In the 19th century, Kate Summerscale reports, keeping private diaries became all the rage among the educated and genteel of England: “Of all the written life stories that fascinated the Victorians — biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, journals of health and travel and politics — the personal diary was the most subjective and raw, the most revealing of the problems of writing and reading about the self.” The fad “was fueled by the popularity of Romantic poetry, which prized introspection, and by the first publications of personal journals: the seventeenth-century diaries of John Evelyn originally appeared in 1818 and those of [Samuel] Pepys in 1825.”

Diaries were especially popular among women, even the most privileged of whom led sharply constrained lives and were granted virtually no rights. Married women lived at the mercy of their husbands, who had total control over whatever money they brought to their marriages, and single women — especially those old enough to qualify as spinsters — were similarly disenfranchised. Small wonder that many of them turned to diaries as a means of self-expression and exploration of emotions and experiences about which they could not, or would not, speak to others. This was not without its risks: “The act of diary-keeping honoured many of the values of Victorian society — self-reliance, autonomy, the capacity to keep secrets. But if taken too far, these same virtues could turn to vices. Self-reliance could become a radical disconnection from society, its codes and rules and restraints; secrecy could curdle into deceit; self-monitoring into solipsism; and introspection into monomania.”

For one woman, Isabella Robinson, diary-keeping turned into nothing less than a nightmare. Born in London in 1813 into a prosperous family, she was widowed in 1842 and remarried, to Henry Oliver Robinson, in 1844. She had three sons, one from her first marriage, and was deeply unhappy. In 1849 she began keeping a diary, in which she set down her complaints about her husband — “he was an ‘incongenial partner’ . . . ‘uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh-tempered, selfish, proud’ ” and contemptuous of her longing “to talk about literature and politics, to write poetry, learn languages and read the latest essays on science and philosophy.” As Summerscale notes, the diary was Isabella’s means of escape:

“Isabella, like many nineteenth-century women, used her journal as a place in which to confess her weakness, her sadness and her sins. In its pages she audited her behaviour and her thoughts; she grappled with her errors and tried to plot out a path to virtue. Yet by channeling her strong and unruly feelings into this book, Isabella also created a record and a memory of those feelings. She found herself telling a story, a serial in daily parts, in which she was the wronged and desperate heroine.”

Her diary became a record of the emotional roller coaster ride that was her life. She “had been guilty, she said, of ‘impatience under trials, wandering affections, want of self-denial and resolute persistence in well-doing; as a parent, as a daughter, as a sister, as a wife, as a pupil, as a friend, as a mistress.’ ” Precisely what she meant by this last is unclear — probably she meant as a “mistress” to servants — but elsewhere she made it abundantly plain that one of the causes of her unhappiness was deep sexual desire and frustration: “I long for things I ought not to prize. I find it impossible to love where I ought, or to keep from loving where I ought not. My mind is a chaos, a confused mingling of good and evil. I weary of my very self, yet cannot die.” She was “excitable and depressive, ambitious and anxious.” She was “disturbed by her sexual appetites,” which “had hastened her into two bad marriages and was now snaring her in longing for Edward Lane.”

’Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady’ by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury USA)

Lane was several years her junior, happily married with young children. He had trained as a lawyer before switching to medicine and now ran a health clinic called Moor Park, at which he practiced hydropathy, “a popular treatment for the vague, anxiety-related sicknesses” of the Victorian age, a treatment based in the belief “that immersion in hot and cold baths and showers could restore health to an unbalanced body.” One of his patients was Charles Darwin, who was “overwhelmed by anxiety about his ‘everlasting species-Book,’ the work that would become ‘On the Origin of Species.’ ” Another was Isabella Robinson, who desperately wanted to be not merely his patient but his lover, notwithstanding her apparently genuine friendship with his wife and her fondness for their sons, with whom her own sons often played.

If the diary is to be believed, she pursued him decorously but insistently. At times he was warm, at others he was cold. Then, one Sunday in October 1854, the two walked together in the woods before coming to what she called “a glade of surpassing beauty.” There “something extraordinary happened: the fantasies that Isabella had nurtured in her diary crossed into life.” Lane kissed her, sending her into raptures: “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. He was nervous, and confused, and eager as myself.”

Soon thereafter they were back in the countryside, where “I rested among the dry fern. I shall not state what followed.” Indeed she never was more explicit than that, though Summerscale suggests that there was “an incompleteness in her physical union with the doctor: something short of orgasm, perhaps, or consummation.” Whatever the unknown truth, one day in May 1856, while on a family holiday in France, Henry Robinson found his wife’s diary and read it. He kept it and, upon his return to England, found in her desk “further diaries and other papers: essays, letters, notes and poems. He took them all.” In 1857, he filed and was granted “a divorce a mensa et thoro — a divorce from bed and board, or a judicial separation,” and the next year he filed for a full divorce under England’s recently liberalized laws.

To obtain it he had to go to court, in a public hearing in which the most damning excerpts from Isabella’s diary were read and subsequently published in the press. In a letter to an older man who had befriended and counseled her, she wrote: “That men, mere strangers, no ways authorised, should have considered themselves at liberty to pry into, to peruse, to censure, to select from, my private writings, with curious, unchivalrous, ignoble hands, I cannot understand. I could no more have done so than I could have listened meanly to their prayers, their midnight whisperings, or their accents of delirium; I should have considered myself insulted by [the] bare proposition to read papers not meant for my eyes but the writer’s.”

She won a small victory: The divorce was not granted, but the court refused her request to make her husband pay her legal costs. She was “left impoverished, disgraced and friendless, with the same confused desires that had propelled her into this mess: her impulse to write, her hunger for sex, her yearning for companionship, her intellectual curiosity, her wish to be with her sons.” Hers is a sad story, but Summerscale tells it with sympathy and understanding. She sees Isabella as a British Madame Bovary, whose story Gustave Flaubert was setting down in his great novel even as Isabella’s story was unfolding. She also sees Isabella as a transitional figure in women’s slow and difficult progress from repression and exploitation to the liberation that in time emerged. The evidence Summerscale presents suggests that this is a fair interpretation.


The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady

By Kate Summerscale

Bloomsbury. 303 pp. $26