I've been reading Kate Summerscale's Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady - you may remember our location shoot for it - and I wanted to say a little more about it here. It's an excellent read, meticulously researched (I'd have expected nothing less from the author of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher) and it's also a textbook exercise in the management of material.
In brief, in 1850's Edinburgh Isabella Robinson developed an infatuation for Edward Lane, a former lawyer turned medical student ten years her junior. Both parties were married - Isabella unhappily - and had children, and what began as a simple-seeming friendship between two households who were near neighbours and had shared interests, developed, on one side at least, into something deeper, darker and more dangerous. All might yet have been well had not Isabella set down her feelings in her diary; when she became ill with diphtheria and in her delirium was heard uttering the names of men, her husband's suspicions led to his finding her journal and reading of her private thoughts and innermost feelings. What ensued was a scandalous divorce with evidence so shocking that newspapers could not report it all. Mrs. Robinson, a real life Madame Bovary, was left "impoverished, disgraced and friendless".
In the first part of the book Kate Summerscale uses the diary entries as the basis for telling Mrs. Robinson's story, and she sets its events, observations and preoccupations firmly in context. The second half details its use in court and raises very interesting questions about its admissibility as evidence, but throughout the book we are told not just a sorry, rather sordid personal tale, but are given a comprehensive account of Victorian sexual mores, the legal developments of the time and the changing attitudes to diagnosis and treatment of mental and psycho-sexual conditions.
What is fascinating, too, is the analysis of the whole business of diary-keeping, a fashion "fuelled by the popularity of Romantic poetry which prized introspection," and by publication of personal journals such as those of John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys. We learn that the publisher John Letts printed the first large formatted diaries in the 1820s and by the 1850s Letts was selling several thousand diaries a year, in many different formats. "These were the books in which Isabella wrote; they came bound in cloth or in red Russian calf hide, which gave off a faint scent of birch bark, and could be fitted with protective covers and spring locks. 'Use your diary with the utmost familiarity and confidence,' Letts counselled the novice diarist, ' conceal nothing from its pages nor suffer any eye other than your own to scan them.'"
Kate Summerscale quotes the periodical the Athenaeum on a trend in the novels of the time: "The Diary seems to have superseded Letters as the means by which persons are made to relate their own stories," and she remarks with acuity, "The thrill of the form lay precisely in its verisimilitude, its semblance of reality. The reader of a diary could feel the naughty pleasure of scanning pages not meant for her eyes; or accept the role of trusted friend for whom the narrator longed. Whether as a spy or a confidante, or both, she experienced a sharp sensation of proximity."
What one newspaper referred to as "nonsense in a notebook", the passionate, suggestive outpourings of an unhappy, frustrated woman, led to Mrs. Robinson's downfall and disgrace and did much more damage besides, and this account of the diary and ensuing events brings into sharp focus the restrictive ideas governing so many aspects of Victorian life and thought.