OK a book review at last. About time I hear you cry. I sometimes wonder whether it is worth going away there is so much to catch up on when you get home and I have been watching Wimbers and I now have hay fever and have been up half the night....enough
I read this on holiday and, as with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (an earlier book by this author), I put it down feeling vaguely puzzled. I like my fiction to be fiction and my history to be history and Mrs Robinson's Disgrace seems to be a mix of the two and it threw me somewhat. I have just checked my library's online catalogue and I see they have classified Mr Whicher in the 364 area and if my recollections of the Dewey decimal classification system are right, this is true crime. No sign of the latest book yet and I would find it hard to decide where it is to go on the shelves. 920 biography? 942.08 Victorian history? or would it be deemed social history, feminist history etc etc etc. Most confusing.
The sub-title of this book is The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady and it is the discovery of this diary by Mrs Robinson's husband that starts off all the trouble and the scandal. Mrs Robinson is married to somebody who sounds a crashing bore and deeply unpleasant and grasping, making sure he gets his mitts on all her money, and feels constrained and unhappy. This is her second marriage and it seems she was not a good picker as her first marriage had been pretty dire as well. She was intelligent and well read and found herself in a pretty intellectual circle. She knew Robert Chambers an Edinburgh publisher who wrote an account (pre-Darwin) of the origin of the species that caused a bit of a stir and met George Combe, a leading phrenologist who became her surrogate father. The phrenologist felt the bumps on Isabel's head (Bronte readers will remember the reference to this 'science' in Jane Eyre - it was fashionable at the time) and decided she had an 'unusually large cerebellum the seat of Amativeness. She also had exceptionally small areas of Cautiousness and Secretiveness'. Oh dear, trouble ahead.
Diaries were exceptionally popular with Victorian ladies who used them to pour forth their secret thoughts and desires and were, therefore, rather dangerous things to keep about the house. I thought of Anne Bronte's Tenant of Wildfell Hall when Helen Huntingdon's diary was discovered by her brutish husband with dire consequences (this is mentioned later on in this book by Kate Summerscale) and so it was with Isabella Robinson when her husband found hers and read it. Shock horror ensued. (Sorry to keep on with the Bronte references but they are inescapable - another Mrs Robinson caused trouble and strife when she had an affair with Branwell Bronte). Her husband sued for divorce naming a younger man, Edward Lane, a doctor with whom Isabella was friendly. Dr Lane was married with young children and ran a hydrotherapy clinic, attended by the fashionable and famous. Charles Darwin was one of his clients.
Isabella was banished from the marital home and her younger sons taken away from her. Her eldest, from her first marriage, was allowed to remain. In 1857 the Matrimonial Causes Act became law and this enabled Robinson to being proceedings naming Lane as co-respondent. Lane denied being involved with Isabella and she, in her turn, pleaded that the diary was fiction and that she herself was mad (suffering from a 'uterine disorder') as nobody would believe that a sane woman would have written such disgusting stuff.
It is hardly disgusting and, in my opinion, Isabella had a romantic imagination and a turn of phrase which Elinor Glyn would not have been ashamed to use. Walks, long conversations, embraces and kisses 'I shall not state what followed' ...one almost expects a row of ******* afterwards which used to appear in romantic novels years ago so that we could get all boggle eyed imagining what they were up to. The more I read about Isabella the more I began to believe that it might just all be wishful thinking and that it was all fiction rather than actualite. Other young men, both tutors to her sons, also featured in her diaries and it was clear that Isabella had a need to be loved and anybody who came into her life would do.
Whether it was true or not is, in the end, immaterial as Isabella was ruined either way. Either she was an adulterer or a fantasist, both unacceptable in a woman at this time. Huge scandal, newspapers publishing the details, though I gather they piously refrained from some of the more lurid passages in order to not upset the delicate ears of their readers, and the entire story was turned into a cliff hanger that ran and ran.
Poor Isabella - she was permitted little contact with her children, though relationships were resumed as they grew older, Mr Robinson married again and had three more children, the fact that he had a mistress and illegitimate children meant nothing during the trial, and he was able to assume his life in society though it appears that he was a broken man with a failing business.
The main interest in Mrs Robinson's Disgrace comes not just from the diaries and all their implications, but the way women were viewed and treated. Last year I read Wild Romance by Chloe Schama in which a wife was involved in a court case. Despite her husband being a stinker and a liar who had married her, abandoned her and married somebody else and contested their marriage, the court case ruined her, while her husband got away with it. When I reviewed this book here, I mentioned Daniel Deronda by George Eliot and the fact that Grandcourt who married Gwndoline Harleth could abandon his former mistress and children with no condemnation whatsoever from society. This was how men behaved it seemed.....
I recently read and reviewed the excellent Beautiful for Ever by Helen Rappaport which deals with a scheming trickster flogging her lotions and potions to women desperate to keep their beauty in order to hang onto their husbands (at the same time hiding from them the amount of money they were spending); when a court case ensued it was the women who were castigated in public, never the men.
Mem: I am aware that this is a very simplistic summing up of the state of women's lives at the time, I really need my historian daughter who is very interested in gender history to hold forth here, but she is busy with her own writing so you will have to put up with my Random Thoughts instead.
Fascinating book and, in the end, the reader has to make up their own mind as to the truthfulness of the diaries and whether all that was written therein ever happened. My feeling is that it didn't and that Mrs Robinson was living in a fantasy world. It is a dangerous one where the line between truth and reality becomes blurred and, sorry but here is another Bronte reference - Charlotte used to write wild and fantastical stories (Gondal et al) and escaped from the drudgery of her life by losing herself in her vivid imagination. There is one letter she wrote to her friend Ellen Nussey from the school where she was teaching which I remember most clearly. She is in the schoolroom and her mind is running wild and she is enthralled by her imaginary world when she is interrupted by one of her pupils. Her reaction is ferocious and she has to restrain herself from striking her and bringing her back to her workaday life. Charlotte knows this is dangerous and losing herself in this way is a unhealthy and almost like a drug addiction, but she cannot stop.
I do wonder if Mrs Robinson felt the same way. We all sit and dream out our little fantasies, I know I have and sometimes still do, but we know this is all they are and we have freedom and an interesting life to pursue so that it is merely a pleasant way to pass the time. In the case of Victorian women, it was probably their only way of escape.