Kate Summerscale, Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace (2012)

When a book sits on my nightstand for more than 3 months with a bookmark stuck in the middle, it doesn’t bear well.

And yet, this book starts so well. I do love all things Victorian, and I love history, and I’ve enjoyed Kate Summerscale’s previous book, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. I bought this book in Oxford in August 2012, at Blackwell’s old bookstore, and as a special treat I bought it in hardback (something I almost never do due to space constraints) together with a poem collection by Philip Larkin. So there are so many good memories associated with this book.

The true story behind the book was a big scandal in Victorian England. It presents the case of Mrs. Robinson, who was accused of adultery in 1856 on the sole basis of her private diary. She was indeed unhappy in her marriage, stuck with a callous, greedy husband who clearly couldn’t care less for her. (Oh, by the way, he had a mistress and two daughters on the side) So when she had the opportunity to become acquainted with a handsome (but married) doctor specialized in hydropathy (the ancestor of spa treatment?), she started to fantasize. She loved to pore over her diary to analyze herself, diaries were fashionable and new. There was certainly something between her and the young doctor going on, but heavily influenced by romantic novels (and the conventions of her days), she avoided writing coldly about erotic facts, so that no one could ever be sure what happened when she met her beautiful doctor in the park, in a carriage or at his clinic.

Unfortunately for her, there was no shortage of people poring over her diary pages once her husband stumbled upon her private writing, filed for divorce and brought it as single proof.

In 1856, new laws on divorce made it accessible to a lot more unhappy couples to file for divorce instead of being stuck together for life. Some people were in a hurry to use these new laws, but others were very suspicious: at any case hard proofs were needed, and how exactly could a diary qualify as such? It so looked like fiction with many racy details, and newspapers readers and lawyers read it with about as much glee as a novel.

The first part of the book was just great, explaining the background of Mrs. Robinson, how she came to marry this man and how her marriage was somehow typical of the Victorian British middle class. I loved how Kate Summerscale wove historical large-picture facts to the growing feelings that Mrs. Robinson developed, and to the inflamed pages she wrote in her diary. But the lawsuit part couldn’t really sustain my interest, although it must have been heart-wrenching for the poor woman to have her intimacy exposed for all to see and judge, and to have to choose between being labeled crazy or nymphomaniac. But the focus of the last part of the book was more about solicitors and legal strategies and less about her, which made it less riveting.

Nonetheless, it was interesting enough for me to be curious about whatever Kate Summerscale will write next!

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2 thoughts on “Kate Summerscale, Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace (2012)

  1. I can understand why the legal part didn’t hit the spot for you. I did enjoy it all, but the first half is particularly good, and I’m really glad you liked that. She is a good writer, and I will also be looking out for whatever comes next from her!

  2. Pingback: The one that starts in Dickens and ends in the bush | Smithereens

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