Since I didn’t know what to expect, it took some time before I was able to comprehend what the book really was. It’s not fiction, it’s not non-fiction, strictly speaking. I think it’s something akin to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, or others of that oeuvre. It’s a nonfiction novel. Summerscale takes historical accounts from all over, in many forms, and distills and curates them into something resembling a story. She takes diary entries, letters, court records from anyone even remotely connected with the persons concerned –even Charles Darwin makes a few appearances. The form is like many an English paper, with quotes from original sources interspersed throughout. It takes some getting used to.
The story is interesting, and not as melodramatic as the title leads you to believe. The eponymous Mrs. Robinson keeps a diary for the majority of her adult life, as was incredibly common in the mid- to late Victorian era. When her husband finds and reads it, he sees what seems to be an accounting of at least one extramarital affair. He first gets a legal separation, much easier than a formal divorce at the time. Then, the law gets changed to make getting a divorce more affordable for the every man. Prior to 1857, you had to get an individual act of Parliament passed to declare you divorced. Imagine getting the entire Congress to agree to allow you to divorce your husband/wife. The events of this book intersect the 1857 law that changed all that. So Henry Robinson sues his wife and her supposed lover for divorce–you had to prove adultery to divorce your wife, so you had to name the man she’d slept with. For women, FYI, you had to prove adultery AND cruelty. An adulterous wife was, of course, far more dangerous to the society built on the absolute law of primogeniture inheritance of wealth and property. I digress. Henry sues his wife and her lover, a Dr. Edward Lane. The diary is entered into evidence and parts of it are copied and published in the newspapers. The judges in the divorce court read the entire diary, even parts that aren’t admissible in the general suit. This most private diary, in a society that prized privacy and despised sentimentality, was now in the public domain. The rest of the story revolves around the court case and the outcome of it. A good portion of the court case follows this argument: “No sane woman would write down and leave accessible a confession to her crimes; she must be insane.” Alternately, the defense argues that she makes the whole thing up in an elaborate written fantasy akin to a self-published Twilight fanfiction novel. People argue that none of it really happened.
The book is a really interesting idea, but it’s not my favorite format, I have to be honest. Because it was a retelling using historical details and quotes, it doesn’t really contain any emotion. It’s an analysis of how this woman’s life, her diary, and her emotions affected and were affected by the world around her and the changing Victorian era. It reads like an analysis, not like a story. It’s peppered with a lot of detail that is interesting, but not germane to the story at hand. The fact that Charles Darwin knew Mrs. Robinson and Dr. Edward Lane does not mean that his diary entries are particularly relevant. The book reads like a dissertation written for a popular audience, but with an academic mindset. I suppose that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not what I look for in a book. It lacked emotion, it didn’t even focus much on Mrs. Robinson.
Of course, it’s difficult when you’re working with the past and with historical accounts. On the other hand, I recently read a book, Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee, that recreated the period when TJ was a diplomat in France and he invested himself in learning about and bringing back French cooking to the US. That book used historical events and quotes, but it was far more engaging, and treated the characters as real people, not as historical and un-relatable beings. And it was a much better book for it. So it can be done. But this book doesn’t do it.
At the end of the book, I felt I had learned some facts, but I didn’t feel I had learned anything about life. And when I read something, that’s what I’m really looking for. So it was a disappointment for me, but I can see how someone else who likes the period, who enjoys non-fiction more than I do, would find it interesting.