Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian LadyMrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came across this book when I was looking with my book group for possible future books. I'm interested in the Victorian period, and in particular women's roles in it, so I decided to read this on my own to screen it for the group. While I don't think it has appeal for my book group, I did enjoy reading it.

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace tells the story of a woman whose husband brought her to divorce court when such an institution was still new and the laws around it were being established. He'd found evidence in her diary that she'd had an affair with a close family friend and physician. It's a true story, and the book includes a lot of historical details to give context to the tale.

The legalities come down to how much of Mrs. Robinson's diary is true. The defense for Mrs. Robinson and her alleged lover argue that her diary is fantasy, for her later entertainment. The men deciding the case, meanwhile, have to read the whole thing. The author points out that this gives Mrs. Robinson a voice in her trial, possibly backfiring on her husband. He's not painted in a sympathetic light within the pages of the diary.

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace never comes down on one side or another in the truth of Mrs. Robinson's diary. It presents the bare facts, and only the ones that can be substantiated by a reliable source. It takes great care to point out bias in anyone whose perspective it uses.

I found the book's greatest strength in its depiction of everyday Victorian life, especially aspects we don't normally get much exposure to. This depicts the roles of wives, the media, the rise of journals and diaries, the power imbalance between husband and wife, phrenology, the social lives of your average upper-middle-class family, property rights, and legal minutiae. The last is the least interesting, though the precedents set by this particular case might hold one's interest. The book falls flat where it tries to introduce the men hearing the case as characters in their own right, without all of the back story given all of the other people involved in the case. We get glimpses into personal lives or legal careers, and then the narrative talks about them like we're well acquainted.

The book also talks about phrenology like it's a valid science, and not a pseudoscience steeped in racism. It may have been a precursor to psychology, but it was specifically engineered to reinforce the notion of white male superiority. Features associated with white maleness were given positive traits, while those of other races were deemed inferior, and those of women named weak. The book completely ignores that phrenology is not only debunked, it's racist. It continually describes Mrs. Robinson in terms related to her phrenology reading like it's a valid character analysis.

For me, the most interesting thing was what the Victorian public considers salacious. There are details withheld from newspapers that none of us would even blink at. No, not even the sexually repressed among us. Even in the pages of her personal diary, Mrs. Robinson only implies a physical relationship.

I enjoyed this book. It gave me a lot of insight into the Victorian mind, and everyday details. I finished this book greatly relieved how much times have changed, and furious for the women who had to live through that repressive culture.

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