May 21, 2012

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

In Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, Kate Summerscale tells the true story of Isabella Robinson, a married woman whose affair with a younger man, one Dr Edward Lane, scandalised Victorian society. Mr Henry Robinson was among the first to take advantage of the newly passed Matrimonial Causes Act to divorce his wife, and during the trial it surfaced that Mrs Robinson had detailedly documented her extramarital experiences in a diary, which her husband was now presenting to the court as evidence.

As Summerscale tells us, keeping this diary was an act almost as transgressive as the adultery itself: “to the astonishment of those who read the extracts in the press, Mrs Robinson seemed to have invited, and lovingly documented, her own disgrace”. Throughout the book, she recounts the story of Isabella Robinson’s unhappy marriage, of her involvement with Edward Lane, of the divorce trial that followed, and of the public’s reaction to Isabella’s story and its implications in terms of dominant ideas about marriage and female sexuality.

Those of you who have read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher will already know that Kate Summerscale has a knack for producing works of non-fiction that are every bit as readable as any novel. Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace engrossed me right away, and its sheer readability is even more remarkable if we consider that Mrs Robinson’s story doesn’t lend itself to a suspenseful retelling quite as easily as a murder mystery. But Summerscale makes it suspenseful all the same, particularly in regards to the outcome of the trial. She also draws attention to the parallels between Mrs Robinson’s story and those of heroines of controversial nineteenth-century novels such as East Lynne and Madame Bovary, and thus enriches her narrative with a layer of intertextuality.

Another thing Summerscale excels at is making the connection between the facts of the case at hand and their wider social context. Isabella Robinson’s story is all the more interesting if we consider what was happening in Victorian society at the time; Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace accordingly explores public debates about marriage and divorce; fashionable medical theories about masturbation, female sexual desire, and madness; and the ideas of writers, thinkers and scientists such as Robert Chambers, George Drysdale, Charles Darwin and George Eliot, all of whom were directly or indirectly connected with Mrs Robinson.

The mid nineteenth-century was a time of considerable shifts in social customs, and Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is primarily a history of anxieties about sexuality and the moral panic caused by perceived threats to the social order. Mrs Robinson’s diary flew in the face of conventional wisdom about femininity, desire and sexual agency, and as such the public, legal and medical response was to pathologize her: the question of whether or not she was mad (who but a mad woman, the argument went, could possibly keep such a diary?) became crucial to the divorce court’s decision.

It’s also particularly interesting to consider that this was a time when the definition of marriage was changing, due not only to the new divorce laws but also to growing support for what was to become the Married Women’s Property Act. As customary in times of change, this lead to social resistance as people clung desperately to familiar mores and made doomsday predictions about what would befall society should these proposed changes happen. As I read Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, I couldn’t help but make parallels with contemporary changes to marriage laws as lgbtq people gain more rights and the eerily similar apocalyptic arguments used by those who try to resist them.

As much as I enjoyed Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, I have to say it didn’t quite live up to my expectations and that I ended up not loving it as much as Summerscale’s previous effort. This surprised me quite a bit, as the topic of this book interests me so much more at first glance. I suspect that my current reading mood might have been to blame. There were times when I wanted more analysis from this book, more overt feminist commentary. However, Summerscale’s approach is more descriptive and narrative than analytical, and she remains neutral and dispassionate at all times. Part of me wonders whether this will make it easy for some to read Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace as nothing but an exercise in a tut-tutting a scandalous woman – which it certainly isn’t, but it also isn’t the reverse. I should add, though, that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with presenting the facts and leaving room for the reader to do the analysing themselves; quite the opposite in fact. The fact that I wasn’t quite up to the task is what makes me think that my current state of mind was the real problem here.

There is one thing, though, that I do wish this book had done. As I said above, Isabella Robinson’s story says a lot about dominant attitudes towards female sexuality and the pathologization of women who transgress social norms, and these things are fascinating and well worth thinking about. But the more I read about the Victorians, the more I realise that the popular understanding of the era as a time of unmitigated repression isn’t really the full picture. Yes, there were plenty of people who believed, like Dr William Acton, that “the majority of women [were] not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind” – but as books like The Other Victorians and Unauthorised Pleasures have shown us, there were also a lot of gaps, nuances and grey areas, and a world of difference difference between people’s public attitudes and private lives. I wish this book had balanced the picture a little more by exploring this messier, more complex side of Victorian sexuality. Summerscale does this to some extent when she describes the work of George Drysdale, but I felt that there was room for more, and that this approach would have made the book even more interesting.

Still, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is a fascinating read. It reminded me that I really must read Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady and Eric Berkowitz’s Sex and Punishment, both of which would probably make excellent follow-up reads and should provide the overt analysis that I craved here.

Interesting bits:
The work of Lallemand and other French researchers set off a moral and medical panic about onanism that was to continue throughout the century. Masturbation was the dark corollary of the individualism so prized by Victorian society, an embodiment of the dangers of privacy and self-reliance: a man like George Drysdale might lose himself in books and dreams, folding inwards into a dissolute imaginary realm.

Both Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights (1847) and her sister Anne in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall used journals as the scaffolds for the plots of their novels. Dinah Mulock, a regular at Moor Park, in 1852 wrote a novel in the shape of the secret journal of a governess, and Wilkie Collins in 1856 published two tales in the guise of journals by women. By now, the Athenaeum observed: ‘The Diary seems to have superseded Letters as the means by which persons are made to relate their own stories.’ The thrill of the form lay precisely in its verisimilitude, its semblance of reality. The reader of a diary could feel the naughty pleasure of scanning pages not meant for her eyes; or accept the role of the trusted friend for whom the narrator longed. Whether as a spy or a confidante, or both, she experienced a sharp sensation of proximity.

Gynaecology was a new specialism, and the diagnosis of ‘uterine disease’ encompassed all manner of female complaints, from the mental to the menstrual. Since a woman’s reproductive system was believed to exert a strong influence on her mental health, the two were often entwined – about ten percent of sufferers from uterine disease were said to end up in asylums. Any change in a woman’s sexual or reproductive life was seen as an opportunity for the disease. After giving birth, wrote Dr Bennet, a woman usually lost all erotic appetite, but ‘in some exceptional cases, so far from inertia being the result of uterine inflammation, the sexual feelings are exaggerated. Indeed, I have known this exaggeration carried so far as to constitute a kind of nymphomania. When this is the case there is often clitoric enlargement, and its sequela, local irritation.’ Alternatively, the trigger could be the menopause: the eminent gynaecologist E. J. Tilt (a colleague of Bennet) identified the ‘change of life’, or ‘dodging-time’, as the most common cause of hysterical nymphomania. Forbes Winslow, too, observed that women sometimes experienced erotic mania when they stopped menstruating. Then again, an amative woman could be unbalanced simply by a sudden reduction in the frequency with which she had intercourse: as a result of widowhood, for instance, or a husband’s prolonged absences on business.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I received a free copy of this book for review.


  1. Very nice - thank you for your thoughts. I think I'll put this one on my wishlist. I agree with you, there are lots of parallels that can be drawn between then and now.

  2. Ha! I'm going to do my review of this tomorrow - so it was extra fascinating to read yours.

    Funnily enough I did think of you while I was reading it. It struck me that the way female sexuality was regulated in law and medicine was quite extraordinary. If the conditions for adultery existed, the law believed that adultery must have happened, and so on. This regulation was entirely in the hands of men. Entirely. And so the only explanation is that it arises out of a huge and misguided act of projection. That the sexual swamp in a man's mind projects horror of itself onto the potential for women to respond in similar ways. But this also struck me as a very essentialist approach, and I was chuckling to myself and thinking, Ana wouldn't like that! So I wondered what you thought about this issue. How are we to account for the laws that governed sexuality at this time while avoiding the essentialist trap?

  3. Very interesting review--thank you! I haven't read either of Summerscale's books but keep thinking I ought to.

    I don't know if you have ever seen Lesley Hall's Victorian sexuality sites. There's this overview:

    And then if you look at the other links, there's a good one on 'Victorian sex factoids' that helps debunk some of the myths we are all familiar with.

  4. It's already because of you that Mr. Whicher sits on my shelves (well, at the moment, still in a box somewhere), and now I fear that because of you this one will end up on my shelves as well. I have to say that it greatly surprises me that I think I'm actually more interested to read this one than Mr. Whicher. I sort of love it when something surprises me about me. :P

  5. I have this to read, but I just haven't got to it yet... Hopefully soon!

  6. Kate: It's hard to miss them, isn't it? Looking forward to hearing what you think of the book when you get to it!

    litlove: Good question! Personally I think it's possible to believe that there are no hardwired differences between men and women, and that therefore men aren't "naturally" more likely to experience desire or act on their sexual feelings, while simultaneously acknowledging that there are some very big differences in how men and women as groups experience sexuality in our world - both because they're socialised differently and because sexuality has very different social and physical costs for each group. This was true in the Victorian era and is still true today, I think (making allowances for huge variations when it comes to individual men and women's actual experiences, of course). But what I suspect is that the more the power imbalance in relationships diminishes, the more women are in control of their reproduction so that fears of pregnancy don't colour every sexual experience, and the closer we get to real gender equality and to a world without sexual double standards, the smaller these differences would be. I hope this makes sense! And I'm really looking forward to reading your review tomorrow.

    Rohan Maitzen: Thank you so much for that - very interesting link! Adding all the books mentioned to my wishlist. I remember seeing Love in the Time of Victoria at my former university's library, but I'd forgotten about it. It sounds like a fascinating read!

    Debi: Well, the subject matter IS more interesting! I think I might very well have enjoyed it more if not for the fact that I've been so intellectually lethargic lately.

    Kelly: Very curious to hear your thoughts!

  7. So this is non-fiction? It sounds fascinating!

  8. Wow, I would buy this book based solely on the title and the premise, so I'm bummed it didn't live up to your high expectations. I feel like the premise appeals to me more than Mr. Whicher, a book I have on my shelf.

    Your problems with the book, though, remind me of my frustrations with Mistress of the Elgin Marbles, a biography I read about Lady Elgin. Though she was of a previous generation, her divorce proceedings were also very public, but she "won" the divorce, even though she had committed adultery, in that she got to keep the considerable amount of money she brought to the marriage. I was really upset that the author didn't share more about her defense and how her family came together to fight for her rights because I think it would be really fascinating to read about how a woman won such a case in that period.

  9. This is MY kind of non-fiction! I love when an author can weave the facts together in such a way that it's like falling into a novel. I had actually just added this one to my TBR this weekend, so a very timely review indeed! I'll admit though, I think you've caused me to be more interested in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher than in this title itself.

  10. Have you read Her Letters by Kate Chopin? I'm not sure if there's any RW connection, but the themes and issues touched upon in Chopin's story and this case sound similar.

  11. I thought The Suspicions of Mr Whicher was excellent, and I'm really look forward to reading this one.

  12. I loved her first book, and her second sounds as if it's good , but not perfect. I really am interested in the way this story is portrayed and the way that the scandal of the diary unfolds. Very intriguing review today. I will hold off on this one for now, but it is going on the list!

  13. I heard Summerscale talk about this a while ago, and I'm really keen to read it. I have a feeling that one of the aspects you disliked (the absence of overt feminist commentary) might be something I actually like. I prefer it when writers show, rather than tell, and this story might speak for itself? Well, I'll see when I read it!

  14. Shelley: As much as the present day is far from perfect, I'm certainly glad I was born when I was!

    Kathy: Yes it is!

    Aarti: I really think the problem might have been more me than the book itself. I'd be really curious to hear what you think of it! And Mistress of the Elgin Marbles sound like it could have been fascinating. It's too bad so many questions were left unanswered :\ It sounds like there was room there for a whole other book!

    Heidi: Yes, I love that too! I think I was in a different kind of reading mood back when I read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, so I'd hesitate to say it's in fact a better book, if that makes sense. I hope you enjoy both whenever you get to them!

    Tasha: I haven't - thank you very much for the recommendation!

    Jessica: Enjoy!

    Zibilee: I think it was more that it wasn't a good match for my current reading mood than it was that it was actually flawed, you know? I do think you'd really enjoy it!

    Simon: It wasn't so much that I disliked it; it was more that I expected something different, probably because this is non-fiction. When reading novels I also very much favour the "show, don't tell" approach. But if we consider how novelistic Summerscale's style is, then what she did here makes perfect sense. Looking forward to hearing what you think of it!

  15. Great review! I've just finished this book, and I wasn't quite wowed with it, but thought it was interesting and informative.

  16. Your reviews always cause my wishlist to grow! This one, and some of your companion reads, sound like books I would really like to read.

  17. You are always giving me more books to put on my list. I could do a year of books on this topic and not scratch the surface of what I'd like to read.


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