The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady

Pity poor Isabella Robinson. Married to Henry, an ‘uncongenial partner’ at best and at worst a ‘mean and grasping’ philistine who had secretly sired two children with his mistress, Isabella seeks solace with a family friend, Dr Edward Lane. After her husband happens upon her unlocked diary, her most private thoughts about Dr Lane and her marriage, she becomes the subject of a great Victorian scandal. Henry accuses her of adultery and in 1858 Mrs. Robinson is among the first women subjected to the new divorce laws, which for the first time made divorce available to the middle classes (though on harsher terms for a wife than a husband), since until then a marriage could only be dissolved by individual Act of Parliament. Henry’s righteous sense of entitlement extends, it seems, to her inner thoughts upon which he bases his case. As Lane remarks, his hatred of Isabella seemed, ‘to have become so intent, as to have bereft him of reason on all subjects connected with her, and turned him into a complete fanatic.’

But did the adultery actually happen, or was fantasising simply Isabella’s means of expressing her desire for escape from her stifling existence? As a follow up to her sensationally successful The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale has written a forensic dissection of this mid-Victorian cause célébre. Rather than a dismembered body, the narrative follows the unravelling of a marriage and the tremendous harm that Henry inflicts upon his former wife, their children and their social circle. The diary is the central piece of evidence in which Isabella tells ‘a story, a serial in daily parts, in which she was the wronged and desperate heroine.’ Intended only for an audience of one, the diary allows Mrs Robinson to describe feelings of longing and rage so taboo that women kept them, quite literally, under lock and key.

Summerscale, although unable to consult the original diaries, which no longer exist, pieces together a compelling portrait of Isabella’s life and character from the sections read in court and published in the national press. Compared to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Summerscale writes that ‘Mrs. Robinson seemed to have invited, and lovingly documented, her own disgrace’. But it is not Isabella’s slightly overheated prose that is shocking but the way in which it exposed the deeply unjust treatment of women in Victorian society. Although Henry’s adultery was known, his behaviour was never openly discussed so that in trying to reform the institution of marriage to allow unhappy couples to separate, the divorce court succeeded only in highlighting its contradictions.

The pleasures and challenges of writing a narrative history are evident here. There is, for example, a fascinating discussion about the nature of diary writing in the mid-19th century and its connection to contemporary fiction that places Isabella’s confessional style within a richly detailed context. But there are also gaps and absences, especially in the later post-divorce chapters where, one presumes, there was a dearth of documentation. Although Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace lacks the riveting pace of Mr. Whicher, it offers a compelling insight into a little explored corner of Victorian social history. 

Julie Wheelwright is Director of the Creative Writing (Non-Fiction) MA at City University, London.