Saturday, September 8, 2012

A lady's disgrace

Isabella Robinson was not happy. She told her diary that, although she loved her sons, she regretted her marriage and felt suffocated by her husband. She longed for companionship, affection, and (shockingly), sex. The year was 1860, and respectable married ladies weren’t supposed to long for those things.

They certainly weren’t supposed to put it in writing.

In 1858, the laws that governed divorce in Great Britain were loosened to make it easier for people to unshackle themselves from miserable marriages. Two years later, Henry Robinson sued Isabella for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Also named in the suit was her lover, from whom Henry hoped to win damages for the ruination of his now-unwanted wife. The true story of this shattered marriage and extraordinary lawsuit is told in Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale.

Summerscale explains that, even under the more permissive 1858 law, divorce could not be consensual; two people couldn’t just decide to call it quits. Someone had to be wronged, and it was easier for a husband to be wronged than a wife. A man could divorce his wife for adultery, cruelty, abandonment, or bigamy; for a woman to divorce her husband, she had to prove that he had done two of those things.

What made Isabella’s divorce extraordinary was the diary, in which she poured out her misery, her sense of failure as a wife and mother, and her yearnings for other men. During the divorce case the diaries were presented as evidence, and large, deeply private sections were printed in newspapers and pored over by the public. People chatted about Isabella’s innermost agonies over the breakfast table: Was she a vile seductress? Or mad? Did she have some kind of uterine disorder that made her feel this way?

The case opens a window onto a time when the world was quite different, when any sort of challenge to the social status quo had the potential to be enormously degrading. Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace is as fast-paced as a domestic novel, full of betrayal and scandal; but for one unfortunate woman, the stakes were real.

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