From time to time, society rethinks what its institutions mean. Despite what fundamentalists will tell you, this may include — indeed, almost invariably does include — the institution of marriage. Previous rethinks have involved the admissibility of polygamy (mostly in non-Western societies), the marriageable status of the religious, and the precise borders of incest. Some societies admit the concept of marrying a dead person, as in France and China. The possibility of a man’s marrying the sister of a deceased wife was as energetically opposed, during most of the 19th century in Britain, as the possibility of his marrying another man is now.
As we seem to be entering into another substantial reconsideration of the nature of marriage, it’s a good moment to return to a historic watershed. Kate Summerscale’s absorbing new book is a consideration of the moment of marriage’s dissolution; indeed, the forms of the law shifted during the case, which is the book’s subject, and under that case’s peculiar pressures.
The Robinson divorce was a moment when marital behaviour and responsibility were reconsidered — an emblematic divorce for the 19th century, as (in a very different way) the Argyll divorce was in the 20th. The marriage, which was embarked on in 1844, was one of those familiar through the fiction of the period. The husband, Henry, an engineer, maintained a mistress and two children. Less commonly, the wife, Isabella, had been married before and had a child from the first marriage, which ended with her husband descending into madness and sudden death.
Isabella was relatively wealthy. She had been reluctant to marry Henry, and quickly began to feel that he had been attracted by her money, which came under his sole control. By the time all liking and trust between them had broken down, he was creating a huge estate in Caversham for their marriage to decay in.
Marriage, in the 19th century, looks familiar on the surface, but seems increasingly odd when one looks into its structure. A judge ruled that women had a solemn obligation of obedience and submission to their husbands’ wishes, even though they be capricious. However harsh, however cruel the husband may be, it does not justify the wife’s want of that due submission.
Until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, a divorce was immensely costly, and obtainable only by private Act of Parliament; afterwards, it was obtainable only on the grounds of adultery, which was not easy to prove. There were ways of ensuring the security of the wife’s property, but they were not simple, and most husbands took it over, as Henry did. Husbands were also automatically granted custody of their children (other than infants) — a major consideration for any mother.
Henry and Isabella lived quite different lives. If he was a money-making scion of the industrial revolution, she spent her time increasingly among intellectuals. Her social circle included some extraordinary thinkers. There were early proponents of natural selection, as well as Darwin himself; poets who experimented with recreational ether inhalation; natural scientists, observers of eclipses, idealists, hydropathic doctors, homeopaths and phrenologists.
Summerscale describes well the extraordinary intellectual world, part sound, part cranky, that Isabella plunged into, as well as the wider context.The crucial insight comes in an unpublished essay by Florence Nightingale, written in 1852, in which she complains of ‘the accumulation of nervous energy’ in women which ‘makes them feel…when they go to bed, as if they are going mad.’ For intelligent women, especially, who were unable to take Nightingale’s path, the explosion of intellectual life and public concern in the 1850s, and the problems they faced in playing a full part in it, created a situation of frustration, even madness.
Isabella’s situation is somewhat like a real-life version of Dorothea’s story in Middlemarch, in which the intellectual and creative inquiries of a life are answered in unpredictable ways by sexual adventures. She became close to an attractive Edinburgh family, the Drysdales. Witty, intellectually curious and full of energy, they included homeopaths, investigators of sexual behaviour, and a young doctor son-in-law, John Lane, interested in the possibilities of hydropathy.
They must have represented a complete change from Isabella’s wretched marriage. Over a short time, she became an intimate and trusted friend of Lane and his wife, to the point of caring for their children while they were in Europe on holiday. A potentially talented writer, she also described, in a private journal, her initial feelings for Dr Lane, and what happened when he responded to them.
Henry Robinson discovered the diary—which gave an account of her passionate longings for more than one man, and indications that her relations with Lane had gone beyond infatuation — and began divorce proceedings. The state of divorce legislation, only just established with a concern to protect the reputations of the innocent, turned out to produce impossible conclusions. The court might find Mrs Robinson guilty and Dr Lane innocent … it might happen that Dr Lane will be dismissed on the ground that no adultery was proved against him; and Mrs Robinson will be divorced on the ground that her adultery with Dr Lane has been proved.
The detailed legal paradoxes, the exact status of the actions described in Isabella’s diary, including the peculiar position that its contents could be used against her but not against Dr Lane, and the unexpected but brutal outcome are grippingly told here. It is not at all a Trollopian book, but the central unfolding drama, and the essentially cryptic nature of Isabella’s actions are undeniably the sort of scenario which would have tempted Trollope or even Henry James: Can You Forgive Her? might have been a good title for this book.
Summerscale had a huge, deserved hit with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, concerning the Constance Kent murder case, which inspired a rash of copycat accounts of other historical murders. Admirable and absorbing as that was, the Kent case is one which tends to be retold at regular intervals — and even forms the basis of two relatively recent novels: Francis King’s Act of Darkness and William Trevor’s Other People’s Worlds.
The Robinson divorce is a much more important subject, and yet much less familiar. I’m not sure that there has ever been a full-dress telling of it before. Summerscale’s book is detailed, expansive, and well-informed; we hear of Queen Victoria surprisingly opining that ‘I think people marry far too much’, of the secret history of Wordsworth’s son’s marriage, of extraordinary diatribes against masturbation and works of instruction for a new wife.
Perhaps there is a problem with the shape of the story — with Constance Kent, the tale had the natural, conventional framework of mystery, solution, confession and redemption. The Robinson divorce circles around fiction and its fantasies: some of its most memorable episodes, such as an account by Isabella of copulating with her lover in a closed coach while her son rode on the roof, are shockingly reminiscent of scenes from classic French literature. But its overall shape dissolves alluringly, disconcertingly, in uncertainty and inconclusion. The surface of the book is Victorian; the sense of life it contains is modern, unresolved and open.
Henry Robinson got his divorce in the end; Isabella is discovered to have had a lover, for the purposes of the law courts. Nothing is quite what it promised to be, and at the end of this rich, puzzled book, we are not sure whom to trust, and which storyteller to believe.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 12, 2012