Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady By Kate Summerscale Bloomsbury, £12.99A courtroom drama, a scandal, a divorce case that depends for its evidence on the private outpourings of a wife into her diary: the plot lines of a late-Victorian novel seem to assemble themselves.
What is striking about Kate Summerscale’s new book is that the story of Isabella Robinson and her miserable marriage is true – or, at least, as much of it as can be ascertained.
The case of Robinson v Robinson and Lane was one of the earliest divorce suits to be heard under the Matrimonial Causes Act, introduced in England in 1857. Records of it exist, as does the newspaper coverage of the proceedings, and the lengthy excerpts published from Isabella’s diary. This document was the root of all the trouble, and also the only “evidence” of her adultery.
A clever, questioning woman in her 40s, she moved in circles in Edinburgh and London where scientific and philosophical argument was taken for granted. While encouraging the young men around her to develop their careers, as a married woman with little formal education she could not be an active participant. Summerscale’s re-creation of Isabella’s life dwells as much on her creative and intellectual frustration as on her erotic fantasies. Dissuaded from her ambition to write an essay promoting atheism, she did publish one (anonymously) on the restrictions of the institution of marriage.
The fact that a woman should express desire for a man who was not her husband, albeit in a diary, was considered so scandalous that it was argued she was insane. Whether Isabella had an affair with the young Edward Lane was unfathomable. It was suggested at the trial that she was drafting a novel in the form of a fictional diary and that a uterine disease was the cause of her alleged nymphomania.
Eminent men took sides. Those who might have supported her were afraid that the shocking elements of the diary would discredit the cause of atheism that they espoused, so they kept silent.
Summerscale, refraining from embellishment, gives a fascinating glimpse into the turmoil of this period: like some great geological spasm, the foundations of church, state and law were cracking apart, bringing new possibilities – but, for those such as Isabella, only confusion and utter disappointment.
Jenny Q, Stitched Up!
By Pauline McLynn
In a world where dystopian young-adult fiction has its own section in many bookshops, any book that amuses rather than terrifies young readers is very welcome. The latest addition to children’s comic fiction comes from the much-loved actor Pauline McLynn. Over the past decade she has proved herself to be a skilful writer of adult fiction, and her young-adult debut should win her a new generation of fans.
It’s the story of Jennifer Quinn, aka Jenny Q, a Dublin teenager with a penchant for knitting and secret dreams of music stardom. When we meet Jenny, she’s reeling from the news that her mother is pregnant – not only will Jenny no longer be the baby of the family (she has a big brother) but the world will know that her parents are still, well, intimate.
Jenny is also yearning for her older brother’s friend Stevie Lee Bolton and dreaming of auditioning for the TV talent show Teen Factor X, Luckily she has her best friends and fellow crafters Dixie and Uggs, who all get together for knit’n’natter sessions, where knitting is combined with solving all of life’s problems.
Creative, funny and burdened with just the right amount of teen angst, Jenny is an appealing narrator, and readers of all ages will identify with (and laugh at) her woes, whether she’s dealing with her annoying family, keeping secrets from her best friends or trying to make the perfect Christmas presents. Her family and schoolmates all come to vivid life, but my favourite character was Gypsy, Uggs’s strangely enigmatic small dog.
At times it feels as though the book is trying a little too hard to reach an international market – the Dublin kids inexplicably shop at Primark, which is what Penneys is called in the UK – but that’s a small quibble. This is a very entertaining and likeable book, with some handy knitting patterns thrown in for readers who are inspired by the crafty heroine. I can’t wait to see what Jenny Q does next.
Some Sort of Beauty
By Jamie O’Connell
Bradshaw Books, €12.99
The fictional style of this debut collection of short stories is unapologetically self-referential. In Without Art, Sebastian, a young gay writer, imagines an encounter with a former lover who will ask him what his collection of short stories is about. Sebastian muses; he will answer with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (the quote also used at the beginning of the collection), explaining how writing has allowed him “to reach out to understand viewpoints different from my own”. These viewpoints then form the backbone of most of the stories that follow.
In That Ample Past, a young writer worries that he will never be taken seriously in his work but ultimately finds redemption in the creative process.
In the title story, Evelyn’s father, a Jehovah’s Witness, discovers that he has been left the rights of his wayward daughter’s book, entitled Some Sort of Beauty, after she has been killed by a drunk driver.
Other stories veer away from self-referencing but still fuse thematically. For example, the loss of a beloved grandfather in Without Art is echoed beautifully in The Believer, and the selfish artist Gearóid de Barra in Brush and Gut reappears to experience an unexpected epiphany in The Gift.
O’Connell writes with tenderness and attention, earnestly describing a world in which belief systems have crumbled, where families are in denial about what has destroyed them, where internet sex turns out to be just as vacuous as it sounds, and where commitment to love and friendship is often hazardous. But there is also a crippling resignation to O’Connell’s characters, an overcontemplativeness, which weighs down the energy of these otherwise artful narratives. O’Connell’s tendency is to explain a little too much; there were times I was hoping I could be left alone to read without the author’s voice constantly whispering in my ear.