The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale was a massively successful book that told the story of the murder of Savile Kent, the child of a prosperous middle-class Victorian family. The case was a sensation at the time & influenced many novelists. The book was successful at drawing parallels with the media frenzy that follows any case of child abduction or murder in our own time. Kate Summerscale’s new book, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, is also set during the Victorian period & deals with the family, the law & scandal.
Isabella Robinson becomes infatuated with Edward Lane, a doctor 10 years her junior. Isabella is married, she has three sons (including a child from an earlier marriage) but she is restless & dissatisfied. Her husband, Henry, is an unsympathetic man. Isabella is afraid that he married her for her money & they have no interests in common. While the Robinsons are living in Edinburgh, they become acquainted with Dr Lane, his wife, Mary, & her mother, Lady Drysdale. Isabella is smitten with Edward at first sight & confides her feelings to her diary.
Isabella & the Lanes become friends, going on outings & holidays with their children. Dr Lane sets up a hydropathy clinic at Moor Park in Surrey, treating various physical & nervous disorders with water therapy. Charles Darwin was one of his patients. Isabella visits the clinic several times as a friend & a patient. Isabella writes in her diary of the increasing attraction she feels for Edward & then that her feelings are returned. She even hints that they are having an affair. When Isabella falls ill, her husband discovers her diary & what he reads there outrages him. He sues Isabella for divorce, using the recently introduced Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. For the first time, divorce was a civil matter & affordable for the middle classes.
Isabella’s diary is the primary evidence to support Henry’s accusations of adultery. Edward Lane denies any improper relationship & Isabella does not appear in the case. Her diary must speak for her. But is it fact or fiction? Henry’s lawyers paint a picture of a woman so depraved that she thinks nothing of writing down the most intimate details of her passion for a married man. Isabella’s counsel contended that the diary was a fantasy, written by a bored woman married to an unsympathetic man. They also tried to assert that she had a physical illness, uterine disease, that caused extravagant sexual delusions. The newspapers were avid for details & the public scandal was immense. Everyone’s reputation is at stake as the judges deliberate on the veracity of Isabella’s diary.
Isabella seems to have had a habit of flirting with younger men, especially those in her employment such as her sons’ tutors & she also described these relationships in her diary. Edward’s denials of any improper relationship are very convincing but then, he had a lot to lose. A doctor accused of an affair with a patient, even if she was also a family friend, would not have much reputation left. It seemed to me that Isabella had kept boredom at bay by flirting with a handsome man & fantasising about him. Her mistake was to write down her fantasies & leave the diary lying around for her husband to find.
I was looking forward to this book very much as I’d so enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I read it in a couple of days but I’m afraid I found it rather unsatisfactory & I find it difficult to explain why. I think the story is really rather slight & Summerscale spends quite a lot of time setting the scene. She describes everyone’s family background, especially the story of Mary Lane’s brother, George Drysdale, who fakes his own death on a walking tour & reappears some years later after suffering a breakdown. Maybe I’m being unfair & it’s just that my expectations were fed by the hype & I felt unsatisfied.
Isabella’s plight as a woman trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage should have been interesting to someone like me who loves Victorian fiction. I’m also very interested in the constraints women suffered before laws on divorce & child custody were reformed. The court case is interesting & the course of the arguments is fascinating, especially as Isabella could not speak in her own defence. Her diary had to speak for her & we’re never really sure how much of it is true.