Hysteria, Then and Now

Mrs. Robinsons Disgrace book coverReviewed: Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury, 320 pp., $26). We associate Victorians with plenty of moral codes and few women’s rights. But as Kate Summerscale meticulously documents in Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, there was more afoot in the era than its rigid outward manners would suggest. At the book’s center is Isabella Robinson, a 37-year-old upper-class woman who had an adulterous affair and chronicled it in her diary between 1850 and 1856. That affair not only landed her—and the diary, discovered by her husband and used as evidence—in public divorce court, it rendered her friendless and nearly penniless.

Isabella’s arc from loveless marriage to the fleeting attention of a medical man echoes Madame Bovary. In Isabella’s case, it’s a dalliance with a young doctor named Edward Lane, who runs a tony spa, that sets her on the path to social disgrace.

The narrative—a blend of Robinson’s diary entries, Summerscale’s commentary, and excerpts from court and newspaper records—reveals vestiges of 19th-century society in our own age that will be familiar to anyone who follows contemporary conservative politics. At the height of the scandal, the Saturday Review opined that divorce should be granted only in the “gravest emergency.” To wit: “A married couple should endure a very considerable amount of discomfort, incompatibility, personal suffering, and distress, and yet should continue to live together as man and wife.”

Summerscale adroitly recounts the epic arguments about marriage and divorce that were then raging in Parliament, as elected officials sought to wrest power from the Church of England. Robinson proves to be an apt choice of biographical subject on numerous fronts; controversies in science and literature enter the tale through cameo appearances by Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens, whom Robinson meets at dinner parties and during stays at the spa.

The effect is to enrich an already fascinating glimpse into the mores and ideals of this famously repressed era. Robinson and her friends and lover discuss evolution and the existence of God and, in the process, reveal a surprisingly progressive mindset. At least in this gilded parlor, women actually join in the debate, and Robinson is lauded for her intellect by some of the men at the table.

Robinson’s scandal also shines a light into the many bizarre corners of Victorian medical science. Any woman attracted to a man other than her husband was considered a sexual maniac. Treatments for this “ailment” included applying leeches to the woman’s shaved head, pumping water into the vagina, and prescribing abstention from meat and brandy, though Robinson was not subjected to these cures. Phrenology was in fashion, too. Summerscale includes a page from the Phrenological Journal that diagrams the locations of love, judgment, and other qualities, and she quotes from now-amusing public discussions about the contours of Robinson’s skull.

Despite their proto-modern tendencies, Robinson’s friends deserted her during the scandal, embarrassed to be mentioned by name in her diary. Worse, Robinson wrote in her diary that she did not believe in God or marriage; she confided to a friend after the scandal broke that marriage was a “superstition.” Those admissions, which her critics used as proof that godlessness leads to adultery, put her friends in an untenable position.

After much wrangling, the court reaches its verdict. Robinson continues to keep a diary—and takes other lovers—but never raises objections to the injustice of her legal and personal ordeal, instead moving to protect her friends’ damaged reputations. Isabella Robinson is certainly not what we imagine when we imagine a Victorian; she is bold in action, yet hesitant to challenge the institutions that define her life.

With literary precision and vivid detail, Summerscale captures the contradictory notes of Isabella’s character and the peculiar era in which she lived. Given the ongoing tension between social progress and right-wing fury about contraception, “personhood,” and the definition of marriage, our own era’s contradictions will likely come to mind.


Deborah Horan, a writer in Washington, D.C., covered the Middle East for a decade and reported on the war in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. She last wrote for the
Spectator about the unstable state of modern Iraq