I finished Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, which I’ve already talked about a bit. I ended up enjoying the second half more because the courtroom drama gave it more structure and forward momentum. It’s very good, and I recommend it if the subject matter interests you, but I’ll be perfectly content to return it to the library, whereas The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a 5-star, own it in hardcover, now I want to re-read it, (OMG wait there’s an ITV adaptation? but oh dear, it sounds crappy) book for me.
My favorite tidbit in the book, from a romance-reading point of view, is that carriage sex was a real thing! With citations and everything:
Though Isabella painted a romantic, tender scene [of a carriage ride with Edward], the setting was distinctly louche. The late-eighteenth-century guide to prostitution Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies: Or a Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar for the Year recommended coaches for illicit trysts: ‘the undulating motion of the coach, with the pretty little occasional jolts, contribute greatly to the pleasure of the critical moment, if all matters are rightly placed.’ By 1838, reported the Crim Con Gazette, the London hackney cab commissioners were so disturbed by the immorality conducted in their vehicles that they proposed to curtail both the pleasure and the privacy by banning coach blinds and coach cushions altogether. Isabella’s conduct in the carriage was especially shameless: a child, her son, was sitting on the roof while she and Edward Lane whispered and touched inside.
First, I apologize to everyone who ever wrote a carriage sex scene at which I rolled my eyes while thinking really? Maybe it’s a romance-genre cliché in part because it was common in real life (though I suspect a lot of that sex was commercial rather than romantic in nature).
Second, this passage is a great example of what makes Summerscale’s books so engaging: she doesn’t just tell us that Isabella recorded some kind of a sexual interlude in a carriage, she puts it in historical context. The men who read Isabella’s diary (her husband, lawyers, judges) may well have brought some of this context to it. Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace is always wandering into this kind of byway. Sometimes they seem like pointless digressions, but for the most part they serve to bring a world to life.
Summerscale’s book also puts the lie to the myth of Victorian repression–or at least shows how over-simplified the view of repression is. The Victorians were repressed the way a pot of boiling water is: they may have wanted to put a lid of silence on sex, but it kept bubbling over around the edges. Or, to put it in more academic terms, Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace is a good illustration of Michel Foucault’s repressive hypothesis:
he argues that this hypothesis is an illusion, and that in actuality, discourse on sexuality proliferated during this period [from the 17th to the mid-20th centuries]. He goes on to argue that at this time, experts began to examine sexuality in a scientific manner, classifying different types of sexuality and encouraging people to confess their sexual feelings and actions, all in the desire to learn the “truth” of sex.
Summerscale doesn’t cite Foucault (her book is resolutely untheoretical), but informed by him or not, she’s making the same point.
The Divorce Court was closed to female spectators during parts of the Robinson v. Robinson & Lane case because of the nature of the evidence. But ladies attended to enjoy the scandal when they could. Newpapers described her diary as “filthy compositions as ever proceeded from any human pen,” while printing extracts for their readers to enjoy. Even “Queen Victoria wrote to Lord Campbell, the chief designer of the Divorce Act, to ask if he could suppress some of the stories coming out of the court,” which like Isabella’s diary were “of so scandalous a character” that they made newspaper-reading unsafe, especially for “a young lady or boy.” The attempt to fix the worst problems of Victorian marriage by (slightly) liberalizing divorce laws exposed its dark underbelly to public examination, both prurient and scientific.
The idea that the Victorians were as interested in and talkative about sex as they were sexually repressed has been around at least since Stephen Marcus’s The Other Victorians, which is as old as I am. In fact, it’s there in Victorian literature if you know how to read the codes (have I ever mentioned how erotic the tea party scene in North and South is?). And yet in the popular imagination, they are always the people who cover their table and piano legs, never the prolific pornographers. The Victorians were as dirty as we are!
What’s Up Next in My Reading?
I’m listening to Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold. I loved Shards of Honor in both print and audio, and so many of my reader friends recommend the Vorkosigan saga that I’ve been slowly acquiring the books in audio when they’re on sale. So, you know, I thought I should get going on listening. Politics, sci-fi, romance, culture clashes, excellent world-building: I’m loving it.
I’m reading Malla Nunn’s A Beautiful Place to Die, a mystery set in 1950’s South Africa, just after apartheid laws came in. It’s a fascinating setting, so much so that I asked a Twitter friend to recommend some South African history. I put the books on my library wishlist, having learned my “all hold requests come in at once” lesson.
I managed my over-abundance of library books by renewing several and deciding I wasn’t in the mood for one (and maybe two). I don’t know why I find it so hard and guilt-inducing to return a library book unread. I have a good mix of non-fiction, literary fiction, and genre in my library pile, so I’m hoping my happy reading streak will continue.