MRS ROBINSON’S DISGRACE
Author: Kate Summerscale
Bloomsbury RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
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 terrace lit by gas lamps. The guests were gathered in the high, airy drawing rooms on the first floor, the ladies in glinting silk and satin pulled tight over boned corsets; the gentlemen in tailcoats, waistcoats and neckties. When Mrs Robinson joined the throng she was at once enchanted by a Mr Edward Lane, a handsome 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 …
With a blurb like it would be easy to assume Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace was a novel. It’s not, as I discovered quick smart. Instead Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is a non-fiction account about a Victorian divorce scandal, a court case, and Isabella Robinson’s diary, which was tendered as evidence against her. If you like this sort of thing (I do), it’s fascinating reading – an engrossing social history that paints a vivid portrait of life in Victorian London.
There’s nothing sensationalised about what would have been a truly sensational story back in the day; it’s not tedious reading either – and it could have been. I was intrigued by the glimpse into society of that day – intrigued and almost repelled by the double standards that were allowed to flourish (such as, a man could divorce his wife for adultery, but a woman had to go the added step of proving that he had been a bad husband, not just an adulterer). Other insights, such as the belief that phrenology was an accurate predictor of character, were interesting (especially when they were shown to be inaccurate).
Meticulously researched and beautifully-crafted, Summerscale has shown a talent for breathing new life into an old story, without glossing over or embellishing details. Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is available from good bookstores and Bloomsbury. This copy was courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia.