Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady

Mary-Kay Wilmers writes:

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.

She was born in London in 1813. 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. 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.

(LRB 11 October 2012)

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