This morning I heard a story on the radio show Radio 360 about Jace Clayton, a Brooklyn-based DJ also known as DJ/rupture, and how he pulls together sometimes quite different pieces of music and merges them into something new. I found it thrilling to hear the original pieces and then hear how Clayton aligned them and brought them together. This was similar to how I felt while reading Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. Kate Summerscale skillfully weaves a variety of elements into a cohesive narrative, which I found absolutely engaging.
I picked up this book after reading a review by Teresa on Shelf Love. Teresa seemed most struck by the idea that the act of keeping a diary would in itself have an influence on the diarist’s thoughts and actions, that because in her diary Isabella Robinson dwelled so much on her infatuations and her feelings of being trapped by her marriage, she actually heightened and perpetuated those feelings.
While I, too, found this idea intriguing, I was more interested in where Mrs Robinson’s diary and the ensuing divorce trial were situated in relation to the culture at that time. Victorian England was very focused on appearances and on maintaining institutions. While, given that atmosphere, it might seem an odd time to establish a Divorce Court, it wasn’t really divorce as we think of it today. The purpose of the Divorce Court in Victorian England wasn’t to dissolve unions that were unpleasant for either party. The purpose of the Divorce Court at the time, Summerscale suggests, was to strengthen the institution of marriage by weeding out the “bad” examples.
As a result, many of the rulings contained elements that we might find strange today. For example, there was the case in which Fanny Curtis was granted a divorce from her abusive husband but was not granted custody of their children. The vice-chancellor deciding the custody case determined that it was more important to the fabric of society to uphold a husband’s rights, even if that meant leaving children in the hands of someone known to be abusive in his actions. “However harsh, however cruel the husband may be,” the vice-chancellor explained, “it does not justify the wife’s want of that due submission to the husband, which is her duty both by the law of God and by the law of man.” Upholding the institution of marriage and the man’s role within it was more important than the safety and wellbeing of the people affected by it. If the institution of marriage should fall, the concern seemed to be, society itself would be in danger.
It struck me several times while reading this book just how delicate the Victorians seemed to view society. Everywhere you turn, there’s a threat. After Henry Robinson read his wife’s diary with its apparent confession of adultery and amorous feelings for multiple men, he filed for divorce in the new court. Because he had no evidence for the adultery besides his wife’s diary, excerpts were presented as evidence in court. Initially, the newspapers printed these excerpts as they were read in court, but after a while, the prurient content of the excerpts began to alarm some readers. Women had been barred from the courtroom during the reading of the most expository of the passages, but here women and even children could read the same material in the morning paper. Some publications chose not to publish these extracts because they might give readers (particularly women) bad ideas.
The idea that certain kinds of writing were dangerous—especially to young women—was commonplace: usually the culprits were French novels, but Isabella Robinson’s diary showed that a middle-class Englishwoman could assault her own decency in prose.
England recognized the bad influence of foreign novels like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which addresses issues of adultery and (gasp!) women’s sexual urges, but now it appeared necessary to protect the women of England even from themselves.
This is the beauty of this book. Summerscale doesn’t just present the diary of one woman or chronicle the collapse of one marriage. Instead, she places these elements in historical context. We see how the lives of Isabella and Henry Robinson are interwoven with the culture and the ideas that were emerging at the time. She clearly demonstrates to her readers the tumult in England at the time as ideas of spirituality, sexuality, art, intellectualism, and the role of institutions in the lives of individuals were being scrutinized and inevitably altered in the examining. She shows the anxiety with which these new and dangerous ideas were received and how all of this coalesced in the pages of Isabella Robinson’s diary and then intersected with the public sphere again during the divorce proceedings.
I enjoyed observing Summerscale’s skill in pulling all of this together, and I highly enjoyed reading the resulting narrative.
- “Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace”: Divorce, Victorian-style (salon.com)
- Books: Kate Summerscale’s “Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace” review. (newyorker.com)
- Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: Tracing the Evolution of Women’s Rights in a Victorian Lady’s Journals (brainpickings.org)
- The Scarlet Diary (nytimes.com)