Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of A Victorian Lady


How did I get it?:
I borrowed it from Bibliobeth.


Headstrong, high-spirited, and already widowed, Isabella Walker became Mrs. Henry Robinson at age 31 in 1844. Her first husband had died suddenly, leaving his estate to a son from a previous marriage, so she inherited nothing. A successful civil engineer, Henry moved them, by then with two sons, to Edinburgh’s elegant society in 1850. But Henry traveled often and was cold and remote when home, leaving Isabella to her fantasies.No doubt thousands of Victorian women faced the same circumstances, but Isabella chose to record her innermost thoughts-and especially her infatuation with a married Dr. Edward Lane-in her diary. Over five years the entries mounted-passionate, sensual, suggestive. One fateful day in 1858 Henry chanced on the diary and, broaching its privacy, read Isabella’s intimate entries. Aghast at his wife’s perceived infidelity, Henry petitioned for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Until that year, divorce had been illegal in England, the marital bond being a cornerstone of English life. Their trial would be a cause celebre, threatening the foundations of Victorian society with the specter of “a new and disturbing figure: a middle class wife who was restless, unhappy, avid for arousal.” Her diary, read in court, was as explosive as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, just published in France but considered too scandalous to be translated into English until the 1880s.


I haven’t read anything by Kate Summerscale before, although I have heard of her work before. I read this on recommendation of my sister, who found the character of Isabella Robinson fascinating as she was such a passionate impulsive character. Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is a work of non fiction. Kate Summerscale uses Isabella Robinson’s diary of her adulterous affair with Dr Edward Lane as a starting point to examine the attitudes surrounding marriage, gender and adultery in the Early Victorian period.

I think Kate Summerscale has carried out some incredible research, covering a lot of ground in a short novel. She shows how attitudes towards marriage and divorce in the Victorian era were often skewed in favour of men. It made me feel sorry for Isabella, especially because her husband wasn’t a nice man. Isabella is trapped in an unhappy marriage, desperate for love. She writes in her diary about a world of romantic longings. When Isabella’s diary is found and read by her husband, he uses it as evidence to sue for divorce. This brings into question in the reader’s mind whether Isabella really had an affair or whether she was just indulging her imagination to escape from her marriage troubles.

I do think this was an interesting book. It’s so clear how much work Kate Summerscale put into it. However, it didn’t really grab my attention or have anything remarkable about it that would make me remember it or read it again.

Would I recommend it?:
It’s not for me!- I think others would enjoy it, but it wasn’t my kind of book.
Reading next:
Scarlet- Marissa Meyer

4 thoughts on “Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of A Victorian Lady

  1. I’ve not heard of this book, but the history of it is so interesting–sounds like it would be fascinating and I like the fact that it’s non-fiction. Thanks for the review–I will definitely check it out.

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