The author of the award-winning historical mystery novel The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale is back with another novel,this time based on a real life infamous divorce court case of 1858. The first registered divorce in English history. Back in the era when divorce was well and truly a dirty word.
The chief exhibit in the divorce case is a scandalous diary written by Isabella Robinson. A middle-class bored and wealthy wife of industrialist Henry Robinson. He is depicted in the story, and presumably his wife’s diary, as a brute and a philanderer with two illegitimate children.
In the hands of Summerscale, the diary of Isabella Robinson is breathed into life. About how she feels completely unloved and with no physical affection or kindness from her husband, her heart searches for the thrill and chase other men, some of them married. It was her mistake to write all of these feelings and yearnings down, which later became her ruin.
The object of her affection was married doctor Edward Lane. A pioneer hydrotherapist who developed a hydrotherapy establishment in Surrey, which was frequented by Charles Darwin and his wife, amongst other leading lights of the time.
The diary is careful in its description of the lusty, bodice ripping parts, Isabella was far too proper for that kind of salacious language to be committed to paper.
At this time, the legendary novel about adultery Madame Bovary came out in France and was banned in England. It was deemed to be too racy and liable to give people ideas.
Henry Robinson was actually the first person to sue for divorce under a new act of 1857. He would be struck dumb to know that there would be hundreds of thousands of divorces every year in the UK 150 years later.
As a study about how shit women had it during those times, this is an interesting book. It’s an example of a woman marked and scorned by daring to be human, and daring to have erotic fantasies in an age that didn’t permit women to be true to themselves, or sexual.
Although it was compelling reading about Isobella’s fantasies, longings and eventual consummation of her clandestine love with married Henry, the actual divorce court hearing part of this book dragged on and on with excruciating detail. And like nails over a chalkboard, it irritated me to no end. This part of the novel was far too drawn out and boring. As a result I give this book 3/5*