How Victorian mother rocked Edinburgh with divorce scandal

Taking the stand in a Victorian divorce court

Taking the stand in a Victorian divorce court

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VICTORIAN Edinburgh – the New Town was in its infancy, the age of Scottish Enlightenment had set a spark in the city which still blazed with intellectual thought and brilliant ideas, and the city’s well-heeled society mingled at lavish dinner parties and grand events.

It was a mild winter’s evening in November 1850. And Isabella Robinson had dressed in her finery for Lady Drysdale’s lavish dinner party.

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

The guests all knew the wealthy widow’s reputation as one of the city’s most vivacious and well-connected hostesses. And as Isabella’s carriage bumped across the cobbles to the grand townhouse at 8 Royal Circus, she must have been thrilled at the prospect of an evening of fine company, sophisticated conversation and, perhaps, the chance to mingle with some of the greatest minds in the land – novelist Charles Dickens, anaesthetist James Young Simpson, artists, writers, actresses, all of them known to grace the parties. Of course, Isabella could have had no idea that this carriage ride would ultimately take her on a road to shame and disgrace. And that as she clattered over the New Town cobbles, she was heading ever closer to one of the most scandalous episodes to rock genteel Victorian society – and that she, the original “Mrs Robinson” would be at its very centre.

The fateful sequence of events which ended in a divorce court has now been fully told in a fascinating new book.

Written by Kate Summerscale, below, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, reveals how Isabella’s loveless marriage was blown apart and her reputation hauled through the newly-established divorce court. It also highlights the astonishing double standards that saw her reputation tarnished on the evidence of what may well have been sheer fantasy, put to paper in the pages of her private diary. For it was those pages into which Isabella poured her lustful thoughts for another man, that would seal her fate.

Isabella was already a widow when she married civil engineer Henry at the age of 31 in 1844. Her first husband had died suddenly, his estate left to his son from a previous marriage and Isabella would have found herself in need of a new husband to help maintain her status in society.

Henry, thin with a long face and equally long nose, may not have impressed on the looks stakes but he clearly had wealth: home for the couple and their two children became a grand six-storey granite house at 11 Moray Place, one of the most lavish developments in the New Town.

The couple had arrived in the city that autumn from America, drawn to the Scottish capital by the lure of good schools so their two sons could be educated without having to board away from home.

Henry spent long periods abroad but at Isabella’s beck and call were four servants, a manservant, a maid, cook and a nurse for the children. But alone in Edinburgh she yearned for company, preferably someone other than the cold and frosty Henry to talk to about books and art and all the brilliant new ideas of the age.

The upper floors of the property looked towards Royal Circus – and the home of Lady Drysdale. The Robinsons had been introduced to Lady Drysdale soon after their arrival in town. The party, on November 15 1850, would be a chance for Isabella to sample the delights of one of her fine evenings, to meet members of city society, perhaps forge new friendships.

She was introduced to Lady Drysdale’s daughter Mary and her husband of three years Edward Lane, a medical student ten years younger than Isabella and who, she wrote in her diary later was “fascinating”.

Edward Lane was 27, Canadian-born and educated in Edinburgh. A lawyer, he was busy training for a new career in medicine. He was, wrote Isabella, “handsome, lively and good humoured”. And that might well have been that. But something had stirred deep within this lonely young mother.

Her husband Henry, she complained in her diary, was often away on business, yet even when he did come home she felt alone and unfulfilled. He was, she wrote, an “uncongenial partner”, “uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh tempered, selfish, proud”. Not only that, but she later discovered he also had a mistress and two illegitimate daughters.

Edward Lane was dashing, young, clever and with his interesting Canadian background, no doubt represented all she did not have.

She noted how she’d chat to Edward about all the things she loved: poetry and philosophy.

Edward became Dr Lane, a pioneer homeopath and proprietor of a hydropathy establishment in Surrey. And Isabella, of course, became a visitor.

Quite what happened between them, if anything, is not clear. But Isabella poured out her most private thoughts to her precious diary, five years of entries that throbbed with passion for married Dr Lane, that told of trysts and stolen kisses, of secretive meetings and lust.

By 1858, Henry and Isabella were living in France when she fell victim to a bout of diphtheria. Ranting with fever, she left her diary unattended. Henry chanced upon it, flicked through its pages, with mounting horror at entries detailing her love and lust for another man.

His honour smeared, he became the 11th person in the land to file for divorce.

“When the new Court for Divorce and Matrimonial cases opened in London in 1858, it was the first time divorce had been made affordable to the middle classes of England,” explains Summerscale who researched Isabella’s diaries for her book.

“Until then, only a couple of divorces were granted a year to the very rich because before then they required a special private act of parliament for dissolution of marriage.

“The new law was designed to make divorce fairer, more transparent and rational and yet it did preserve a double standard for men and women,” she adds.

“The husband was suing for divorce on grounds of his wife’s adultery. But he was an adulterer, he had a mistress and two illegitimate daughters as I discovered when I read Mrs Robinson’s private correspondence. But this was never mentioned in court.”

The divorce action scandalised Victorian society. There was nothing in any of Dr Lane’s letters to suggest any hint of an affair and medical colleagues, anxious to avoid a hint of scandal in their ranks, quickly gathered to provide their support for him, while at the same time casting doubt on Isabella.

As attention turned to saving his reputation, Isabella’s diaries quickly became held up as the rantings of a disturbed mind – how else to explain such salacious thoughts and lascivious fantasies in the mind of a middle-class Victorian wife and mother?

Eventually the question did not so much hinge on whether Mrs Robinson and Dr Lane had a full-blown affair – although the diaries were detailed, entries stopped short at recording whether the couple actually committed adultery, effectively leaving Dr Lane in the clear – but whether Mrs Robinson was suffering from mental illness to have caused such sinful thoughts in the first place.

“Medical manuals at the time associated strong female sexual desire with insanity,” explains Summerscale. “When this case came to trial, Isabella Robinson’s lawyers argued that the diary in which she apparently recorded her adulterous affair was itself a symptom of disease and that the sexual scenes she had written had never really happened but were hallucinations of an erotomanic imagination.”

As it turned out, Mr Robinson was not granted his divorce. The case was closed.

But Mrs Robinson’s curious story, however, was not yet over. The Robinsons’ marriage was finally dissolved in 1864 when Isabella was caught in flagrante delicto in two London hotels with a young Frenchman.

It turned out that he was a former tutor to her children, a man with whom she had long been besotted.

n Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99

Changing law

In Scotland today there are five grounds upon which to base an action of divorce: adultery, desertion, unreasonable behaviour, separation for two years with the consent of both partners and separation for five years without the consent of the other party.

Where the relationship has broken down then that in itself will usually constitute grounds for divorce.

According to figures from the Registrar General for Scotland for 2011, there were 9814 divorces, the lowest number in 30 years.

The number of marriages rose to 29,135, its highest level in four years, although still low compared to a generation ago.

Until papal authority was abolished by an Act of Parliament in Scotland in 1560, the law on marriage was canon law which did not recognise divorce. With the Reformation, common law recognised divorce for adultery and, by statute in 1573, desertion was also recognised.

An unmarried woman was known in the law as a feme sole or a “single” woman while a married woman was known as a feme couvert or “covered” woman.

The Divorce Act of 1938 recognised divorces for adultery, desertion, cruelty, sodomy, bestiality and “no-fault” divorce for incurable insanity.