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Friday, July 15, 2016

#17 for Victorian drama, the real kind

I'm not exactly sure how I came to be reading this book. It ended up in my ginormous books-to-read pile and it had been there long enough that when I stumbled upon it I could no longer remember how it got there. Did I see it in a bookstore and think, oh that looks interesting, I'll buy it and surely read it in a timely manner? Did someone lend it to me? Was it a gift with purchase?

Who knows. But find it I did, and read it I did, and it was, qualifiedly, interesting.

It's the story of one of the first divorces in Britain, after the laws had been changed to allow middle-class Britons access to divorce in the 1850s. Isabella Walker, a widow with a young son, married Henry Robinson, a well-off civil engineer and manufacturer, in 1844. They had two more sons together, but the marriage foundered from the start. Henry was cold and remote. He demanded, and took control of Isabella's money, leaving her with nothing of her own. He traveled often, and was angry and demanding when he was home. 

Isabella, on the other hand, was a high-spirited and intelligent woman, with a passion for new ideas, the arts, and for a married doctor named Edward Lane. What makes the story so interesting is that Isabella kept a secret diary in which, over five years, she recorded her ardor and longing for Dr. Lane, who finally returned her affections. Her writing is sensual and suggestive, although in good Victorian style she never directly states that she was unfaithful. But is there a reasonable doubt that she wasn't? I don't think so. Why else would the good doctor be warning her about post-copulation pregnancy prevention?

Unfortunately for Isabella, she became ill and in the height of her fever, and the presence of her husband, she called out her lover's name. In a rage, Henry tore her room apart looking for evidence and, in a locked drawer, found the revealing diary. He petitioned for divorce on the grounds of adultery. The diary was used in evidence against both his wife and Dr. Lane, and passages were read into the court record and published in the newspapers. The trial was the scandal of the day--a middle-class, respectable wife and mother who was restless and unhappy, a British Madame Bovary (which was published in France that very year but considered too scandalous to be published in England until the 1880s). 

The trial was humiliating for Isabella, whose very looks were used against her by her erstwhile lover. In his own defense he claimed he would never have become romantically involved with such an unattractive woman in her fifties (at the time Isabella was in her late thirties). She was labeled a harlot, a whore, mentally ill, a bad mother, a bad example of an Englishwoman, and any other mud that could be flung at her. Her defense, as sad as it was, was that the diary was an exercise in fantasy fulfillment, and not the record of an actual affair. 

Isabella's writing is so juicy that Summerscale's often pales in comparison. But it's a gripping tale that sheds quite a bit of light on the prejudices and assumptions we make about marriage and women, even today.

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