HERE I MAY GAZE AND DREAM
In the evening of 15 November 1850, a mild Friday night, Isabella Robinson set out for a party near her house in Edinburgh. Her carriage bumped across the wide cobbled avenues of the Georgian New Town and drew up in a circle of grand sandstone houses lit by street lamps. She descended from the cab and mounted the steps to 8 Royal Circus, its huge door glowing with brass and topped with a bright rectangle of glass. This was the residence of Lady Drysdale, a rich and well connected widow to whom Isabella and her husband had been commended when they moved to Edinburgh that autumn. Elizabeth Drysdale was a renowned hostess, vivacious, generous and strong-willed, and her soirees attracted inventive, progressive types: novelists such as Charles Dickens, who had attended one of the Drysdales' parties in 1841; physicians such as the obstetrician and pioneer anaesthetist James Young Simpson; publishers such as Robert Chambers, the founder of Chambers's Edinburgh Journal; and a crowd of artists, essayists, naturalists, antiquaries and actresses. Though Edinburgh was past its glory days as the hub of the Scottish Enlightenment, it still boasted an energetic intellectual and social scene.
A servant let Isabella in to the building. Within the hallway, gas flamed in a chandelier, throwing its light on to the stone floor and the polished iron and wood of the banister bending up the staircase. The guests took off their outdoor clothes — bonnets, muffs and mantles, top hats and coats — and proceeded up the stairs. The ladies wore low-cut dresses of glinting silk and satin, with smooth bodices pulled tight over lined, boned corsets. Their skirts were lifted on petticoats, layered with flounces, trimmed with ribbons and ruffles and braid. Their hair was parted in the centre and drawn back over the ears into coiled buns sprigged with feathers or lace. They wore jewels at their throats and wrists, silk boots or satin slippers on their feet. The gentlemen followed them in tailcoats, waistcoats, neckties and pleated shirt fronts, narrow trousers and shining shoes. Isabella came to the party eager for company. Her husband, Henry, was often away on business, and even when he was home she felt lonely. He was an 'uncongenial partner,' 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.' In the high, airy reception rooms on the first floor, Isabella was introduced to Lady Drysdale and to the young couple who shared her house: her daughter Mary and her son-in-law Edward Lane. The twenty-seven-year-old Mr Lane was a lawyer, born in Canada and educated in Edinburgh, who was now training for a new career in medicine. Isabella was enchanted by him. He was 'handsome, lively and good humoured,' she told her diary; he was 'fascinating.' She chastised herself later, as she had done many times before, for being so susceptible to a man's charms. But a wish had taken hold of her, and she was to find it hard to shake.
In the same month that she met Edward Lane, Isabella took a trip to the North Sea coast and sat on the beach meditating on her many flaws. A well-born Englishwoman of thirty-seven, she had, by her own account, already failed in every role that a Victorian lady was expected to fulfil. She listed her deficiencies in her diary: 'my errors of youth, my provocations to my brothers and my sisters, my headstrong conduct to my governess, my disobedience and want of duty to my parents, my want of steady principle in life, the mode of my marriage and my conduct during that marriage, my partial and often violent conduct to my children, my giddy behaviour as a widow, my second marriage and all that had followed it.' She had been guilty, she said, of 'impatience under trials, wandering affections, want of self-denial and resolute persistence in well-doing; as a parent, as a daughter, as a sister, as a wife, as a pupil, as a friend, as a mistress.' She then quoted a verse by Robert Burns:
Thou know 'st that thou has made me
With passions wild and strong;
And listening to their witching voice
Has often led me wrong.
Some of Isabella's ruthless catalogue of her faults can be mapped on to the recorded facts of her life. She was born in Bloomsbury, London, on 27 February 1813, and christened Isabella Hamilton Walker at St Pancras Church that May. Her father, Charles, was the second son of a former Accountant General to George III; her mother, Bridget, was the eldest daughter of a Cumbrian coal-mining heiress and a Whig MP. When Isabella was a baby her father bought an estate in the Shropshire village of Ashford Carbonel, near the English border with Wales. It was there, in a red-brick manor house by the River Teme, that she grew up, defying her elders and annoying her siblings.
Excerpted from Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale. Copyright 2012 by Kate Summerscale. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc.