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Portraying the Family

Posted by on April 3, 2013

I am currently reading Mrs Robinson’s DisgraceThe Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale.  It is an investigation into the sad, frustrating and desperate string of events that lead to the very public, and in the 19th century, notorious divorce of Henry and Isabella Robinson.

As with Summerscale’s other non-fiction books, [i] this story is wonderfully researched.  If you need to know about women, marriage etc. in the mid Victorian era this is the book to read for ideas and resources.   The information is gleaned from Isabella’s journals, letters, family business documentation, a long line of acquaintances who pass through her life including Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin and Alfred Tennyson, which, when plaited together with contemporary moral treatises and medical opinions illuminate a life I am glad I do not have to live.    Isabella is a very bright, intelligent woman.  Her poems and articles are published, if anonymously, by friends such as Richard Chambers and she is liked by the interesting people she meets.  I don’t blame her being frustrated in both her marriages to inattentive men.  The first husband dies and leaves all his estate to his son by his first wife, and her second husband seems to have appropriated her capital and its income for his business. In spite of having three sons she still seems to have far too much time on her hands.   As a person I have not warmed her so far, but am I ‘seeing’ the real Isabella?   In spite of  Isabella’s deeply personal writings that Summerscale choses to use, do we as readers ever truly understand historical characters as they would have been ‘seen’ by her contemporaries?   In theory I should be supporting Isabella, but I am finding her to be a bit of a dramatic pill.

I have to own up that I haven’t finished the book yet – but I know how it ends.  Reading Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace has made me truly appreciate how much power we as writers hold over the reader with our interpretation of our family’s characters and lives.   I realised, as I posted a question on Facebook this weekend about the possible cross infection from a cat bite, that my last post was about the cat too.   Anyone reading these posts might  decide I was a mad spinster cat lover – but actually I like dogs more.   I just don’t have a dog at the moment as I think it is unfair to have one in central London – too much poop clearing, too little space for them to run about and I’m not at home enough to care for them.  But that’s me.   Now, how would a family member know that about me unless I had told them or it had became a bit of family folklore.   Let’s hope ‘they’ read this blog post.

I am not sure I can suggest guides lines, but I have just stuck up a notice that prompts me to ask myself if I been fair and objective – and if not have I owned up to the reader so they can make their own decisions.


2 Responses to Portraying the Family

  1. Diana Devlin

    I loved The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, but had been wondering whether to get into this one. I certainly shall, having read your thoughts about it.

    As far as being ‘fair and objective’, it is pretty impossible, and in any case, surely it might lead to the writing itself being a bit bland. The usual issue about fact and fiction!

  2. Margaret McAlpine

    Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is an excellent read – I think it was one of the first cases under the new 1857 Divorce Act, so a fascinating piece of legal history too. To complement it, try Wedlock by Wendy Moore which is divorce pre-1857, but also the scandalous and riveting tale of one of the late Queen Mother’s ancestors. Wendy Moore had access to a quantity of royal archives, and tells a gripping tale of a rotter and an abused wife’s tortuous escape.
    In Mrs Robinson’s case key documents were no longer available to the author but overall she presents a very credible portrait – perhaps not the ‘whole person’, but a good proportion of her character.
    Surely not wrong to conclude that Nicola likes cats, but a leap too far to assume she is not equally if not more fond of other animals?

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