320 pp, hardback, £16.99
Review/interview by Caroline Sanderson
Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Galaxy Book of the Year Award in 2008, Kate Summerscale’s classy true crime tale The Suspicions of Mr Whicher was also a huge word-of-mouth success, bringing in sales in excess of 500,000 copies, and inspiring a primetime TV series. Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, Summerscale’s eagerly-awaited follow-up is once again set in Victorian times, but it is not another ‘whodunit’. Rather it raises the equally compelling question: ‘Did she or didn’t she?’ And instead of a youthful murder suspect, it places the heart and mind of a woman on trial.
It was while she was researching Mr Whicher that Summerscale came across a reference to a celebrated Victorian divorce case which intrigued her enough to look up the transcript of the trial in question. ‘Although I wasn’t able to do anything with it at the time, it stayed with me. It was a sort of puzzle. And once I embarked on unravelling the mystery, the book became not merely the solving of that puzzle but an attempt to reconstruct a life, and discover the truth,’ she told me.
Billed as a real-life Madame Bovary to Mr Whicher’s real-life Sherlock Holmes story, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace centres on the private diary of Isabella Robinson, a well-to-do, but miserably married Victorian lady, whose face must ‘wear an outward calm though the fires of Etna boil within her breast.’ She pours onto the blank pages of her journal her innermost hopes, fears, miseries, her intellectual hunger and sexual frustrations, her religious doubts, and her likings for other men. Chief among these is Edward Lane, a handsome and brilliant doctor, and a married man, whom Isabella meets for the first time in Edinburgh in 1850, and soon discovers to be her yearned-for intellectual equal. After several years of platonic friendship, albeit fuelled by considerable lust and longing on Isabella’s part, they have a short-lived and intermittent affair. Or do they? Therein lies a mystery that transfixed Victorian England.
When Isabella fell ill sometime afterwards, her brutish husband took advantage of her indisposition to trawl through her things and discovered the diary, with its passionate account of her affair with Lane, as well as all her unconsummated yearnings. Mr Robinson subsequently sued for divorce, and the case – one of the first to be heard in the new Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes established in 1858 – became a sensation, amid public disbelief that a respectable woman and mother would ever dream, not merely of committing adultery, but of committing the intimate details to a diary. In the words of Summerscale, Isabella Robinson had written herself a ‘drama in which she was the leading lady’. The violence of the rhetoric against her, and the drawn-out nature of the case – it was not settled for nine months – is, she adds, evidence of how potentially threatening it was to the strict codes of Victorian society. ‘It threw up a lot of issues about the sexuality of women, and the admissibility of private thoughts and feelings.’ The veracity of the diary was debated at lurid length both in court and in the newspapers, with Isabella’s (and by association, Edward Lane’s) defence resting on proving that it was a fantasy; the work of a mad woman, rendered insane, and a ‘sexual maniac’ by the effects of ‘uterine disease’. But was the diary really a delusion? In the National Library of Scotland, Summerscale uncovered an archive of letters between Isabella and Edward – inadmissible as evidence in court – which, 150 years later, seemed to tell a rather different story.
The Robinson case has a particular resonance because it took place at a time of great uncertainty in Victorian society, with matters relating to marriage, sex, religion, and human consciousness all hotly debated in the intellectual circles in which Isabella and Edward moved. Summerscale believes that there was probably more contemporary identification with Isabella’s plight among her fellow women than was acknowledged by the male-dominated judiciary, and press. Even devoted wife Queen Victoria expressed some surprising doubts about the institution of matrimony. ‘I think people marry far too much…it is such a lottery after all, and to a poor woman a very doubtful happiness,’ she wrote to her newly-wed daughter Vicky. And was it of Mrs Isabella Robinson that Wilkie Collins was thinking when he wrote in his 1866 novel, Armadale: ‘My misery is a woman’s misery, and it will speak here, rather than nowhere; to my second self, in this book if I have no-one to hear me’?
By judicious use of such contemporary quotes, Summerscale beautifully broadens out the engrossing backdrop to this saddest of scandals, weaving in references from the work of Dickens, the Brontë sisters, and perhaps most appropriately of all, from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. For in that novel, first published in 1857, another woman contemplates a life that is ‘cold as a garret whose dormer window looks on the north’. Summerscale is also fascinating on the contemporary craze for diary writing, as well as the rise of such alternative practices as phrenology, and homeopathy. Convinced of the merits of healing the mind and body in unison, Edward Lane was himself a pioneer of hydrotherapy, establishing a clinic reminiscent of today’s Priory, which specialised in the addictions and nervous afflictions of those who lived ‘hard and high’. Among his patients was the chronically dyspeptic Charles Darwin, his condition a result of anxieties about his ‘ever-lasting species Book’.
So what does Summerscale believe is the truth of the Robinson case? Did Isabella and Edward actually have an affair? ‘For a long time, I found the diary very ambiguous: a fascinating document but completely irresolvable. After reading their letters, I became convinced that the diary was broadly true. But I hope I present the evidence in such a way that readers can make up their own minds. The fact that there is no absolute conclusion is the thing that gives it life.’ And indeed, this compelling atmosphere of over-arching uncertainty is a trait that Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace shares with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Summerscale feels that there are other parallels too. ‘Both books are close-ups on a forgotten and chronologically contained moment. Again I’ve tried to get under the skin of the characters, and tease out all the connections between the social and artistic concerns of the time, and find in them the roots of our own preoccupations and confusions.’
Despite the clear synergies between the two books, I found Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace a more compelling and satisfying read than its mega-selling predecessor because it examines so many questions which still consume us today. Isabella Robinson’s tragedy was to be born into a time when no one seemed to be listening to those who asked them. The crime in Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is not a murder, but the vilification of an unhappy woman who dared not only to long for a different life, but to write that longing down. Reflecting on a particularly moving diary passage in which Isabella Robinson begs an imagined Reader to take pity on her plight, Summerscale concludes her book with the poignant thought that the readers of today might do exactly that. ‘We can read her diary in a way that the Victorians could not have done. I wanted to be the Reader she was reaching for.’