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MEslaymaker

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Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady - Kate Summerscale
Women are so scary.

The rise in the diagnosis of sexual mania in women corresponded to an intense contemporary anxiety about unsatisfied female desire. It had recently come to light that there was an excess of spinsters in Britain. According to the census of 1851, the country contained half a million more women than men, chiefly because men died younger and migrated more often...Older women were especially likely to live alone: 42 percent of those between 40 and 60 were widows or spinsters. The 'redundant women' or 'involuntary nuns' revealed by the census had become the object of sociological and medical concern.

Though Dr. William Acton famously announced in 1857 that 'the majority of women, happily for them, are not much troubled by sexual feeling of any kind,' many physicians feared that single women might in fact be driven mad by suppressed and unsatsified sexual urges.


Medical treatment was prescribed for extreme cases, which amounted to going to the doctor to get off (not, in that case, considered masturbation), but for most the cure was staying busy, preferably in the domestic arts or charitable works, hence an increase in all sorts of ladies' societies.

Phrenology, the "reading" of the shape of the skull, was among the latest means of evaluating one's personality and determining the potential for madness of all kinds, including female "erotomania." The most telling sign of the latter, however, was a woman's desire to have sex with anyone other than her husband, although it was also true that one could desire one's husband too much. Men were encouraged to keep their wives clothed one way or another at all times to avoid excessive provocation, oh! and also to closely monitor what their wives were reading because "fictional tableaux can excite the female generative organs more effectively than the presence of men." Ya think?

As for women writing . . . Romance was a popular genre, and more women were writing it and finding evermore devious ways of alluding to unbecoming conduct under cover of allegedly perfectly proper stories, prompting an increase in censorship. As for the wildly popular pastime of keeping diaries and journals, well, the determination of whether or not a woman's should be considered private was best made by her husband. If she was legally his chattel (and she was), it followed that she was beholden to him entire. Except for money or property designated by a father for a daughter's use, nothing, absolutely nothing, not even her own children, was a woman's own. Even said money and property were defacto her father's.


So, we already know all this, right? And you have to laugh about the sex -- and I occasionally did -- but the cumulative effect of this literary biography is profoundly sad and disturbing, especially when you remember that for literally millions of women in this world, basically nothing has changed.

Through the writing and experiences of one woman, who (coo-coo-ca-choo) happens to be a Mrs. Robinson, Summerscale explores the social, sexual and psychological history of the female sex in upper-class and literate 19th century England, where a few forward thinkers were attempting a more reasoned approach to sexuality. For example, allowing prostitution as beneficial to male sexuality, and admitting that the occasional relief of "pressure" (i.e., having an orgasm) was beneficial to (married) female health, though masturbation was still categorically considered perverse.

Water cures were popular for a host of ailments, and among the most famous "spa" physicians was a Mr. Edward Lane, who according to Mrs. Robinson's diary became her lover over the course of several treatments, which required lengthy stays, which Mr. Robinson happily paid for as a treatment for her melancholy, which he simply could not abide, by God he intended to come home to a happy household, and the spa gave her something to do while he was away, which he was a lot, in part to be with his mistress, with whom he had two children.

The Robinsons became a test case for divorce laws intended to make that process less archaic. Prior to the changes, divorce was so expensive and time-consuming that only the very wealthy could afford it. But adultery remained insufficient cause for a woman to divorce her husband; she had to prove abandonment as well, and Mrs. Robinson could not. It was Mr. Robinson who brought charges against his wife after reading her diary.

At the time it was a sensational case, but Summerscale's account is scholarly. It's very moving as well. I was by turns saddened, maddened, and despite having heard the like before found myself surprised anew by the realization that such sweeping denials of personal and political rights can and still do occur, and still under the guise of such stupid fears.