Bloomsbury, £16.99

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary Of A Victorian Lady, By Kate Summerscale

A brilliant excavation of a scandalous personal history that left its imprint on family law.

Isabella Robinson, a middle-aged mother, wife and adulterer, lived and loved in Victorian Britain but she could just as easily have been a figment of a novelist's feverish imagination. Kate Summerscale herself makes a comparison between the subject of her latest social history and Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary; Isabella suffered from the same marital ennui, she had the same careering self-destructive streak and the overspill of sexual voracity that precipitated her infidelities. Even her name sounds like a smutty cross-reference to fictional bad women embroiled in fictional bad romances.

Yet every part of Summerscale story really happened. What's more, Isabella left a sensational imprint of her personal life on Britain's record of family law for future historians to mine. So Summerscale mines, richly.

Isabella came to national disgrace by carrying on with Edward Lane – a doctor many years her junior – and getting hauled into the newly-formed divorce courts when she was rumbled by her unloving husband. It is not the affair itself, nor the divorce, that gives her story its shock factor, but the fact that she described every scintilla of her passion in a diary discovered by Henry Robinson and presented in court as evidence.

The Observer refused to publish extracts of this "dangerous" material, which highlighted what the Victorians had taken great pains to deny: that women had sexual appetites too. Mrs Robinson is a seducer who hunts her prey, yet she is ultimately vulnerable – a woman who fears losing contact with her children after her separation, as was often the case in her era. In the end, she lost her social standing but her comeuppance was not the foregone conclusion that her husband (who was carrying on himself) had hoped for.

Despite its status as non-fiction, Summerscale's book is written with novelistic flourishes, perhaps because her hand is guided by Isabella's diary extracts, which become the real heart and voice of the book. Yet the diary also raises unanswerable questions over the veracity of Isabella's version of events. Summerscale suggests that her romantic imagination may have led her to exaggerate and embellish: "... tested against no external source, checked by no other perspective, the diary could conjure up a wished-for world, in which memories were coloured with desire." She got as much of an erotic kick from writing about the affair as from having it, Summerscale reckons. So how far did she really go with Edward, and to what extent did her documentation of reality collide with fantasy, we wonder, just as judge and jurors must have in 1858.

Summerscale has a gift for historical excavation and reconstruction. This book is every bit as captivating as her award-winning bestseller, The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher, which unpicked a heinous crime and exposed Victorian hypocrisies. This latest work takes us to another scandalous moment in the same era, and again draws our eye to the double standards by which polite society lived. As social history, Mrs Robinson's Disgrace highlights gender discrepancies in divorce laws at a time of new legislation. Summerscale's research also extends beyond Isabella's immediate world into the Victorian bohemia which lay on its fringes. Hers might have been a dull, middle-class existence but it collided with exciting alternative scenes. Charles Darwin and George Eliot floated around its edges; there were brushes with phrenologists, alienists, and she was constantly drawn to crowds that valued the imagination above her husband's colourless world of commerce.

As a human-interest story it is instantly gripping, with its first-hand account of sexual infidelity and its intimate replay of Isabella's likely emotions. She is a bold and brazen heroine, defying every stereotype of the Victorian wife. She pursues her lovers (moving on to other younger men after Edward) and seems to bring on the end to her loveless marriage by leaving her diary within arms-reach of her husband. For all her 19th century diarist's melodrama, she emerges as a thoroughly modern woman.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders