Friday, July 13, 2012

‘Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady’ by Kate Summerscale

13 July 2012

In 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher' (reviewed here in April 2009) Kate Summerscale constructed a gripping picture of a real Victorian murder mystery, drawing on a wide range of evidence and research. Her latest book takes a similar approach to tell the story of a very different court case from the same era. ‘Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady’ deals with one of the first divorce cases brought under the new Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. Isabella Robinson’s apparent infidelity was discovered by her husband, Henry, when he came across her incredibly candid personal diary. It is this diary that forms the main evidence against her in the trial. The fact that Henry is himself openly unfaithful to Isabella appears to be irrelevant and the sexual inequalities of the time become more evident as the divorce proceeds. As in ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’, Kate Summerscale creates a vivid social history of the Victorian middle classes. It’s amazing how many key characters of the age (including Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and George Eliot) drift in and out of the Robinsons’ lives. I read ‘Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace’ as an unabridged audio book narrated by Jenny Agutter. I’m not sure it worked so well as an audio book because the need to indicate, by tone of voice, which words are quotations from original source material really breaks up many of the sentences. Though, without this indication much of the book might sound like a fictionalised account which would have seriously reduced its power. Nevertheless it’s a fascinating work and a compelling story.



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