Readers who complain that history is boring have never read Kate Summerscale.
Her last book, “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” used the Road Hill House murder, a 19th-century case that inspired Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, to look at early policing and middle-class Victorian life. In “Mr. Whicher,” the British writer smoothly combined narrative nonfiction with forensic research. If history that reads like a mystery weren't enough, Summerscale also solved the case (at least to this reader's satisfaction).
Her new book, “Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace,” is also ripped from the headlines of Victorian papers. This time, Summerscale examines one of the first divorce cases in British history, which stunned the British people by exposing them to an idea considered so unthinkable as to be monstrous: a bored housewife was in love with someone besides her husband.
Widowed young, 31-year-old Isabella Walker married businessman Henry Robinson. She dreamed of the literary life; he was so obsessed with making money that he once sued his younger brother and forced his aristocratic wife to sign over what money her father had settled directly on her. (Apparently, her considerable dowry wasn't enough.) Isabella was convinced her husband married her for her fortune; Summerscale finds plenty of evidence to back her up.
Like another Mrs. Robinson, Isabella had a thing for younger men, from her sons' tutors to Charles Lane, a handsome doctor who opened a hydrotherapy spa and whose clients included Charles Darwin. Bored and lonely, she poured her heart out in her diary – which her husband read one day when she was ill.
Shocked (shocked!) by his wife's betrayal, Robinson – who had a mistress and two illegitimate daughters – grabbed their children and left. Unwilling to give her a penny to live on, he sued for divorce in the brand-new Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes. The country was riveted. People weren't allowed to read the newly published “Madame Bovary,” as it was considered too salacious to print in England, but here was a real-life version.
The prosecution called Isabella an adulteress; the defense's portrayal was worse. She was declared a hysterical fantasist whose obsession with sex rendered her temporarily insane.
The excerpts of the diary that remain in court records and newspapers (the original was destroyed) are coy about the details – but were considered so shocking at the time that women were banned from the courtroom on more than one occasion.
The case hinged on whether the couple was engaged in an affair, or whether Isabella Robinson was writing herself the romance that real life had denied her. To get a divorce, Henry Robinson had to prove adultery; a wife would have to add desertion, neglect, or cruelty to the charge of infidelity.
According to the laws of the time, Henry owned not only the children he kept from their mother but the diary he used as evidence.
No less a bastion of propriety than Queen Victoria was doubtful about women's prospects in marriage: "I think people marry far too much; it is such a lottery, and for a poor woman – bodily and morally the husband’s slave – a very doubtful happiness,” she wrote to her daughter.
Summerscale is more gentle in her treatment of Isabella than either the press or her contemporaries. Neglected and high-strung, Isabella wouldn't win any mother-of-the-year awards. In one particularly icky incident, she describes canoodling with Lane in a closed carriage while her young son sat up top with the driver.
But the double standards of the time make her highly sympathetic to a modern reader. Her only outlet was her diary. “What was my consolation? Solitude & my pen," she wrote in a letter. "I felt that in my study, at least, I was a ruler; & that all I wrote was my own.”