Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Diary of a Victorian Lady
By Matthew Price. The Boston Globe, July 8, 2012

You’ll find “Fifty Shades of Grey’’ on beaches everywhere, from Maine to Mashpee, but the story of Mrs. Robinson deserves a place on summer reading lists. She’s pretty hot stuff. No, not that Mrs. Robinson, even though this too is the tale of a married woman who carried on with a younger man (and who flirted and fantasized about many others).

This Mrs. Robinson kept a torrid, searching journal that became a success de scandale in Victorian-era Britain. The diary brought disarray and near ruin to its keeper, provoking divorce proceedings that would rock the worlds of society and law. But it also provides a riveting exploration of human sexuality and the private worlds of the self, of the gray area between fact and fiction.

In “Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace,’’ British writer Kate Summerscale traces the real-life story of Isabella Robinson through a narrative, generously seeded with excerpts from the diaries. This new book offers all the titillation of the raciest summer read, but is much more than a trashy romp. A sharp social historian and astute observer of Victorian social mores, Summerscale, whose previous works include “The Suspicions of Mrs. Whicher,’’ a prize-winning account of a famous 1860 child murder, brings a forensic mind to bear on the plight of a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage.

It is hard to look at this story as anything but a tragedy. Isabella Dansey’s (née Walker) first husband went mad and died of a “diseased brain.” She inherited nothing. In 1843, she met Henry Oliver Robinson, a prosperous engineer and designer and builder of sugar mills. She rebuffed two proposals, but, given the unhappy prospects facing a widow with a young son, marriage to Robinson offered a way out of her predicament and up in society.

Yet marriage brought its own displeasures and torment. She later mused, “[W]ith my eyes almost open I walked into the bonds of a dreaded wedlock like one fated.” Fiercely intelligent, intellectually curious, blessed with a literary bent and a fine prose style, Isabella wrote poetry and articles. She had a room with a view — she was now a woman of some means — but her husband, who moved the family to Edinburgh in 1849, was often away on business and shared few of her interests.

Isabella mixed with the cutting-edge thinkers, doctors, and literary figures of Edinburgh. It was there that she met a man who would become an obsession: Edward Wickstead Lane. Handsome — and married — the younger Lane appealed to Isabella with his attentive charms. Lane was a hydrotherapist. “Taking the waters,” much like yoga today, appealed to the middle classes in search of a cleansing antidote to the rigors of modern life. Some thought it quack science; others, like Charles Darwin, toiling away at his theories of evolution and wracked by neuroses, saw its benefits and sought Lane’s help.

Isabella also received treatment for various ailments at Lane’s spa. And something happened between the two, but what? Summerscale is canny enough to leave us with a tantalizing sense of ambiguity. She calls Isabella’s journal “a haven for the parts of her that were not accommodated by married life.” Victorian-era diaries became a kind of temple of the self: an inner sanctum where ideas were tested, emotions weighed. Mrs. Robinson’s entries were charged, suggestive, swooning. She wrote of powerful erotic dreams. A country walk with Edward gives way to tumult and emotional upheaval: “What followed I hardly remember — passionate kisses, whispered words, confessions of the past. Oh, God! I had never hoped to see this hour, or to have my part of love returned. But so it was. He was nervous, and confused, and eager as myself.”

Isabella noted her “passionate and uncontrollable feelings” for Lane. But did her behavior cross over into adultery? It is quite possible Lane and Isabella consummated their relationship sexually. Henry Robinson became convinced of it after he discovered her diary and sued for divorce (no matter that he had a mistress who bore him two illegitimate children). Robinson v. Robinson and Lane (1858) became one of the first trials in a new court that granted the middle classes an easier route to divorce.

The proceeding itself was an extraordinary showcase for all the hypocrisies of Victorian society. Henry Robinson was out for revenge. To refute the charge of adultery and save the reputation of Dr. Lane, the defense claimed Isabella’s musings were pure fiction. It was a bizarre — but effective — strategy. Isabella abetted in her own ruin. Her journal, once a liberating forum for her innermost feelings, was used to imprison her in the cage of sexual insanity. Her counsel told the court the diary was “the product of extravagance, of excitement, and of irritability, bordering on, if not actually in, the domain of madness.’’

As we proceed through the looking-glass world of the trial proceedings, even the reader begins to doubt Isabella’s version of the events. “[I]t was provisional and unsteady, existing at the edge of thought and act, wish and deed,” Summerscale writes about the diary. The author doesn’t much tip her hand, and spins out a story that is simultaneously precise and elusive.

By the end it seems evident that the diary was part fiction, part fact. But, as Summerscale rightly notes, its value lies not in its truthfulness, but in its powerful evocation of a richly lived erotic life as well as the fresh insight it gives into a world, remote yet verging on our own.

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