Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady – Kate Summerscale

Non Fiction 4*s
Non Fiction
4*s

I have to admit that I enjoy a good Victorian scandal, one that ended up in court, made headline news and left reputation tattered and torn, so I settled down to enjoy. What I didn’t bank on was my growing sympathy for poor Isabella’s plight.

The author reveals the background to the story first and we know that Isabella Robinson, a widow with a young son, married Henry Robinson in 1844. A fiercely intelligent and well-read woman it didn’t take her long to realise that perhaps she should have held out for a better match:

He was an ‘uncongenial man’ she wrote in her diary: uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh-tempered, selfish, proud.’ While she yearned to talk about literature and politics, to write poetry, learn languages and read the latest essays on science and philosophy, he was ‘a man who had only a commercial life’

We hear how the couple moved around but the real action starts once they moved to Edinburgh, where with young children in tow they made the acquaintance of Elizabeth Drysdale, a fantastic host who shared her splendid home with her daughter Mary and her son-in-law Edward Lane. Edward Lane had studied to be a lawyer but was now training to be a doctor (these upper middle class men seemed to be eternally switching careers!) With Henry often away on business which was to design and build ships and mills for sugar cane it is clear that Isabella craved company, what she soon commits in writing is that she particularly craved a particular type of company from Mr Edward Lane.

I’m not going to lie, although by the end I had a lot of sympathy for Isabella, she led a life at that time which many could only have wondered at; she enjoyed her children’s company, was forever being entertained, going on holiday and able to read and contemplate her navel and commit those thoughts to her diary, whilst being waited upon hand and foot. But, and here is where things get far more complex, she had nothing to call her own. Indeed her fateful marriage to Henry had been partly bought about that she wasn’t an attractive prospect, a widow with a child, especially as her deceased husband had settled most of his money on the offspring from his first wife. Henry was no saint, he had offspring by an unmarried woman and was clearly after the money Isabella was given by her family, an amount settled yearly to avoid the fact that otherwise she had nothing under the law of the land at that time. Isabella was one of the many unlucky women who had no outlet for her intelligence, although I have to say at times her ‘poor me’ attitude grated. But she was stuck, divorce was practically impossible until the summer of 1858. In the end it was Henry that applied to divorce Isabella using the evidence from he own diary as proof.

This book is teaming with social history particularly that of the richer members of society at this time, and it is this that really made this book so fascinating for me and kept me reading, especially at the beginning when at times I tired at times of Isabella, although all that changed when we got to court! During the unfolding of the story as told in main, through the words of Isabella, although I was surprised to hear that the original diary no longer exists, there are snapshots of contemporary Victorian life infused with the story of Isabella’s disgrace at her own hand. A woman who is judged not only in the court room but by her peers across the land as snippets of her diary make their way into the newspapers.

I love the style of writing, there is no emphasising certain facts in this books just a clear and neutral retelling of a woman’s life, her choices and the consequences. The additional historical details all of which are impeccably researched include atheism, phrenology, water treatments, insanity and of course divorce law which make this one of the most educational books of the Victorian period and far more readily digested than dry facts.

There is no-one who quite manages to keep their voice so neutral and yet deliver such a well-researched and compelling story as Kate Summerscale and although I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as the Suspicions of Mr Whicher this was a personal choice of subject rather than delivery. I am however delighted to hear from dear Fiction Fan that Kate Summerscale has a new Victorian crime to delight us with in May; The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer is on pre-order!

 

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Deadly Divorces – Tammy Cohen

True Crime 3*s
True Crime
3*s

This non-fiction true crime book contains twelve stories of what can happen when a marriage breaks down. As such I don’t recommend it to anyone going through divorce, or contemplating it! For everyone else this is a fascinating look at the worst case scenario.

I am a big fan of Tammy Cohen’s fictional books, especially the element of humour that laces the pages, this aspect is necessarily missing from this book, which was penned before these were published. The twelve stories within this book which was published in 2007, come from the late 90s early 2000s from both sides of the Atlantic and with both sexes being the perpetrator.

To give you a flavour the first crime in the book is that of an English woman who murdered her ex-husband’s lover, to be specific she shot her at the salon she ran in a quiet English town. With the information gleaned from the trial and reporting at the time Tammy seeks to give the reasons behind the killing, looking at the state of mind of the murderer in the weeks and months leading up to the shooting. It is a sad tale, as are all the stories in this book, it is hard to contemplate that two people, who once swore to love each other forever, can be driven to a state of outright hate which leads to the ultimate act of revenge.

This isn’t a terribly in-depth book, to really understand the motives of each and everyone of the crimes would have meant that this book was far too long, it does however give an insight into this type of crime. You may, as I did, remember some of the horrific acts committed in the name of love! Unfortunately as I worked through the book (in the space of a day) it did feel a little repetitive purely because this type of crime is typically committed by a person who feels that they have been wronged and they want to destroy the person that they feel has destroyed their life.

I have to admit some of the tales recounted, will stay with me for some time, as the perpetrators will have learned as they live with their actions for the rest of their lives.

Fiction Books by Tammy Cohen (aka Tamara Cohen) Highly recommended by cleopatralovesbooks

Previous books by Tammy Cohen (some written under her given name of Tamara Cohen)
The Mistress’s Revenge
The War of the Wives (note to self I NEED a copy of this one)
Someone Else’s Wedding
The Broken
Dying for Christmas
First One Missing

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day – Deborah Cohen

History 5*'s
History
5*’s

I read this book against the backdrop of my adult daughter and her close friend trawling through Facebook to find out whether a rumour they’d heard about a school friend was true or not – it wasn’t, but it certainly leant weight to Deborah Cohen’s affirmation that there is a difference between privacy and secrecy. As an amateur genealogist I have delved into the papers of the late 19th century and wondered how some of those whose actions were written about continued to live in their tight-knit communities with little opportunity of escaping their past misdemeanours, but of course they just had to, particularly if they were poor.

The subjects of this book tend to be the middle-classes, those who had the money and the means to hide their secrets or at least have some measure of control over how much of their secrets were exposed. The book starts in the late 18th century detailing the ways that men who had relations with women in India integrated their sons and daughters into society. Deborah Cohen then moves through the decades detailing those secrets that were important to their times; divorce, mental disabilities, adoption and homosexuality alongside careful explanation of popular views of the times, laws and the importance to the family that these were either kept secret or not.

The last section deals with the views of RD Laing and how his views helped to change society’s view of the family to the re-drawing of boundaries about what today is viewed to be privacy and an individual’s right to keep secrets which is not the same as the requirement to keep the family secrets.

This is a fascinating and accessible way of presenting social history, well researched using some previously closed records it is well written has enlightened me about each of the areas covered.

After reading this book I looked at some of the divorce records for the early 1900’s which largely demonstrate Deborah Cohen’s theory that it wasn’t something either a man or woman would go through without real cause. Random records I looked at described an awful way of life for both sexes with divorce being the only way they could extract themselves from lifelong misery.