Mrs Robinson"s Disgrace: A neglected wife, her X-rated diary and how Victorian Britain discovered women enjoy sex, too

A neglected wife, her X-rated diary and how Victorian Britain discovered women enjoy sex, too

Tony Rennell


01:06 GMT, 12 May 2012



01:06 GMT, 12 May 2012

She lay in her bed, sick from diphtheria, restless and raving with a high fever.

Henry Robinson peered at his wife Isabella and then bent his head closer to try to decipher her delirious mutterings. He caught the gasped-out names of . . . men!

The stiff-necked, beak-nosed Victorian patriarch was aghast. He had suspected her of infidelity — a terrible affront to Robinson even though he quite openly had a mistress and two illegitimate children.

The Victorians preferred classical allusions to sex. Isabella Robinson's florid descriptions of her desperate emotional, intellectual and physical desire for a man not her husband shocked the time

Passion: The Victorians preferred classical allusions to sex. Isabella Robinson's florid descriptions of her desperate emotional, intellectual and physical desire for a man not her husband shocked the time

Now he would find out the truth.

He went to her desk — unlocked, for once — took out the red-backed private diaries he knew she kept hidden away there and began to leaf through them.

What came tumbling out that day in the spring of 1856 were her graphic confessions of dread, contempt and disgust — which cannot have been a complete surprise, because their 12-year marriage had been a disaster from day one.

But what sent him into a rage were Isabella’s florid descriptions of her desperate emotional, intellectual and physical — yes, physical — ache for a doctor friend, Edward Lane.

In page after page she poured out admissions not only of her all-consuming desire for the doctor but how, in the end, seemingly she had had her way.

‘I leaned back at last in silent joy,’ her husband read, ‘in those arms I had so often dreamed of and kissed the curls and smooth face, so radiant with beauty, that had dazzled my outward and inward vision since I first saw him.’

Robinson confiscated his wife’s journals, along with hundreds of other letters, essays, notes and poems of hers, took custody of their two children and turfed her out.

The scene was set for a scandal — played out in the newly constituted divorce courts — that rocked Victorian England’s treasured image of blissful family life and a wife’s happy, subservient role in it.

Observers asked themselves how such a well-brought-up, middle-class lady could have had such lustful thoughts and dreams, let alone acted on them

Her aroused libido was not only an affront to God in his heaven but seemed to undermine the very foundations of society.

Men in high places quivered with anger and anxiety, and the judges even ordered female spectators out of the Westminster Hall courtroom for fear of corrupting their morals, so salacious and inflammatory was some of the evidence thought to be.

This now largely forgotten case comes back to life in a new book by Kate Summerscale, author of the highly acclaimed, best-selling and prize-winning The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher.

What exactly was going on beneath the starched petticoats and buttoned-up bodices of our great-great-great grandmothers

What exactly was going on beneath the starched petticoats and buttoned-up bodices of our great-great-great grandmothers

With Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, she shifts her forensic eye from a celebrated Victorian murder to the secrets and lies of a monstrous Victorian marriage.

It is an intriguing story that challenges the conventional view of respectable English society in the 19th century.

exactly was going on beneath the starched petticoats and buttoned-up
bodices of our great-great-great grandmothers Much much more, it turns
out, than we can ever have suspected.

case was a complex one, mired in claim and counter-claim, but one fact
was largely unquestioned — that Henry Robinson was a rotten husband.

sullen, selfish, uneducated and rude, he married Isabella — a
thirtysomething widow with a son — for her inherited money, which he
then purloined for his own purposes, though he was a wealthy man in his
own right.

He ran a thriving business building steam boats and sugar mills, which took him away from home frequently.

left her feeling abandoned and lonely in a loveless marriage, but also
relieved to be without the brute. In his absence, she had time and
opportunity for finer things — literature, poetry, philosophy, science,

And love. And passion. And the search for happiness and fulfilment.

wistful, wandering eye fell on a winsome tutor employed for her sons.
In her diary she recorded her ‘unutterable yearning’ for his company.
They talked of sculpture and painting. She gave him money and gifts.

He ‘clings to my heartstrings’, she confided, and wrote of ‘an encounter’ — details unexplained — beneath a tree in the garden.

But the real target of her passion was Edward Lane, 27 years old and everything her detested husband was not — ‘fascinating’, ‘graceful’, ‘handsome’, ‘lively’, ‘charming’ and ‘good-humoured’, she wrote in her journal.

That Lane was also married, with an adoring wife (the sister of his best friend) and a large brood of children, she chose to ignore.

His was an engaging circle of close-knit family and clever literary and academic friends — an intellectual elite who met in each other’s homes to discuss Goethe and Shelley, wrote articles for learned magazines and were au fait with all the latest scientific and philosophical notions.

They swept Isabella up and along, and she loved it. In their company she came alive, proving every bit as witty and merry, clear-thinking and engaged as she yearned to be.

But it was Lane she could not get out of her head, his body every bit as much as his mind.

Victorian England's had a treasured image of blissful family life and a wife's happy, subservient role in it

Victorian England's had a treasured image of blissful family life and a wife's happy, subservient role in it

In her diary she noted her every conversation with him: the subject matter, the thread of the argument, but, more importantly for her, the turn of his head and the way he seemed secretly to glance at her.

Alone in bed at night (she and her husband had separate rooms), her erotic imagination ran riot. She tossed and turned, ‘Dreaming all night of romantic situations and Mr Lane’.

The downside was the loss she felt without him. If he was slow to reply to a letter, her heart was filled ‘with unspeakable sadness’.

She saw signs that her feelings might be reciprocated when, at a musical soiree, she requested him pointedly to sing ‘Oh the heart is a free and fetterless thing’.

He obliged and she was filled with joy. She wanted more.

Lane, a gentleman doctor who believed in natural remedies, ran a successful health clinic he had set up in a country house in Surrey, specialising in the calming effects of water-therapy.

Victorian hydrotherapists used water in many forms, taken internally or perhaps in baths, to relieve their patients’ symptoms.

Overwrought Victorians flocked to Lane to relieve their anxieties.

A tense Charles Darwin, in agony from flatulence, headaches, eczema and boils brought on by writing On The Origin of Species, was one who took the cure.

Isabella, who lived 20 miles away, became a guest too, and it was there that — according to her diaries — the object of her lust succumbed.

Lane invited her for a walk in the surrounding countryside and, among the heather ‘in a glade of surpassing beauty’, he kissed her.

‘I made no opposition,’ she brazenly admitted, ‘for had I not dreamed of him and of this full many a time before What followed I hardly remember — 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. But so it was.’

There was more to come. Back at the house, they slipped away from his wife after tea and renewed their ‘passionate excitement’ in his study.

‘Bliss,’ she recorded — a word that would later come under microscopic examination for its precise meaning — ‘predominated’.

Whatever they were up to, they were at it again the next day. Another country walk a deux ended with them resting ‘among the dry fern’ and Isabella’s coy but highly suggestive entry in her diary: ‘I shall not state what followed.’

Then, alone in the back of a carriage for an hour as he accompanied her to the railway station at the end of her stay, there was more intriguing ‘bliss’ — ‘such that I could willingly have died not to wake out of it again’.

On her next visit to the clinic she was, not surprisingly, expecting more of the same, but she was in for disappointment. Lane was off-hand with her and she was ‘crushed in spirit’.

But, reluctantly, he managed a quarter of an hour of ‘blissful excitement’ with her behind the closed door of his study, leaving Isabella ‘nearly helpless’ with pleasure.

The next day, though, he took her aside and told her he was no longer prepared to risk his reputation and his marriage. Their relationship was over.

A devastated Isabella grasped the sad and depressing truth — ‘that though I might have caused momentary passion, I was not wholly beloved’.

For all her desperate longing for Lane’s love and an escape from the loneliness of her marriage to a new life, she had been just a fling, a bit on the side, the fall girl in a romantic melodrama.

Reading all this, her husband was bent on revenge and, in court, where he sued her for divorce and named Lane as co-respondent, produced the diaries as clear evidence of adultery.

The lascivious outpourings of his frustrated wife were revealed to a startled public for whom sex was a largely unspoken subject, forbidden fruit.

Here, in real life, was the sort of depravity only ever depicted in risque French novels.

Victorian society raised its eyebrows in horror while revelling in every prurient detail it could get its hands on.

As for the outcome, it seemed Henry Robinson could not lose.

For a start, the divorce law was heavily weighted in favour of men and against wayward wives — his own sexual misdemeanours, for example, went unmentioned.

With Isabella condemned by her own words as guilty of adultery, it was surely an open-and-shut case. With a verdict in his favour, Robinson hoped he might hang on to some of her wealth and leave her destitute, an idea he found most appealing.

Unless . . . everything she had written was fantasy and fiction, nothing more than the delusions of a silly woman.

Which was now the position taken by Edward Lane, the person with the most to lose in this increasingly sordid affair. If adultery was proved against him, his lucrative medical practice would be wrecked, along with his marriage and his social position. Indignantly, he denied everything.

Mrs Robinson had been a friend — no more.

He had never encouraged her, never made advances, never kissed her or had physical relations.

She was ‘a rhapsodical and vaporing fool’, he declared, ‘a vile and crazy woman’ given to ‘moonshine lucubrations’. She had made the whole thing up.

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace is Kate Summerscale's latest book

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace is Kate Summerscale's latest book

Isabella’s lawyer took the same line. The diaries weren’t factual but ‘the product of extravagance and excitement’ bordering on madness, and he brought in expert medical witnesses to swear she was deranged.

The word ‘nymphomania’ was used, a result of unspecified ‘uterine disease’ — women’s problems.

In other words, if a woman liked sex, thought about sex, dreamed about sex and set about getting sex, she had to be ill or mad or both.

One doctor advised the court that Isabella had probably written the erotic scenes simply to arouse herself; pieces of personal pornography for her own onanistic pleasure, which, in turn, had contributed to her insanity.

There was even a suggestion that the solitary pleasures of reading and writing were highly dangerous for some women.

Isabella chose to go along with this defence — probably out of guilt (or love) for Lane. Yes, she’d made it all up, she admitted in a letter to his family. He was above reproach, had never laid a finger on her.

The diaries were her imagination running out of control, they had been for her own eyes only and the real villain of the piece was her husband, first for having invaded her privacy by reading them and then putting them in the public domain.

With difficult issues to resolve, the judges took three months to come to a decision, and in the end they came up with a surprising and subtle verdict.

They didn’t consider Isabella was insane and they thought her diaries had the ring of truth about them. They might in places be exaggerated and melodramatic, but they weren’t entirely delusional.

But the legal problem was that, though her writings hinted at acts of adultery with words such as ‘bliss’, such incoherence fell short of a confession that she and Lane had actually gone the whole way.

The judges were pretty sure something naughty had occurred between the pair, but could not be sure precisely what. There was no conclusive proof of adultery and, on that ground, Henry Robinson’s petition for divorce against his wife was rejected.

On a technicality, Lane was off the hook. He went back to his family and his clinic and got on with his life unaffected.

‘I am glad to say that not one of Dr Lane’s patients has given him up,’ noted Charles Darwin.

By that same technicality, Isabella and Henry Robinson — as ill-matched a couple as it is possible to imagine — remained man and wife, though legally separated.

He railed against the court’s decision, which left him humiliated and out of pocket.

She, though disgraced and an outcast, was glad to have gained a victory of some sort over her repulsive and domineering husband.

In her diary she had poignantly written: ‘I find it impossible to love where I ought or keep from loving where I ought not.’

Now, at least, she was as free as any Victorian woman would ever be to do as she pleased.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary Of A Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale, is published by Bloomsbury at 16.99. To order a copy for 14.99 (including p&p) call 0843 382 0000.