- - Friday, September 28, 2012

By Kate Summerscale
Bloomsbury, $26, 320 pages

While working on her best-selling book, “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,” British author Kate Summerscale found newspaper accounts of a cause celebre that rocked Victorian society. Intrigued, Ms. Summerscale began carefully, systematically investigating court files and parish records. The result is “Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace,” a highly original and intimate look into the double standards of Victorian life with its rigid ideas about sanity, the boundaries of privacy, the institution of marriage and female sexuality.

During the 1850s, the keeping of personal journals had reached new heights. Many lonely women found their diaries to be a “secret friend” where they could find solace recording their sadness. Some of the most popular novels of the period took the guise of forgotten diaries, though they were fictional. In Isabella Robinson’s case, her diary became a story, “a serial in daily parts,” writes Ms. Summerscale, “in which she was the wronged and desperate heroine.”

Initially, marriage to businessman Henry Robinson promised some happiness to the 30-something widow. Henry’s marriage to Isabella secured him money as well as status. The bond was “a dreaded wedlock,” Isabella later wrote. Henry was often away on business; when home, he was cross and sour — “uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh-tempered, selfish and proud.” She was lonelier in his company than without. She longed for passion and companionship.

For five years she confessed her innermost thoughts into her diary, especially her infatuation with the handsome Edward Lane, a married doctor 10 years her junior. The pair discussed Byron, philosophy, science and politics. Their friendship escalated into an affair, until Edward called it off. Crushed, Isabella recognized she could never be his beloved.

One day, as Isabella lay delirious with fever, she began mumbling the names of other men. Suspicious, Henry Robinson remembered how his wife habitually carried around a journal, and found it. It was unlocked. He opened it and read.

There, boldly before him, were all her confessions: her love for Lane; the loathing and contempt she had for him. Enraged, Henry began rummaging through her desk, and discovered more diaries, poems, letters. He took them all. As soon as Isabella had recovered, Henry threw her out of the house and petitioned for divorce. In 1858, divorce in England was limited to only the very rich. That year, the new Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes had made divorce affordable for the middle class. The Robinson case was one of the first to arrive at the court.

The Daily Telegraph dismissed the case as “nonsense in a notebook.” Such nonsense sold newspapers. The case became the scandal of Victorian London. “To the astonishment of those who read the extracts in the press,” Ms. Summerscale writes, “Mrs. Robinson seemed to have invited, and lovingly documented, her own disgrace.” Here was a new and disturbing figure — a restless and unhappy middle-class housewife, yearning for the freedom to enjoy sexual and intellectual adventure.

What made the Robinson case so sensational was that it was taking place amid a backdrop of shifting social mores. Religious and social tenets were just then being rocked by Charles Darwin. Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” had been forbidden publication in England; critics called her “one of the most essentially disgusting” characters in literature, the kind of woman who threatened to destroy society from within.

Although Henry was an adulterer himself (during his marriage to Isabella he had fathered two out-of-wedlock daughters) such facts were not mentioned in court — it was thought not to have any bearing on the proceedings. In Victorian England, it was the adulteress who was perceived as a greater threat to society; it was she who could pollute a husband’s blood line. If anything, a woman’s sexual desire was associated with insanity. Medical witnesses on the stand explained that Mrs. Robinson’s condition — uterine disease — could cause sexual delusions or nymphomania.

So, was Mrs. Robinson’s diary fanciful literary work? Or had Isabella become crazed by unsatisfied desire? It took three months for the British court to reach a verdict in “Robinson v Robinson & Lane.” They were keen to avoid the example of the French, who had a history of dissolving rotten unions with swift dispatch (1 in every 8 French marriages, and three-fourths of them on petitions from the wives).

I won’t give away the ending to this explosive little tale. If “Masterpiece Theatre” can find screenwriters as talented as David Butler and John Gorrie who transformed James Brough’s biography of Lillie Langtry into that wonderful television series, the tribulations and trial of Mrs. Robinson could be as big a hit as “Downton Abbey.”

• Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is a biographer and editor living in Washington, D.C.

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