Flirting is nice

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale
    Bloomsbury, 303 pp, £16.99, April 2012, ISBN 978 1 4088 1241 9

Amativeness was the cause of Isabella Robinson's disgrace:

Soon after they met in Edinburgh, Combe examined Isabella’s skull. He informed her that she had an unusually large cerebellum, an organ found just above the hollow at the nape of the neck. The cerebellum, he explained, was the seat of Amativeness, or sexual love.

George Combe, natural philosopher and Edinburgh sage, was Scotland’s – possibly Britain’s – leading phrenologist. Men, he noted, had larger cerebella than women, ‘discernible in their thicker necks, just as highly sexed animals such as rams, bulls and pigeons had fatter necks than other creatures’. And in men too a more than usually thick neck could lead to problems:

Another of Combe’s subjects, the nine-year-old prince of Wales, had a similarly shaped skull: when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert consulted the phrenologist about the upbringing of their children, he observed that the young prince’s ‘Amativeness is large and I suspect will soon give trouble’. Combe’s own amative region, he said, was small – he had not known the ‘wild freshness of morning’, even in his youth.

Isabella’s bumps were against her: Love of Approbation and Adhesiveness were too big; Cautiousness and Veneration too small. For her too, there was trouble in store. Few people would have noticed, however, and we would probably never have heard of her, were it not for the fact that she kept a diary and that her husband was one of the first people in England to petition the new, secular divorce court for the dissolution of their marriage.

She was born in London in 1813. Her grandfather had been accountant general to George III, her grandmother a coal-mining heiress: the family had cash. In 1837, when she was 24, she married a naval lieutenant in his forties, who died a few years later. That was her first unwise marriage. Henry Robinson, a Protestant from Northern Ireland, proposed twice before she accepted him – with ‘almost open’ eyes. By then her chances of finding a husband more to her liking were not good: she was 31, not pretty (we don’t know what she looked like but she herself said ‘plain’), and already had a child. She took what she could get and so too did Henry, who almost as soon as they were married asked Isabella to sign all her cheques and hand them over to him. She had two more children, lived comfortably in large houses in different parts of the country, spent time in Boulogne, read books, lost her faith, attended to her children’s education, and flirted with their tutors (on some occasions ‘seduced’ would have been the right word). Kate Summerscale sees Isabella as an ‘English Madame Bovary’. Henry, had he read Flaubert’s novel, would have agreed and used it as he used her diary as proof of her unfitness to be his wife.

Almost everything we know about her comes from the diary. Not the diary as she wrote it, which Henry probably destroyed, but the extracts he chose to show her friends and have read out in court in evidence against her and that were quoted at length in the press and subsequently published in the official trial report: the material that was intended to bring about her disgrace – and on which Summerscale has based her book.

Edward Lane was 27 and three years married when Isabella fell for him: she was ten years older. Where Henry, in her account, was ‘uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh-tempered, selfish, proud’, Edward was ‘handsome, lively and good-humoured’ – in short, ‘fascinating’. He talked about the things that interested her – literature, politics, philosophy, the latest this and the latest that. Henry ‘had only a commercial life’. Boring middle-aged husband or good-looking young man: who would choose differently, given the nerve? Or the bump? ‘A wish had taken hold of her,’ Summerscale writes, ‘and she was to find it hard to shake.’ What makes her story unusual – or less familiar than it would otherwise be – is that she tells it herself; that it doesn’t come in the form of a novel written by someone else, someone who would have felt for her, even claim to have identified with her, but punished her all the same.

In 1849, when they’d been married five years, the Robinsons moved to Edinburgh. By now, Summerscale tells us, Isabella knew that Henry had married her for her money, just as she knew he had a mistress and two illegitimate daughters. She despised him. She met Edward Lane not long after her arrival in Scotland, at the house – an open-house sort of house – of his widowed mother-in-law, Lady Drysdale, with whom he and his wife were living. Within a week or two of the encounter Isabella took a trip to the coast, and sitting on the beach, drew up an inventory of her defects:

my errors of youth, my provocations to my brothers and my sisters, my headstrong conduct to my governess, my disobedience and want of duty to my parents, my want of steady principle in life, the mode of my marriage and my conduct during that marriage, my partial and often violent conduct to my children, my giddy behaviour as a widow, my second marriage and all that had followed it.

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