Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary Of A Victoria Lady, by Kate Summerscale, read by Wanda McCaddon
If the author of this book or Isabella Robinson, the author of the diary that forms the center of this book, expects to gain the sympathy of the reader, this listener is at least very unsympathetic. Indeed, this particular book reveals the natural consequence of an abandonment of faith and the dangerous development of a fondness for radical ideas and immoral practices. Interestingly enough, this book reveals that the danger of Isabella Robinson’s problems revealed in her diary to the reputation of a great many people who were responsible for late Victorian turn against biblical morality and towards a host of disreputable and sadly untrue pseudoscientific belief systems that still haunt Western civilization to this day were openly acknowledged by people who wished to shake the foundations of Christendom but did not want it openly understood by society at large and those in charge of it that shaking and attacking those foundations would destroy the personal morality of society that Victoria and others held so dear. If the author’s feminist theorizing is openly obvious, the case chosen is a deeply ambiguous one that tends to put the author herself as well as the reader or listener into an ambivalent position where the reader is forced to judge Isabella Robinson and her contemporaries.
This book is a deeply interesting one, and its contents are divided by date and framed around the surviving diary entries and letters of Isabella Robinson and her circle of friends and relatives. We begin with an account of Isabella in shame as she faced separation from her husband upon the reading and seizure of her private diaries, which were full of highly colored accounts of her intimate feelings for other men besides her husband. The book then details the known behavior of various people, the business operations of Mr. Henry Robinson, the intellectual life Isabella was a part of, as well as a lot of discussions of issues of law, society, marriage, family, and sanity, as well as science and literary culture. All of these themes, along with the author’s fondness for dealing with the issue of men and women and their place in the family and in the world collide with the drastic changes of law that allowed for divorce to be more easily obtained by middle class people and thus opened up the sordid private lives of England’s upper and middle classes to public scrutiny and debate.
In light of the fact that the author seems to force the reader to choose sides, it would appear as if the vast majority of people discussed at length are not very honorable. Henry Robinson comes off as immensely greedy and has a highly disreputable personal life himself whose behavior would not be conducive to the happiness of those around him, and it is little surprise that he ends up abandoned by many. Similarly, Isabella too comes off as deeply immoral and unable to submit even to the just demands of faith and social propriety. Edward Laine, delivered from ruin by the technicality of the diary’s own ambiguity, comes off as someone who at least encouraged improper emotional intimacy with a married woman and nearly got burned, whatever physical intimacy was involved. Yet it is not as if we can judge these characters without pointing a few fingers at ourselves. The diary is partial, like all diaries, and few homes and marriages, when they get to the point where people are suing each other in court, will stand up to scrutiny or will avoid causing complications and problems for those people who happen to be around them, be they children or friends or relatives. If anything, this book points out that any efforts to make divorce more easy are going to threaten the stability and well-being of families in general, whether we are in the Victorian age or our own. Frequently the suffering of individuals is necessary to preserve the moral well-being of society as a whole, as unpopular as such a doctrine is.