Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace (The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady) by Kate Summerscale

Kate Summerscale is a journalist/author who specialises in books about real life events. Some years ago I read her The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House, telling the story of a little boy being murdered in the midst of his family, in the mid 1800s. It was an interesting account on the police work and probably the first time that the private lives of the Victorian family concerned, was not so private anymore.

The title of this book teased me, and I was not aware of the actual theme of the book when I bought it. I figured it would be a daily account of a Victorian lady, which would give me a glimpse into her world. It was not exactly what I expected.

Mrs Robinson was married to Mr Robinson (of course) in her second and not entirely happy marriage. The husband was occupying himself with his business and often left his wife on her own. She did not really have anyone to confide in, so did so to her diary.

It is full of her daily life, her family, friends and her infatuations with different men. It is all very well, until she, several years later, becomes ill and her husband finds her diary. He takes it, reads it and immediately files for a divorce.

It seems that in the mid 1800s laws were changed and it was a little bit easier and affordable to get a divorce. However, this case was rare, since the husband used the diary of his wife as a means to prove that she had been unfaithful.

Summerscale moves between the diary notes and historical data of the time. We get a glimpse into the life and customs, as well as events happening around the trial. What is interesting is to see how judges, male of course, viewed women and women's sexuality at the time. There was a lot of developments within psychology, phrenology and sexuality going on in the mid 1800s, and Summerscale skilfully incorporates these developments into the overall story.

I found it quite fascinating, but at the same time a little bit sad. Mainly that a private account, that was not supposed to be read by anyone else, was used in a very public trial.  One can only imagine how it would have hurt her to have it all read out in the court room. I will not reveal either the outcome and more details of the diary. However, the verdict in the end is quite surprising. Maybe not the verdict as such, but the reasoning behind it.

An interesting tale of times gone by. Kate Summerscale has given us another historical account,  with great knowledge of the time and the customs and how the Victorian upper class lived their lives.

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