Kate Summerscale likes to take ordinary people who have been noted for doing some extraordinary thing, though not usually something to be admired – and shares their story in a way that reads like compelling fiction.
Her previous book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House reads like a detective novel and coincided historically with the introduction of the adapted role of a certain type of police officer – that of the detective. This person was required to use specialist skills to investigate suspicious deaths, such was the case with Mr Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, assigned to investigate the gruesome death of a young family member of a supposedly respectable household in a quiet Wiltshire village, putting all members of the family under suspicion and creating an unprecedented public sensation.
Now she has turned her pen and research skills towards the diary and letters of a Victorian lady, Mrs Isabella Robinson, an impulsive, intellectual woman, widowed young and remarried to an uninterested man who seemed to require nothing more of her than to keep house and children in order, a role she fulfilled, but was not content to be limited to and thus her attentions strayed towards the happily married Dr Edward Lane.
Throughout most of her diary entries he appears not to return her amorous feelings, but Mrs Robinson has the skills of Flaubert (who was prosecuted in the late 1850’s for corrupting public morals with Madame Bovary – a novel considered ‘too repulsive’ for publication in Britain) in expressing both her angst and sexual frustration and perhaps even her fantasies (were they?) with regard to certain men hovering in her vicinity – certainly, as with Flaubert’s prose, there were pages deemed unsuitable and unfit for the eyes of anyone outside the court and the media banned from laying eyes on it for fear of corrupting the public.
Her dramatic verse, which employed few filters would prove to be her undoing and became the sensation of a highly publicised court case, which also straddled a moment in history, when divorce laws were changed to make them easier to obtain, particularly as the law discriminated against women and allowed some terrible situations to endure as a result.
The law stipulated that to secure a divorce, a husband needed to establish just his wife’s infidelity, whereas a woman needed to prove that her husband was not only unfaithful but also guilty of desertion, cruelty or sexual misdeeds such as bigamy, incest, rape, sodomy or bestiality.
Ironic, in that no one questioned Mr Robinson concerning his mistress and two illegitimate children, clearer evidence of infidelity than anything penned by his errant wife.
Allowing these situations to be resolved through the Court created a predicament with the population concerning reportage in newspapers, an issue to which even Queen Victoria was said to have addressed.
On 19 December, Reynold’s Weekly, observed that the cases in the Divorce Court ‘seem to indicate that among the high, the moral, the respectable, and the Christian classes…adultery is in a highly flourishing, if not exceedingly rampant, condition.’ A week later Queen Victoria wrote to Lord Campbell, the chief designer of the Divorce Act, to ask if he could suppress some of the stories coming out of the court.
It seems the Queen had no power to stop the presses and received a reply indicating that they were unable to limit the newspaper stories.
Overall, an interesting read and historical context and no doubt opinion continues to be divided on whether Mrs Robinson was hard done by or plain foolish to have committed such desires, whether fantasy or fact to paper. A woman fifty shades before her time perhaps.
Note: This was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.