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
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

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.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker