Rated Reads

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

by Kate Summerscale

Rated: Mild

Isabella Robinson was perhaps a typical upper-middle-class Victorian wife: she married out of necessity and, even though she brought money to her marriage thanks to a sizable settlement from her father, her husband still ended up controlling it and her. She bore three sons. She was unhappy in her marriage and dissatisfied with her life in general; she had ideas and enjoyed writing but had few outlets for expressing that creative side of herself.

What made her different, perhaps, than many other women of her age was that she kept a diary of her secret longings, which included crushes on a few different younger men. She very likely had some kind of affair with one, a married doctor named Edward Lane, and she wrote about their embraces and the bliss she felt during the time she had with Lane. Unfortunately, her husband found her diary and read it, and he used it as evidence during their divorce trial, which occurred right after England legalized civil divorces, making them somewhat affordable and accessible to more of the population.

Kate Summerscale gives a detailed but clearly documented account of Isabella and her experiences, drawing from the diary and published accounts of the trial, as well as some background information from letters. It’s largely unsurprising for those who know anything about the era; what is most interesting, though, is the way it gives some context for the early days of divorce in Great Britain, and how that change was just the beginning of a number of changes in society that related to marriage and family and the expectations for women and their place in the family and society. Unfortunately, that part of the book is the shortest, and while not really an “afterthought,” it almost feels that way. And the rest of the book just isn’t really gripping; I found it at turns mildly interesting, sometimes dry, sometimes thought-provoking. Summerscale is almost trying too hard to be impartial and journalistic, and this book could probably have used a little shot of something extra. After all, it is about a scandalous affair. Bottom line: a nice piece of the story on marriage in a tough era for women and how that began changing, for good or ill.

Rated: Mild. There is almost no offensive language in the book; the details about the affair are extremely mild, as well. It only talks of kissing and embraces. There is only one reference in the later part of the book that is very brief but explicit in terms of sexual contact.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for more than 20 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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  • Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady
  • by Kate Summerscale
  • Rated: Mild
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Reviewer: