Friday, March 8, 2013

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

In a classic case of choosing a book by it’s cover, I picked up Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. The cover and title drew me in. But what I assumed was fiction turned out to be a non-fiction account of the real Mrs. Robinson and what her diary revealed about the Victorian times in which she lived.

As I read, I began to feel that I didn’t like Mrs. Robinson very much. She was desperately unhappy and narcissistic. She considered herself very avant garde and like to push the envelope of society. She loved to be in the company of intellectuals and despised her husband as common. She fancied she contributed to the conversation of the authors and experts around her.

In the process, she fell in love with Dr. Edward Lane. He was pioneering spas and “hydrotherapy” and she was a frequent guest of his and his wife at their retreat. She writes openly in her diary of her infatuation with him. His wife, despite the fact that they were friends, gained no sympathy from her. She pathetically details every word, every glance, every disappointment and hope in her pursuit of the doctor.

Eventually they seem to acknowledge a mutual desire. She records the kisses and walks, the declarations of love. Again, no mention of the effect on his wife or her own husband and children. But she writes vaguely enough that it remains unclear whether or not the affair was consummated.

When her husband finds the diary while going through her drawer looking for something that would relieve the symptoms of an illness from which she was suffering, he discovers her unfaithfulness. He sues for divorce. In a complicated trial highlighting the changing nature of divorce law, the doctor is found not guilty of adultery. The musings of a woman in her diary were not found sufficient enough to convict. She claimed the writings were simply mad ravings and not factual. Therefore, she too is declared not guilty.

Her poor husband was forced to stay married to this narcissistic woman. He, however, is no angel. He, too, had been having a long-term affair. Eventually their marriage ends over other causes.

This sad, strange tale was somewhat interesting, but felt mostly voyeuristic. I have very little interest in this woman or her pseudo-intellectual friends. Her husband is a caricature of an uninvolved, unloving man. She portrays herself as a victim, ungrateful, uncaring, and a liar. The times and politics surrounding her case make for some interest, but in the end, I was glad to be rid of the bunch.

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