in the grand scheme of things. Small compared to books about, like, war.)

    • Microhistory is the perfect word. I was trying to think of a way to describe how KS brings the era alive through its curious beliefs and assumptions and that hits the nail on the head. I am profoundly glad not to be a Victorian woman. Fun, they did not have.

  8. This sounds so good–I can’t wait for it to come out here and may have to buy it rather than borrow it! What always bothers me (well, there are lots of things that bother me about that era) is that double standard–it’s so hypocritical what men could do and get away with but that women were condemned for (they want their wives to be madonnas but their mistresses to be whores). Summerscale has a real knack for writing about this era, doesn’t she? You’re review makes me even more anxious to get the book!

    • Danielle, ooh that bad old double standard! Kate Summerscale is really good at skewering it, and frankly it made my toes curl to hear more about what marriage meant for women in those times (the loss of all valuable selfhood, effectively). I am sure you will really enjoy this one – don’t forget to write about it when you get to read it. I’d love to know your thoughts.

  9. That’s how a good biography should be, let us decide for ourseselves how we feel about the people described.
    It sounds like a book I’d love to read.

    • Caroline, I feel sure you would enjoy it. It’s very rich in detail and Kate Summerscale is so good at parsing the implications from tangled legal accounts. I’d love to know what you make of it if you do get hold of a copy!

  10. Very interesting. The comment that stands out the most for me is your point about how thoroughly Victorian women were stitched up by the culture of the time. I’ll have to read this one now – more so than her earlier one I think (which is also on the list and I’m sure equally good).

  11. Very good review, Litlove! I read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I am going to see if our library has a copy yet of Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace.

    I do think it’s awful that society didn’t censure the husband for having the mistress and other children, but that the woman isn’t allowed to even look at other men. What were women supposed to be content with? Running the home? I’m going to be interesting in what conclusions Summerscale draws from her research, in this novel. We have come a long way and yet, not so far, too, because women leaving their men for another man (or taking a lover), is still frowned on, even if divorce is so much easier.

  12. Pingback: Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale | Iris on Books

  13. Pingback: Best Books of 2012 | Tales from the Reading Room

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