Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace

In Kate Summerscale's previous book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher the author demonstrated that if you are going to try marketing what was essentially an extended essay you could do worse than find a subject that included a notorious Victorian murder, family secrets and a celebrated Scotland Yard Detective. It was a massive bestseller. If you expected Summerscale to choose another such mystery, perhaps another murder and another dashing detective then you might be a little disappointed that this time the focus is on one of the most notable of the early divorce trials of the 1850s.
Henry Robinson is a middle class businessman who discovers his wife's secret diary, the contents of which form the basis of his legal attempts to divorce her. The case hinges on whether the illicit affair detailed within the pages is truth or some elaborate fiction. Also on trial is the professional and personal reputation of the object of Mrs Robinson's obsession,  Edward Lane, respected by the great and the good as a brilliant practitioner of hydrotherapy working from his clinic/spa at Moor Park. The verdict is less important, to the reader at least, than the study of a period of history focusing on social aspects like the law, marriage, health, class, family, sex, the psyche, morality, science and religion. Lane and Mrs Robinson have a large and eclectic circle of contacts and friends that reach deep into British literary circles and the Victorian scientific intelligentsia; Darwin is one of Lane's patients and George Combe, a  proponent of phrenology, is a frequent correspondent of them both.
Sumerscale melds the different sources into the essay with care and the proper focus for the themes explored. The tone is certainly engaging and never dry. As a slice of  social history the book works very well. It might be the case that some people might be more inclined to read the diaries in question and make their own mind up without Summerscales commentary but as a fuller snapshot of the times Mrs Robinson's disgrace would be my choice. Divorce case aside the book also celebrates the early history of diaries, their place in the British home and like the crux of the trial, the line between factual journal and their place among fiction as entertainment.

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