Brain Pickings

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: Tracing the Evolution of Women’s Rights in a Victorian Lady’s Journals

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How the most private of frontiers became a public front for the gender dialogue.

If one were to purchase a leather-bound diary in mid-nineteenth-century England, the pages might have carried these instructions: “Use your diary with the utmost familiarity and confidence…conceal nothing from its pages nor suffer any other eye than your own to scan them.” The diary in its most secret form, locked with a key or hidden away under the bed, was a distinct product of the nineteenth century. The Romantics and their poetry had turned a nation inwards, and its people were ready to examine their desires in a private narrative of their own lives. Even Queen Victoria herself kept a journal, dotted with drawings from court.

The Victorians had a passion for the lives of others — biographies, memoirs, journals, and travel narratives — but the diary held tantalizing secrets of the heart, and none were so tantalizing as the writings of Isabella Robinson, whose private thoughts were publicly laid out in a London divorce court in 1858. Author Kate Summerscale explains in Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady (public library):

Of all the written life stories that fascinated the Victorians, the diary was the most subjective and raw.

Queen Victoria kept a very rigorous diary for most of her life. Here the young queen describes her wedding day and draws a picture of her headdress.

The diary of forty-one year old Isabella Robinson — a twice-married housewife on trial for adultery with a young doctor and family friend ten years her junior — revealed a woman who felt passionately while living a life of constrained dullness, monotony, and normalcy. In France, Gustave Flaubert put a name to this temperament — Madame Bovary had been published in 1856 but was considered too scandalous to be translated.

Augustus Leopold Egg, 'Past and Present,' 1858. A husband discovers his wife's adultery in a letter. This painting was part of a moralizing triptych exhibited at the Royal Academy just weeks before the Robinson trial.

The French had sanctioned divorce due to incompatibility in 1792, and one out of every eight marriages in the next ten years ended in divorce — the Revolution itself being a particularly violent form of divorce of a people from their king. But in nineteenth-century England, an Act of Parliament was required to end a marriage, and only 325 divorces had been granted since 1670, a rate of approximately two a year. In 1857, the Matrimonial Causes Act made divorce much easier to obtain — for the husband. A man had to prove adultery, a woman both cruelty and adultery. (A woman’s adultery was considered more serious because she could produce a bastard heir.)

A Victorian divorce court, c. 1870. Isabella Robinson was not allowed to appear as a witness for the defense. Her only voice in court was her diary.

In her diary, Isabella would fall deeply in love with different family friends — and once, her children’s tutor — eager to talk, read, and share ideas, yet always stymied by physical desire. She was at times anxious, frustrated, and depressed with her multitude of feeling. She wrote to her doctor:

[Women like me] exist quietly who bring up families…to tread in the purposeless steps of those who went before them — what motive — what hope may be found strong enough to enable them to bear up against trials, separations, old age, and death itself?

Her doctor cautioned that she should think less about herself and more about others:

Intellect alone does not fill the vacuum of human desire.

The world 'diarist' was first used in 1818. Published diaries doubled in the 1820s, and by the 1850s blank diaries were sold in the thousands.

In her trial, the prosecution used this flightiness as a condemnation:

[This diary is] the product of extravagance, of excitement, and of irritability, bordering on, if not actually in, the domain of madness. There never was a document which bore on the face of it marks of so flighty, extravagant, excitable, romantic, irritable foolish and disordered a mind as this diary of Mrs. Robinson.

George Elgar Hicks, 'Woman's Mission: Companion of Manhood' 1863. (Tate Britain)

Isabella won her case, but the winning was bittersweet. Now friendless, she retained her allowance from her husband and access to her children — all because she remained married. The public judgement placed on her private passions was a first rough step towards an understanding of women who wouldn’t conform socially or sexually, making Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace a fascinating chronicle of an ordinary woman’s life exposed in extraordinary circumstances.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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