Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

Consider, if you will, a Victorian drama in two acts.

In the first act Isabella Robinson, the unhappy wife of an uncaring husband, began to keep a diary. She wrote of her friendship with the Lane and Drysdale families, who clearly understood her situation and offered her friendship and support. Doctor Edward Lane, the husband of her friend Mary, was everything that her own husband was not. Isabella was drawn to him, attracted to him, and she was prepared to act. He, diplomatically, keeps her at arm’s length.

Isabella considered other possibilities, other men, who might fill the gap in her life. Eventually it was Edward who succumbed to her. Just for a few, short weeks. He realised that the risk to his reputation, his family, his career was too great.

And that might have been and end to it. But Isabella fell ill, and her husband went to her desk and broke the lock, looking for money. He found the diary, he read his wife’s words, and he was appalled.

And so the curtain fell on the first act.

It could have been fiction, in many places it read like fiction. But it was truth. Or at least one woman’s interpretation of the truth.

The second act was very different.

Henry Robinson was determined to cast off his wife, and to have revenge at any price. he takes the diary and offers it, first to an ecclesiastical court and then to a law court, as evidence of his wife’s adultery and degeneracy.

Kate Summerscale follows the details of both cases, and steps outside the story too. To highlight the horrible inequalities of men and women under the law. To consider the question of whether a diary can prove, should be used to prove, anything. To tell the stories of other, contemporary divorce cases. And to offer up examples of the many fictional diaries of the period.

It was all fascinating, it was all set out without a hint of prejudice, but the second act couldn’t quite hold me the way the first act had.

That might have been because I knew the period and the law too well. It might have been because I realised from the start that whoever won the case the lady’s reputation would be ruined while the men would be free to move on.

But I think that it was because I missed Isabella’s voice.

It would be easy to say that she was foolish, and maybe she was. But she was also a bright, creative woman, who had no freedom, no legal standing, and no outlet except that diary. She wrote that she wanted to leave her husband, but that she couldn’t because then her sons would be lost to her. Her words might have been honest reportage, or they may have been lurid imaginings, but she kept them to herself.

How could you not feel for her?

I just wish her story had been structured a little differently, to avoid the contrast between the two acts that jarred a little.

And I wish the subtitle ‘The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady’ had been dispensed with. It gives a rather misleading impression, particularly since the diary itself has not survived and a much bigger story is being told here.

This is a very good book, a very well researched book, a very readable book … but it couldn’t quite live up to its subject matter.


It was Jo’s idea – celebrate the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

Not quite as easy as it looks. I’ve tweaked the categories to suit my reading style, and because I wanted to push disappointments to one site and simply celebrate some of the books many I have loved. And I’ve done it!


Six Books that took me on extraordinary journeys

The Harbour by Francesca Brill
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to the Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh
The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston
The House on Paradise Street by Sofka Zinovieff


Six books that took me by the hand and led me into the past

The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn
The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon
Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd
The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace


Six books from the past that drew me back there

The One I Knew the Best of All by Frances Hodgson-Burnett
A Burglary by Amy Dillwyn
The Frailty of Nature by Angela Du Maurier
Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
The New Moon With the Old by Dodie Smith
As It Was & World Without End by Helen Thomas


Six books from authors I know will never let me down

The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
Closed at Dusk by Monica Dickens
Monogram by G B Stern
Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor
In the Mountains by Elizabeth Von Arnim


Six books I must mention that don’t fit nicely into any category

Shelter by Frances Greenslade
Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon
When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones
Alys, Always by Harriet Lane
The Roundabout Man by Clare Morrall
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood


Six Books I started in the first six months of the year and was still caught up with in July

The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone
The Deamstress by Maria Dueñas
Greenery Street by Denis MacKail
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
White Ladies by Francis Brett Young


Do think about putting your own sixes – it’s a great way of perusing your reading, and I’d love to read more lists.