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.

The wish had taken hold and nothing she says suggests that Henry’s infidelity had much to do with it. She liked to be in love; she also liked writing about it.

Lady Drysdale’s guests, Isabella’s new Edinburgh friends, were writers and intellectuals, artists and actresses. ‘Progressive types’, Summerscale calls them. Several were free-thinkers, proto-Darwinians – the publisher Robert Chambers, for example, secret author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, and George Combe himself – though, like Darwin, they hesitated to spell it out. The Drysdales too saw the universe in largely materialist terms, finding it hard to believe in God – and painful, as well as inconvenient, not to. Edward Lane was training to be a doctor at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary when Isabella met him. Convinced that the infirmary’s gloomy surroundings made it difficult for patients to get better, he was drawn to what would now be seen as holistic medicine – the kind that involved clean air and exercise in nice surroundings – and a few years later found and acquired the perfect place in which to practise it: Moor Park, a water-cure establishment in large grounds near Farnham in Surrey. Hydropathy was fashionable, among intellectuals especially, and Darwin himself was briefly Edward’s patient there; ‘I am well convinced that the only thing for Chronic cases is the water cure,’ he told his cousin.

Edward’s three brothers-in-law, Lady Drysdale’s sons, also studied medicine and became doctors; and like Edward, were not strictly orthodox in the manner of their practice. They were also in varying degrees social reformers, concerned to ease constraints on the mind as well as the body, to make things easier for women, and to acknowledge sexual desire. As a young man George Drysdale, the middle son, had been driven close to insanity by an urge to masturbate so overwhelming, and to him so shameful, that he staged his own disappearance in the course of a European walking tour, leaving his clothes on the banks of the Danube to suggest that he’d drowned. (Lord Cockburn, a family friend, feared the influence of Young Werther and ‘a sudden Germanising of the noddle’.)

He reappeared in Edinburgh two years later, still not cured despite the excruciating interventions of a Hungarian surgeon; eventually a French physician suggested sexual intercourse and a Paris streetwalker provided the cure. The good that came of his experience was a book about sex written in time taken off from his medical studies. Welcomed in the People’s Paper as a ‘Bible of the Body’ and in the mainstream press as a ‘Bible of the Brothel’, it provided a guide to contraception, celebrated the relationship between free thought and free love, argued that sexual desire was as natural in women as in men, and marriage ‘one of the chief instruments for the degradation of women’. Like many of these ‘progressive types’, George wrote his book in secret; his identity as its author wasn’t revealed until his death in 1904. It was then in its 35th edition.

Isabella was not out of place in the company of the Lanes, the Combes and the Drysdales. She was more radical than they were on the subjects that concerned her most – religion and marriage principally – but she was also more circumspect than everything that was said about her lack of self-control suggests. An essay about marriage in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, entitled ‘A Woman and Her Master’, was most probably written by her, but prudently signed ‘A Woman’. And when she wanted to publish her views about religion, she accepted Combe’s advice and held back. ‘You are clear-headed, forcible, & intellectually comprehensive in the power of penetrating into the relations of cause & effect, far beyond the average even of educated women,’ he wrote to her, while advising her to remain silent. Later, when he decided to set down his own, more guarded opinions on the subject, phrenology somehow staving off the need for a complete rejection of God, she was one of the ‘very, very few’ whom he allowed to read the manuscript. (Another was George Eliot.) Were the essay’s contents to be known, Combe warned, he would ‘find it necessary to leave Edinburgh’. Isabella was not impressed by what she read, pointing out that unlike him she was ‘obliged to … live without the cheering belief that a great and Beneficent Ruler exists whose mind is in relation with ours’, but then added, as if to say ‘I know my place’: ‘I fear, it is my own fault that I do not see with you on this point.’ The great man had to be right even when he was wrong.

It is clear from her diary that she and Edward had many interests in common, that the relationship, whatever was later said, wasn’t all kisses and impropriety; and clear, too, that in the right company any subject is grounds for a flirtation. The Lanes come to stay and at teatime Edward and she ‘talked for an hour on politics, hereditary descent, funds, paupers, emigration etc’. In the evening they talk ‘of Lord Byron, of riding, of courage, of balloons and of coolness’. As night falls and the moon comes up, they talk about ‘man’s spirit, his life, the grave, immortality, God, the universe, man’s reason and his short fleeting nature’. She tells Edward that she is alone among her friends in not believing in ‘all the illusions of the Christian’s creed’ and he confides his own doubts, telling her that ‘he longed to pray, longed to believe.’

That day, Whit Sunday 1852, had been one of the best: in the morning, as Summerscale reports, ‘they talked about “great men” such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and George Combe.’ Later Edward read her a passage from an essay on the imagination by Shelley; after lunch (‘plucked pigeons laid on a bed of beef steak and baked in puff pastry’) they went out for a walk and stopped ‘a good while’ by a swing – ‘Mr L sent me very high; Mrs L looking on.’ Mrs L was then called away and Edward and Isabella rested a while in the shelter of a steep bank: ‘F, the spaniel, was on my lap, and Mr L next me. It was the very scene I had often longed for and pictured to myself; but now it was realised.’ At tea he sat next to her. In the evening Mrs L went inside to sit by the fire while Isabella and Mr L talked about God and his absence and Edward, ‘entranced by the beauty of the scene’, told her that he wished to stay out all night.

But he didn’t. ‘Soon after eleven’, fearing that ‘Mrs L would think us unkind to leave her,’ they went inside. When Henry’s petition came to trial some years later his case against Isabella rested on two entries for October 1854. On the morning of 7 October, a Sunday, Edward asked her to walk with him in the grounds of Moor Park. They walked for a while, then sat down ‘on a plaid’ to talk and read: ‘There was something unusual in his manner,’ she wrote, ‘something softer than usual in his tone and eye’, but she didn’t know ‘what it proceeded from’ and ‘chatted gaily’ about ‘Goethe, women’s dress and of what was becoming and suitable’. At the next stop a momentous thing happened: ‘what followed I hardly remember –’ she wrote. ‘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.’ In the evening he came to find her in the library and there were more kisses, ‘not unaccompanied with dread of intrusion. Yet bliss predominated’ and when they parted for the night he gave her hand a shake ‘so warm’ that it crushed her fingers with the rings so that she ‘felt it for an hour’.

The following day, another walk, another pause, and then something so tremendous it can’t be written down – ‘I shall not state what followed.’ Two days later the same tremendous thing took place in the covered cab taking her to the station. Edward was beside her, her son on top of the carriage, next to the driver. ‘I shall not relate ALL that passed,’ she noted, ‘suffice it to say I leaned back at last in silent joy in those arms I had so often dreamed of.’ Summerscale, disapproving, describes the scene as ‘louche’: ‘Isabella’s conduct in the carriage was especially shameless: a child, her son, was sitting on the roof while she and Edward Lane whispered and touched inside.’

That winter and the next Isabella spent with her family in Boulogne, where Henry had rented a house. Things were no longer going well. At their last meeting Edward had effectively told her their relationship was over: ‘The Dr came to my room and sat a long while talking coldly of life, reputation, chances, caution and my partner.’ She tried her best, cut off a lock of his hair, told him how much she had always loved him, spoke of his ‘fine face and mouth’ and his ‘love-telling eyes’, but ‘the interview closed without even a kiss.’ The weather in Boulogne was awful, she rowed with Henry; none of the other young men available to flirt with, her sons’ tutors principally, had Edward’s love-telling eyes. She was miserable. In the spring of 1856, she fell ill, probably with diphtheria, and in her delirium gave herself away. Henry found her diary and vowed to destroy her.

Isabella returned to England alone with her eldest son, the one that wasn’t Henry’s. Barred from the family home, they rented rooms in Reigate. Everything that had been hers was now Henry’s; she wasn’t allowed to see the younger children. ‘I was careless & thoughtless & so deserved to suffer,’ she told Combe. However unhappy she was, however much she missed her children, the argument most often was internal, bump to bump. In the autumn she visited Moor Park to tell Edward what had happened, assuring him that she would do whatever she could to keep his part in the story a secret. The following year Henry was granted a judicial separation in the Consistory Court. Isabella, as she’d promised Edward, didn’t resist the suit and his name wasn’t mentioned.

Extracts from her diary, meanwhile, were doing the rounds among their Edinburgh friends. Edward, aghast at what he read, denied everything. Isabella, he said, was ‘a rhapsodical and vaporing fool’. He had never flirted with her; was easily bored in her company; had never written a line to her ‘which might not be proclaimed at the market cross’. Everyone agreed that Henry was a beast – ‘the consummation of human meanness, paltriness, rascality and cruelty’ – and to that extent Isabella’s friends felt sorry for her, but each of them feared for his own reputation and no one stood by her. ‘Mrs Combe & I never liked her,’ Combe asserted and he didn’t think she was brainy either (her ‘deficient coronal region gave a cold low tone to her intellectual manifestations, that deprived her of all interest for us’). His only concern now was to save Edward (and extricate himself), which would be most simply achieved by persuading Isabella to plead insanity.

For a short time she angrily (and eloquently) resisted, denouncing first her husband and then all those, ‘mere strangers, no ways authorised’, who at Henry’s behest had ‘considered themselves at liberty to pry into, to peruse, to censure, to select from, my private writings, with curious, unchivalrous, ignoble hands’. She could no more have done that, she said, than she could have ‘listened meanly to their prayers, their midnight whisperings in sleep, or their accents of delirium’. Then, as before, she gave in. In the last letter she would write to Combe she did as she’d been asked to do, and described the contents of her diary as ‘the wildest imaginings of a mind exhausted with the tyranny of long years’, effectively disowning what, apart from her children, had mattered most to her.

When it became public knowledge that Henry had applied to the new court for a divorce, Combe lobbied all the newspaper editors in London on Edward’s behalf, though he hardly needed to: everyone had already made up their mind – ‘Mrs Robinson was crazy’ and Dr Lane ‘entirely innocent’. Or, to put it differently, either Isabella was mad or she was, in the words of the Times leader-writer, ‘as foul and abandoned a creature as ever wore woman’s shape’. (For the Saturday Review it was a matter of her ‘luscious sentimentality’.) All her friends, or former friends, feared for their reputation. The medical press overcame its dislike of the sort of medicine Edward practised and lined up behind him. If Isabella’s diary was accepted as evidence, the British Medical Journal argued, every doctor with a handsome face – and ‘less favoured ones’ too – might some day find himself ‘plunged … into utter ruin’. I’d hoped that George Drysdale, who believed that in women as in men ‘strong sexual appetites are a very great virtue,’ might have spoken up for her, but I should have remembered how zealously he’d guarded his own secrets. Her lawyer – with little else to say – asserted that she was suffering from ‘uterine disease’, the catch-all for middle-class women whose behaviour was out of line, especially those women who liked men in the way that men like women.

Parliament took Edward’s cause to heart and the Divorce Act was amended on his behalf, allowing him to appear as a mere witness rather than a co-respondent. Technically the issue was still adultery – on her part but, bizarrely, not his. What mattered was Isabella’s bad character, her shamelessness, her morbid imagination, her lack of balance, her insanity – and Edward’s innocence. (Combe, in London for the start of the trial, was taken ill and died before it was known that Edward wouldn’t be implicated. The following day, the undertakers – Messrs Sloman and Workman – removed his head from his body so that the skull could be subjected to phrenological analysis. His headless body travelled back to Edinburgh accompanied by his wife.)

The court granted its first divorce in May 1858. Henry’s case was heard a month later. In September the judges delivered their verdict: Isabella was not guilty and Henry, enraged, didn’t get his divorce. The argument that the diary was not to be trusted, which had been used all along to exonerate Edward, was now used to exonerate Isabella. She wrote to please herself, the chief justice of the court said in his summing up: ‘To statements so made it is not open to us to add anything by way of inference.’ The verdict changed no one’s mind: the journal was still a fiction; Isabella was still insane; and Edward had been vindicated. On the other hand, no one – apart from Henry – seems to have felt the need to punish her any further. She didn’t take poison or throw herself under a train. What money she had when she died, she left to her favourite son, and when he died in 1930 he left half of his to German conscripts wounded in the First World War or, if that were to prove difficult, to soldiers injured by British forces in the Boer War. I suppose that should be taken as a message of sorts.

Whether she was an adulteress in reality or only in her own head, who’s to say. The trial judge in his summing up described her as a ‘woman of more than ordinary intelligence and of no inconsiderable attainments’. She was an intellectual of a kind, interested in the world, in ideas, in what other people were thinking and writing, and in her children. If she found her diary beguiling to write, it is also beguiling to read. Kate Summerscale is a gifted and informative storyteller; her only fault is to have made too much of the resemblance between Isabella and Emma Bovary, as if to pin her down in the hostile gaze of her contemporaries.