Thursday, May 17, 2012

A private life made very public

4 out of 5 stars

I haven't read Kate Summerscale's other books so I can't comment on how this one compares to them. I can say, though, Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is a haunting narration. But beyond a story of a Victorian woman's explosive diary and the divorce trial which resulted from its discovery, the book also illuminates other aspects of that oppressive era which conspired to create such a woman as Mrs. Robinson as well as the evolution of a society which condemned and ostracized her for her behavior.

Mrs. Isabella Robinson herself is rather a pitiful figure. Intelligent, ahead of her time in both her philosophical and moral attitudes, sensual, and undeniably aware of her sexual needs, she was too much of a woman for the anti-female Victorian lifestyle. She was certainly too much for her staid, greedy, middle-class husband, Henry Robinson. Not only was Henry incompatible with Isabella interest-wise, he was so wrapped up in creating his many businesses and keeping a tight fist on Isabella's marriage settlement that he spent most of his time away from the Robinson household as well as the marriage bed. Naturally, Isabella's restless spirit drove her to seek the attention she desired from inappropriate sources, such as younger men, and to behave with those men with reckless abandon. More seriously, she wrote her indiscretions down in her diary.

In a way, the society in which Isabella matured was responsible for her behavior, as it was for the restlessness felt by many a middle- to upper-class Victorian woman. After all, though Victoria herself was against the idea of a woman holding any kind of position of power, her being on the throne in combination with the many advancements of the era contributed to female empowerment. Women were allowed to travel more, hold jobs outside of the traditional governess role, and although higher education was still barred to them, their education was more extensive, beyond the needlework skills and music lessons all young ladies of breeding were expected to absorb. Technological improvements meant greater and faster land and water travel, increased agricultural output with less labor input, safer manufacturing, not to mention medical improvements such as the use of anesthetic during labor (which is literally thanks to Queen Victoria, who was the first to have ether administered and made the procedure popular), the new field of gynecology and use of the speculum (only by a few, intrepid doctors at first, as was still quite a controversial instrument), the astonishing scientific developments brought about by the likes of Darwin, John Snow and his work with cholera, Florence Nightingale and her pioneering work in nursing, just to name a few, and those who worked in the fields of geology, archeology, and anthropology, which became more structured and methodical. The mid-19th century also experienced the birth pangs of the science of psychology through the field of phrenology, several years ahead of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Though now discredited, phrenology introduced the idea of the human psyche and, more specifically, the human brain as being responsible for influencing human behavior. Radical movements sprang up like weeds, many of them advocating not only equal rights for women, but also the right for men and women to have equal sexual freedom and a call for the banishment of marriage, which advocates claimed created slaves of women, forcing them into lives of bondage, and creating a generation of children born into loveless unions, existing solely because their parents were compelled to procreate by societal demands.

Yet, despite all these advantages, women were still seen as lesser beings, perpetual victims of hysteria, their abominable uteri responsible for bouts of madness, depression, mania, violence, and every other manner of mental disease the physicians of the time could imagine. As a result, Isabella's indiscretions, as noted in her diary, when used as a charge of adultery by her husband and the basis of a divorce case, were seen as the ravings of a defective mind, a female in thrall to the whims of her overexcited uterus and not the desires of a woman trapped in a stifling marriage, to a man who steals her money, abandons her for months at a time, a man who even has a mistress and two illegitimate daughters by that mistress, a fact never even brought to light during the divorce proceedings. Not only that, but those men who had supported Isabella in years previous, who had had deep, enlightening conversations with her, in person and through correspondence, who praised her analytical, almost masculine mind and facile thought processes; those men who valued Isabella as a confidant, friend, and companion, now turned against her, labeling her as insane, hysterical, a raving lunatic at the mercy of her weak mind, and distance themselves from her corrupting influence. Mrs. Robinson's diary was exposed at a time when there was an explosion of novels, many of which were written by women, which used the diary format to tell stories of desperate, sensual women trapped in loveless marriages who expose themselves in indiscretions with unsuitable men. So even though we never really know how much truth is contained in Isabella Robinson's diaries, they are an illuminating view of the sadness, desperation, and intelligence which drove her to write such entries and give us an idea of such similar troubles which fueled the unhappy marriages of other Victorian women who were perhaps more circumspect yet suffering just as much as Isabella.

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is an intimate glimpse inside the Victorian marriage, legal system, and an edifying look at the Victorian mind and thinking processes which not only created Isabella and Henry, but trapped them as well. I recommend it not only for students of history, but of feminism as well as the Romantic movement.

Read May 4-15, 2012
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine program May 15, 2012

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