Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady BY Kate Summerscale. Bloomsbury USA. Hardcover, 320 pages. $26.
The cover of Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady

Someone really should write a compelling history of the diary. Those books we often associate with childhood have been, after all, vehicles for some of the most illuminating accounts of history: Samuel Pepys had his famed journals of seventeenth-century life, John de Crèvecoeur his observations of the American settlements, and Lewis and Clark used them to chronicle their travails through the American West. And that’s to say nothing of figures like Franz Kafka or Virginia Woolf whose private entries have enhanced our understanding of their public work. A diary can be, in the right hands, a document that enlightens its consumers as much as its creator.

Originating with Samuel Johnson’s Pamela, the lady-diarist-as-storyteller motif became a valuable tool for novelists in the early nineteenth century, with diaries providing a direct line to a protagonist’s psyche. As Kate Summerscale notes in Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, some of our most enduring novels are modeled after diaries, such as Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. For a society that prized modesty, humility, and privacy, diary consumption satiated an innocuous but covert desire—to truly know another person’s mind. “Fuelled by the popularity of Romantic poetry, which prized introspection,” Summerscale writes, the Victorian craze for diary-reading allowed the reader to indulge “the naughty pleasure of scanning pages not meant for her eyes.”

It is no surprise then that the tale of Isabella Robinson—the protagonist of Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace and a real diarist who naïvely memorialized her infidelity—titillated her contemporaries. An accomplished amateur writer and Edinburgh society lady, Isabella Robinson’s transgressions and innermost thoughts became public in a highly scrutinized divorce case in which her husband used Isabella’s diary against her. Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace carefully outlines the details of this affair, then studies the trial, the divorce, and its aftermath.

In 1850, Isabella—the wife of a prominent businessman, and the mother of three young boys—met and befriended Dr. Edward Lane, the son-in-law of a local socialite of note. That night, Isabella went home and wrote the first of many illicit diary entries. Lane, she wrote, was “handsome, lively, and good-humoured”; he “fascinated” her. This was apparently not her first liaison dangereuse, but it was the start of an obsession that would take hold of Isabella’s life for nearly six years.

From 1850-56, Isabella and Edward Lane became friendly, and the relationship eventually became romantic—at least according to Isabella. The two exchanged letters, strolled, and, eventually progressed to “passionate kisses, whispered words, confessions of the past.” One day, on a private walk, more physicality apparently ensued. Isabella indicated in her diary that the two “rested among the dry fern,” but refused to put to paper what happened next: “I shall not state what followed.” Whether the affair was fully consummated remains unknowable, although Isabella’s omission is perhaps as damning as any confession.

Though Isabella fell passionately in love with Lane, it’s clear he never fully returned the feeling. Thus, the six years of letter-exchanging and lusty diary entries can at times be a slog, though the fault lies more in Isabella’s exasperating character than Summerscale’s facility. Isabella’s whining grows tiresome—“Why is it everything I plan or wish for is turned to such bitterness? Surely it must be my own fault. I long for things I ought not to prize” —and then turns rapturous: “Heaven itself could not be more blessed than these moments.” Still, Summerscale is a gifted researcher and storyteller, and her insights into the conventions of diary-keeping and her subject’s psyche animate the first half of the book.

Summerscale never underestimates the power of the written word in the life of a lonely woman. Addressing the implicit question of why anyone would draft a veritable confession of an affair, Summerscale speculates that for a bored, love-starved woman like Isabella Robinson, the diary was a way to recreate “the thrill of transgression, of pleasures sharpened by the danger of discovery.”

And discovered she was. Ill with what may have been diphtheria, Isabella was confined to her bed for much of the spring of 1856. In a state of feverish delirium, her husband heard her “muttering the names of other men.” Suspicious, Henry removed the diary from Isabella’s drawer and read of her transgressions with Lane, as well as her infatuations with two other men (including her sons’ tutor). As soon as she was well, Henry informed her of his discovery and left the house, taking their children, the diary, and all of her papers with him.

The second half of Mrs. Robinson concerns the courtroom details of Isabella and Henry’s divorce case—a proceeding made fascinating by the flowery and damning confessions in Isabella’s diary. Though the affair appeared incontestable (and infidelity by a wife made divorce permissible), a carnival of accusations, half-truths, and legal deceptions ensued. Here, the frantic pace of earlier chapters slows down considerably, as Summerscale dives into the messy, burgeoning development of the British divorce system.

Prior to 1858, divorce was governed by the ecclesiastical courts and could only be granted through a private bill from the House of Commons. Consequently, it was discouragingly expensive—just 322 divorces were approved in England before that year. Passage of The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 revolutionized the accessibility of divorce in Victorian England by allowing the process to proceed by civil litigation; but despite these reforms, divorce law was still heavily biased in favor of men. It was not until 1882 that a woman could keep all her inherited and personal money after divorcing.

Although the legal complexities of Isabella’s case were enormous, Summerscale teases out the intricacies of English divorce law without resorting to a recitation of arcane facts. Instead, she reserves her energy for the fascinating defense submitted by Isabella’s legal team: that the diary was a fiction.

Forced into a corner by a biased marriage law and damning evidence, Isabella’s lawyer presented his client as a woman on the verge of sexual madness, a fiery liar who invented an affair so that she might write it down in a burst of erotic excitement. Unable to testify on her own behalf, “the medical witnesses in the Divorce Court suggested that Isabella had become mired in a circle of desire and excitement…her lascivious thoughts, translated to paper, took on an apparent reality that gratified her erotic impulses.” Now less concerned with the actual infidelity, the divorce case morphed into an attack on “the solitary acts of reading and writing,” which, according to the testifying physicians, might render a woman unsound in mind and body. “If masturbation was a sexual communion with the self,” says Summerscale, “diary-writing was an emotional communion of the same kind.”

And yet, as Summerscale points out, “the act of diary-keeping honoured many of the values of Victorian society—self-reliance, autonomy, the capacity to keep secrets.” By transcribing her liaisons—imagined and real—Isabella violated social norms and the boundaries between public and private life. More than a “silly” lady diarist or evil seductress, Isabella symbolized something far more fearful to the British public: She was a woman ruined by literature and writing, proof that a formerly respectable lady could be destroyed by the destructive force of words.

No matter which way the court decided, Isabella would be ruined; there are no winners in this tale of heartbreak, betrayal, and societal injustice. But Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace tells us far more than the story of one reckless woman born before her time. It navigates the cloudy waters of marital law, Victorian sexuality, and the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. The diary may have ruined Isabella Robinson, but Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace has the power to vindicate her.

Hillary Kelly is the Managing Editor of The Book: An Online Review at The New Republic.