Monday, April 30, 2012

Treatment of disposal wives: Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale - review

Kate Summerscale, author of the fabulous and gripping ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’, has published her latest book and turns her attention to another case which scandalised Victorian society.

Kate Summerscale previously uncovered the truth behind a sensational case from one of the very earliest days of professional detectives, now she turns her attention to another area of life where private middle class affairs could be suddenly thrust into the public arena.

A relaxation in the laws of divorce brought a flurry of scandalous cases to the courts in the second half of the nineteenth century as divorce became a possibility for not just the rich, but for the middle and lower classes. 

Enter Isabelle Robinson, lonely and isolated, bored in her marriage to Henry, who was often away on business, and who had a mistress and other children. Not surprisingly, lonely Isabelle became infatuated with a married doctor – and poured all her thoughts and passions into a private diary.

The diary formed the basis of their infamous divorce case, with every detail of her imaginings probed over, to see whether the diary really convicted Isabella of adultery and answered the question ‘Did she or didn’t she?’

But of course this is much more than a salacious story of an intelligent, passionate woman who desperately craves society, kindness, and to be loved –  and her unloving husband who seizes his chance to be rid of her.

The divorce courts became symptomatic of the way women were treated in Victorian Britain, a time when wives were ‘chattels’ – if a wife brought money into the marriage it usually went straight to the husband. Now, with the relaxed divorce laws, all a husband had to prove was infidelity and he could cast off his wife with no further need to provide for her – even if the money was hers in the first place.

Summerscale uses the case to throw a spotlight on just how wretched the role of wife could be in a society that tolerated behaviour in men that in women led not just to disgrace, but to loss of one’s children and all income and wordly goods, often on very little evidence, such as Isabella’s diary. Or in one case evidence that was no more than the witnessing of a few kisses and an arm around her waist.

There are plenty of familiar stories about men’s treatment of wives they no longer wanted –  the ease with which women were declared insane and confined to institutions (leaving husbands to remarry) meant this had been the usual route to dispose of unwanted wives, until divorce became a possibility.

Isabella turned to people she respected for help and this brings another fascinating thread to this story – the perceived threat in Victorian times of a woman’s sexuality.

It is the early days of understanding the mind and Isabelle was advised to plead insanity on the basis that even to have written such thoughts down proved she was insane. 

It is a vivid portrait of an age that treated women scandalously – and deserve to be as widely read and enjoyed as the hugely successful ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’.



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