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Here’s to Mrs. Robinson

By Angela SerratoreJuly 29, 2012

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale

IN 1858, THE WRITER Charles Dickens sent to several London newspapers and magazines a note outlining the sorry state of his marriage. The announcement, a precursor to the boilerplate “please respect our privacy during this difficult time” appearing in modern tabloids when any celebrity relationship dissolves, alludes to Dickens’s separation from his wife, Catherine. His preemptive strike against the rumor mill, however, refuses to acknowledge reports of Dickens’s trysts with a stage actress some thirty years his junior:

Some domestic trouble of mine, of long-standing, on which I will make no further remark than that it claims to be respected, as being of a sacredly private nature, has lately been brought to an arrangement, which involves no anger or ill-will of any kind, and the whole origin, progress, and surrounding circumstances of which have been, throughout, within the knowledge of my children. It is amicably composed, and its details have now to be forgotten by those concerned in it.

Dickens and his wife would stay legally married until the former's death in 1870. Modern retellings of the affair attempt to explain away the not-fully-realized separation by saying that divorce was not an option in 1858; this is untrue. In that year Great Britain established the first divorce court, a place where the dissolution of marriage could be decided by judges instead of by the previously required Act of Parliament. The court granted more than 100 divorces in its first year — more than 10 times that of the previous annum.

One of those 1858 divorce cases, Robinson v. Robinson and Lane, involving a middle-class housewife, her domineering husband, and a handsome young doctor, is the subject of Kate Summerscale's new book, Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. The Robinson divorce made headlines in city and local papers across the British Isles, and drew commentary from tangentially related figures like Charles Darwin and the aforementioned Mr. Dickens, but Summerscale's yarn centers on the titular Mrs. Robinson and her diaries. Her alleged infidelity was discovered by her husband, who found the unlocked diary while she lay in bed with a fever, and excerpts of her private writings were read aloud during the trial, exposing the innermost workings of her fantasy life and altering perception (contemporary and modern) of what a Victorian woman thought, felt, and created.

The union of Isabella and Henry Robinson was not a love match. Ten years his junior and the widowed mother to a toddler son, she was swept into the marriage largely out of financial need. She bore him two children; he had others from a previous marriage and would go on to have at least two more with mistresses. She wrote in her diary that he was “cold” and “uninterested in anything but business,” so when the family moved to Edinburgh in 1850, she worked hard to ingratiate herself to a circle of bright, middle- and professional-class men and women that included lawyers, novelists, and doctors — specifically a doctor, Edward Lane, and his wife, mother-in-law, and children. In Robinson’s diary (acquired by Summerscale via the National Archives), she makes her affections for Lane clear — even while cultivating a friendship with the rest of his family, she takes pleasure in his attentions, which are, in her early writings, ambiguous. Summerscale, however, interprets Robinson's scribblings, particularly an entry that focuses on an afternoon during which Mrs. Lane seemed withdrawn, as keys to a larger phenomenon — the sexualized Victorian woman:

In the diary, Isabella replayed the events of the day in her mind's eye, as an observer, the better to enjoy the sensations of being envied and wanted. She had spent so long on the outside of the Lanes' marriage, gazing jealously in, that to be the cause of Mary's discomfort was a secret delight to her now. The journal magically remade the scenes that had passed, no longer dissecting her longings but instead allowing them to infuse her recollections. Being subject to no supervision, tested against no external source, checked by no other perspective, the diary could conjure up a wished-for world, in which memories were coloured with desire. This was an entry to be re-read, for pleasure.

Summerscale compares Robinson's diary to early works of the Brontë sisters, as well as lesser-known-but-popular-in-their-period women novelists like Frances Burney — women who wrote stories about other women using language coyly and effectively. Much of Summerscale's analysis of Robinson's illicit affairs hinges upon individual turns of phrase, as did the eventual divorce trial Robinson was prohibited from attending. An encounter in Lane's study, told through Robinson's journaling and Summerscale's narrative assistance, palpitates with Robinson's sexual passion and yet is ultimately inconclusive:

Edward and Isabella drew near the fire. “How the evening passed I know not,” wrote Isabella, as if she had lost all sense of time and self. “It was full of passionate excitement, long and clinging kisses, and nervous sensations, not unaccompanied with dread of intrusion. Yet bliss predominated.” Edward, she wrote, “was particularly gentle, soothing my agitation, and never for an instant forgetting the gentleman and the kindly friend.” At one point Alfred knocked at the study door, interrupting their love-making. He told the doctor that one of his sons had asked if he would go to see him in bed. Edward went upstairs — “reluctantly,” said Isabella. When he came back down she had fallen into a languid swoon. He “softly kissed my closed eyes,” she wrote. “I tried to raise my dropping head, but in vain.” He became anxious: “at last,” she wrote, “in absolute dread of anyone breaking in, he advised me to go. I smoothed my tumbled hair and in a few moments found myself in the drawing room, at half past nine. Fortunately, only a few of the guests were there. No one had a right to question my absence or appearance.”

Were her swoons and mussed hair indeed, as was alleged during trial, post-coital, or did chaste kisses take on an embellished eroticism in her personal writings? At one point, Lane tells Robinson to “obviate consequences” and she collapses into a fit of sobs. Summerscale hypothesizes that he wanted her to take steps to prevent pregnancy by using a vaginal douche (a common post-intercourse step for women of means), and indeed this request would later be used as evidence the affair had been consummated. Robinson's defense, however, argued that if Lane had made the statement at all, he'd clearly been referring to the idea that they avoid being caught by family or friends. Summerscale is hesitant to declare herself one way or the other — contraception seems just as likely a Robinson/Lane topic of conversation as any, yet without firsthand knowledge (and isn't that the delightful agony of experiencing an event through the diary of another? We're there, but we're not there), a definitive answer cannot be given.

Rather than denying adultery outright, the Isabella Robinson defense chose to use her diaries, the smoking gun wielded by her husband's lawyers, to prove her innocent of wrongdoing. She was, claimed her representatives and the representatives of Dr. Lane (divorce suits based on adultery required husbands to name the lovers of their wives), stark-raving mad. Because she suffered from hysteria, they posited, her inflamed soul merely invented the encounters. Drunk on solitude and the epistolary novels so popular with her set, she turned her diary into a fictional masturbatory aid, meant for greedy review in her most private moments. Newspapers, breathlessly covering the trial (the first divorces of 1858 were speedily granted on counts of proven adultery, cruelty, and abandonment, but the Robinson case, with its many witnesses and presentation of new evidence and theories from both sides, was unusual in its length), gave the diary a life of its own by declaring it so lurid as to be totally unfit for excerption. The Observer, analyzing the first week of the trial, called Robinson’s private writings “of such a nature that it would be quite improper to print them in a family newspaper”:

They contain admissions in all but the plainest terms of the criminality imputed to the unfortunate lady in question, and they are moreover penned with a degree of descriptive ability which renders them most dangerous reading. Under such circumstances it has been considered the wiser course to omit them altogether.

Robinson, then, finds herself keeping company with Gustave Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary, not translated into English for another 20 years, had Britain in a frenzy over the destructive path carved out by an erotically charged housewife. Like Emma Bovary, Robinson's nature was described as capricious, fanciful, and ill-suited to Victorian ladyhood — the concern being, of course, that more women were, in their secret, ungovernable hearts, just like her. Scores of etiquette guides and moralizing stories (even Dickens's ladies got their comeuppance if they'd strayed from the path of righteousness) appeared in newspapers and magazines on a daily basis, and even those with a more salacious tone were framed as artifacts to judge: Goethe's poetry was printed in the Edinburgh Atheneum with the warning that ladies might be put off by his flirtatiousness. Burney's diaries, published posthumously, were edited by the author for publication, and Summerscale points out that diaries might be something of a practice for fiction-writing, echoing (in a strange parallel) Robinson's defense team. Summerscale is clearly sympathetic to Robinson, and speaks of her in tones both loving and concerned. She is, however, unwilling to make specific declarations about events; she surmises that Robinson and Lane “probably” had an affair, but not how extensive the affair might have been. Robinson's diaries were “likely” embellished for dramatic and personal effect, but to what extent? It is a style of storytelling that is maddening and yet wholly right — to read Robinson's diary and judge the contests, after all, is the provenance of those who called her insane.

Robinson's own prose is captivating. She writes as well as any of her professional fictionist contemporaries, and is unafraid to chastise herself for what she occasionally sees as irrational fits of mania and depression. Even when throwing herself dramatically onto couches and refusing to get out of bed, she is eminently likable, and, more importantly, believable; her stories are dramatic to be sure, but feel utterly real in their passion and pathos.

Summerscale's narrative voice is best and most appealing when dealing directly with Robinson's diaries, and being just as thorough as the diarist could be vague — Robinson and Lane’s long walks taken on spring days sent Summerscale poring through contemporary newspapers to verify the strength of the sun, and Lane's hydropathy center, Moor Park, is painted with a brush as vivid as those used by the painters who stayed there.

Where the story falters, then, is where it expands from Robinson's emotional life. An early chapter on Lane's family that mentions a brother-in-law who tries to cure his desire to masturbate through the insertion of glass rods into his urethra feels sensationalized, as though Victorians genuinely were either the frigid or perversely over-sexed caricatures they are so often painted.

Charles Darwin, occasional patient of Dr. Lane (he suffered, by his own account, cripplingly painful flatulence during the most important phases of his research for Origin of the Species), commented on the case in personal correspondence, echoing the general consensus that Lane could not be guilty of impropriety with Robinson, an older woman (during the trial, lawyers for Robinson alleged that she had been in her early fifties at the time of the purported escapade; in fact she was thirty-eight) and self-implicated adulteress. Darwin's thoughts, though, do not seem especially original in light of firsthand accounts of the trial, and his inclusion in Summerscale’s account ultimately reads as an attempt to shoehorn a famous figure into an ordinary woman's story.

Isabella Robinson, though, does not require the voice of a famed scientist to transform her into a compelling heroine. Her own estranged husband's lawyers expressed grudging admiration for her prose, and the diary's incessant comparison to fiction by Victorian newspapers and by the diarist's own friends is a tacit acknowledgment on the part of her contemporaries that she knew, at least, how to wield a pen. To Summerscale's credit, she stops imagining Robinson's inner life after Robinson stops chronicling it. The diaries conclude before the trial, and the reader is left wondering what Robinson might have made of the whole spectacle. She did, ultimately, manage a sort of win: the judges ruled that Lane was innocent of adultery, and since there could be no transgression without a male transgressor, Robinson was permitted to stay in her marriage, ensuring her financial security and position as a mother. She faded from the public eye, and it seems almost comic to read that some ten years after the original trial, she was caught leaving several London hotels in the company of her children’s tutor; her husband was granted a divorce in 1864, when Robinson was nearing the end of her life. No diaries exist from this time, and it was, by the few extant accounts, speedy and uncontested by Isabella, who lived the rest of her life supported by various male family members and died after a cut on her thumb became infected.

As a primary source, surely meant only for her own hands and eyes, Robinson’s diary is a remarkable document — an eloquent account of complex urges and emotions that looks ahead of its time because of her ability (and willingness), as a Victorian woman, to put her feelings into words. At the same time, it remains positively unextraordinary in its expression of deeply human desires. Whatever narrative traps Summerscale falls into, they are forgiven as Robinson whiles away the hours in “a delicious state of semi-consciousness — my hopes, wishes, and the past half-realised bliss in one sweet picture. Ah! Why not wholly realised?”


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LARB Contributor

Angela Serratore is a graduate student at Columbia University. She has previously contributed to Lapham's Quarterly and The Awl.


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