Friday, May 25, 2012

victorian scandal: the original "mrs. robinson"

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Kate Summerscale, author of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, has come out with yet another book about scandal in the Victorian middle classes and the public reactions of the day, as well as gender inequality.  The subject of this sordid tale: Mrs. Isabella Robinson, the woman who dared to lust after another man within the pages of her own diary.

The Edinburgh Evening News wrote an overview of the new book in the article "How Victorian mother rocked Edinburgh with divorce scandal," which summarizes the tale of the disgraced Isabella.

Living in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1850s, the wife and mother of two lived a lonely, unfulfilled existence as an upper middle class Victorian woman.  One night she met a man who would change her life for the worse in the Victorian mindset:

[Isabella Robinson] was introduced to Lady Drysdale’s daughter Mary and her husband of three years Edward Lane, a medical student ten years younger than Isabella and who, she wrote in her diary later was “fascinating”.

Edward Lane was 27, Canadian-born and educated in Edinburgh. A lawyer, he was busy training for a new career in medicine. He was, wrote Isabella, “handsome, lively and good humoured”. And that might well have been that. But something had stirred deep within this lonely young mother.

Her husband Henry, she complained in her diary, was often away on business, yet even when he did come home she felt alone and unfulfilled. He was, she wrote, an “uncongenial partner”, “uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh tempered, selfish, proud”. Not only that, but she later discovered he also had a mistress and two illegitimate daughters.

Edward Lane was dashing, young, clever and with his interesting Canadian background, no doubt represented all she did not have.

She noted how she’d chat to Edward about all the things she loved: poetry and philosophy.

Edward became Dr Lane, a pioneer homeopath and proprietor of a hydropathy establishment in Surrey. And Isabella, of course, became a visitor.
While there is not any clear evidence of an affair, Isabella left a record of what was considered to be adulterous behavior when she recorded in the pages of her diary her passion for Dr. Lane, including descriptions "of trysts and stolen kisses, of secretive meetings and lust."

When Isabella fell sick for a spell in 1858, her husband, Henry, fell upon her diary.  Scandalized by his wife's  written yearning for another man, he filed for divorce.  

He was the 11th British citizen to do so in the new Court for Divorce and Matrimonial cases in London.
“When the new Court for Divorce and Matrimonial cases opened in London in 1858, it was the first time divorce had been made affordable to the middle classes of England,” explains Summerscale who researched Isabella’s diaries for her book.

“Until then, only a couple of divorces were granted a year to the very rich because before then they required a special private act of parliament for dissolution of marriage.

“The new law was designed to make divorce fairer, more transparent and rational and yet it did preserve a double standard for men and women,” she adds.

“The husband was suing for divorce on grounds of his wife’s adultery. But he was an adulterer, he had a mistress and two illegitimate daughters as I discovered when I read Mrs Robinson’s private correspondence. But this was never mentioned in court.”
Dr. Lane escaped reproach because there was no suggestion in his own papers to support any claims of an adulterous relationship with Mrs. Robinson.  His colleagues rallied to his side.
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For Isabella, however, her name was dragged through the mud, her diaries held up as the disturbed fantasies of an insane woman- for what normal woman would want to lust after a man who was not her husband?  
“Medical manuals at the time associated strong female sexual desire with insanity,” explains Summerscale. “When this case came to trial, Isabella Robinson’s lawyers argued that the diary in which she apparently recorded her adulterous affair was itself a symptom of disease and that the sexual scenes she had written had never really happened but were hallucinations of an erotomanic imagination.”
As a result of the assumed "insanity" of Mrs. Robinson as shown through the pages of her lasciviousness diary, the courts found no grounds for divorce.  No physical adultery had been committed, they determined. 

It was only until 1864, when Isabella was caught with her children's young French tutor in two hotels, was Henry Robinson finally able to divorce his wife.

I will be on the lookout for this book, as Kate Summerscale does excellent research on obscure aspects of the Victorian era.  Not only does she focus on the protagonist of this true story, but she also researches the 19th century public mindset through the literature, newspaper articles, correspondences, and other primary sources of the day that might give light on what the majority of the Victorian middle class was thinking in regard to divorce and sex at the time.


  1. This does sound like an interesting read!

  2. I liked very much this book.
    hélio moreira