Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Selecting for a Selected: The Poems of Mary Robinson 2: The Life of Mary Robinson

I explained here my task in editing Mary Robinson’s Selected Poems: See the hub-post here: Pages: Selecting for a Selected: The Poems of Mary Robinson 1 (robertsheppard.blogspot.com) . It came out of my own use of Robinson’s sonnets for my ‘English Strain’ project, which I talk about here: Pages: My 'Tabitha and Thunderer' is published in Blackbox Manifold (robertsheppard.blogspot.com), and here, you'll also find lots of images relating to her: Pages: My Transpositions of Mary Robinson's sonnets 'Tabitha and Thunderer' are now complete (hub post) (robertsheppard.blogspot.com). I provided a brief life for my versions, ‘Tabitha and Thunderer’, but here I offer a (still brief, but I hope full and accurate) life of my subject for use in the Selected. It’s still not quite finished, because I need to read the third biography of her, to triangulate my information, as it were. THREE biogs came along at once, like buses, during 2004-5. And here I am, looking back at her life, having used it for my own poems. Her life is remarkable, and I recommend the biographies (either of the two I’ve listed below, and I’ve no reason to believe the third inferior). In many ways, you couldn’t make it up, as they say. By which people mean: if you had made it up, no one would believe you, a life that weaves Garrick, Sheridan, the Prince Regent, Marie Antoinette, a war hero, William Godwin and Coleridge together   in one fabric. In many ways it is like the life of Mina Loy in the Twentieth Century. (Both had to deal with the advantages and disadvantages of great beauty, of course.) Why there are no bio pics of either is a surprise (though there are novels with Mary Robinson in, a Jean Plaidy at least from the 1960s). Below I give you the bare bones.



Mary Robinson was born Mary Darby in Bristol in 1758. Her father was a commercial explorer operating in Canada, away from home during most of Mary’s childhood, and living with a mistress. (Later he would become a distinguished naval officer, partly in the British, but notably in the Russian, navy). In Bristol, Mary received a progressive education for a girl, at one of the schools run by poet Hannah More (or her sisters), and later, in London, where the family moved to be closer to Darby on his infrequent returns to Britain. Although the stage was regarded as an inappropriate profession for a woman, theatre (and writing) had been part of Mary’s education, and her acting skill was taken up by the leading dramaturge of the era, David Garrick.

            At 15½ she was married to Tom Robinson, who claimed to be a rich heir, but was, in fact, the illegitimate child of a well-off Welsh landowner, who had no intention of lending or bequeathing money. The couple, installed in extensive premises, with all the trappings of extravagance, such as a phaeton, lived well beyond their means, entertaining, and being entertained by, the fashionable ton. In 1774 their daughter, Maria Elizabeth, was born. Although Mary had renounced the stage on marriage, her husband’s financial irregularities, which led to the couple being imprisoned briefly as debtors, forced Mary to become a professional actor, this time chiefly under the tutelage of that other leading theatre practitioner and playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  

            Mary had a brief but dazzlingly successful career at the Drury Lane Theatre beginning in 1776, performing in such roles as Juliet and Cordelia in adaptations of Shakespeare, as well in comedies of the era, including Sheridan’s. She even played the role of the pregnant Fanny in George Colman’s The Clandestine Marriage, while carrying her second daughter (who died soon after birth). Celebrity culture as we understand it today was probably born during this period and actors were as famous for their off-stage exploits as they were on-stage. Mary came under this curious spotlight, as her every item of clothing was described in detail in the press, thus setting a fashion for whatever attire ‘Mrs Robinson’ was courting that week. Every lover, real or supposed, was reported in scandalous detail. Mary was often described as the most beautiful woman in the land and reported reactions confirm this (though this is not always reflected in her portraits, even Romney’s and Gainsborough’s); but she was also one of the most scandalous women. The contemporary taste for satirical engravings testify to the circulating rumours, as well as to the frequently depicted cuckold status of Tom Robinson, whose sexual infidelities had increasingly distanced Mary. Pursued by a variety of dandies, philanderers, rakes and libertines, it was her relationship with Prince George (later Regent and King George IV) that was most prominently commented upon and satirized. This affair was conducted by public flirtations at the theatre, and by secret assignations at Kew and Windsor. Although George (who was some years younger than Mary) was besotted, he was persuaded (by the King) to forego his liaison with her, but he was also persuaded, if not actually blackmailed, by Mary (with his revealingly sentimental correspondence) to, firstly, pay her a large lump sum and, secondly, to provide a considerable annuity for her. On her side, Mary wore a miniature of the young handsome George around her neck for the rest of her life. (The annuity was paid, but irregularly.) The press referred to the couple as Perdita and Florizel, after the principals of Garrick’s re-working of The Winter’s Tale in which Mary had performed before the Prince in 1779. She finally left the stage the following year, but the ‘Perdita’ persona was to stick. (And long after her death, arguably to our own day, given the titles of biographies.)

            The Prince of Wales was at this time politically aligned with the Whigs, and Mary, along with her aristocratic friend, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, campaigned for Charles James Fox in 1784. This marks the beginning of Mary’s political affiliations, as well as the occasion for a short affair with Fox himself. However, her great lover was neither the royal nor the radical, but a military hero, Banastre Tarleton, just returned from the American War of Independence, and who was as much the talk of the town (and the press) as Mary herself. The couple possibly met at the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, where both sat for portraits, which were soon after exhibited together (knowingly). Tarleton, the scion of a Liverpool sugar and slave trading family, and a war criminal by modern standards, proved relatively faithful to Mary (until a final break in 1797). He still has a plaque marking his birth in Water St., and there is a Tarleton Road and a place named Banastre too! As Liverpool MP, he was a supporter of Fox (even his Tarleton ‘crop’ was the apparent hairstyle of the Jacobins). An inveterate gambler, Tarleton’s debts were frequently cleared by his Liverpool family, and he was implored to relinquish his relationship with Mary in exchange for the largest of these bailouts. In confusion, and to evade creditors, he fled to the continent in July 1783.

            A distraught Mary followed him in a carriage, assuming Dover to be his point of embarkation. Pregnant again, Mary suffered a catastrophic collapse on the way to Kent, and a miscarriage. Exposure to the elements contributed to an attack of a rheumatoid condition that resulted in partial but permanent paralysis of her legs. Reunited with Tarleton, she recuperated in France, the press reporting, not always accurately, on her condition. One newspaper announced her death. She had previously visited France under quite different circumstances, having seen (and possibly met) Marie Antoinette, and immediately on her return, had introduced looser French fashion into female London society, the Perdita Chemise, for one. Those days were over.

Mary was largely away from Britain until early 1788. As she recovered, now in the continuing care of her mother, Hester, and her daughter Maria Elizabeth, Mary assisted Tarleton in the writing of his memoirs (as she had assisted him with his political speeches). Since childhood, Mary had written poetry and prose, and while in debtors’ prison she had published a volume of poems, Poems by Mrs Robinson (1775) to be followed in 1777 by Captivity, a Poem; she wrote several dramatic works, one of which she performed in. The Lucky Escape, a Comic Opera, Drury Lane, 1778, was never officially published. 

However, her main literary career begins on her return from France. While she still figured in the celebrity press (largely as a pathetic invalid), she was increasingly commented upon in the literary press, her forthcoming publications or works-in-progress either ‘puffed’ or reviled, depending on the paper’s politics. Predictably, she immersed herself in the current literary fashion. This was, in some ways unfortunate, because the Della Cruscan school of poetry was then in the ascendent, noted for its lyricism of high sensibility peppered with metaphors. The common disapprobative adjective of its style was ‘flowery’. (Some recent critics have re-cast it as a knowing community writing ludic and burlesque entertainments.) The insistence upon ordinary speech in the poetics of William Wordsworth, in the ‘Preface’ to The Lyrical Ballads, a decade later was, in part, a reaction against this school. Writing in its journal, The World, its chief poet, Robert Merry, conducted a public (though page-based) flirtation with several women poets, and Mary joined in the caper. This began her practice of writing under pseudonyms (for different styles). At various times, not unlike an actress playing roles, she appeared as Anne Frances Randall, Bridget, Horace Juvenal, Humanitas, Julia, Laura, Laura Maria, Lesbia, Oberon, Portia, Sappho, as well as Tabitha Bramble (for lighter works). Horace Juvenal, for example, as the over-egged pseudonym suggests, produced the satire Modern Manners in 1793. Mary’s facility and   speed, as well as eye for detail and ear for metrical inventiveness, turned her into a competent staff writer, producing copy for various journals, the Oracle and the Morning Post in particular, poems at first, but later journalistic prose and comment pieces. A good deal of this work was scattered and not collected, although she was quick to publish volumes of poetry under her own name, first pamphlets such as Ainsi va le Monde in 1790, which was a favourable reaction to the French Revolution, and was well received. (It contrasts with her 1791 pamphlet Impartial Reflections on the Present Situation of the Queen of France and her poem Monody to the Memory of Marie Antoinette Queen of France of 1793, which reflect her growing ambivalence to the violence of the Revolution.) She had great hopes for her full-length collection, Poems by Mrs Robinson of 1791, which was published by subscription in a lavish edition (and many of her former associates were subscribers). The publisher went out of business and Mary derived no income from the exertion, even from a popular digest edition. Mary increasingly doubted the probity of publishers. 

Mary did not leave the theatre world entirely behind, both as audience and dramatist, although a new generation of directors and actors, John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons, for example, were keen to distance themselves from the theatre scandal of earlier years, with which the name of ‘Perdita’ was indelibly linked. Her satire Nobody, about women gamesters, was mounted at Drury Lane in 1794, but was a reputational and box-office disaster. The verse play The Sicilian Lover: A Tragedy in Five Acts was published in 1796, after Mary suspected her plotlines were being plaigiarised, while the theatre dithered over whether to stage it, before turning it down.

The English Sappho, as Mary was sometimes called, published Sappho and Phaon in 1796, an account, borrowed from Pope’s versions of Ovid, of Sappho’s heterosexual and suicidal obsession with the rakish Phaon. Cast into ‘legitimate’ sonnets, and based on Petrarch’s Canzoniere, it mixed ancient Greek narrative with the form and content of the earliest sonnets. In the event Mary produced the first English sonnet sequence since the Renaissance, a literary milestone in itself. Whether or not Sappho and Phaon are avatars for Mary and Tarleton (and whether or not that matters), Mary produced a poetic tour de force of form and feeling. (It was through these poems that I first encountered Robinson and produced ‘Tabitha and Thunderer’; see links at the head of this post.)

Mary turned her hand to writing novels in the last prolific decade of her life, and produced seven (and left one unfinished). Her novels, as was then common, contained her poems, and reviews often noted these as highlights of the volumes. Her first, Vancenza; or the Dangers of Credulity (1792), was a great success. Selling in vast quantities, it passed through a number of quick new editions. Distantly autobiographical, it was a fashionable Gothic novel, but with a political tinge. The Widow, or a Picture of Modern Times, an epistolary novel, followed two years later, with its attacks on the follies of the fashionable world, but it was not a commercial success (too many copies had been printed). Angelina (1796) initially sold well, but stalled. Its radicalism, concerning rank and the neglect of innate talent, with its modern-sounding description of marriage as ‘legalised prostitution’, was praised in a review by feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Set during the upheavals of the French Revolution, Hubert de Sevrac, a Romance, of the Eighteenth Century (1796) carries a Godwinian ethic. In 1797, Walsingham; or, the Pupil of Nature appeared, whose plot revolves around the Wollstonecraftian theme of women’s property rights; this novel is probably the one most admired today. [Currently on order: possible report to follow!] The False Friend, a Domestic Story (1799) goes one stage further and makes the heroine an open advocate of Wollstonecraft herself. The villain was read (by knowing reviewers) as a portrait of Tarleton; although the parallels are not absolute, Tarleton was indeed a false friend by the end of his long relationship with Mary. (He suddenly married in 1798, and lived until 1833, now a Tory, stoutly defending slavery on the eve of its abolition). The Natural Daughter (1799) which explores the dilemma of being a single mother, is perhaps her most autobiographical novel. This summary suggests a sequence of intellectual novels, but they are driven by strong and clearly defined characters. Several were translated into French and German. (Mary also translated works into English from German.) Oddly, Mary did not find writing easy. She reports a number of times on the sheer exhaustion of literary composition, and her output in all her chosen genres is testimony to her resilience and tenacity, in the face of her disabilities.        

Mary had always been a social creature but found herself, after the death of mother Hester in 1793, and after the final break with Tarleton, alone with her loyal daughter. (Maria Elizabeth also published a novel and possibly continued Mary’s unfinished Memoirs (1801)). Mary attempted to replace the glittering fashionable London world with a smaller circle of writers and thinkers, as her own thinking became more radical (and complex) in reaction to a general acceptance of Rousseau’s philosophy, and excitement (and horror) at events in Revolutionary France, but also in relation to homegrown politics, far to the left of her Foxite Whigism. Growing repression at home under Pitt’s government nurtured her radicalism. She cultivated a circle of women writers, such as Elizabeth Inchbold, Mary Hays and Jane Porter (and may have met Charlotte Smith, her nearest literary analogue). She knew both the rationalistic radical and novelist William Godwin, with whom she had a relationship, involving both intimacy and animosity, and with Godwin’s wife, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, whose views on women’s property rights and female education made a profound impression on Mary (and are reflected not only in her final novels but in her non-fiction, notably her 1799 polemic ‘A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Subordination’). Older writer friends, like Merry and the satirist Peter Pindar (John Wolcot), remained faithful, but she formed one crucial younger attachment at the end of her life. When she replaced Robert Southey as ‘poetry editor’ of The Morning Post – though she was more of a regular contributor and correspondent – she came to work, exchange poems, and discuss poetry with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was staff writer on politics. She read The Lyrical Ballads, whose first (anonymous) edition Coleridge and Wordsworth had published in 1798, but which had yet to make an impression, let alone revolutionise English poetry. Mary’s own favourite among her books, Lyrical Tales (1800), is profoundly influenced by it (as her work was influential upon the work of the two collaborators). She also wrote poems to Coleridge, one of which alludes to his ‘Kubla Khan’ which was not published until many years later.

In the last months of her life, Mary moved to Maria Elizabeth’s cottage near Windsor. But this proved to be far from a rural seclusion. She enjoyed frequent visits from members of her literary circle, but was constantly writing and editing, even while she was failing in health. She continued producing commercial magazine verse for various journals; she proudly listed over 70 poems written in her last year. She remained, and died, in debt, and, indeed, was almost imprisoned again. Her prose pieces published in the Morning Post, this time under the title ‘The Sylphid’, which adopt the viewpoint of an invisible observer, comment on contemporary manners, fashion, and the neglect of talent. She arranged a three volume Poetical Works, which was seen through the press in 1806 by her daughter. A single volume edition appeared in 1824. 

Mary died the day after Christmas Day 1800 of heart failure. She was buried in Windsor, with Godwin and Peter Pindar as sole mourners. The grave is still there.




Select Bibliography (other books will be collected into this happy list)

Byrne, Paula. Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson. London: Harper Perennial, 2005. (That’s the first biography I read.)

Feldman, Paula, R., and Daniel Robinson. eds.  A Century of Sonnets. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 

Gristwood, Sarah. Perdita: Royal Mistress, Writer, Romantic. London: Bantam Press, 2005. (This is the second biography I’ve read, more recently.)

Robinson, Mary. The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson, Volume 1. London: Richard Phillips, 1806; Forgotten Books facsimile reprint; London, 2018.

Robinson, Mary. The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson, Volume 2. London: Richard Phillips, 1806; Scholar Select facsimile reprint; np: nd.

Robinson, Mary. The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson, Volume 3. London: Richard Phillips, 1806; facsimile reprint; Miami: nd (possibly 2008)

Robinson, Mary. Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson: Including The Pieces Last Published, The Three Volumes Complete in One. London: Jones and Company, 1824; Forgotten Books facsimile reprint: London, 2015. (My copy of this is shit, with many blank pages and odd ones with only a few words on it, or only the punctuation, like a conceptual piece, but it is useful to see how the three volumes were sardine-canned into this one volume. By 1824, it is not clear who was still reading Robinson. The Romantics were taking central stage and women writers (say, Mary Tighe who influenced Keats, as well as Mary) were relegated to second-rate-hood. It awaited the pioneering (mostly women) critics of the 1980s onwards to recover these figures (I tried to accommodate as many women sonneteers as I could in the ‘14 Standards’ part of British Standards: see here: Pages: Robert Sheppard: 14 Standards from British Strandards is complete as one sonnet appears at the virtual WOW Festival 2020 (hub post)). But Mary had to still put up with the ‘Perdita’ notoriety. You see Coleridge and Jane Porter edging away from contagion with the iniquity of Regency days, and Porter denying even having known her. Without being too pompous, it is worth remembering that even Jesus suffered denial from a disciple.)


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