July 20, 2012 1:52:12 PM
In England it used to be that divorces were exceedingly rare and were obtained only by the wealthy. It literally took an act of Parliament to dissolve a marriage. In 1858, everything changed under the Divorce Act, and the Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes was opened. Its eleventh case was brought by Henry Robinson under the grounds of his wife's adultery. Wives might sue for divorce under the new act, not because of adultery (men will be men) but because of physical abuse, but a wife's adultery was intolerable. Henry Robinson knew that he and his wife didn't like each other and hadn't even at the beginning of their marriage twelve years before, but he didn't suspect adultery until he read her diary. Kate Summerscale, whose The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher was about a heinous crime and the response of Victorian society to it, returns to tell of another illuminating legal tangle in Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady (Bloomsbury). It is a fascinating story, no less from being occasionally lurid, and Summerscale brings insights into marital, legal, and medical concepts of the time, making this a larger study than a mere tale of two unhappy people.
In 1844, Isabella Dansey was an attractive widow from a good family with a son. She wanted a match to enlarge her social circle and to provide her son with a father figure. Henry Robinson was a civil engineer who wanted to marry Isabella because although he was a successful businessman, building steam boats and sugar mills, he could use the boost in status Isabella would bring. He could also use the settlement of £5,000 made on her by her father, which Isabella signed over to Henry to keep things smooth between them. It was a bad marriage from the start. Henry was a good businessman, and stayed busy, often traveling away from home. He knew his trade, but he knew little else and didn't want to know much else. He was oafish and selfish. Isabella had a sympathy for finer things. She could never discuss her enthusiasms about literature, philosophy, science, or poetry with Henry. She could not have happiness with him, nor love, nor passion. She was open to imagining passions and was delighted to find men who would discuss her ideas with her.
One such man was a young tutor employed by Henry for her sons. He was someone Isabella could discuss art with, and she yearned for his company, and gave him gifts and money beyond his salary. She wrote of "an encounter" with him in the garden, but did not give details. Her real passion became Edward Lane, whom she met in Edinburgh when he was training to be a doctor. Lane was ten years younger, and he was happily married, but he was just the sort of man for whom Isabella longed, and just the sort that Henry was not. She could talk with him about literature and Goethe and Shelley, and she could tell him about her diminished religious faith. Lane would go on to found Moor Park in Surrey where he offered the "water cure," with water drunk by and dropped upon and aimed at patients. This was a fashionable treatment, and among the patients was Charles Darwin, treated for his mysterious dyspepsia and other complaints. To Moor Park Isabella, too, would go.
Isabella was infatuated. She wrote feverishly in her diary about their conversations, Lane's attentiveness, the bliss of being with him, and a shared kiss. They enjoyed walks together. Whether the relationship became coital is anyone's guess. Her diary was gushy, but also obscure. She might write, for instance, of "half-realized" bliss in Edward's arms. The diary, however was enough to ruin her reputation. Four years after her relationship with Lane had cooled, she developed what was probably diphtheria. She was seriously ill, and often not fully conscious. She may have rambled on about her obsessive adoration for other males, and eventually Henry found her journal. He could not have been surprised at her slighting remarks about him. But he also read lines that were about other men, lines like "I leaned back at last in silent joy in those arms I had so often dreamed of and kissed the curls and smooth face, so radiant with beauty, that had dazzled my outward and inward vision since I first saw him." He confiscated her diary, letters, poems, and essays, took custody of their two children, and kicked Isabella out.
He took her to court; he read the diaries, found that she had committed adultery, and this was sufficient for him to think that the marriage could be ended. There were problems for him, though. The diary entries were obscure and didn't give details. If they seemed to indicate that adultery had occurred, then writing such descriptions was an act of madness. Not only that, but medical experts testified that Mrs. Robinson was suffering from a disorder of the uterus; at the time, such disorders were thought to be capable of producing delusions all the way up in the mind of the patient. Testimony about Isabella's erotically-charged prose and indications of nymphomania or erotomania was so detailed and hot that the males in charge of the legal proceedings judged that females could not listen to it. They were cleared from the court when such testimony was given (perhaps it was felt that hearing the words of a woman who enjoyed passions might start them enjoying them, too). There was even the idea that Isabella had been writing personal pornography for her own consumption. Then she would use it as an aid to masturbation, and everyone knew how that hobby unhinged the mind. Whether things went this far or not, everyone was shocked that a proper, middle-class woman could ever have had such lustful thoughts, and put them, real or imagined, onto paper.
Summerscale gives details from the trial, carefully examining the statements of the witnesses. Henry could have expected an easy win. After all, the new divorce law heavily favored husbands, and his own sexual dalliances were not a matter for consideration. But Edward Lane, who risked the reputation of his medical facility as well as his position in society and his marriage, denied that Isabella had been anything more than a friend and patient. They had talked many times, but he had never even kissed her. Her diary entries to the contrary were mere fantasies. This was the line taken by Isabella's lawyer, and the medical witnesses that said she was deranged. Isabella accepted this defense, admitting that all the diary entries were fantasies; perhaps it was guilt or love for Lane that put her in the unenviable position of admitting she had written such fantasies and that they were untrue. The defense tried to make Henry the villain of the piece, for he had violated Isabella's privacy in looking at her diary when she was mentally incapacitated, and then he had made them a public matter.
Summerscale is exactly right in giving the details of the testimony during the case, for not only do they throw light on the legal, social, and sexual conceptions of the time, they help understand the outcome of the case, which is unexpected. The judges took three months to come to a decision, and when they did, the means that they had used were subtle, and would have been surprising to both sides. Lane and his supporters worked hard to suppress any documentation of the incident, and it has been pretty much forgotten until Summerscale's recreation of it in this instructive summary of much of Victorian thought in microcosm.
3. Works in Wood exhibit opens today in West Point ENTERTAINMENT