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Coo-coo-ca-choo Mrs. Robinson

JAMES FITZJAMES STEPHEN was a Cambridge-educated barrister who supplemented his earnings with journalism, and in 1857 he took on a review of a new French novel. No English translation of Madame Bovary would appear until 1886, but Stephen was good in French and the book was already notorious, in part because Flaubert and his publishers had been indicted for obscenitya rap they beat after a one-day trial. Stephen told the readers of the Saturday Review that he found the novel repellent, yet while it had passages “no English author of reputation” would have published, he was not troubled by its frankness as such. What he objected to was Flaubert’s refusal to suggest that Emma’s adultery was wrong in itself, and not simply because of its consequences.

Still, the French writer offered a lesson for his British peers. The English fiction of the day contained nothing “which a modest man might not ... read aloud to a young lady.” Yet that was precisely the problem. Should the only fiction available be that “fit for young ladies to read?” Stephen admitted there were passages in Othello that he would not read aloud to a womanbut such a restriction would have blotted many of Shakespeare’s best lines, and he suggested, with an eye on London’s streets, that such prudery had done nothing to improve English conduct. And seventy years later, Stephen’s niece would write that women still found it hard to tell the truth about their own physical experiences: difficulties imposed by the “extreme conventionality of the other sex.” The niece was Virginia Woolf.

But diaries and letters were a different matter—and had been for generations, as Kate Summerscale’s taut and careful reconstruction of one Victorian sex scandal makes clear. Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace quotes from Stephen’s account of Flaubert, and Summerscale does indeed ask us to see Isabella Robinson as an English Emma Bovary, “restless, sensual, melancholic” and every bit as “steeped in romantic fiction” as the original. In her case, though, the discovery of her adultery led not to arsenic but to Britain’s newly established divorce courts; courts whose proceedings, as reported in the newspapers, served up the very details that English novelists could not bring themselves to offer.

Summerscale is best known for The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008), an account of an especially repellent murder in 1860. Its title figure became the prototype of the investigating detective, and some details of the murder soon found their way into Wilkie Collins’s great sensation novel The Moonstone. Summerscale’s new book has neither that page-by-page excitement nor so formidable a collection of historical personages as characters. But its story is perhaps more consequential, and takes its readers into the everyday realities and desires of nineteenth-century marriage.

Isabella Walker was born into a family of minor gentry in 1813, and at twenty-four married a naval officer almost two decades her senior. He soon left her a widow, and a few years later she found a second husband in an engineer named Henry Robinson, with whom she had two sons. Robinson was ambitious, a self-made partner in a firm that manufactured sugar-cane mills, but he was acutely aware of marrying up and remained both grasping and secretive about the money Isabella had brought to the marriage. She had rejected him twice before allowing her “dislike to be talked away,” but that feeling quickly returned. Henry was “narrow-minded [and] harsh-tempered,” and she learned as well that he kept a mistress by whom he had two daughters. Probably she welcomed his long absences on business, and during one of them she began to keep a diary, hoping to relieve the “dull load of dejection … [that] weighs down my very soul.” That diary would both help her, and undo her; “a serial in daily parts,” as Summerscale puts it, “in which she was the wronged and desperate heroine.”

Heroines need heroes, and Isabella found hers in a homeopathic doctor named Edward Lane. They met in 1850, and she seems in fact to have fallen in love with his entire family, his wife and mother-in-law included. A few years later Lane opened a hydropathic spa in Surrey at a place called Moor Park, where the water cure involved being wrapped in warm wet towels along with an alternation of hot and cold baths. The regimen was believed to “restore health to an unbalanced body,” though many customers were also troubled by one kind or another of “mania,” from alcohol to overwork. Darwin was a regular at Moor Park, and soon Isabella was as well. She often walked in the park with Lane, as everyone did, but in her diary she also wrote that one day a discussion of Goethe led the two of them on to “passionate kisses, whispered words, confessions of the past. Oh, God! I had never hoped to see this hour, or to have my part of love returned.”

Their affair would be brief: an encounter in a carriage that recalls a far more extensive scene in Madame Bovary, followed months later by a few minutes of “blissful excitement” in Lane’s study, after which she “tossed and dreamed and burned till morning.” Isabella wrote it all down, though her phrasing is cryptic enough to imply some “incompleteness in … physical union.” Then in 1856 she fell illSummerscale suggests it may have been diphtheriaand Henry heard her muttering the names of other men. That was enough to make him break open her diary, and to send him afterward to a lawyer.

Henry’s timing was good. He quickly obtained a legal separation, which gave him custody of their children, and then went further. Divorce in Britain had historically required a special act of Parliament, and the cost had made it unavailable to all but the very rich. But in 1857 the Matrimonial Causes Act eased the entire process, and though it was still expensive, the number of divorces immediately shot up a hundred times and more. The procedure was strictly adversarial, and cases were tried by a panel of three judges, who weighed testimony and pronounced on guilt or innocence. Husbands needed only to prove a wife’s adultery; women were required to demonstrate both their spouse’s adultery and another “matrimonial offence,” such as desertion or bigamy. The Robinson divorce was one of the first heard under the new law, and the trial itself was held in the medieval grandeur of Westminster Hall.

Isabella may have hated her husband, but she did not want the divorce. Lane had been named as co-respondent, and her conviction would have destroyed his career. For his sake she needed to stay in a marriage that she detested, and her lawyers found a literally novel strategy with which to fight. There were no credible eyewitnesses, and Henry’s case rested on the diary, whose circumstantial precision suggested that it was an account of what had really happened. Or was it? Its particular details of date and place, its close description of the doctor’s “love-telling eyes”all that worked to create a convincing realistic illusion. But then so did the fiction that Isabella loved to read, and everything therefore hung on the question of whether or not she was a reliable narrator.

Was the untrustworthy wife a trustworthy writer? Was she writing down the truth, or were her accounts of bliss perhaps the delusions of mental illness? Or maybe she was indulging herself in what the Victorians thought a different kind of sickness, something “private, self-sufficient?” For the medical witnesses, as Summerscale writes, suggested that Isabella was “mired in a circle of desire and excitement … her lascivious thoughts, translated to paper, took on an apparent reality that gratified her erotic impulses.” Her words were a form of pornography, and the self-description of the diary was above all a form of self-abuse.

Summerscale began her career as a journalist, and has found a distinctive beat in covering the improprieties of the Victorian bourgeoisie. She has a scrupulous eye for evidence and a deep knowledge of the period, with her account of its medical practices taking in not only the water cure but also the history of contraception and the quackery of phrenology. But her greatest strength is her ability to shape a scene or manage a revelation in a way that does indeed recall the pleasures of the nineteenth-century novel, the novel whose conventions and omissions are the background to all she writes. She never condescends to the past, and yet her narratives include all those things at which English writers could only wink; in fact divorce itself remained one of the great unspokens of Victorian fiction, an always scandalous and almost unimaginable conclusion.

In 1884, just a few years before Isabella Robinson died, Henry James wrote that the English novel depended on the distinction what people know and what “they agree to admit that they know ... between what they talk of in conversation and what they talk of in print.” Even the newspapers decided that there were some parts of the Robinson divorce case that they had better not publish. Kate Summerscale shows us what they were, and why; she elides that squeamish distinction. Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace moves more slowly than its murderous predecessor, but it has every bit as much to tell us.

Michael Gorra is the Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English at Smith College. His new book, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, will be published in August.