by Kate Summerscale
385 pages, Walker Books
Review by Bill Kirton
Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a gripping mystery which owes everything to the meticulousness of her research, her analytical skills and her mastery of words. It’s a real life story with all the suspense of a fictional thriller. Now she’s been drawn once again to Victorian scandal with the story of Isabella Robinson’s diary and the divorce to which it led, one of the first divorce cases to be tried under a new law in 1858.
Henry Robinson was Isabella’s second husband. Before the wedding, in order to get round the law that gave men rights to all their wife’s property, her father had settled £5000 on her ‘for her sole and separate use’. But Henry got Isabella to sign all her cheques and hand them over to him for him to use as he liked. He gave her pocket money and enough for household expenses but the rest was his. When her father died and left her a thousand pounds, Henry withdrew it all and invested it in stocks, again in his own name.
I know I’m doing a bit of storytelling here but the book’s main impact comes from the gender inequities of the era and the tyranny of the male over the female in the 19th century so I need to sketch the people involved. Yes, we already knew about the inequality but the details the author sets out in the course of this narrative are actually shocking in the revelations of just how subservient women were made to be in every respect, to the extent of it being enshrined in laws with a bias impossible to rationalise, even by Victorian standards.
Let’s briefly, then get through the story. Isabella was a woman with a curiosity about life, a vivid imagination and natural, healthy sexual appetites which she had perpetually to suppress. Her husband was in her words ‘uneducated, narrowminded, harsh tempered, selfish, proud’. Her desire was to learn languages and read the latest essays on science and philosophy; he was ‘a man who only had a commercial life’.
Edward Lane and his family and Isabella
was strongly attracted to him. At first he kept his distance but then (probably
or possibly) they did have the occasional … let’s call them dalliances. The ‘probably
or possibly’ refers to the fact that the only evidence of them was contained in
her diary to which she confided her dreams, mood swings, longings and the
events of her days.
It was the diary that caused the problems. Once, when she was ill, Henry came into her sick room in search of money, found, read and kept it. Under English law, a woman's papers were the property of her husband.
The resulting divorce was an unsavoury business, with Henry (the wronged party and yet a man with two illegitimate daughters), seeking to ruin his wife and destroy Lane’s career and reputation. He was also allowed to choose which extracts were read out in court which made sure that implications that Lane’s sexual techniques were superior to his own were excluded. Lane’s conduct was just as reprehensible. He denied the affair and said that Isabella must have been half out of her mind. ‘She has done me an incalculable injury,’ he said, calling her ‘a rhapsodical and vaporing fool’, ‘a vile and crazy woman’, who was given to ‘moonshine lucubrations’. Meanwhile, poor Isabella was accepting all the fault. She even said that Lane had suffered unjustly.
The trial became a battle between linguistic or literary interpretations of the two sides as well as an example of varying attitudes to morality. Those speaking for the husband claimed that its ‘naturalistic detail and its precision about dates, times and weather conditions’ proved that it was a realistic account of the writer’s experiences.
The other side claimed that the words used were ‘not a narrative of anything that really occurred, but … the merest illusions’, and that, in turn, called into question the writer’s sanity. Her own lawyer said ‘There never was a document which bore on the face of it the marks of so flighty, extravagant, excitable, romantic, irritable, foolish and disordered mind as this diary of Mrs Robinson’. (With friends like that … etc.)
So it came down to whether the diary was fact or fiction and, if the latter, it proved that Mrs Robinson had been unfaithful only in spirit and that it was sexual frustration and the fragility of her (female) sensibility that led her to such destructive imaginings.
For the Victorians, it seems, everything could be categorised and some of the prevailing wisdoms dovetail neatly with the main elements of this story. Isabella, for example, met the famous phrenologist George Combe. He examined her and found that she had an unusually large cerebellum, which was the seat of amativeness or sexual love. Being deprived of sex makes it grow and this can lead to hypochondriasis (in men), hysteria (in women), and even insanity. He also found that bumps on Isabella's skull indicated that she wasn’t very cautious and couldn’t keep secrets. ‘Worst of all’ writes Summerscale, ‘she had a small organ of veneration which meant she lacked reverence for authority’. What it boiled down to was that she was ‘sexually enthusiastic but indifferent to law, religion and morality’, which couldn’t fit more neatly into the case for her defence. Indeed, her counsel told the judges that her journal was the product of uterine disease. Needless to say, The judges ordered the court to be cleared of women during the medical evidence.
had said, just the year before that ‘the majority of women (happily for them)
are not very much troubled by sexual feeling of any kind’. A Dr William Acton
At the centre of all this is poor Isabella, stripped of decency, sanity, friends, belongings, almost everything. And all because, as she writes, ‘I find it impossible to love where I ought, or to keep from loving where I ought not.’ Her plight makes it easy to understand why Summerscale also included a translation of the whole of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in the book. It’s not a particularly good one, as its author Eleanor Marx, youngest daughter of Karl, admits, but Summerscale notes with justification that ‘In spirit her journal resembled Madame Bovary’ and it's true that her thinking, feeling and general aspirations and dissatisfactions are very much like those of the heroine who was described in The Saturday Review of 1857 as ‘one of the most essentially disgusting’ characters in literature.
Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace doesn’t have the central, compelling narrative of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Summerscale sometimes indulges in painting too much detail. It’s all fascinating and enlightening but at times the fate of Isabella is left hanging while we learn about the layout of the courtroom, the appearance of the judges, and other aspects of local colour. There are long explanations, almost mini essays or asides on the fashion for hydropathy, phrenology, and keeping diaries. They’re all beautifully written and very interesting, but they do alter the pace of the narrative.
On the other hand, she is evoking the whole atmosphere and context of a time when women were considered and treated as distinctly inferior creatures, an age of attitudes of which Isabella was a victim. Even those who didn’t share her appetites and desires must have felt unimaginable frustrations. In the words of a certain Mrs Ellis, offering her take on their role ‘A woman's mission was to submit to her husband and devote herself to creating a comfortable and serene home. It was unquestionably the inalienable right of all men, whether ill or well, rich or poor, wise or foolish, to be treated with deference, and made much of in their own houses. To bring a man happiness was a wife's gift and privilege.’
This has been long but it’s by no means covered the extent of the public subjugation of innocence that Summerscale, with admirable objectivity, presents in this excellent narrative.