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Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace provides a fascinating insight into the life of a 19th century wife and a scandal that rocked Victorian England.

When Mrs Isabella Robinson began writing her most private thoughts and sensual feelings about a man 10 years her junior in a diary, she probably didn’t think her husband would find it – or that it would be used as evidence against her in divorce court.

The case against Isabella made particularly salacious reading in 1858 when divorce had just become more accessible to the middle class. The Robinson vs. Robinson case was one of the first to be heard. The Robinsons broke up when Isabella was seriously ill and her husband (searching for money) discovered her diary, which provided a steamy account of the feelings she had for a long-term friend, Dr Edward Lane.

The newspaper reports of the divorce case were more risqué than any fiction work of that time and author Kate Summerscale’s book makes fascinating reading. Had the case reached court just one year later, Isabella’s diary would not have been made public. By then, it was decided that some cases needed to be heard in private. Isabella was a woman born before her time. She hated marriage and her husband Charles; when stressed, she’d smoke cigars and take refuge writing her depressive thoughts in her diary.

Understandably, her husband was furious to discover what she really thought of him and that Dr Lane was the true object of her affection. He accused her of adultery but with only her diary as evidence, it was hard to prove. Isabella, meanwhile, argued she had fabricated the romance and that she was prone to sexual delusion.

From our 2012 point of view, this “tissue of lies” defence feels quite hard to swallow. If the romance was made up, then surely Dr Lane would be a more worthy romantic hero; instead, he is cold, distant and dismissive of Isabella – all of which smacks of reality.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace provides a fascinating insight into the life of a 19th century wife and a scandal that rocked Victorian England.

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