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

Written by Kate Summerscale
Review by Nanette Donohue

Isabella Robinson was a free-spirited young woman forced into a cold second marriage with an unpleasant, unfaithful man, Henry Robinson.

She spends the early days of her marriage trying to tolerate her miserable situation, until she meets Dr. Edward Lane, who captivates her by being everything that her husband is not. The two become friends, and, according to Isabella’s diary, perhaps more – but her writing about their relationship is open to interpretation. When Isabella’s diary is discovered, her husband files for divorce under the new Matrimonial Causes Act, which made divorce accessible to the middle classes. The diary is admitted as evidence in the case, and the scandal that ensued captivated Londoners with its inside look at an unhappy marriage and, quite possibly, an unfaithful wife.

Summerscale is occasionally long-winded, which takes some getting used to, but as the book progresses, you realize that all of the details, which sometimes seem disparate, are set-up for the eventual trial. Readers expecting lengthy passages from Isabella Robinson’s diary will be disappointed; this is more a book on the social mores and divorce laws of the Victorian era, and includes only brief excerpts and quotes from the diary itself. But the story is fascinating, and the glimpse inside the lives of the mid-Victorian middle-class is unusual and unique.