Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale, narrated by Wanda McCaddon
Published in audio by Tantor Audio, published in print by Bloomsbury USA
From the publisher:
Headstrong, high-spirited, and already widowed, Isabella Walker became Mrs. Henry Robinson at age 31 in 1844. Her first husband had died suddenly, leaving his estate to a son from a previous marriage, so she inherited nothing. A successful civil engineer, Henry moved them, by then with two sons, to Edinburgh’s elegant society in 1850. But Henry traveled often and was cold and remote when home, leaving Isabella to her fantasies.
No doubt thousands of Victorian women faced the same circumstances, but Isabella chose to record her innermost thoughts—and especially her infatuation with a married Dr. Edward Lane—in her diary. Over five years the entries mounted—passionate, sensual, suggestive. One fateful day in 1858 Henry chanced on the diary and, broaching its privacy, read Isabella’s intimate entries. Aghast at his wife’s perceived infidelity, Henry petitioned for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Until that year, divorce had been illegal in England, the marital bond being a cornerstone of English life. Their trial would be a cause celebre, threatening the foundations of Victorian society with the specter of “a new and disturbing figure: a middle class wife who was restless, unhappy, avid for arousal.” Her diary, read in court, was as explosive as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, just published in France but considered too scandalous to be translated into English until the 1880s.
Thoughts on the story:
Kate Summerscale clearly knows both her subject and her time period well. Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace is a rich tapestry of a book that tells the story of much more than just one woman’s scandalous diary. Summerscale goes into great detail about a number of elements of period culture, including medical theories such as hydropathy and phrenology. It does seem at times that Isabella’s story is overshadowed by all the other things that Summerscale wants to share about mid-19th century Britain, but she does manage to bring it all back together again and create what is, overall, a very edifying story.
Thoughts on the audio production:
Wanda McCaddon does a very admirable job narrating Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, but it is a difficult task. McCaddon has good inflection and tone to keep the listener interested, but this book simply doesn’t seem to translate very well into audio. Summerscale goes into so much detail about so many different topics, and there are so many people involved in this whole affair, that it is simply difficult to keep track of everything in audio, despite the skill of the narrator.
A very interesting book, but if I were starting it over again I would choose print.
Source: Personal copy.
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