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Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady Hardcover – June 19, 2012

3.4 out of 5 stars 86 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“This is the golden age of narrative nonfiction, and Summerscale does it better than just about anyone.” ―Laura Miller of Salon.com on NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday"

“You'll find Fifty Shades of Grey on beaches everywhere... but the story of Mrs. Robinson deserves a place on summer reading lists. She is pretty hot stuff.” ―The Boston Globe

“Summerscale unspools the Robinsons' tale with flair in Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace, but it's her social history of marriage that's really riveting. Grade: A” ―Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly

“[Kate Summerscale] prods, scrutinizes and examines, employing a real-life historical episode to shed light on Victorian morality and sensibilities . . . The end of the court case is surprising, and to give it away would be an insult to Summerscale's cleverly constructed narrative. But she stresses that one thing is clear: the diary ‘may not tell us, for certain, what happened in Isabella's life, but it tells us what she wanted.'” ―Andrea Wulf, The New York Times Book Review

“Kate Summerscale--perfectly at home in the 19th century, as evidenced in 2008's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, her grisly but addictively readable tale of an 1860 murder investigation--blends cultural history with all the elements of a doomed love story in her tale of a real-life Madame Bovary . . . Isabella emerges, regardless of the verdict, as the most fascinating of characters, her pride not trampled in the face of a defense that called for her to proclaim herself a sex maniac rather than an adulterer. Not much of a choice, but she still came out on top.” ―Jordan Foster, NPR.org

“Summerscale engages with her material in such a psychologically rich manner, an added bonus feature, as it were, given that the original story is already so fascinating in itself . . . Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is a glorious evocation of both one woman's inner world, her hopes, dreams, disappointments and desires, and her outer one in the form of the painstakingly researched Victorian world she inhabits where a multitude of new ideas are threatening traditional conventional values . . . [A] captivating read which will surely catapult its heroine into the same limelight as her detective predecessor.” ―Lucy Scholes, The Daily Beast

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is far more than the account of a failed marriage and its aftermath--or even the story of a torrid affair, imaginary or otherwise. In the manner of her prize-winning The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale takes the records and reports of the court case and treats them like a detective story, skillfully building up the suspense and using the interstices in her main narrative--when the judges retire to consider their verdict, for instance--to digress into the highways and byways of Victorian life.” ―Virginia Rounding, Financial Times

“[Isabella Robinson's] is a sad story, but Summerscale tells it with sympathy and understanding. She sees Isabella as a British Madame Bovary, whose story Gustave Flaubert was setting down in his great novel even as Isabella's story was unfolding. She also sees Isabella as a transitional figure in women's slow and difficult progress from repression and exploitation to the liberation that in time emerged. The evidence Summerscale presents suggests that this is a fair interpretation.” ―Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“This nonfiction account of the divorce of Isabella and Henry Robinson in 1858 is an elegantly rendered portrait of marriage, class and hypocrisy in Victorian Britain.” ―Cynthia Crossen, WSJ.com's "Dear Book Lover" blog

“With intelligence and graceful prose, Summerscale gives an intimate and surprising look into Victorian life.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace tells us far more than the story of one reckless woman born before her time. It navigates the cloudy waters of marital law, Victorian sexuality, and the burgeoning women's liberation movement. The diary may have ruined Isabella Robinson, but Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace has the power to vindicate her.” ―Hillary Kelly, Bookforum.com

“Not just a scandalous diary, but a portrait of the plight of women in the early Victorian era . . . A revealing portrait of the straight-laced Victorians.” ―Kirkus Reviews

“Following the pattern of her previous book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Summerscale combines a thorough examination of her topic with a wider view of relevant social issues--in this case, Victorian attitudes toward marriage, divorce, and the figure of the unhappy housewife. A deft unraveling of a little-known scandal that should appeal to any reader interested in women's history or the world behind the facade of the Victorian home.” ―Kathleen McCallister, Library Journal

“Romance and repression abound as a Victorian matron's innermost secrets are revealed in court via her private diary…. Summerscale does a nice job of placing both the case and the diary firmly into historical and sociological contexts.” ―Margaret Flanagan, Booklist

“Readers who complain that history is boring have never read Kate Summerscale . . . If you want historical accuracy and excellent research, grab the Summerscale.” ―Yvonne Zip, The Christian Science Monitor

About the Author

Kate Summerscale is the author of the bestselling books The Queen of Whale Cay and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. She lives in London with her son.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; First Edition edition (June 19, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781608199136
  • ISBN-13: 978-1608199136
  • ASIN: 1608199134
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1.2 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #256,072 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This true account of an unhappy marriage and a frustrated wife in mid-Victorian England is not just about Mrs. Robinson and her woes. It's a sociological look at attitudes towards women, sex, marriage, science and religion in 1800s England. Upon reading this, if you're a woman, you might be feeling grateful you didn't live then, except that a closer examination may show that although there's a good bit of advancement in our knowledge and beliefs we may not have arrived quite at the stage of enlightenment yet. (Aren't we still arguing evolution, sexual orientation, and don't we still have a few double standards in attitudes towards the sexes?)

This was compelling reading. It's also factual and has 65 pages of notes at the back to corroborate the author's exposition. Letters, extracts from diaries, publications and newpapers, public records, biographies, census returns, etc., cited by the author show her extensive research when writing this.

Isabella (Mrs. Henry) Robinson is the titular character of the book but much mention is made of other troubled marriages of the period, of troubled characters such as George Drysdale, who struggled with sexual dysfunction at an early age, and of behavioral science and religious attitude of the times, with particular mention of the use of phrenology in diagnosis of mental and emotional problems (e.g., George Combe's theories) and of hydropathy in their treatment (e.g., Dr. Edward Lane and his water-cure establishment).

Isabella was married for the first time in 1837 to Edward Dansey at the age of 24. They had 1 child and Edward died in 1841. In 1844 Isabella saw herself more or less forced to marry Henry Robinson, since a widow with a child had few freedoms and a restricted life.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is one of those books which puts me right dead center, making it very difficult to review. So I'm going to split this review into two parts and leave it up to you to decide if this is a book that's up your alley.

Story: The story here is fantastic. It's a lesson in feminism, a look at the issues and trials facing a bored housewife in a time where that is what a respectable lady was. Think Madame Bovary - but this time written by a woman and in such a way that tidbits of her diary are cropping up everywhere, allowing the reader to live in this sort of omnipresent place.

The story is strong enough that it almost (ALMOST) overcomes what bothered me most about the book. I wanted to know everything there was to know about Mrs. Robinson. I wanted to know just how she fell in love, or lust, why she felt about her second-born the way she did, and many other secrets that get revealed through the course of the book. Those questions were enough to propel me through the book.

Telling: This is where the book fell massively short for me - and I think had I not been a student recently, and preparing to be one again this fall, it would not have been quite so noticeable to me. That said, this entire novel read like a research paper - complete with quotes (although lacking citations). The telling was so dry and so researched-sounding, that it made me think I was reading an incredibly long presentation paper on the life of a Victorian woman.

So, there's my two-sided review. I don't want to reveal to much in this review, because like I said earlier, Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace has an amazing story to tell.
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As laid out in the prologue 1858 marks the beginning of a new divorce law in England that made it possible for middle-class marriages to be able to afford a divorce. In early petitioner for such a divorce was an engineer and businessman Henry Robinson seeking a divorce from his wife Isabella on the charge of adultery with the only proof being her private diaries. The author Ms. Kate Summerscale works hard to give us not only the facts of the case but something of the historic context and the biographies of the several people would become involved in the case. The story itself is an interesting story the storytelling is uneven. I like this book. I recommend this book. I cannot do so with enthusiasm.
Most every country and culture has its mythologies and contradictions. Where those mythologies are too much at odds with reality, there will be increasingly complex and contradictory efforts to sustain and extend what is ultimately unsustainable.

In the United States, maintaining slavery as a righteous institution involved a sequence of extreme and nonsensical arguments. The African people were inferior to Caucasian populations.; Blacks liked being held in the security of slavery; even the possibility of romantic love between members of the respective races became a matter of regulatory control. Victorian Society had similar problems with the myths surrounding women.

Between assumption made about the relative helplessness of women and the barely emerging science of medicine a middle class British woman had second class standing in her legal rights and little reason to expect better from her doctor.. Many of these contradictions are laid out for us by Ms. Summerscale.
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