Until the mid-19th century, the only way to obtain a divorce in England was through a private act of Parliament. Given the difficulty of such a process, it made divorce effectively impossible for anyone but the rich and powerful.

Then, in 1858, came the revolution: Divorce Court. The unhappy rushed to take advantage of the new law, and domestic secrets were exposed to all. Perhaps the most sensational resulting scandal involved Henry and Isabel Robinson, the subject of Kate Summerscale’s riveting Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady.

It started when Henry Robinson, a prosperous manufacturer, read his wife’s secret diary and found what he believed was evidence of her infidelity with a respected doctor who ran a flourishing health spa. Henry filed for divorce, naming the doctor as co-respondent. With the diary—emotional, erotic, but not specific—as evidence, the newly appointed divorce judges had to decide whether the marriage should end and who should pay the cost.

Summerscale, whose earlier book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, focused on the same period, has found a story that wonderfully encapsulates much of the social ferment of the time. Isabel was a talented but frustrated woman whose friends were among the progressive intelligentsia. Her marriage a disaster, she lost her religious faith and found comfort in phrenology. Her putative lover—who denied everything and told everyone she was crazy—was a pioneer in health care.

Summerscale uses the diary, private letters, newspaper stories and public documents to seamlessly and dispassionately tell Isabel’s still-poignant story.

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