Preparations are now well underway here for the dovegreyreader tent at next weekend's Port Eliot Festival, and of course you are ALL coming along too so I hope you are sorting out your festival wellies (the forecast says the sun is going to shine but I have mine anyway ...wait 'til you see them) and your festival gear...you know... all those rainbow/striped/multi-coloured/patchwork clothes up in the loft that you bought in a fit of extreme wrecklessness and then felt a bit daft wearing to Tesco's. Well now is your chance because wherever you are you will need to look the part.
You will see that I have added a Twitter feed over here >>>> which, even if you are not a tweeter, will keep you up to speed with what is happening as I twitter away through this week and then live from the festival. The usual array of blog posts from roving Team dovegrey will be coming your way too of course, but they won't be quite so instant.
I had heard Kate Summerscale talking very enthusiastically and convincingly about Mrs Robinson's Disgrace pre-publication earlier this year so I have been looking forward to reading this one. Subtitled The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady I picked the book up and that other diary, the one we all loved back in the 1970s, immediately came into my mind... The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady.
I am sure you all remember it and someone's going to own up to having the tea cosy whilst I'll let on that I had the peg bag. The book a facsimile of the
original, written and illustrated by Edith Holden and published to great acclaim along with matching tea towels, biscuit tins, curtain fabric... you name it and you could buy it in that ubiquitous Edwardian lady floral design, all of which so suited the era of the £6.30 Laura Ashley frock and that whole nostalgia thing.
Somehow I doubt the same reverence will be accorded to the diary antics of Mrs Robinson because given the subject matter all I have been doing since reading it is humming Here's to You Mrs Robinson from The Graduate. I have been welded to Mrs Robinson's Disgrace for two days solid, barely able to put it down in order to keep screaming 'that is sooo unfair' at this true but almost inconceivable account of mid-nineteenth century divorce proceedings.
When bad-tempered, grumpy Mr Robinson stumbles across his wife's diary and, shock horror, discovers he is actually married to a warm-blooded woman who feels there should be more to life and love than the mechanics of procreation, well the poor man's flabber is well and truly gasted. Setting aside his mistress and his two illegitimate children it is to the divorce courts Mr Robinson scurries with indecent haste, because apparently if there is a delay between the discovery of the infidelity of the wife and the husband's subsequent instigation of legal action this can endanger a successful outcome. A successful outcome seems to be get shot of the wife, claim the children and presumably carry on with the mistress as before.
Implicated in Mrs Robinson's rather racy account of events is the much-respected advocate of the water cure, Dr Edward Lane, a family man of high repute and I spent the entire book thinking 'Well did they or didn't they' because on this hinges Edward's downfall if the case is proven.
Whatever the outcome poor Isabella's disgrace is a given as the inner workings of her mind are read out in court in her absence and published in the newspapers for all to snigger over. At one point even Queen Victoria intervened complaining that this and other similar cases really were putting one off one's Royal breakfast as one read all this in one's early morning papers.
And heaven knows how many times I said 'Poor Isabella' as she is first married to Edward Dansey almost twenty years her senior who dies quite quickly of a 'diseased brain, and then to the disagreable Henry Robinson. Isabella seems to have had the good sense to refuse him three times before finally capitulating and entering into 'dreaded wedlock' with a man she clearly doesn't love but widowed and with a son to raise perhaps it was the money and the promise of security. Two more sons arrive in quick succession and meanwhile Henry is building up a successful engineering business and frequently away from home.
The meeting and subsequent friendship with Edward Lane is delineated in fine detail by Isabella in her diary as are her obsessions with ... well everything in trousers it might seem, as various other men become the focus for her obsessively amorous and flirtatious attentions. The case, which becomes a much-publicised national scandal, rests on whether the diary is truth, or the fiction of a woman suffering from delusions of an extremely romantic nature which she has foolishly commited to paper. This in keeping with the Victorian penchant for the morbid self-absorption, the dark reflections and the confessional possibilities that a diary can command.
The reader (well this one anyway) was completely drawn in by the injustice shown towards Isabella Robinson. The double standards applied to the men and the leniency shown towards their behaviour whilst the women silently suffer the constraints imposed on their lives, and then all the uncertainties and who to believe, as Kate Summerscale skilfully extracts the evidence from countless well-referenced sources.
The book works at another fascinating level too, as contemporaneous events are drawn in to help set the scene ...the great stink of London in those mid-nineteenth century years when the summer temperatures soared, the Thames is barely flowing, thick and foamy as it is with raw sewage, while rank unbreathable air cloaks the city. The concurrent scandal of Charles Dickens's dumping of the well-worn Catherine in exchange for a younger model is in progress and the exhibiting of Augustus Egg's triptych of the fallen woman is causing quite a stir. But best of all the writing and publication of Flaubert's Madame Bovary in 1856. It is in 1857 that Henry discovers Isabella's diary and whilst there is no evidence that she may have read Madame Bovary, Isabella recounts a coach ride of her own as Edward accompanies her to the station, investing it with plenty of cause for suspicion. So could she have known about the book...could that have added to the power of her stifled and love-starved imagination... it's all open for speculation and that is the joy of a book like this and something at which Kate Summerscale excels, leaving the reader to conduct their own interrogation of events and arrive at their own verdict
Everyone will reach their own conclusions over the Did They/Didn't They question. I decided for my own satisfaction, that if they had, Isabella, so devoted to recording every last detail in her introspective and very personal for-her-eyes-only diary, would not have spared herself the delight and pleasure of recording the colour of Edward's combinations... and how he may have struggled to get them off... or the finickity palava of getting all her buttons undone, to say nothing of Edward's scaling of the crinoline.
Yes indeed we have questions galore for Kate Summerscale, it promises to be a great event.
Sunday July 22nd at 12.30pm.