Last week in HIS354 Modern Europe, Prof. Gehrz’s students read and discussed Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, by popular historian Kate Summerscale. Set in Victorian England, the book tells the story of Isabella Robinson, an upper class woman who was sued for divorce by her husband Henry. While the book explores everything from gender roles to the history of science, students wrote their response papers on methodological and philosophical questions: Was Summerscale right to rely so heavily on Isabella Robinson’s diary? What are the problems and possibilities inherent in such a primary source? Among many other excellent essays, this one from History major and department teaching assistant Julia Muckenhirn ’17 stood out.
“A married woman in England has no legal existence…” (Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, p. 105)
Often, when consulting the past on a particular subject, it is truly startling to hear the reply. During much of Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace this is exactly the case. If we’re a bit desensitized towards the strangeness of historical events, personal accounts such as a diary can re-kindle forgotten empathy and stir a sense of connection often left dormant. Private, personal, and un-monitored, diaries and other such personal documents provide a wonderful look into otherwise unreachable pieces of history. Emotions and thoughts, fears and intelligence are not easily extracted from the recesses of the past. While other literary sources such as legal documents or newspaper columns can construct rude, standardized skeletons, it is those of personal information that give color to the cheeks and voice to the throat. Additionally, primary sources such as this possess the unique advantage of allowing the less recognized side of humanity, such as women, children and slaves, a method of communication to later generations.
However, for all their value, utilizing a diary for historical analysis is burdened with its own set of difficulties: “…checked by no other perspective, the diary could conjure up a wished-for world, in which memories were colored with desire” (p. 42). In other words, because it is private and often emotionally saturated, diaries can easily manipulate actual circumstances to best suit the writer, and, as a consequence, the reader. As with all contemplation of historical information there is some element of “reading between the lines.” Seen throughout Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, the lack of specific details can cause assumptions and guesses to become the only option. Debate over the legitimacy of the diary as relevant and factual evidence against Isabella in the book (albeit for a variety of reasons) raises the same question today. Can personal stories become incriminating or liberating evidence of past lives, both individually and societally? Clearly Isabella Robinson’s loneliness, discouragement, guilt, sexual frustration, and under-appreciated mental capacity all led her to seek an outlet in her diary. The emotions conveyed in a private diary can certainly portray reality, however, this could also shed exaggerated light on particular subjects. She also may have hoped to have her frustrations read… if not in actual intent than subconscious yearning. She may have hoped that the perceived rebellion, sins, or intelligence she held within would find a way to the minds of society.
It is useful to maintain a certain perspective when dealing with primary source evidence such as a diary. First, temper the content of the diary with comparative studies of both personal and public status. Finding trends, patterns, and consistencies (or the reverse) can highlight norms of the era. Contextual analysis is also helpful in identifying reasons behind conceived emotions. Realizing the status of women during Isabella’s day can anchor her writings with factual understanding. As an example, knowing the importance of “…law, religion and morality” (p. 33) can help the modern-day reader understand the pressures she felt as a woman, wife, mother, and even convicted adulteress. Lastly, the context of the source today is useful to consider. Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, while valuable in and of itself, must be considered within the bounds of Kate Summerscale’s bookends. This second author certainly is attempting to convey a particular story and one that possibly lacks in scholarly or “academic” perspective.
Wonderfully informative and empathetically useful, diaries as a primary source are a fantastic addition to historical studies. However, there is little doubt that even literary treasures such as these are only a shadow of the past. We must realize that the present, as Isabella so poetically put it, is: “…unable to gaze openly upon the man himself….[and must] dwell instead on a miniature portrait of him…” (p. 19).
– Julia Muckenhirn