Before British Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act, marriages could only be dissolved in a private Act of Parliament, the cost and scandal of which made divorces rare. During the summer of 1858, that changed. The new Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes began to grant divorces to the English middle class. On June 14, 1858, a man named Henry Robinson petitioned the court to dissolve his marriage to his wife Isabella on grounds that she had committed adultery. The evidence came from her own diary, portions of which were read aloud over the course of the trial and then widely published in London newspapers. London was riveted by the scandal. Kate Summerscale brings this fascinating story to modern audiences in Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady.
In her diary, Isabella Robinson regularly reflected on her unhappiness with her life and marriage. She also wrote about a relationship with a man named Edward Lane, who publicly denied the affair. Standards for proving a wife’s adultery in divorce cases were so low that the diary was potentially enough to condemn Isabella in court despite her husband’s multiple infidelities. To protect Lane’s reputation, Isabella’s attorneys and doctors convinced her to present the diaries as fictional, and her only viable legal defense was to claim that she had imagined the affair because she suffered from sexual mania.
Summerscale first read about this story in a book about Victorian scandals while she was researching her previous bestseller, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. She began to investigate the story because she was intrigued by the double standards that women faced in Victorian divorce courts; she wanted to know the truth about Isabella Robinson. Her storytelling results in the gripping tale of Mrs. Robinson’s fall from grace and the ensuing scandal.