Isabella Robinson’s diary of her adulterous affair with Dr Edward Lane provides Kate Summerscale with a starting point to examine the social attitudes surrounding marriage, adultery and female sexuality in the early Victorian period.
Summerscale covers a lot of ground in considerable depth showing how attitudes and the law relating to marriage and divorce were at that time skewed in favour of men. Isabella’s husband is not only unpleasant but also controls the money that Isabella brought to the marriage. Isabella retreats into a world of romantic longings that she somewhat foolishly recorded in a diary. When Henry found and read the diary, he used it as evidence to sue for divorce. Did Isabella really have an affair or was she simply indulging her imagination? For the purpose of the book, that question is largely irrelevant since the idea of a woman having such thoughts was considered almost as scandalous as the act of adultery itself.
There’s no doubt a lot of research has gone into this book but I found it didn’t grab and hold my attention. Much of the ground Summerscale covers is neither new nor surprising and the concentration on one woman’s story meant that there was a great deal of stuff about her family history and background that really added nothing much to either the basic story or to the examination of prevalent attitudes. Isabella comes over as fairly unattractive and self-centred, and the romantic sighings and longings of this middle-aged woman’s diary suggested that, whether adulterous or not, she tended towards the mental instability suggested by her lawyers as a defence for her behaviour. My failure to warm to Isabella meant that for me there was no emotional heart to the book, leaving it as a fairly dry social history.
I listened to this book on the unabridged Audible download version, narrated by Jenny Agutter. Her reading was very good and she tried her best to breathe some much-needed life into the many characters, some of them exceptionally dull, who played their part in Isabella’s story. Overall, however, though worthy, I found the book rather lacklustre.
Amazon UK Link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R3HDVDYCYRHNIH
Amazon US Link: http://www.amazon.com/review/R1G1AAI48C3MPS