From the bestselling, multi-award-winning author of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher comes a brand new true story of a Victorian scandal.
On a mild winter's evening in 1850, Isabella Robinson set out for a party. Her carriage bumped across the wide cobbled streets of Edinburgh's Georgian New Town and drew up at 8 Royal Circus, a grand sandstone house lit by gas lamps. This was the home of the rich widow Lady Drysdale, a vivacious hostess whose soirees were the centre of an energetic intellectual scene.
Lady Drysdale's guests were gathered in the high, airy drawing rooms on the first floor, the ladies in dresses of glinting silk and satin, bodices pulled tight over boned corsets; the gentlemen in tailcoats, waistcoats, neckties and pleated shirt fronts, dark narrow trousers and shining shoes. When Mrs Robinson joined the throng she was introduced to Lady Drysdale's daughter and son-in-law, Mary and Edward Lane. She was at once enchanted by the handsome Mr Lane, a medical student ten years her junior. He was 'fascinating', she told her diary, before chastising herself for being so susceptible to a man's charms. But a wish had taken hold of her, which she was to find hard to shake...
A compelling story of romance and fidelity, insanity, fantasy, and the boundaries of privacy in a society clinging to rigid ideas about marriage and female sexuality, Mrs Robinson's Disgrace brings vividly to life a complex, frustrated Victorian wife, longing for passion and learning, companionship and love.
About the Author
Kate Summerscale is the author of the number one bestselling The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2008, a Richard & Judy Book Club pick and adapted into a major ITV drama. Her first book, The Queen of Whale Cay, won a Somerset Maugham award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread biography award. Kate Summerscale has also judged various literary competitions including the Booker Prize. She lives in London.
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Comments about Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace:
Like the movie, The Graduate, it showed that older women and women through the ages have the same wants and desires as any female in today's world. It certainly provided an insight into how women were treated as second class citizens - and to think it wasn't fiction but 'real life'. Some things change and some things don't.
In Mrs Robinson’s Diary: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, Kate Summerscale casts a spotlight on a little known chapter in history. This is a very thoroughly researched case study detailing the true story of an unhappily married woman in Victorian Society. In this, the age of Cougar Town, Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, when women are applauded for chasing younger men and practically expected to experience dissatisfaction in their marriage, the idea of a woman keeping a diary of her extra martial affairs is not really very shocking. In fact, it sounds like the plot to the next Katherine Heigl movie.
In 1850s England, however, such an idea was enough to stop the press. Although a woman sat on the throne, this was an age in which woman did not yet have the right to vote. As Kate Summerscale’s research shows us, this was also an age in which any woman who was known to desire a man she was not married to was deemed to be suffering from sexual mania, in which PMS was actually considered to be a mental disorder that might land a woman in an asylum. Most of all, it was an age in which a lady’s husband was her lord and master.
Marriage, in the words of Queen Victoria herself, can be “a very doubtful happiness”. Still, in Victorian England, divorce was very rare. Not only did the social stigma of a failed marriage make divorce virtually unthinkable, most people simply couldn’t afford to get divorced. Divorce was such a lengthy and expensive process that it simply wasn’t an option outside of the aristocracy, who were ironically less inclined to go through the scandal of a divorce than unhappily married people of the lower classes. In the 1850s new laws were passed in order to make divorce cheaper and therefore more accessible to the middle class.
The first half of Summerscale’s book outlines the true story of Isabella Robinson, a women in her early thirties who had just entered into her second marriage. Like most marriages of the time, it was a marriage of convenience. Isabella’s husband could provide her with financial security, but very little else. Being an intelligent and passionate woman at her sexual peak, Isabella (trail blazing for generations of “cougars” to follow) soon finds herself lusting after a young man ten years her junior. Her obsession with him begins to rule her life and she pours all her repressed passion and frustrated sexual energy into her diary. When her husband finds her diary, he announces his intention to divorce her.
The second half of the book follows the explosive divorce trial. The case rests on proving whether or not Isabella’s diary is true. If it was true then she cheated on her husband and he can therefore divorce her on the grounds of adultery. If it’s not true then (according to Victorian society) she is obviously a madwoman suffering from a sexual mania such as erotomania or nyphomania and therefore cannot be held legally responsible for her actions.
Mrs Robinson’s Diary: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady might be non-fiction but it reads very much like a novel. For those who see the words “historical non-fiction” and immediately start snoring – don’t be too hasty to judge! This is an exciting story of scandal and intrigue, as well as a riveting courtroom drama. And on top of that, it is truly a revealing snapshot of Victorian times with cameo appearances from notable historical figures such as Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens.
Summerscale’s research is impressive. She has gone to extraordinary lengths compiling letters, newspaper clippings, public records and census information in order to build a really solid social and historical framework through which to view Mrs. Robinson’s story.
Still, throughout everything, Isabella Robinson remains something of a mystery. With her original diary lost, sadly all that remains of her words are the sections that were printed in the newspapers during the divorce trial. From Summerscale’s account, Isabella emerges as a woman full of contradictions. Impulsive and creative, selfish and hysterical, in ways born ahead of her times and in others wholly a product of her times – all that can be said for certain about Isabella Robinson is that she was very unhappy in what she called “the bonds of a dreaded wedlock”.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Mrs Robinson’s Diary: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady is that it gives readers a rare glimpse into the sheer wealth of feeling that went unspoken during this time period. Here is proof that people in Victorian times were not really all that different from people nowadays. Isabella Robinson was an emotionally intense woman who either led a very rich fantasy life, or conducted multiple extra martial affairs (it is unclear how much of her diary was true and how much was simply “make-believe”). Either way, she clearly had just as many issues going on as the average modern woman. She was simply better at hiding her issues because she lived in a society in which any kind of strong emotional display was considered “bad manners”. This was a time when one avoided airing ones dirty laundry at all costs, let alone plastering it all over Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The idea of a Victorian woman obsessing over a younger man and feverishly detailing her sexual fantasies about him in her diary is just… well it’s like imagining Queen Victoria shopping for naughty lingerie, or Charles Darwin reading dirty magazines. It’s shocking, and fascinating and strangely comforting. It’s nice to think that perhaps our ancestors weren’t quite as stuffy and dull as they appear to be in all those old back and white pictures.
Summerscale’s previous book, The Suspicions of Mr Wicher, is said to be a study of the real life detective who inspired the character of Sherlock Holmes. In this same vein, Isabella Robinson could easily be said to have inspired characters like Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterley. But the best thing about Mrs Robinson’s Diary: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady is the realisation that Isabella Robinson probably wasn’t all that different from the average Victorian woman. In fact, the only real difference was that the average Victorian woman was a little more clever about hiding her diary.
Guest Reviewer: Booktopia’s Sarah McDuling
Like her previous book, I was hooked after the first few pages. It's as good as non-fiction could possibly get Victoria Hislop, Daily Mail Extraordinary ... As one would expect from the author of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the material here is handled with confident subtlety. The history goes from the individual to the individual's world with seductive ease. This is a highly considered social history teased ... fascinating ***** -- philippa Gregory Daily Telegraph Summerscale strikes non-fiction gold for the third time Independent on Sunday As in the wildly successful The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the strange tale of Mrs Robinson acts as a whirlpool for all the furious undercurrents of an era. Summerscale's brilliance lies not only in recognising the power of a particular story, but in charting, with beautiful precision, its strange echoes and reverberations ***** -- craig Brown Mail on Sunday 'Book of the Week' You'll find Fifty Shades of Grey on beaches everywhere ... but the story of Mrs Robinson deserves a place on summer reading lists. She is pretty hot stuff Boston Globe A masterful retelling of a true Victorian scandal ... a breathtaking achievement ... Summerscale's account of this court case is faultless; her seemingly inexhaustible capacity for research renders what could be tedious and vividly dry alive ... I'm all admiration: she has turned a sepia photograph, curling and tattered, into a film that runs through the mind in glorious and unimpeachable Technicolor -- rachel Cooke Observer Book of the week ... a winning blend of biography and courtroom drama - and an important slice of social history ... an absorbing tale, admirably told by a mistress of her craft -- valerie Grove The Times Grippingly suspenseful ... Mrs Robinson's Disgrace displays a scalpel-sharp investigative mind, and it vividly conveys the immediate surroundings of the case, from the stench of the polluted Thames infiltrating Westminster Hall to the degradations of Victorian marriage -- john Carey Sunday Times As a guide to mid-Victorian cultural life ... Summerscale is simply superb, and she sets a fine example of what cultural history can do Guardian Told with dazzling detail and exquisite tenderness, this non-fiction tale reads like a perfect novel Elle Absorbing ... grippingly told ... Summerscale's book is detailed, expansive and well informed -- philip Hensher Spectator It's brilliant. Summerscale is a historian who writes like a novelist. A good novelist -- lev Grossman Time Magazine Moving, compelling and brilliantly executed Daily Telegraph, Books of the Year The best kind of detective story ... Summerscale triumphantly avoids fairy ink and poesy both, producing a gripping account of the destruction of a marriage ... Sure to be a hit Sunday Telegraph This real-life Madame Bovary's ensuing divorce case scandalised society and Kate Summerscale brilliantly re-creates a Victorian world clinging to its rigid ideas about marriage and women's sexuality Good Housekeeping Her first book since the genre-busting Mr Whicher, and it makes a suitably gripping follow-up ... Summerscale puts this peculiar case in a wonderfully rich context of fads of the day ... Her courtroom reconstructions are vivid and enthralling, her research is impeccable and her narration coolly authoritative as she draws together what was happening around her subject and makes Mrs Robinson's volatile state of mind much more explicable -- claire Harman Evening Standard Where Kate Summerscale's exhaustively researched book is most fascinating and disturbing is in laying bare contemporary anxieties about female sexuality **** Sunday Express Far more than the account of a failed marriage and its aftermath - or even the story of a torrid affair, imaginary or otherwise. In the manner of her prize-winning The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale takes the records and reports of the court case and treats them like a detective story, skillfully building up the suspense Financial Times Utterly engrossing Woman & Home A marvellously compelling narrative as well as a superb piece of historical detection. But more than that, Summerscale has astutely positioned the case at the intersection of various legal and social developments Times Literary Supplement Kate Summerscale has a knack for rescuing Victorian histories from obscurity and turning them into the most compulsive books you're likely to find in any non-fiction section ... Thought-provoking stuff from a writer who, in putting the past in the dock, teaches us about who we are now Scotsman A great book-group read Red A gripping read: thoughtful, and studded with asides on Victorian culture The Lady A highly original and intimate look into the double standards of Victorian life ... Mrs Robinson could be as big a hit as Downton Abbey Washington Times Kate Summerscale follows The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, her gripping reconstruction of a Victorian murder case, with a look at domestic horror of a very different kind. It's the heart-breaking true story of Isabella Robinson Irish Times '30 Great Summer Reads' A fascinating insight into the inequalities of Victorian society, women's place in it and the boundaries of privacy Psychologies A fascinating story of desire, prejudice and cover-up ... Summerscale turns super-sleuth again -- sebastian Shakespeare Tatler Summerscale painstakingly analyses medicine, property, divorce and the treatment of women Guardian Readers' Books of the Year
Number Of Pages: 320
Published: 1st June 2012
Dimensions (cm): 21.0 x 13.5 x 3.2
Weight (kg): 0.42