Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale
Mrs Robinson's Disgrace is a real-life Madame Bovary story. Isabella Robinson was writing her private diary during the late 1850s, the same time as Flaubert's sensational book was banned amid much moral outrage.
Isabella is the frustrated wife of Henry, a cold and unfeeling husband more interested in manufacture than marriage. In keeping with Victorian law, he has control over all her inherited money and most importantly, he is almost certain to get custody of Isabella's beloved sons should they divorce.
The courts are just beginning, owing to the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, to take on hundreds of cases from middle-class couples. This has opened up a vast market for scandal in the press, who can't get enough of the adultery and shame. When Henry discovers Isabella's journal, describing not only secret trysts with a handsome doctor but also her innermost desires and fantasies, he brings it to court as evidence for their divorce. Her private life is sensationally picked over across the nation, amid accusations of hysteria, insanity and moral degradation.
Raising fascinating questions about the boundaries of privacy, the battle between the individual and the state, the control of women and the extraordinary contradictions of Victorian Britain, the book is a razor-sharp combination of beautifully detailed research and lively storytelling.
Isabella's tale includes leading characters of the age such as Charles Darwin and Robert Chambers, and shows the old order rocked by seismic ideological revolutions in science, theology and psychology. Most of all, there is the lonely, misguided yet intensely thoughtful and philosophical character of Isabella, a woman with the misfortune to be born in the wrong era.
About the author
Kate Summerscale is author of the number one bestselling mystery The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2008. It also won the Galaxy British Book of the Year Award and was adapted into a major ITV drama.
Her first book, The Queen of Whale Cay, won a Somerset Maugham award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread biography award. She has judged various literary competitions, including the Booker prize. She lives in London with her son.
Find interviews with the author, discussion notes, reviews and videos on Kate's excellent website.
Once you've read it, come and discuss the book throughout the month and share your thoughts on Isabella, Victorian morals and Kate Summerscale's creative style.
Last updated: 11 months ago