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Monday, 29 April 2013

Book Review: Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

The subtitle of this book is 'The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady', which is the tool Summerscale uses to analyse one of the most interesting divorce cases heard in mid-Victorian period. Isabella Robinson met Edward Lane in 1850 and quickly began writing about him in her secret diary. She alternates between believing he feels the same way and thinking him cold-hearted until something irreversible seems to happen between. Then Isabella falls ill and her diary is read by her husband, Henry...

If it sounds like the plot of a sensation novel that's because it most likely inspired some. The details of the case were devoured by the press and, although they are less shocking to a modern reader, the type of information Isabella trusted to her diary is still surprising. Aside from her love for Edward, they also document her feelings for two other men and her distaste for her husband. Part of her defence rested upon the fact that to commit these thoughts - they contended they were fantasy - to paper was the sign of a deranged woman.

Summerscale approaches her subject with subtlety, utilising the diary entries to build up a picture of what happened before the trial. This is made especially difficult by the fact that the original diary and copies were destroyed. All she has to work with are the sections reported in the press and in the law digest which summarised the case in greater detail than the newspaper reports. With this in mind, the depth of Summerscale's analysis into Isabella and Edward's relationship is incredible. Equally, her writing style suits the subject, as it did The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (review here).

This is an enjoyable work of non-fiction and I won't give away the details for anyone unfamiliar with the trial. I will say that the Robinson and Lane families are interesting beyond the divorce trial and alleged affair. What Summerscale has created here, with the help of Isabella's diary, is a snapshot of a set of Victorian lives. The asides may seem irrelevant on occasion but they serve to build up an engrossing picture. When I'd finished reading I felt I was losing touch with a collection of friends.

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