We're all pretty accustomed by now to discussing neo-Victorian fiction. Kate Summerscale, however, writes neo-Victorian nonfiction. Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, like The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, systematically novelizes its historical figures--with, in this instance, a considerable assist from Mrs. Robinson's contemporaries. On the one hand, Summerscale repeatedly draws on fictional examples for historical evidence--from the Brontes, from Wilkie Collins, and, most importantly, from Gustave Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary turns out to be one of the book's dominant narrative parallels. On the other hand, once we reach the trial which turns out to be the primary site of Mrs. Robinson's eponymous "disgrace," we find that the diary's status as fiction, fact, or faction proved to be a key factor in both the trial and its public reception. Was Mrs. Robinson's diary, the supposed repository of her most intimate thoughts, actually the draft of a novel?
The basic facts are these. Isabella Robinson, profoundly unhappy in her marriage to her husband, Henry, had something resembling an affair with an up-and-coming young hydropath, Edward Lane (whose other patients included luminaries like Charles Darwin). She also developed crushes on a couple of younger men, one of which she would actually consummate many years later. When Isabella became seriously ill, Henry found her diary, read it, and, enraged, first separated from her, then eventually filed for divorce under the new Matrimonial Causes Act (1857). And now, things become murky. Did Isabella and Edward consummate their affair, or not? Was there an affair? Did she and her children's tutor have any sort of emotional connection?
In Summerscale's analysis, Isabella simultaneously writes a diary that draws on narrative strategies adopted from both "sentimental" and "sensational" fiction, and can herself be described in terms of fictional plots. That is, even as she constructs her own romantic plots, she lives out others; fictional narratives turn out to be interchangeable with lived experience. Even Isabella's death by thumb infection can turn, by analogy, into dying, like Emma Bovary and company, "at her own hand" (loc. 3396) (!). Summerscale reminds us that the popularity of not just journal-keeping, but journal-publication, exploded during the nineteenth century, along with a new interest in fictional diary-writing; Samuel Pepys, Fanny Burney, Wilkie Collins, and Dinah Craik all put in special guest appearance to exemplify the form's new prominence. As a result, Isabella's self-plotting becomes part of a genre, with recognizable conventions and expectations. Thus, "[i]n declining to describe her most intimate moments, Isabella was adhering to a well-worn literary convention" (loc. 1285), while, like Mme. Bovary, she courts her beloved with Paul and Virginie and carries on while out for a carriage drive (loc. 1849). Moreover, "Isabella's diary conformed to a popular pornographic formula: its narrator was a woman who happily abandoned herself to sex" (loc. 2818). Diary-writing ineluctably takes on the form of popular fiction and pornography, and everyday experience itself becomes inseparable from the literary imagination. Isabella doesn't need to write a diary novel; she already exists in one. For the Victorian commentator, pointing out that Isabella's diary could be assimilated to the most lurid fictional genres was a means of discrediting both it and the author (e.g., loc. 2786-2833). Isabella herself, at the urging of George Combe, came to cast the diary as a product of "'the fairy ink of poesy'" (loc. 2534). But once the private journal turns out to share narrative space with public fictions, what remains of self-consciousness or personal autonomy? What, that is, does the journal actually record?
These fuzzy boundaries are integral to Summerscale's historical project. As she reminds us, Edward Lane's "indignation was genuine" when he discovered what was happening. "Isabella's experience of their relationship probably bore little resemblance to his own," and the "rhapsodic rhetoric" may have concealed not that something did happen, but that something didn't (loc. 1996). Romantic conventions produce a non-existent climax in more ways than one, apparently. Edward's fury, which doesn't paint him in a particularly good light, partly reflects his resentment at being badly emplotted. (Henry, who doesn't exactly come off well either, also doesn't get much opportunity to put his own case; Summerscale doesn't quite silence him [there may not have been much to silence], but she allows Isabella's discourse to shape his role.) The fight between Edward, Isabella, and Henry thus involves mutually incompatible narratives about sexual desire and fulfillment, which becomes even more clear when another of Isabella's crushes, John Pringle Thom, disclaims one of Isabella's accounts as "'highly coloured and exaggerated'" (loc. 2627). Although Summerscale casts the diary's reception in terms of mostly male readers responding to a transgressive female text, her own narrative hints strongly that Isabella may well have been fantasizing about how her attentions were being received (all of her infatuations were with men a decade or more younger). And the final judgment turns out to be an exercise in literary criticism: the judges conclude that the diary constitutes overwrought erotica, one woman's hyperactive fantasy life instead of an authentic report of adulterous goings-on. (Incidentally, the book's title is more than a little reminiscent of the sort of thing one would expect from vintage Victorian erotica.)
Summerscale's soft postmodernism is reminiscent of Kali Israel's Names and Stories: Emilia Dilke and Victorian Culture, which also charts its subject's biography in terms of proliferating narratives. Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace does not attempt to resolve the question of the diary's fictionality or factuality, leaving us instead with a woman whose life became a series of competing novelistic plots, some self-generated. In that sense, the book at times boils over into historiographic metafiction--the kind of self-reflexive narrative that characterizes postmodern historical fiction in general and, quite often, neo-Victorian fiction in particular. There turns out to be precious little outside Mrs. Robinson's storytelling. And since the diary itself has vanished (all that remains are published excerpts from the trial), Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace foregrounds its own narrative practices: this is a history whose own plotting depends heavily on leaping over evidentiary gaps and relying on fictional analogies that "explain" real life.