The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady
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Review by Edward B. Segel
It wasn’t easy in mid-Victorian Britain to be a woman of independent mind—even more so, of independent action, let alone conscious sexuality. (Many denied that virtuous women even had sexual feelings.) Kate Summerscale has rescued from obscurity the life and emotions of a daunting mid-century wife, laying out with meticulous and sensitive care her loves, frustrations, and sufferings—in the process illuminating the complex social, sexual, and legal attitudes, prejudices, and complexities of Victorian society.
The already widowed, thirty-one-year-old middle-class Isabella Walker—“excitable and depressive, ambitious and anxious”—married Henry Robinson in 1844. Five years later, at 36, she began her extraordinary diary. Isabella’s diary was “a haven for the parts of her that were not accommodated by married life”—her “wished-for world.”
This was not a happy marriage: in her diary she called her husband an “uncongenial partner,” “uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh-tempered, selfish, proud.” Early in the marriage, in this lonely and unhappy existence, Isabella “sank into a deep and pervasive gloom,” exacerbated by boredom and her loss of any religious faith. Eventually, of course, she fell in love with the family friend Edward Lane (himself married), and began a far more emotionally rewarding, if adulterous, relationship. This was all duly recorded in the diary—and discovered by her husband when he opened the diary while Isabella was ill.
Robinson promptly sued for divorce on grounds of adultery under the newly established divorce laws. As evidence he submitted the diary—described by Summerscale as “detailed, sensual, alternately anguished and euphoric, more godless and abandoned than anything in contemporary English fiction”—and the newspapers largely reprinted it. Thus was revealed to the world “a new and disturbing figure: a middle-class wife who was restless, unhappy, avid for arousal.” Hence the disgrace which finally led to her husband’s suit in divorce court, using her diary, and her public humiliation and defamation.
Summerscale’s vivid writing and gift for detailed description bring to life the mid-Victorian social scene, its architecture, its varied characters (including Dickens and Darwin)—all solidly supported by Summerscale’s impressive scholarship. The imposing body of sources include many still unpublished, like judicial records of divorce and family proceedings, personal journals and letters, parish records—besides published materials ranging from mid-nineteenth century journalism to the most recent scholarly studies.
In a way this cannot help but be a depressing narrative: Isabella Robinson suffers too much, too unfairly, to make her story a cheerful one. But it is redeemed for the reader by the fascinating insight it provides into the inner emotions and dilemmas of personal experiences and social issues that we still debate, from a time not that far distant from our own.
Hardcover Book : 320 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc ( )
Item #: 13-585916
Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 8.25 x 0.8inches
Product Weight: 14.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)