Mary Robinson 1758-1800
(Born Mary Darby; also wrote under the pseudonyms Laura, Laura Maria, Lesbia, M. R., Oberon, Sappho, the Sylphid, T. B., Tabitha Bramble, and Titaniaalso; known popularly as Perdita) English poet, novelist, autobiographer, essayist, and editor.
Called the most forgotten woman writer of English Romanticism, Mary Robinson enjoyed fantastic notoriety and celebrity during her life. Her beauty and talent brought her early fame as an actress, but also drew the attention of the Prince of Wales, with whom she entered into a very public affair. Robinson's reputation as a temptress accompanied her through a string of public attachments to wealthy and powerful men. Robinson was also a prolific poet of significant talent, whose work was regularly found in numerous journals and newspapers. Her literary popularity sustained her when her career as an actress ended due to a debilitating illness. She became a respected literary editor and published numerous volumes and editions of her poetry. Robinson also wrote eight novels that gained notoriety through their use of the popular Gothic conventions, as well as their sometimes revolutionary commentary on women's rights. She traveled in the highest literary circles and befriended such luminaries as William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. After her death, despite her daughter's active campaign to maintain Robinson's literary reputation, the attention that surrounded her personal life came to dominate her memory. Robinson slipped out of critical favor, where she languished as a sidenote in the biographies of her famous lovers, until recent scholarly attention brought renewed attention to this prolific literary figure.
Born November 27, 1758, in Bristol, England, Mary Darby was the daughter of a respectable Welsh woman, Mary Seys, and American merchant-seaman John Darby. When Mary was eleven years old, her father and his mistress sailed to Labrador to set up a whaling and fishing company. His scheme failed and he never returned to his family, leaving his wife to raise Mary and her siblings alone. At the age of fifteen, Mary married law clerk Thomas Robinson, who misrepresented his wealth and prospects to his young bride. Her first daughter, Maria Elizabeth, was born a year later. A second baby was born soon after, but the infant girl lived only six weeks. In 1775, Robinson's husband was sent to King's Bench Prison for extensive debts, and young Mary and her infant daughter Maria Elizabeth followed, living with him in prison for nine months. Desperate for money, Robinson began writing and selling poetry to literary magazines, with her collection, Poems, appearing that same year. This was not enough to stave off debtors, so Robinson turned to acting in 1776. She was an immediate success, with her great beauty and talent for comedy as well as tragedy earning her a place among the leading actresses of the day. On December 3, 1779, Robinson gave a command performance to the royal family; this performance changed her life forever. Playing Perdita in Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, Robinson beguiled the Prince of Wales—a young man of 17 and the future King George IV. The two entered into a very public affair, and the nation came to know the lovers as “Perdita” and “Florizel.” England followed the affair with a keen interest, and daily papers chronicled their comings and goings in gossip columns, editorial pieces, and caricatures. When the affair ended in 1782, and Robinson was afforded a life-long annuity in exchange for the return of the future King's love letters, public sympathy was on her side. A flamboyant, renowned actress, she went on to have a string of public relationships with wealthy and powerful men. She remained in the spotlight, although the public was often cruel in response to her many attachments and her sexual exploits. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a ruthless leader in the war against the American Colonies—known as the “swamp devil”—and Robinson were together for many years. During this relationship in 1783, Robinson fell ill—some say as a result of rheumatic fever, others say as a result of a miscarriage—which left her semi-paralyzed and sickly for the rest of her life. Her acting career ruined, carrying significant debt, Robinson turned once again to her literary talents to support herself. She contributed regularly to several literary magazines under a number of different pseudonyms and personas, and her early reputation and celebrity was used by The Morning Post to help boost circulation. Her talent superseded her celebrity, and she became the literary editor of the daily publication, where she came into contact with many of the most important literary figures of the day. Her acquaintance with William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft brought her into the English Radicals circle, where she entered the debate regarding women's rights. She also had a public literary exchange with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was a vocal supporter of Robinson's talents. Robinson was vigorously prolific in the 1790s, with a steady stream of poetic contributions, political tracts and essays, and at least eight popular novels. She created a new poetic meter in her poem “The Haunted Beach,” which enjoyed positive reception and was adopted by many other poets. The scandalized reputation of her youth was turned around in these last years of her life as she became widely respected as one of the most influential figures in the Romantic literary movement. With her death in December of 1800, Robinson's place in the literary world was continued through the efforts of her daughter, Maria Elizabeth, who completed Robinson's unfinished Memoirs and edited several anthologies and editions of her mother's work.
Robinson's poetry enjoyed a wide readership in the daily journals and she maintained large subscriptions for her published collections of poetry, including her 1791 Poems, and Lyrical Tales (1800). Robinson's first novel Vancenza; or, The Dangers of Credulity (1792) sold out on the day of its publication, with the public rushing to read it, supposing it contained details about her affair with the Prince of Wales. Within that same month, two more editions sold out, attesting to the degree to which Robinson had captured England's imagination.
Another of her novels, Walsingham; or, The Pupil of Nature (1797), is the story of Sir Sidney Aubrey, a noble man who is actually a woman raised as a male by her mother in an attempt to keep the family estate from passing on to the next living male relative. Walsingham Ainsworth—the cousin who has been unknowingly cheated out of his inheritance—meets Sidney and is distrustful of his affection. Sidney falls in love with Walsingham, but to maintain the estate cannot let her true identity be known. Rather than see the man she loves be with anyone else, Sidney foils Walsingham's romantic intrigues, and in return earns Walsingham's hatred. When Sidney falls ill at her unrequited love of Walsingham, her mother, to save her daughter from death, reveals the whole plot to Walsingham. She explains that Sidney, who has a feminine heart, must be reeducated in the manner of a woman. The story ends happily with Walsingham falling in love with Sidney.
Robinson's 1799 novel The Natural Daughter recounts Martha Morley's story, who during her husband's absence adopts an illegitimate orphaned baby girl. She names this baby Frances, or Fanny, after the man she supposes is the father. When Mr. Morley returns, he is outraged by her presumption, and then accuses Martha of being the child's true mother—and thus an adulteress. Martha learns that the girl's mother is a traveling actress, Mrs. Sedgley, who was detained in a French prison and deceived into a sham marriage with an Englishman pretending to be her protector. The Morleys travel to France, where during the Reign of Terror, they too are imprisoned. With the death of Robespierre, they are freed. In the novel's climax, Mr. Morley is enraged by little Fanny calling Martha “mother,” and he threatens to murder her. Mrs. Sedgley steps in, announcing that Mr. Morley himself is Fanny's father. Mr. Morley then meets his death in Switzerland, and Martha marries Mrs. Sedgley's aristocrat brother, Lord Frances—the man she had supposed to be Fanny's father all along.
Robinson's literary offerings included political pieces as well as novels and poetry. In 1799 she published Thoughts on the Condition of Women, and on the Injustices of Mental Subordination, a treatise often compared with Mary Wollstonecraft's proto-feminist works. By recounting the experiences of historical women who were celebrated for their mental capacity and achievement, she argues for a new type of woman, a thinking woman, as man's true companion. In 1798 she began work on her Memoirs, which her daughter completed after Robinson's death in 1800. Her autobiography was very successful, again because of the public's curiosity about the former mistress of the Prince of Wales, but also because of her literary celebrity.
Critical inquiry into Robinson's work is scant before the 1990s. The prominence of her affairs with major historical figures such as the Prince of Wales and Colonel Banastre Tarleton has warranted numerous mentions in biographical works on the men in her life, as well as a few biographies of her as an individual. But for nearly two centuries after her death, her work itself received little attention. As scholars began recovery projects into forgotten women writers, Robinson, who once enjoyed the company of figures such as Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth, now appears in critical studies alongside Amelia Opie and Felicia Hemans. Jacqueline M. Labbe offers close readings of Robinson's Gothic poetry as a means to investigate her poetic focus on violence and her recurring motif of love ending badly. Many critics, including Martin J. Levy, are interested in Robinson's relationship with Coleridge for the ways in which the two authors influenced, supported, and critiqued one another. The very nature of Robinson's highly sexualized persona, as well as her career as an actress, have led critics to consider the ways Robinson “fashions” herself for consumption by an often fickle public. Anne K. Mellor studies Robinson's self-exhibition and sexuality, while Judith Pascoe explores Robinson's theatricalized persona. Robinson's Memoirs offer critics a glimpse into her self-conception, which contrasts against the different perspectives and voices found in the poetry she wrote under pseudonyms. An author comfortable in nearly every literary genre, Robinson, who had published first as a means to paying off her husband's bankruptcy, became one of the most well-respected women writers of the late eighteenth century.
Elegiac Verses to a Young Lady on the Death of her Brother (poetry) 1775
Poems by Mrs. Robinson (poetry) 1775
Captivity, A Poem, and Celadon and Lydia, A Tale (poetry) 1777
The Songs, Chouresses, etc, in The Lucky Escape (poetry) 1778
Impartial Reflections on the Present Situation of The Queen of France (essay) 1791
Poems (poetry) 1791
Vancenza; or, The Dangers of Credulity (novel) 1792
The Widow, or, a Picture of Modern Times (novel) 1794
Angelina (novel) 1796
Hubert de Sevrac (novel)...
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Martin J. Levy (essay date January 1992)
SOURCE: Levy, Martin J. “Coleridge, Mary Robinson, and Kubla Khan.” Charles Lamb Bulletin 77 (January 1992): 159-66.
[In the following essay, Levy explores Coleridge's relationship to Mary Robinson and considers why he showed her Kubla Khan before it was published. The critic examines both authors' use of opium as a possible reason for Robinson's early familiarity with the poem.]
One of the enduring mysteries of Coleridge scholarship is the nature of Mary Robinson's connection with Kubla Khan. Scholars have long known that it is in her ode ‘Mrs Robinson to the Poet Coleridge’ that we find the first published references to the poem but they...
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Judith Pascoe (essay date summer 1992)
SOURCE: Pascoe, Judith. “The Spectacular Flâneuse: Mary Robinson and the City of London.” The Wordsworth Circle 23, no. 3 (summer 1992): 165-71.
[In the following essay, Pascoe suggests that Robinson's poetry offers a romantic, idealized depiction of London that was based upon the poet's limited observations from her carriage, a necessary means of travel that prevented an awareness of the “grubbier exigencies of her surroundings.”]
You know well how great is the difference between two companions lolling in a post chaise, and two travellers plodding slowly along the road, side by side, each with his little knapsack of necessaries upon...
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Jacqueline M. Labbe (essay date spring 1994)
SOURCE: Labbe, Jacqueline M. “Selling One's Sorrows: Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, and the Marketing of Poetry.” The Wordsworth Circle 25, no. 2 (spring 1994): 68-71.
[In the following excerpt, Labbe illustrates the way Mary Robinson and Charlotte Smith exploited their gender so that their audience saw them as women writing out of economic necessity, rather than as women breaking social expectations.]
Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson, two of the many women poets writing during the period we are used to calling Romantic, are both becoming more accessible: Stuart Curran's edition of Smith's poems, published by Oxford, will soon be accompanied by Judith Pascoe's...
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Susan Luther (essay date fall 1994)
SOURCE: Luther, Susan. “A Stranger Minstrel: Coleridge's Mrs. Robinson.” Studies in Romanticism 33, no. 3 (fall 1994): 391-409.
[In the following essay, Luther explores the nature of Coleridge's feelings as both a father-protector and a critic to the older, more established Mary Robinson, as evidenced in their literary exchanges.]
In the late eighteenth century, as Jane Spencer points out, both sexes tended “to see women writers as heroines”—and “making a woman writer a heroine linked her life and her writing together, so that the one was judged in terms of the other.”1 Many of Mary Darby Robinson's popular novels and poems invite such a...
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Chris Cullens (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: Cullens, Chris. “Mrs. Robinson and the Masquerade of Womanliness.” In Body & Text in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Veronica Kelly and Dorothea Von Mücke, pp. 266-89. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Cullens examines Mary Robinson's novel Walsingham in light of her Memoirs.]
The “real” and the “sexually factic” are phantasmatic constructions—illusions of substance—that bodies are compelled to approximate, but never can. What, then, enables the exposure of the rift between the phantasmatic and the real whereby the real admits itself as phantasmatic? Does this offer the...
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Stuart Curran (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: Curran, Stuart. “Mary Robinson's Lyrical Tales in Context.” In Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776-1837, edited by Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner, pp. 17-35. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Curran considers Mary Robinson's Lyrical Tales for its contemporary significance. Curran looks at her publisher's placement of Robinson alongside Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth as the preeminent poets of the time, and examines the dynamics between these four poets.]
Joseph Cottle concludes the first volume of his Early Recollections with the departure of Wordsworth and...
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Linda H. Peterson (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: Peterson, Linda H. “Becoming an Author: Mary Robinson's Memoirs and the Origins of Woman Artist's Autobiography.” In Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776-1837, edited by Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner, pp. 36-50. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Peterson asserts that Robinson's Memoirs was an attempt “to present herself as an authentic Romantic artist,” an attempt that was largely rejected by the reading public. According to Peterson, the work was also a deathbed effort to provide financial support for her daughter, who finished the work and published it after her mother's death.]...
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Robin L. Miskolcze (essay date spring 1995)
SOURCE: Miskolcze, Robin L. “Snapshots of Contradiction in Mary Robinson's Poetical Works.” Papers on Language and Literature 31, no. 2 (spring 1995): 206-19.
[In the following essay, Miskolcze reexamines women writers' place in the early Romantic movement by considering Mary Robinson's poetry, wherein her use of exiles and fugitives can be read as embodiments of the contradictions within the movement itself.]
Throughout the twentieth century, scholars engaged with British Romanticism generally have been eager to contain the period within the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and, in the process, maintain the revered status accorded the...
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Eleanor Ty (essay date December 1995)
SOURCE: Ty, Eleanor. “Engendering a Female Subject: Mary Robinson's (Re)Presentations of the Self.” English Studies in Canada 21, no. 4 (December 1995): 407-24.
[In the following essay, Ty looks at Mary Robinsion's Memoirs, her treatise Thoughts on the Condition of Women and on the Injustice of Mental Subordination, and her novel The False Friend for the ways these works depict different aspects of Robinson's self-construction, and considers how the narratives of these works present shifting representations of Robinson's female identity.]
What a creature is woman! How wildly inconsistent! How daring, yet how timid! We are at...
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Judith Pascoe (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Pascoe, Judith. “Mary Robinson and the Literary Marketplace.” In Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices, edited by Paula R. Feldman and Theresa M. Kelley, pp. 252-68. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1995.
[In the following essay, Pascoe contends that the daily literary and gossip journal, The Morning Post, was an ideal forum for Mary Robinson's poetry.]
A contemporary poem characterizes the Morning Post of the early 1800s as a hodgepodge of gossip and political intrigue, providing a list of news items a reader of that journal might encounter:
Bonaparte, Paris fashions, Chapels, Cyprian assignations:...
(The entire section is 8446 words.)
Terence Allan Hoagwood and Rebecca Jackson (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Hoagwood, Terence Allan and Rebecca Jackson. Introduction to Sappho and Phaon: In a Series of Legitimate Sonnets, by Mary Robinson, pp. 3-11. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1995.
[In the following essay Hoagwood and Jackson examine the ten sonnets that comprise Mary Robinson's Sappho and Phaon: In a Series of Legitimate Sonnets for their textual history and for their anti-Romantic critique of idealized sexual love.]
The present volume reprints the first edition of Mary Robinson's Sappho and Phaon, In a Series of Legitimate Sonnets (1796),1 and then two sets of material from the posthumous Poetical Works of the...
(The entire section is 3118 words.)
Debbie Lee (essay date spring 1997)
SOURCE: Lee, Debbie. “The Wild Wreath: Cultivating a Poetic Circle For Mary Robinson.” Studies in Literary Imagination 30, no. 1 (spring 1997): 23-34.
[In the following essay, Lee considers the collection of verses by notable Romantic poets, The Wild Wreath, edited by Maria Elizabeth Robinson, for the significance of Mary Robinson's posthumous contributions, which dominate the volume and represent Robinson's daughter's attempt to ensure her mother's place in the Romantic canon.]
At the center of Mary Robinson's poem “The Foster-Child” is an abandoned boy who spends his time “on the mossy bank, alone,” “weaving a poison'd wreath” and...
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Sharon M. Setzer (essay date fall 1997)
SOURCE: Setzer, Sharon M. “Romancing the Reign of Terror: Sexual Politics in Mary Robinson's Natural Daughter.” Criticism 39, no. 4 (fall 1997): 531-55.
[In the following essay, Setzer examines Mary Robinson's novel The Natural Daughter for its representation of the influence of revolutionary ideals. In the novel, Robinson uses her heroine Martha Morley to defend her own professional acting and writing careers and to enter into the philosophical debate over women's rights.]
Given Mary Robinson's widely publicized affairs with the Prince of Wales and other members of fashionable society, it is not surprising that the public appetite for scandal shaped...
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Judith Pascoe (essay date 1997)
SOURCE: Pascoe, Judith. “Embodying Marie Antoinette: The Theatricalized Female Subject.” In Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship, pp. 117-29. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.
[In the following excerpt, Pascoe discusses Mary Robinson's encounter with Marie Antoinette, as recounted in her Memoirs, her tract Impartial Reflections on the Present Situation of The Queen of France, and her poetry.]
The preoccupation with the body of Marie Antoinette … is matched in the work of Mary Robinson, whose interest in the French queen took several forms. Robinson, like Burke, met Marie Antoinette in person, although Robinson's encounter...
(The entire section is 5159 words.)
Eleanor Ty (essay date 1998)
SOURCE: Ty, Eleanor. “Fathers as Monsters of Deceit: Robinson's Domestic Criticism in The False Friend.” In Empowering the Feminine: The Narratives of Mary Robinson, Jane West, and Amelia Opie, 1796-1812, pp. 57-71. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Ty reads Mary Robinson's nightmarish Gothic novel The False Friend for its portrayal of Robinson's vision of the end of the eighteenth century.]
‘Your father, Gertrude, was a monster of deceit, a false friend, and an enemy to virtue.’
The False Friend (II: 49)1
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Jerome McGann (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: McGann, Jerome. “Mary Robinson and the Myth of Sappho.” In Eighteenth-Century Literary History: An MLQ Reader, edited by Marshall Brown, pp. 114-35. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, McGann offers a close reading of Mary Robinson's Sappho and Phaon and explores how she re-envisions the myth surrounding the Greek poetess Sappho.]
Describing the scope of her Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937, Joan DeJean points out that the French dominated the reception history of the Greek poet until the eighteenth century, when “the English and the Germans really began to play a role.”1 These facts explain why DeJean...
(The entire section is 7713 words.)
Anne K. Mellor (essay date 2000)
SOURCE: Mellor, Anne K. “Making an Exhibition of Her Self: Mary “Perdita” Robinson and Nineteenth-Century Scripts of Female Sexuality.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 22, no. 3 (2000): 271-304.
[In the following essay, Mellor considers the construction of nineteenth-century female sexuality by looking at the various ways Mary Robinson's life-story was told, and the alternate characterizations of her as a whore, an unprotected wife, a star-crossed lover, and a talented, successful artist.]
Who—or what—was Mary Robinson? What can we learn from an exploration of the life and writings of this almost forgotten female author of the English Romantic period? I turn...
(The entire section is 9021 words.)
Sharon Setzer (essay date 2000)
SOURCE: Setzer, Sharon. “The Dying Game: Crossdressing in Mary Robinson's Walsingham.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 22, no. 3 (2000): 305-28.
[In the following essay, Setzer considers notorious eighteenth-century crossdressers, Mary Robinson's own experiences with crossdressing, and the crossdressing plot in her novel Walsingham; or The Pupil of Nature, and reflects on the resulting commentary on contemporary notions of gender.]
In her Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799), Mary Robinson calls attention to a double standard that designates what is “laudable” in man as “reprehensible, if not...
(The entire section is 8070 words.)
Ashley J. Cross (essay date winter 2001)
SOURCE: Cross, Ashley J. “From Lyrical Ballads to Lyrical Tales: Mary Robinson's Reputation and the Problem of Literary Debt.” Studies in Romanticism 40, no. 4 (winter 2001): 571-605.
[In the following essay, Cross presents Lyrical Tales as an effort by Robinson to assert “her literary debt and her poetic autonomy” by linking it with Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads and exposing the issues of literary reputation and female authorship.]
All reputation is hazardous … hard to win, harder to keep.
—William Hazlitt, Table Talk
Reputation is valuable; and whatever is of value ought to enter into our estimates. A just and reasonable man will be anxious so to conduct himself that he may not be misunderstood. He will be patient in explaining, where his motives have been misapprehended and misconstrued. It is a spirit of false bravado that will not descend to vindicate itself from misrepresentation.
—William Godwin, Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature
Writers in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century England shared a personal AND social investment in the necessary danger and fragile asset, reputation. As the reading market grew exponentially, authors were increasingly confronted with their inability to limit the meanings of their words and, thus, they faced an inability to control their public images. Reputation was precarious, William Hazlitt's comment implies; like money, it circulated. Its substance was determined from outside by critics and reviewers, by readers and market demands and by the literary tradition. It often had little grounding in a writer's sense of his/her own value, though it was nonetheless essential for continued publication. Like writing, reputation culminated in credit, not property, and credit implied debts. Reputation, then, signified dependence, a failure to authorize oneself Simultaneously, however, an author's value in the late eighteenth century increasingly focused on qualities of personality and originality.1 Such an emphasis on qualities of the author seemingly extricated him/her from these increasing debts to publishers, critics, and other authors, and refigured him/her as a self-authorizing subject, a creative Genius. While the literary property debates and the defeat of perpetual copyright in the second half of the eighteenth century increased the commodification of books, as many critics have shown, this romantic myth of the Genius Author—a production of both poets and literary critics since then—rose to obscure the reality of the literary marketplace.
In an increasingly capitalist economy, no longer a world of strict patronage, this contradiction, inherent in the concept of reputation, between debt to others and demand for originality pervaded many writers' realities. As Hazlitt and Godwin suggest in the epigraphs above, reputation became an important but tenuous commodity in a competitive economy, a representation separate from the writer's self (something to be won and defended) and yet explicitly linked to the writing subject's authority (something to be “misapprehended and misconstrued” by others). A reputation that was “just and reasonable” was “valuable” in and of itself, despite its immateriality; it required maintenance through continual explanation and vindication. Such continual self-defense suggests that any reputation was always also misrepresentation, any sense of original genius always embattled, even illusory. In this light, reputation might be read as a form of dispossession, providing identity at the same time it points to the hollowness of that identity, a subjectivity that is necessarily other within itself, continually requiring elaboration, and always defined by forces outside itself. No longer self-possessed, but a copy of oneself, and a copy that must be defended in order to maintain one's reputation as original, the writing subject is continually confronted with his/her own contingency.
While romantic writers, male and female, shared this sense of dispossession, for women writers, the marketplace was especially “hazardous” and reputation even more fragile.2 In the case of many women writers, the danger was at least double-edged: on the one hand, they needed to create enough of a reputation as writers to support themselves; on the other hand, as women, their reputations were already fixed by their gender and they had continually to defend their virtue. Reputation was always sexually coded, and verbal availability—participation in the public sphere of the literary marketplace—was linked to sexual promiscuity. Thus, in addition to the dispossession implicit in the concept of reputation generally, women writers had also to negotiate fixed notions of femininity that were equally dispossessing. It was assumed that women's writing revealed their lives; what they wrote was read as a mirror of their selves. While several women were able to exploit their experiences as women for economic gain, their reputations were thus also dependent on these narratives of self to the extent that their popularity could be defined only on such terms.3 Women's writings, then, embodied their reputations as women and not as Geniuses.
However, as literary critics have begun to argue, women writers were playing active roles in the literary marketplace and public sphere of the late eighteenth century, roles that suggest they may also have been able to exploit the double dispossession of authorship and femininity. Women romantic writers participated, often more comfortably, in the same public domain as men, but did not find the same urgency male writers felt to erase their literary debts. In fact, such debts may have become necessary for authorial survival. As Catherine Gallagher has shown in her work on women novelists, the attention women writers paid to “disembodiment, dispossession, and debt”—another rhetoric of female authorship—reveals the parallels between women's subject positions, economic exchange, and literary representation, parallels that need to be interpreted as a source of their strength as authors, and, perhaps, a sign of their understanding of social realities (xxi). “Literary reputations” and “debts,” she argues, were two of “the exchangeable tokens of modern authorship that allowed increasing numbers of women writers to thrive as the eighteenth century wore on” (xiii). While women novelists often obscured their identities and wrote as “nobodies,” however, women romantic writers could not claim such separation from their work if they aspired to Genius.
For women poets, establishing poetic authority was overdetermined by additional, conflicting factors. The double dispossession of writing and being female was reinforced by the growth of romantic narratives of poetic authority. In particular, any kind of “reputation” required the negotiation of myths of Genius that were gaining cultural value but that specifically relegated women writers to a lesser status, either by excluding the difference of their experiences or by defining their genius as lesser. These myths of Genius and natural creative power, or original authorship, are well enough known not to need elaboration here, but it is important to recall that such myths often placed women in the position of object to the poet's gaze, muse to the poet, or lady in a romance narrative. Furthermore, it was becoming review etiquette to downgrade a writer's ability as merely imitative and not the original work of Genius. Again, for women this is a highly charged criticism, which turns women's writing into a reflection of men's. To be read as “copy” was to lose the originality necessary for status as poetic genius. Given the developing concern for a national literary tradition and increasing interest in high art, to lose the status of Genius was to face obscurity. However, for a woman writer to stand alone meant the possibility of not being read at all. Combined, these factors present a complex position for a poet, like Mary Robinson, who saw writing as a necessary exchange that created debt and as an embodiment of female Genius.
This article examines Mary Robinson's publication of Lyrical Tales in 1800 as a revisionary response to Lyrical Ballads (1798) that foregrounds problems of reputation and authorship for women romantic writers. The connection of Robinson's reputation with Wordsworth's and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads produces relations of debt that link her to male writers whose sympathies she shared and whose growing authority she helped to enhance. More specifically, the context in which Lyrical Tales was published and the poems the three poets exchanged prior to the Tales' publication present a complex web of relations that undoes the possibility of separating categories of self and other, copy and original. These intertextual relationships suggest that the poems in Lyrical Tales are themselves a self-defense—Robinson's assertion of her literary debt and her poetic autonomy; and the poems' exploration of questions of reputation and dispossession reinforces such an interpretation. Read as such, Lyrical Tales becomes an explicit challenge to a separate female literary tradition—and thus, implicitly, to a feminine romanticism.
1. MARY ROBINSON'S ROMANTIC REPUTATION “UNDOUBTED GENIUS” OR “SISTER WHORE”
There is no country, at this epoch, on the habitable globe, which can produce so many exalted and illustrious women (I mean mentally) as England. And yet we see many of them living in obscurity; known only by their writings; neither at the tables of women of rank; nor in the studies of men of genius; we hear of no national honours, no public marks of popular applause, no rank, no title, no liberal and splendid recompense bestowed on British literary women! They must fly to foreign countries for celebrity, where talents are admitted to be of no SEX, where genius … is still honoured as GENIUS”
—Mary Robinson, Thoughts on the Condition of Women
The predecessors of an original Genius will have smoothed the way for all that he had in common with them;—and much he will have in common; but for what is peculiarly his own, he will be called upon to clear and often shape his own road:—he will be in the condition of Hannibal among the Alps.
—William Wordsworth, “Essay, Supplementary to the Preface”
It can be argued that the above two passages set forth the dominant interpretations of the positions of female and male writers in the literary world of late eighteenth-century England. Whereas the story Robinson tells suggests the marginalization of women writers by a society they cannot control, Wordsworth's narrative implies the need to reject society and stand alone in a new place. Robinson stresses the obscurity of female genius because of the very fact of sex. While there are many women of great intelligence and literary excellence, it is British society that does not allow them “celebrity” based on their genius; their identities are only “their writings.” Wordsworth, in contrast, emphasizes the strong individual, a heroic figure, whose path may be “smoothed” by others, but who must finally clear his own way to create the original work of art, “peculiarly his own.” Such self-possession—the virile power of the isolated male Genius confronted by the power of nature (J. M. W. Turner's painting of “Hannibal Among the Alps” comes sharply to mind here)—contrasts with the anonymity of the woman writer. The paths of Genius, then, as Robinson and Wordsworth see them, are clearly gendered, and it is relatively easy to read Robinson and Wordsworth as opposites in these terms. The male path is that of the Romantic Author; the female path is disappearance into the text. These gendered narratives of poetic development are well-established now and are in the process of being complicated and challenged as we have moved from a sense of women's obscurity to a concept of two separate traditions, masculine and feminine romanticism.
While the two passages above do demonstrate clearly gendered differences in authorship, on closer reading, however, they also reveal a critical point of connection between the two authors: an investment in the concept of Genius and a shared desire for reputation. Robinson laments that women are not remarked for Genius, not that they do not have it. Instead, they must go to “foreign countries” to have the markers of sex removed from Genius. “Known only by their writings,” women writers are excluded from the circles of Genius and are not allowed to have a reputation like that of male authors. Thoughts can be read as Robinson's attempt to give women this reputation by making them apparent in literary history. In that treatise, she examines women's thwarted genius and its social causes in order to recover lost women writers, a project similar to that of today's canon-revising. Robinson clearly saw herself as capable of shaping public literary opinion at the end of her life. In 1799, the year before Lyrical Tales appeared, Robinson was especially concerned with women's social positions, with the problem of female Genius and the British literary woman's reputation specifically. Highly aware of women's different status and her own history as a public woman, Robinson must have felt the need to forge and even reinforce her own reputation, not just as popular writer but as a writer of Genius. That she writes her Memoirs, also in 1799, in addition to two novels (The False Friend in February and The Natural Daughter in August) and many poems published in The Morning Post suggests further anxiety about her authorship, or at least an attempt to take control of her image. As Linda Peterson has shown, in these memoirs Robinson tries “to present herself as an authentic Romantic author” by accommodating myths of the romantic artist as self-authorizing Genius to her specific difficulties of being a female poet.4 While Robinson shared with all writers, and poets in particular, an understanding of the dispossession of authorship, she also worked under the constraints of female otherness. Aware of her own difference, it became increasingly necessary to assert her similarity to male writers in order not to be forgotten. The only way to affirm her own Genius was to create lines of debt that would link their writing to hers. Lyrical Tales is Robinson's attempt to authorize herself as a woman writer of poetic genius.
I am interested less here in the category of Genius, however, than in Robinson's investment in the making of poetic reputations, including her own, and her sense of a shared genius with other writers. Critically, this interest was not limited to women writers. As the Preface from Sappho and Phaon (1796) implies, Robinson saw herself as defending the Genius poet, embattled by the “ignorant and the powerful” around him who do not understand and even maliciously seek to destroy his writing:
But the Poet's life is one perpetual scene of warfare: he is assailed by envy, stung by malice, and wounded by the fastidious comments of concealed assassins. The more eminently beautiful his compositions are, the larger is the phalanx he has to encounter; for the enemies of genius are multitudinous.5
Robinson's interest in giving credit to other recognized writers in this earlier text reveals her sense of herself, even in 1796, as a shaper of reputations. This Preface sets forth her belief that poetry is the highest expression of Genius through an exploration of Sappho's history, whose name doubles for the classical poet and for herself. But the Preface treads a careful line between the specific plight of the woman poet and the general battle all Genius poets, male and female, face.6 In Robinson's view, all poets share the same experience of dispossession and the same struggle for authority because of their Genius. What is equally striking about Sappho and Phaon is that in addition to establishing Robinson as a defender of poetic genius, her sonnet sequence signifies her own poetic power. Whereas the opening focuses on Sappho's Genius, the actual sonnets rely on Robinson's own romantic history. And Sappho (classical and romantic) would not have written “any composition which might tend to tarnish her reputation or to lessen that celebrity which it was the labour of her life to consecrate” (SP 27). More significantly, Robinson's use of “Sappho” reveals an intriguing strategy, which she returns to in Lyrical Tales: as she revives the reputation of Sappho in her preface to authorize her poems, it is her own reputation that haunts the sonnet sequence and gives Sappho status. This continual self-reference and elision—as poet and lover, Sappho is both her and not her—creates a connection to Sappho, the classical poet, much like her later relation with Coleridge.7
Given her own well-established reputation as a prolific writer and her public popularity, Robinson's comment about women's obscurity may seem disingenuous. That is, Robinson may have been marginalized since her death by literary history but not by the circumstances of her own time. Whether the critics of her time praised and dispraised her writing and style, commented on her poetic “richness of fancy and of language”8 or critiqued her for lack of cultivation and her shameless pursuit of money, few rifled to comment in some way. In contrast to Wordsworth and Coleridge, her authority was founded on her notoriety as a visible and vocal public woman, not primarily on her talent as a writer. In fact, comments on her writing were outnumbered by comments on her behavior and appearance. Much as People Magazine reports on the latest goings and comings of Hollywood stars, papers like The Morning Post, The Morning Herald, Oratoria, and the Oracle reported in great detail Robinson's attendance at parties and the theater, the clothes she wore, the carriages in which she drove around in and out of London. Regardless of Robinson's wishes, the public interpreted her texts based on the media's representation of her. They devoured her publications because she was a celebrity. In a sense Robinson's public life, not her Genius, authorized her as author.
According to Judith Pascoe in “The Spectacular Flaneuse: Mary Robinson and the City of London,” Robinson found commercial involvement liberating in a way that male writers of the time did not.9 There can be little doubt that Robinson was a shrewd marketer of her texts. Not only the quantity of her published writing but also its popularity purports to her ability to sell herself as a writer worth reading. Longman, her publisher, and Daniel Stuart, editor of the Morning Post, certainly knew the value of her name and of her writing and capitalized on it.10 In fact, Stuart hired Robinson to fill Robert Southey's post in 1800, when Southey left for Portugal, precisely because he knew she would draw a big audience.11 Robinson's reputation as a celebrity ensured her texts would sell, and her name signified to her audience what to expect from their purchase of her work.
Thus when Lyrical Tales was published in November 1800, Robinson was far more famous than Wordsworth or Coleridge, and famous for reasons that certainly would have bothered Wordsworth, and may have begun to seem troubling to Robinson, then seriously ill and reduced to being carried if she went anywhere. This critical point needs to be stressed: in 1798, Wordsworth and Coleridge were beginning their poetic careers and Robinson was finishing hers. To say this more bluntly, we should probably be reading Wordsworth and Coleridge through Robinson as much as the other way around. But the issue still remains that Lyrical Tales significantly responds to Lyrical Ballads. If, historically, Robinson was more well-known than Wordsworth and Coleridge, why would she want to respond to Lyrical Ballads, anonymously published and harshly reviewed, a volume that even garnered a negative review from Southey in the Critical Review of October 1798?
I will focus on two answers to this question in the remainder of this article: Robinson's concern with her own reputation, which I turn to next, was reinforced by the specific context of the volume's publication, which I will examine subsequently. Robinson was increasingly interested in aligning herself with the Lyrical Ballads poets for economic, political and poetic reasons, but her established reputation and her authorial practice worked against her image as original Genius. As the majority of critics have stressed in writing on Robinson, Robinson's theatricality, her ability to play multiple parts—Perdita, Portia, Laura Maria of the Della Cruscan school, Sappho, her many pseudonyms for the Morning Post, and her roles in Lyrical Tales—was a defining strategy of her authorship and seems to indicate what Pascoe has called a “multiply-constituted female” self in contrast to the self-authorizing male Wordsworthian ego (Pascoe 260). Robinson knew her audiences well and adapted her literary presentation for each rhetorical situation, as an actress on stage might adapt her lines.12 In one sense, Robinson's Lyrical Tales can be read as another one of her many performances, a final theatrical tour de force in the many voices she lets speak in the poems. But by 1800, the kind of authorship Robinson exhibited was increasingly associated with the popular: a feminine, less serious genre that was anything but self-possessed. While her use of multiple personae in the Morning Post as editor may have given some escape from this rigidity of reputation, this strategy did not give her the credit to ensure her equality with male writers. Playing so many parts, she risked being a “sister whore” and not the “undoubted Genius” Coleridge called her.13
Moreover, behind all those parts, readers would still find the Robinson constructed by the media, the Robinson defined by her failed romantic exploits (even if that was no less of a part). As Susan Luther suggests, Robinson's “literary and public persona as a beautiful (and reformed) heroine of sensibility” (392) dominated interpretations of her texts and authorship.14 In particular, Robinson's public history, the story of her authorship, was a story of the public woman, of romance gone wrong. She turned to writing officially after the failed Perdita and Florizel romance and then exploited that failure and her failed relationships in many novels and poems, including Sappho and Phaon. While this was not her only story, Robinson's use of her own romance narrative made her reputation, but it also had very real and negative effects on how she was perceived as an individual and writer. She gained economically from this self-referential strategy, but it also defined her as a writer interested in money and not poetic style. Her commodification of her own story—which must have seemed to many as a kind of prostituting of herself—identified her specifically as a writer defined by her femaleness, not as a romantic poet.
Given her connection with radical literary circles and her shared politics with Coleridge and Wordsworth, this must have made Robinson feel her difference, as an issue of gender, and reminded her of how fragile literary reputation could be. Furthermore, most writers, especially ones as much in the public eye as Robinson, must have been aware of the growing attention at the end of the century to the building of a national literary tradition. Such a project, of course, meant sifting through all the many writers and selecting those of Genius caliber; it meant making writers' reputations for posterity. History has shown that this institutionalization of British literature was constructed in a gendered matrix and solidified along clearly defined gender binarisms. As Greg Kucich argues, in the course of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, women writers were systematically excluded from the standard anthologies of British literature that were being produced even as women were gaining popularity as authors in the marketplace. By the early nineteenth century, even in the attempts made by Alexander Dyce and Leigh Hunt to recover women writers, “decorous delicacy” had become the norm for women once again.15 As her Thoughts attests, Robinson was already conscious of these exclusions.
Lyrical Tales, then, should be read not only as another remaking of herself, but also as an attempt to assert women's poetic authority. While Robinson's literary metamorphoses clearly separate her authorship from the Wordsworth of The Prelude, they are less distinctly separate from the Wordsworth and Coleridge of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads and, I think, no less self-authorizing. By 1800, Robinson clearly thought of herself as a maker of reputations and leading author on the poetic scene. In a letter to Samuel Jackson Pratt, 31 August 1800, she articulates her own pride in the quantity of her poetry published in The Morning Post: “I continue my daily labours in the Post; all the Oberons. Tabithas. MR's and indeed most of the Poetry, you see there is mine.”16 Because of her reputation as poet, this letter also implies, she has the power to shape those of others. She apologizes to Pratt for not introducing his poetry on the grounds that “I never wish to have any introductions to my own Poetry in the MP and therefore I thought of course that yours did not require it; the merit of your lines speaking for themselves.” Despite her seeming humility in the face of another's poetic authority, the implication is also that her lines speak for themselves. She goes on to promise to “do everything that is right, and just, and handsome about” Pratt's Gleanings in addition to the two announcements. Significantly, this letter also mentions “Lyrical Tales, Now printing by Longman & Reese,” right before a discussion of the many “literary characters—authoresses, who have been visiting as well as Godwin and a plan for a visit to ‘Coleridge, the Poet.’”
The differentiation between “Coleridge, the Poet” and “the authoresses” in this letter, combined with the attention she draws to her own writing, situates Lyrical Tales in a precious but critical position, a position from which Robinson must negotiate the poet's and the woman's struggle against dispossession. As an act of self-authorizing, the publication of her volume is meant to write herself into literary history as romantic poet. The volume attempts to create relations of debt with Wordsworth and Coleridge that might change her reputation and disrupt the gendering of poetic spheres. But as a revisionary response, Lyrical Tales risks being just a copy, another part; to aim for “undoubted Genius” is to risk being another “sister whore,” another woman writer who fades into obscurity. The publication of Lyrical Tales, then, is precisely about the status of poetic authority and reputation at the end of the eighteenth century in England and reveals Robinson's challenge to late eighteenth-century canon formation. If, as Stuart Curran has argued, these texts (with Southey's Metrical Tales) are part of a “complex revisionary act whose central stake is the nature of the new realism that will impel English poetry into the nineteenth century” (24), Robinson's poems are also about the role of the woman poet in that literary history. As the specific literary events leading up to Robinson's publication attest, she was intent on connecting her reputation to Wordsworth's and Coleridge's. However, their poems to one another reveal that Robinson's reputation threatened the very feminizing dispossession that she was trying to alleviate.
2. “AN EQUAL PORTION OF POWER IN THE BRITISH TRIBUNAL OF LITERATURE”: THE PROBLEM OF LITERARY DEBT
In a much cited letter to Mrs. John Marshall, 10 and 12 September 1800, Dorothy Wordsworth writes, “[William] intends to give [his second edition of Lyrical Ballads] the name of ‘Poems by W. Wordsworth’ as Mrs. Robinson has claimed the title and is about publishing a volume of Lyrical Tales. This is a great objection to the former title, particularly as they are published by the same press and Longman is the publisher of both the works.”17 Dorothy continues by commenting positively on the sales and popularity of the Lyrical Ballads (“better than we expected” and “liked by a much greater number of people”) and on their difference from other popular poems. Her comments reveal William's concern with his literary reputation, his desire for his own poetic identity, and the literary turf battle implicit in Robinson's claiming of his title. Clearly William does not want his poems associated with, or confused with, hers—poems, he thought, like those he would go on to call “deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse” in the 1800 Preface. Wordsworth's feeling of threat needs to be taken seriously, even if he did not, finally, change the title. Their mutual publisher, Longman, felt the publication of Lyrical Tales warranted a substantial 1250 copies for a first printing in contrast with the 500 copies of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (Fergus and Thaddeus 205). If the wrong attribution of Coleridge's name to Lyrical Ballads had already displaced Wordsworth's status as its author, Robinson's reputation (the unspoken “great objection”) as a woman and as a writer threatened to fill the blank space on the title page of Lyrical Ballads.18 In fact, Lyrical Tales was potentially a more valuable text than Lyrical Ballads because of Robinson's reputation at the time of its publication. In the late eighteenth century, Robinson, Coleridge and Wordsworth were all not only complexly responding to one another but were also individually concerned with their poetic reputations. Robinson's volume of poems appears at a time when Coleridge's and Wordsworth's working relations were shifting, as each became increasingly concerned with defining his own public voice. In their collaborative work writing the W98 edition of Lyrical Ballads, published anonymously, neither Coleridge nor Wordsworth had been very concerned with literary property. However, the publication of the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, published under the name “W. Wordsworth,” clarified that ownership and put Coleridge's name under erasure.19 At the same time, however, Coleridge was busy establishing his own reputation as well as a poetic correspondence with Robinson, while both worked for the Morning Post. In fact, Robinson may at first have believed Coleridge wrote the poems of Lyrical Ballads because of a review in the British Critic, October 1799, which suggested as much.
This triangulation of relations provides the critical framework for understanding Robinson's Lyrical Tales as a complicated response to Lyrical Ballads. Her act of revision in Lyrical Tales—not unlike Wordsworth's and Coleridge's borrowings from each other—inserted her poetic, female voice in their dynamic. However, this gesture was much more ambivalent than Wordsworth's negative response to their overlapping titles implies, much less of an overt territorial claim and much more of an attempt to write herself, and women more generally, into literary history. It was both competitive and nurturing, profitable and aesthetic. Still unable to escape her past associations with the “fluttering tinselled crew” of the Della Cruscans and her role as Perdita and in need of money (in May 1800, she was in debtor's prison), Robinson published Lyrical Tales to confirm her poetic authority, to resolve her unremitting financial debts, and to try out an increasingly popular form that she had not yet tried. In addition, her volume also gave weight to Lyrical Ballads and created a sense of literary debt between her and Coleridge, a relationship already started in their earlier exchanges while writing for The Morning Post. Though Lyrical Ballads was slowly overcoming its initial unpopularity, her sense of a shared project with Coleridge may have pushed her to want to further his reputation with hers. And it is this friendship with Coleridge that may have partly led to her poetic response to Wordsworth and that may have led to her desire to defend her reputation.
Lyrical Tales, then, revises the poetic principles of Lyrical Ballads to move into its new poetic territory and to lend the authority of Robinson's name to Wordsworth's and Coleridge's text. The volume functions as a revisionary response that is meant to assert the authority of the original at the same time as it shows Robinson's ability—her Genius—to write the Lyrical Ballads style of poetry. Making herself both copy and original, Robinson affirms their reputation, re-authorizes herself and challenges the idea of separate, gendered literary spheres. Her strategy of repetition-with-a-difference interweaves her poetry and reputation with theirs and it enables her to re-articulate herself as a poet with her own agenda and poetic sensibility, a maker of future poets and a female poet of original genius who can lay claim to “an equal portion of power in the TRIBUNAL of BRITISH Literature.”20
As Stuart Curran argues, Robinson, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey had been acquainted in writing as early as 1797, when Robinson and Coleridge began writing for Daniel Stuart at the Morning Post (Curran 19). Thus, as early as 1797, prior to the publication of Lyrical Ballads, Robinson, Coleridge and Wordsworth must have been aware of each other as poetic rivals and allies, and, more particularly, they would have felt their sense of connection over their rivalry with Southey, the Morning Post editor prior to Robinson. A review of Lyrical Ballads, published in the Monthly Mirror in October 1798, must have struck a personal chord with her and may have had some weight in shaping her later response:
The author [of Lyrical Ballads] has certainly accomplished his purposes, and instead of the pompous and high-sounding phraseology of the Della Cruscan school, has produced sentiments of feeling and sensibility, expressed without affectation, and in the language of nature. If this style were more generally adopted, it would tend to correct that depraved taste occasioned by an incessant importation from the press of sonnets and other poems, which has already made considerable inroads upon the judgment.21
This review explicitly opposes the sonnet (Sappho and Phaon) and the Della Cruscan school, in which Robinson was a major player, with the nature poetry of the Lyrical Ballads, defining her poetry as the “depraved taste” that has made “considerable [and implied, negative] inroads upon judgment” in contrast with the Lyrical Ballads' “sentiments of feeling and sensibility, expressed without affectation and in the language of nature.” This is not just a slight to Robinson's earlier poetry; it is a slight to her keen sensibility and her poetic authority. That poetic styles were changing must have been made very clear to her, as a primary writer for the Morning Post, but she must also have felt she had some power in shaping those opinions as poetry editor in 1800.
Significantly, by the time of Lyrical Tales' publication (November 1800), two more favorable reviews of Lyrical Ballads had appeared, one in October 1799 in the British Critic and another in April 1800 in the Antijacobin Review. Both of these reviews are important for creating a framework for understanding Robinson's publication of Lyrical Tales under her own name, Mrs. Mary Robinson—perhaps no less of a pseudonym, but nonetheless carrying the weight of her reputation. These reviews construct Lyrical Ballads as a work of “genius” and the author as a Poet of “no ordinary merit.” The brief review in the Antijacobin—a journal with opposing politics to that of the young Wordsworth and Coleridge—claims the volume has “genius, taste, elegance, with an imagery of the most beautiful kind … the whole volume convinces us that the author possesses a mind at once classic and accomplished” (RR 22). The extensive review in The British Critic, crediting Coleridge with all the poems, takes this further by agreeing with the authors' definition of poetry and positing the poet as the source of “true notions of poetry” and not the critic; it is he (the poet) who is the best at “judging the effusions of Genius” (RR 128). As arbiter of taste and the producer of Genius, this poet starts to appear as what later critics define as the Romantic Author.
Longman, Robinson's and Wordsworth's publisher, had also changed his mind about Lyrical Ballads. Though even as late as the end of 1799 he had been uninterested in the copyright of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's volume, in June he had offered 80 [pounds sterling] with the possibility of a second volume of poems. Moreover, between 2 April and 19 November 1800, Daniel Stuart's paper, at the urging of Coleridge, and contrary to its editorial policy, reprinted seven of the poems from Lyrical Ballads. As James Green and Karen Butler suggest in the Cornell edition of Lyrical Ballads, “Coleridge pushed his work on all he met,” and one of these individuals was clearly Robinson.22 When the second edition of Lyrical Ballads appeared at the end of January 1802 to more favorable acclaim, its first printing was much more substantial, consisting of 750 copies of Volume One and a thousand copies of Volume Two, and this led to a second printing of a thousand copies of each volume (followed by two other printings of 500 copies of each volume) (Butler and Green 32).
This publication information, well-known by Wordsworth scholars, situates the 1250 copy printing of Robinson's Lyrical Tales, which advertised Wordsworth's forthcoming volumes, in between the two editions of Lyrical Ballads. In addition to highlighting the shrewd marketing on Longman's part, this positioning indicates the complexity of Robinson's motives. Though Robinson's name could still warrant a larger printing, clearly the kind of poetry in Lyrical Ballads was gaining popularity in economic and aesthetic terms. When Robinson sent her volume to the publishers, she noted that her “Tales, serious and gay, [were] on a variety of subjects in the manner of Wordsworth's Lyrical ballads” (Pascoe 54). The publication of Lyrical Tales, it appears, was carefully calculated to maintain her poetic reputation and to promote Wordsworth's and Coleridge's, but it also clearly inserted her text into the growing trend in poetry by intertwining hers with theirs. If in October 1798, Robinson's association with the Della Cruscan school had pejoratively opposed her to the new poetic tradition being established by Lyrical Ballads, in early 1800, Robinson's Lyrical Tales makes clear not only her rejection of that earlier mode but also her ability to write this new “simple” poetry in “the language of nature.” Robinson, aware of women's exclusion from Genius, wanted to share in this romantic genius. We can read this as Robinson's debt to Coleridge and Wordsworth, but it can also be interpreted as a move that tries to make them indebted to her. Either way, reputation is on the line.
The dynamic of Robinson's reputation is partially revealed by two poems that represent Wordsworth's and Coleridge's relationships to her and reveal their ambivalences about her as a rival poet: “Alcaeus to Sappho” and “A Stranger Minstrel,” written to Mrs. Robinson a few weeks before her death.23 Both poems articulate their poetic relationships in terms of the conventional gender relations of female object and male subject, but they reveal the contradictions of that relationship and thus elucidate the feminizing dispossession at the heart of literary reputation.
Only shortly after Wordsworth had complained about Robinson's usurping of his title, “Alcaeus to Sappho” appeared in the Morning Post under Coleridge's name (sent to The Morning Post 7 October 1800; published 24 November 1800), though it was clearly written by Wordsworth as early as February 1799 (Butler and Green 457). While it appears that Coleridge added the title and the name Sappho in line 16, the poem is still important for the relationship created between Robinson and Wordsworth as well as for what it suggests about Coleridge's role as a mediator in constructing these relations of debt.
Using the common lyrical motif of romantic desire, the poem is structured by a series of gazes: in stanzas one and two the speaker, Alcaeus, looks on the maiden, Sappho, to register himself in her, that it is his gaze that “sent the flush / Into [her] cheek” (7-8). And in stanza three the maiden's blue eyes (a feature of Robinson's often mentioned) turn to gaze at the speaker. Thus, making Sappho into a blushing maiden, the power of Sappho's/Robinson's gaze is seemingly contained by Alcaeus'/Wordsworth's/Coleridge's desire to be able to tell the world he has “seen / The fairest face on earth!” (19-20) at the end of the poem. However, the speaker's use of “you” to talk about himself is ambiguous, and, as “you” is a form of address not usually used for oneself, it is possible to read “you” against the grain of the poem, as Sappho (creating a kind of lesbian erotics). The speaker then takes the feminized position of the maiden.24 In the larger context of poetic reputation, this poem reveals the poets' shifting authority in relation to one another. In the first reading, the speaker registers his effect on Sappho and his desire to have her gaze turned on him (perhaps Sappho's recognition of him if we are to take seriously Coleridge's note to “The Seven Sisters” that Sappho's Meter “almost constitutes the present celebrity of Alcaeus”).25 In the second, the relations are reversed and the speaker gazes, almost worshipfully, at Sappho.
The end of the poem reinforces the instability of these gendered relations and makes more explicit the inherent power struggle. In the last two stanzas, the poem shifts to the first person, as the speaker questions Sappho's beauty and power: “And can a Lip more richly glow / Or be more fair than this?” (13-14). The answer, given the praise of the first part of the poem, is startling: the “world” answers “No,” but the speaker answers “yes,” she can be more “fair” (15-16). The double meaning of “fair,” both attractive and even-handed, combined with this request for her “to grant one smile, tho' it should mean / A thing of doubtful Birth” (17-18) suggest that the speaker feels he has not received the attention he deserves. More explicitly, this request places her in a position of power, the power to create his literary reputation, “A thing of doubtful Birth.” Again, recall that both Coleridge and Wordsworth are struggling to establish themselves at this time whereas Robinson has already been judged by the “world,” in the language of the poem, as the most “fair.”
In another tangle of gazes, the last two lines of the poem return power to the speaker: “That I may say, these Eyes have seen / The Fairest face on Earth!” (19-20). This is again a gesture of adoration, but also one that puts the speaker in the position of creating her reputation. Unless she smiles on him, he will not cite her as the “fairest.” Note, too, that the use of the word “Eyes” refers back to the Blue eyes of lines 9-10, again blurring the speaker with the object. If these are again Sappho's eyes, “fairest face on Earth” becomes his own—a kind of literary beauty contest, if you will, which has as its prize poetic authority. But what the poem finally divulges through these intertwined gazes is that these reputations depend on one another.
Written while Coleridge was working on the manuscript of the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge's poem “A Stranger Minstrel” presents a similar anxiety and praise and a parallel feminizing of the male poet who weeps disconsolately for Robinson's absence.26 As Susan Luther suggests, the poem makes clear that Robinson's poetry derives from a different context (406-7): “she dwells belike in scenes more fair / And scorns a mount so bleak and bare” (Coleridge 32-33), the male romantic poet's chosen setting. More importantly for my argument, though, the poem, through the voice of Skiddaw, emphasizes Robinson's reputation as poet, not only by citing her poems, but also by telling how, because of her “witching melody” (64),
“many a stranger in my height Hath sung to me her magic song, Sending forth his ecstasy In her divinest melody.”
In these lines, a man borrows a female poet's words and melody, in a kind of ventriloquist's act. While this may be Coleridge's own peculiar anxiety, it suggests here the possibility of the male poet's debt to, if not the prior presence of, the female voice. It is the male poet, here, who is forced into an act of mimicking. Moreover, at the end of the poem, the mountain claims:
“I too, methinks, might merit The presence of her spirit! To me too might belong The honour of her song and witching melody, Which most resembles me, Soft, various, and sublime, Exempt from wrongs of Time!”
Claiming Robinson's poetic abilities and suggesting that her poetry “most resembles” him, the mountain aligns her with the nature poetry of the Lyrical Ballads poets, making her an insider, even as the speaker continues to moan her loss at the end. This poem, then, is indicative of the shift in Robinson's poetics, but it also makes clear the established reputation she brings with her.
Whether wittingly or not, both of these poems situate the male poets in feminized positions. And at the same time, the poems try to position Robinson in traditionally female ways. In the case of Wordsworth's poem, Coleridge's revisions may have uncannily forced Wordsworth into the very relations from which, according to Betsy Bolton, he wished to dissociate himself: romance, prostitution and the theater, all elements associated with Robinson, and implicit in “Alcaeus to Sappho.” In the case of Coleridge's poem, it is possible, to see, though on a smaller scale, a similar anxiety about and desire for the demonic possession of Coleridge's Christabel and “Kubla Khan” (especially in light of Robinson's own figuring of herself in that sphere in “To the Poet Coleridge”). Significantly, in both poems, relations of literary debt are not only being coded in gendered terms that reveal the feminizing dispossession of authorship, but they also disclose the otherness of being feminine in the conventions of romance.27
Robinson resorts to a revisionary strategy to challenge these dispossessions and to create relations of debt that make her reputation as romantic author and not just as female writer. This revisionary strategy, a form of repetition-with-a-difference, critically, is not a new strategy. In fact, the kind of revisionary practice she turns to in Lyrical Tales became one of her dominant means of textual production and is apparent in several of the texts she writes at the end of her life—her Memoirs and Thoughts on the Condition of Women, as well as Lyrical Tales.28 Let me briefly look at one example of this strategy, her most famous revision, “To the Poet Coleridge,” a response to Coleridge's “Kubla Khan” then circulating in manuscript form (it was not published until 1816, well after Robinson's poem).29 Surprisingly free of the romance narrative that infiltrates many of her other poems, this poem is nonetheless symptomatic of Robinson's authorial practice at the end of her life and illuminates her poetic relationship with Coleridge. In the context of my argument, these revisions, like the revisions of Lyrical Ballads in Lyrical Tales, make clear Robinson's debt to Coleridge at the same time as she asserts her poetic autonomy and authority.
Through a thematic and metrical revision of “Kubla Khan,” Robinson challenges the marginalization of the female figure as muse in Coleridge's poem and presents herself as his equal as together they survey his “new Paradise extended” (Luther 396-97). In her revisioning of Coleridge's landscape, Robinson reworks the images and language of “Kubla Khan” (“sunny dome,” caves of ice,” and the general eroticized landscape—extending Coleridge's Paradise) to create a shared visionary territory (“Imagination's boundless space” ), in which each occupies the position of the poet to which the other is indebted. If Robinson copies Coleridge's original in this poem, however, “To the Poet Coleridge” suggests that Coleridge's originality as poet depends on her knowing response. To complicate these relations even further, consider that Robinson's poem was published well before Coleridge's; thus, audiences would have known the “copy” before they knew the original and could have read his poem through hers. Robinson's poem is meant to laud Coleridge as poet, as the title emphasizes, and yet even as it extols his poetic power, it stresses Robinson's own ability to make his reputation, to crown him poet. Her poetic power and sensitivity not only make possible an understanding of his landscape, but also become a source of his inspiration, as she hears the voice he “would revive within” by the end of the poem. Thus, his status as genius depends on her authorizing gesture.
Whereas the demonic poet with “his flashing eyes, his floating hair” (Coleridge 50) at the end of “Kubla Khan” is self-possessed in his isolation, Robinson's speaker/poet takes her strength from their mutual exploration, and the intermingling of their sources of poetic inspiration, as together they “trace the circling bounds” of this Paradise. After line thirty, however, the phrase “with thee” is not used again, as the speaker becomes more intent on honoring Coleridge's poetic power and its effect on her. As she crowns him “Genius of Heaven-taught poetry,” her “wond'ring eyes” are opened to his “new creation” and she becomes “raptured” to trace, again, “the circling bounds / Of thy rich Paradise extended” (52-56). In the final stanza, a critical shift has occurred, as she claims that his muse “shall wake [her] in ecstatic measures” (60), a new poetry that, since it arises from communion with his muse and their mutual traversing of the garden, must be connected to his poetry. Such an awakening reveals the speaker's continued praise of his poetry, an intermingling of their sources of poetic inspiration, and her newfound and equal poetic power. It further suggests Robinson's entrance into a new realm of literary experience, a move that, in light of their respective reputations, is both flattering and threatening.
Moreover, while the general imagery of Robinson's poem is Coleridge's, as Luther has shown, it is Robinson, who, in the second half of the poem, interprets the voice of the “damsel with a dulcimer” (“the nymph her dulcimer swift smiting” in Robinson's poem ) as a voice which, like hers, sings of Coleridge's “minstrelsy, sublimely wild!” Her ability to hear and interpret this voice, which is like her own and yet also Coleridge's voice, makes her his muse and a worshipper of the same muse and poetic values, even a convert to Coleridge's poetry. In addition, however, as a maker of poetic reputations, her ability helps him hear his muse. At the same time as she hears this voice, the “caves of ice, loud repeat, / Vibrations, maddn'ing sweet, / Calling the visionary wand'rer home” (65-67). “[T]he visionary wanderer” being called home is clearly Coleridge and it is Robinson's repetition and understanding of the voice of these caves that lure him home. However, because the referent is ambiguous, “the visionary wanderer” can also be interpreted as Robinson being called home by the caves of Coleridge's “Kubla Khan.” This doubling, in which Robinson is both calling and being called by Coleridge, creates a complex dynamic between the two poets. Meant to highlight Coleridge's poetic sensibility, “which gives to airy dreams a magic all thy own,” such doubling also foregrounds her own power of deciding who embodies poetic Genius. If the speaker plays out a feminine role by gathering wildflowers to “weave a crown for [Coleridge]” (51), she also asserts her poetic authority by labeling him “Genius of Heaven-taught poetry” (52). Altogether, these doublings completely enmesh the two poets, so that each occupies the place of self and other, original and copy.
Thus, Robinson's revisionary strategy—on a small scale in “To the Poet Coleridge” and on a large scale in Lyrical Tales—creates relations of literary debt with Coleridge that position her as both maker of reputations and novitiate in a new field of poetry, both insider and outsider. As an assertion of her reputation and of her debt, Lyrical Tales presents the act of one poet judging the others' work as “effusions of Genius,” deeming them worthy and granting them the status of original; but as copy, Lyrical Tales makes Robinson the arbiter of poetic taste, no longer of the “depraved taste” of the Della Cruscan school, no longer female other, but insider. The entanglement of Robinson's texts with those of Wordsworth and Coleridge thus radically destabilizes the relationship between original and copy, self and other. It is these relationships—in particular, Robinson's identification with those who are other, the marginalized figures of her poems—that are at stake in the subject positions she takes up in the poems of Lyrical Tales.
3. LYRICAL TALES AS SELF-DEFENSE
In the final section of this essay, I will examine Robinson's concern with dispossession and reputation in the poems of Lyrical Tales. While these poems do not address the issue of authorial reputation directly, the dispossession of authorship—and the self-defense it demands—is displaced onto figures of social otherness, who also foreground the otherness of subjectivity. The centrality of these issues in the poems is symptomatic of Robinson's anxiety about her reputation as an Author, an anxiety that leads to a strong identification of her position with those of the marginalized subjects in her poems. As I have suggested above, the publication of this volume itself is meant to affirm her authority as a maker of reputations and as a writer of romantic poetry. Reputation is, nonetheless, a form of dispossession that reveals the self as other, the copy as displacing the original. If Robinson's volume disrupts relations between original and copy, self and other, Robinson's poems also obsess about these relations. The dominant theme of these poems is dispossession; they are full of moments in which individuals are again and again made to feel their own otherness, their own inability to control their surroundings.
The poems continually recall those of Lyrical Ballads to assert both their connection to and disconnection from those poems. On the one hand, this volume represents the new poetry Robinson wants to align herself with; on the other, her reputation has already established her authority. Through their revisions and multiple entanglements, these poems assert their similarities with Wordsworth's and Coleridge's poems—valorizing Robinson's ability as romantic poet as well as theirs—at the same time as they stress their difference—foregrounding the danger of speaking and the dispossession of reputation. Critically, however, this difference is not to be registered in terms of poetic power. Rather, it is a difference that underscores Robinson's reputation, her power to use and to revise their poetics—a difference that is thus meant to elevate the woman poet to the status of insider. This, however, is a risky gesture if Samuel Johnson's definition of a prostitute as “a woman who converses unlawfully with men” holds true. It means to risk being a commodity, a copy, an outsider to the circle of romantic poets, the very thing she does not want to be. The poems in the volume make clear her double status: Robinson is both insider and outsider, poetic Genius and marginalized other, original and copy.
Like Lyrical Ballads, Robinson's volume is a polyvocal text with ethical intentions. The two texts share an interest in the outcast's plight; both authors are intent on “a natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents.”30 Moreover, Robinson's poems exhibit some of the general concerns of Lyrical Ballads as Wordsworth later philosophized in his several prefaces. In particular, Wordsworth's explanation of his own project in the 1802 Preface is helpful in illuminating the closeness of the writers' projects. Wordsworth writes: “[I]t will be the wish of the Poet to bring his feelings near to those of the persons whose feelings he describes, nay, for short spaces of time perhaps, to let himself into an entire delusion, and even confound and identify his own feelings with theirs” (Butler and Green 751). This could as easily have been written about many of the poems in Lyrical Tales, for example “The Lascar” or “The Negro Girl,” which are spoken by each of the title characters. Both volumes of poems seek to erase the poet's self in order to let the other speak as a subject. And they do so with specific poetic goals: to use Wordsworth's words again, they are attempting “to ascertain how far the language of conversation is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” This identification with the positions of poet and marginalized other not only declares Robinson's debt to Lyrical Ballads, it also forms the very basis of her revisionary poetic practice.
With the exception of “The Haunted Beach” and “All Alone,” many of the connections between Lyrical Ballads and Lyrical Tales are rendered subtly in linguistic echoes and thematic parallels. The language of Robinson's poems resonates throughout with that of Coleridge's and Wordsworth's, from the sea imagery and context of “The Haunted Beach” to the ballads like “Old Barnard,” from the nature imagery of “To the Fugitive” to the isolation of “The Alien Boy,” from the attention to displacement in “The Widow's Home” to Mistress Guerton's cat, who sings like an “eolian lute.”31 Images and ideas are refigured: the wedding guest of “The Ancient Mariner” returns as the forlorn, lovelorn deserter in “Edmund's Wedding”; a Mariner figure appears in “The Haunted Beach”; the boy of the “Foster Mother's Tale” is recalled by “The Alien Boy”; the voices and stories of “The Female Vagrant” and “The Forsaken Indian Woman” become overtly racialized in “The Negro Girl” and “The Lascar.” More generally, Robinson's poems shift focus slightly by placing more emphasis on the trauma and isolation that young people and women experience. These revisionary responses are not single-faceted; instead, she responds to the earlier volume on many levels, a very few of which I will address in more detail below. If the very act of publishing the volume creates an entanglement of literary debt among the three writers, the poems themselves, read in relation to one another, produce a range of perspectives around the themes of dispossession and reputation.
The structure of Robinson's volume reveals the lateral approach of her revisions. Though Robinson's poems all challenge “pre-established codes of decision,” to use Wordsworth's words in his Advertisement to Lyrical Ballads, and try to create empathy with the dispossessed, two elements seem strikingly absent from the majority of these poems: an authorial presence (the ballad questioner so central to Wordsworth's and Coleridge's volume) and poems like Wordsworth's series of spontaneously-composed “Lines” poems. Of the twenty-two poems that make up Robinson's volume, only two poems, “The Fugitive” and “The Widow's Home,” use a first-person speaker who approaches the ponderous tones of the “Lines” speakers. These poems, with “All Alone,” are linked by their similar narrator, who is figured as the “Traveller.” As critics have noted, the first poem of the volume, “All Alone,” presents the most direct revision of one of Wordsworth's poems, as it almost mimics Wordsworth's “We Are Seven.”32 The last poem of the volume, “Golfre, a Gothic Swiss Tale,” is as far from “Tintern Abbey” as a poem could be, but its gothic context and doubling recall another poem, absent from but central to Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge's “Christabel.”33 In between these poems Robinson alternates a group of poems, each of which focuses on a single alienated individual, with another group that she labels “Tales.” I interpret the former group as Robinson's addition to the rustic voices of Wordsworth's poems, her version of the “language really used by men” and women and children. The latter group, I want to suggest, counters Wordsworth's “Lines” poems and represent Robinson's answer to the romanticizing of women's linguistic power. Almost all of Robinson's poems raise the issue of dispossession, whether they are the alienated figures whose only remaining possession is their voices, or the desiring women of the Tales, who are made to realize they have little control over their own reputations.
That Robinson's volume takes on the poetics of Wordsworth and Coleridge appears most overtly in the poems in which she creates a Wordsworthian-like narrator, the “Traveller” of “All Alone,” “The Fugitive” and “The Widow's Home.” It is not made Clear whether this Traveller is male or female, but the speaker's tone recalls the Traveller of many of the Lyrical Ballads, like “The Convict” and “The Last of the Flock.” The Traveller in these poems and in Robinson's functions as interpreter of the character he addresses and thus can be read as trying to make the outsider less other through human empathy. In the Lyrical Ballads, this relation often results in a reaffirmation of the speaker's self, as in “Simon Lee” and “The Thorn.” Here Robinson's poems emphasize their relation to the original in order to underscore the differences between the subject's and object's positions. Rather than affirming the narrator's sense of authority, Robinson's use of this Wordsworthian narrator instead calls attention to the otherness of the addressee and thus of the speaker's difference from himself. “The Fugitive” and “All-Alone,” the two poems in Robinson's volume most similar to Lyrical Ballads, should be read as inverses of one another; where the Traveller in the first seemingly bonds with his object through the divine force of human connection in Nature, in the second, he fails to connect. That the second poem, which challenges Wordsworth's poetics more overtly, succeeds poetically, while the other succeeds only in calling attention to its romantic tropes, draws attention to the complex interplay between the original Lyrical Ballads and Robinson's copies.
“The Fugitive,” although not usually recognized as one of Robinson's more interesting poems, is important for my argument precisely because it starkly reveals Robinson's revisionary response. While several critics have commented on Robinson's revisions of “We are Seven” and “The Thorn” in “All Alone,” few, if any, have noted how Robinson's “The Fugitive” recycles the language and nature imagery of Wordsworth's “The Convict” and Coleridge's “The Dungeon.” As such, “The Fugitive” attempts to take up what have become stereotypically “romantic” tropes: the divine, saving force of Nature; the interconnectedness of all humanity; the first person speaker's attempt to resolve the crisis evoked in the course of the poem. Yet in light of the many other poems about marginalized others, the appeal of “The Fugitive” to these romantic tropes falls flat. It feels like a copy. And this feeling is reinforced by the many ways in which Robinson's poem recalls the earlier two.
Robinson's poem resonates with the other two throughout and thus requires a reading of the three poems in relation to one another. Whereas Coleridge's poem provides a more overt social critique of the prison system and focuses on the transformative power of nature, Wordsworth's poem focuses on the plight of the convict in relation to the speaker's mood. Robinson's poem instead replaces the criminal (one who has transgressed the law) with the fugitive (one who is hiding from persecution). She shifts the focus from an individual action to social oppression, only to imply that the fugitive's state, a fear of mortality, is the human condition. All three poems offer Nature as the salve for the other's state. Coleridge asks Nature to “[pour] on him thy softest influences, / … Till he relent, and can no more endure / To be a jarring and a dissonant thing” (LB 22-26). The speaker of Wordsworth's poem, after gazing on “the glory of the evening” (1), turns to the gloom of the convict's cell to pity him. He offers himself “as a brother thy sorrows to share” (48) because he “would plant [the convict] where yet thou might'st blossom again” (52). Robinson's speaker asks the reader to identify him/her with the fugitive (“For I, like thee, am but a Fugitive / An alien from delight, in this dark scene!” [LT 35-36]), only to offer salvation through human connection in one God.
These poems are symptomatic of each of their anxieties about self-possession and authorship. While Coleridge focuses on the hope of Nature's salve, Wordsworth, finally, is intent on separating the speaker's self from the conflict. Coleridge's poem follows the trajectory of the conversation poems in which he asks nature to compensate for his own sense of dissonance (as well as that of the criminal's, given the ambiguity of the pronoun) and doubt about his creative power. Wordsworth's poem, too, functions like many of the “Lines” poems to shore up the speaker's sense of self by articulating his connection to the observed only to emphasize his difference. Robinson's poem also reveals a pattern of her authorship. In a solemn tone similar to that of “Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree,” Robinson's speaker turns to Nature and offers an almost Wordsworthian panacea: “Exiled man! / Be chearful! Thou art not a fugitive! / All thy kindred—all thy brothers, here— / The hoping—the trembling Creatures—of one GOD!” (LT 72-75). This deity earlier in the poem is hailed in “Nature's Language” (56). But given the extreme alienation of the other poems of this volume and the failure of Nature to provide transcendence in poems like “The Alien Boy” or “The Haunted Beach,” the turn toward a transcendent human connection rings hollow, an echo of Coleridge's “benignant touch of love and beauty” (LB 30) and, perhaps, of the healing final lines of “Tintern Abbey,” an echo that hints at the complacency of such words. The final lines fall flat because the connection of self and other is everywhere thwarted in Robinson's volume. But they also fall flat because of their repetitive nature. Whether Robinson intends it or not, the effect of this gesture—a gesture that should stress the authority of the ballad questioner—is to undercut the speaker's authority. By playing up her emotional connection to the fugitive as “persecuted Exile” (LT 39) (her sameness to the fugitive, and her sameness to the other poems) and then undercutting that connection in the final lines of the poem (her difference), she draws attention to the artificiality of the relationship between speaker and object and to the limits of this romantic discourse.
When the act of copying moves to the level of revision and dialogue, Robinson's poems expand the context of Lyrical Ballads. While the mimicry of “The Fugitive” draws attention to its status as copy, the revisionary gestures of “All Alone” threaten to displace Wordsworth's original by revealing his poem's self-congratulation. Robinson's poem makes apparent the otherness of the self, the dispossession that is the basis of her speaking subjects. In this poem the child is not father to the man, and the repetitive rhyming of “stone” and “alone” (disrupted only by inarticulate word sounds “moan” and “groan”) at the end of each stanza stresses the isolation and inflexibility of both the boy and the speaker. Like the young girl of “We are Seven,” the boy persists in his view of the world despite the Traveller's attempts to assuage his grief. Rejecting the Traveller's claim that he has “seen / Thy tiny footsteps print the dew” “heard thy sad and plaintive moan,” “mark'd” his grief and “follow'd” him, the boy denies the Traveller's presence (LT 115-16, 119, 123, 127). Instead, he asserts his own complete isolation and his loss of connection to the world in which he has not mother, sibling, friend, or father, “‘Not one! to dress with flow'rs the stone;— / ‘Then—surely, I AM LEFT ALONE!’” (his last words) (150). To the speaker's command to “Weep, weep no more” (43) and his effort to connect him to the local community, the child repeatedly answers “I cannot.” Nor does this Traveller have “dear brother Jim” to help him make sense of his experience. In his assertion, the child denies the narrator's attempt to dissolve his grief and contain it in his narrative. Instead of the self-authorizing Wordsworth's Traveller gets from the little girl, Robinson's Traveller is at a loss.
If the self/other relationship is one of the defining dynamics of the world, Robinson confronts her readers with the authoritative self made other and asserts the other as speaking elsewhere—that is, she asserts the other's difference. While the reader of “We Are Seven” can marvel at the girl's assertion of her connection to her dead siblings, the reader of “All Alone” becomes distinctly uncomfortable. Making the narrator feel that he is an outsider, the boy's self-possession, the irreducibility of his grief, points not only to the limits of the adult's framework, but also to the continual dispossession inherent in the world he inhabits. Like many of the characters, he only has his story to sustain him, but the Traveller's claims that he has heard this story are not enough to connect him to the world. The boy remains connected to the mother only, who is in her grave “alone,” but the pathos of his complaint suggests a stubborn despair and not the sustaining bond of Wordsworth's girl. While she was alive, the mother's intimate connection, which began “‘[w]hen first [he] prattled on her knee’” (81), protected him; it was her “gentle voice” (85) repeating “thou shalt not … be left alone!” (108) that defined his identity. But even the connection with the mother is betrayed, as in stanza XXI nature undermines the mother's reassuring words and she drowns in the storm. Such a loss cannot be filled by the reassurances of the Traveller not only because of his otherness from the child, but also because the child's very sense of self has become defined by his repeated negation of the mother's words. Defined by loss and betrayal; any attempt he makes to authorize himself, to tell his story, becomes a rearticulation of his own dispossession.
The boy in “All Alone” is one of the many dispossessed subjects whose stories make up Lyrical Tales. The Negro Gift, the Lascar, Marguerite, Edmund, the Alien Boy, and the shepherd's dog all experience the social isolation and loss that define the boy's existence in “All Alone.” All of these characters are cut off from society and inhabit worlds that reflect back their own psychological realities. Significantly, the majority of this group of poems pursues a single individual's plight like the rustic poems of Lyrical Ballads, and the majority was not published in The Morning Post. As such, I read them as Robinson's attempt to show her poetic sensibility, to answer Lyrical Ballads, by heightening her attention to the otherness of marginalized individuals and announcing her superior sympathy. These poems borrow the method of Wordsworth's “Forsaken Indian Woman” and “The Old Man Travelling” and the general content of social oppression of “The Female Vagrant.” However, whereas Wordsworth speaks directly through the voice of the Indian woman and the female vagrant as a kind of ventriloquist, Robinson continually foregrounds the tension between the pathos of the characters' stories and the failure of society to respond. Continually acted upon, the only act of these characters is speaking, a final, hopeless act of self-explanation. The Negro girl, for example, articulates the sexual jealousy and racism inherent in her master's exiling of her lover, but she can do nothing except tell her tale and drown herself to follow him. This is the most extreme form of dispossession, one in which reputation can no longer be defended because there is no sustaining other to connect one to the world.
This tension between the socially other's story and the failure of society, of course, puts Robinson, as poet, in an authoritative position; not only does she show her empathy with the outcast—the poet observer's sensibility—but by absenting herself from the poems, she also reveals her identification with their otherness. Wordsworth's and Coleridge's outcasts are no less oppressed, but where Wordsworth's ballad questioner and Coleridge's Mariner, finally, show their difference from those others, Robinson chooses to identify more fully, to blur the lines between poet/self and marginalized other. As she writes in “The Lascar,” “And who but such a wretch can tell, / The transports of the Indian boy?” (8.99-100). For Robinson, the female poet's experience of dispossession tied with the feminizing dispossession of authorship create this identification. Writing poetry, she writes in her Memoirs, is “a destroying labor” that brings with it the “fatigue” and “hazard” of “mental occupations” (Memoirs 85).
If this group of poems focused on the subject positions of the dispossessed works on one level to assert her sameness, her power as a poet like the Lyrical Ballads poets, her identification with the other asserts her difference. This identification, which reveals the otherness of the female poet's self as well, is made explicit in “Poor Marguerite.” Another story of failed romance, Marguerite's story might be read as a metaphor for what can happen to the female poet, cut off from the world. Without a lover, without the reputation that connects one to the world, Genius becomes madness, creativity becomes frantic and, finally, tragic. Marguerite is not a poet, but she has the sensibility and thus the creative potential. Through all her trials she sings “her Song,” “with loud fantastic tone / She sang her wild strain, sad—alone” (LT 73-74). For quite a while before she tells her story, we follow Marguerite as she crosses desert and snowy field, a background that reflects her tormented state. If this isolated romantic landscape appears to her as a potential blank page, it is only as “a waste of printless snow” (35). Her story leads her to a visionary moment, but not one of poetic power. Instead, as she stands on the edge of the cliff, she imagines the dead Henry beckoning her on; without creative power, she is left “the lifeless form” (164), dead on the beach. Form without content, body without creative Genius, woman without her muse: this final image suggests the extreme dispossession of the female poet, something Robinson, an invalid at the end of her life, may herself have feared.
The last group of poems in Robinson's volume, the “Tales,” most of which were published in The Morning Post under the pseudonym Tabitha Bramble, address more explicitly the issue of reputation as a fragile but dangerous asset, especially for women, trapped in the gender and genre conventions of romance. In contrast to the supposed spontaneity of Wordsworth's “Lines” poems, these tales are traditional stories, grounded in romance and at times reminiscent of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Their neat moralistic endings, however, do not resolve the conflicts of the poems and jar harshly with the more serious poems on dispossession in the volume. While these “Tales” were clearly not written in response to Lyrical Ballads, their inclusion in Lyrical Tales is important; these are the poems upon which Robinson understood her reputation as a poet to have been made. They assert her poetic difference and autonomy. Read in dialogue with Lyrical Ballads, their disjunctions provide an important counter to the self-assured speaker of the “Lines” poems and reveal the difference of women's experience of reputation.
While each Tale is carefully qualified by a modifier (e.g. “a village tale,” “a love tale,” etc.), they are remarkably similar in their punishment of women's desire: neither old women, who have forgotten how to desire and who now police the love lives of others, nor young women, who transgress the codes of patriarchy expressing (not necessarily acting on) desire outside of marriage, escape. And these punishments come primarily through their own incriminating verbal acts. In these poems, as in the group discussed above, romance is never about transcendence and family is only about loss; like Robinson at the end of her life, all these women have to give them authority is their voices, but their words are often their undoing. Significantly, most of these poems achieve their resolutions through some form of misrepresentation—either through disguise or through a repetition of someone's words, a recontextualization that changes the words' meaning.34 Both disguise and recontextualization function in Robinson's poems as forms of copying that undermine the central character's authority. For example, imitating Lubin's initial visit to the gypsies, Kate is forced into giving Lubin his wedding money and admitting her deception because Lubin disguises himself as a gypsy. Granny Grey is made to consent to the lovers' desires because William pretends to mistake her for his love, Annetta, and rallies the townspeople to call her a “witch.”35 While the conventional narrator of these poems criticizes the women's actions, the absence of any apparent transgressive physical intimacy on the women's part makes one doubt the poems' moral resolutions. In these tales, the disguise supposedly reveals those deceived for what they really are or the act of recontextualizing places the original's actions in doubt. However, the trite moral at the end of each poem allows the reader to empathize with the main character's plight.
In many of these poems, a woman's character is at stake; the dangers of speaking and defending oneself become clear as the women's expressions of desire return to haunt them in the form of their own words. In “The Mistletoe, a Christmas Tale,” for instance, Mistress Homespun is caught between the jealousy of her older husband and the possibility of a kiss from Hodge under the mistletoe, which is encouraged by all the women at the party who have already had their turn. Of course, Hodge's affections are already given to another, Kate, who thought she had “unrivall'd power.” Whether aimed at her husband or at Kate, trying “to make / An envious rival's bosom ache” (LT 102-3), to get what she wants and maintain her reputation, Mistress Homespun rejects Hodge's advances by crying, “Why should you ask it o'er and o'er? / … we've been there twice before!” (106-7). The final line suggests that “While VANITY alone, pursuing, / They [Women] rashly prove, their own undoing” (110—11), but Homespun's problem involves more than vanity. The reader never knows whether she has actually been with Hodge; we only have her words, the self-defense that redounds on her. Similarly, in “The Confessor, a Sanctified Tale,” Mistress Twyford, who uses confession as an escape from the confines of marriage, has her words redouble on her by her son's repetition of them to his father. Entertaining her neighbor as Father Peter's representative while her husband is away, Mrs. Twyford explains to her pestering son, who is “like his daddy, giv'n to fidget” (83), that Father Peter's “‘come to pray’” (94). When the father returns unexpectedly and the neighbor is forced to hide under the bed, the son repeats the mother's answer. This act of copying returns Mrs. Twyford's words with material force: she ends up beaten by her husband.
Again and again, these women are reminded of their inability to express their desires and to define themselves. Whereas Goody Blake has a witch-like power with words—she speaks and Harry Gill is forever cold—and Martha Ray's cry embodies her pain, the women of Robinson's poems are continually made aware of how their words misrepresent them, redouble on themselves, even to the point of physical hurt. That words have such material effects underscores the continual dispossession that confronts the female subject, let alone the female writer. As a final example of how this works in Robinson's Lyrical Tales, I will examine “Deborah's Parrot, a Village Tale,” a poem that brings together the issues of my argument. In this poem, Robinson addresses the dynamic in which the self is made other to itself through the relationship between Deborah and her parrot. The poem offers at least two levels of meaning that depend on seeing the disjunction between the storyteller's acceptance of convention and the actual, painful story of Deborah's comeuppance: while the moral of the poem—“SLANDER turns against its maker” (LT 155)—implies that Deborah deserves to be punished for her behavior, the story also discloses Deborah's inability to authorize her own story. Though Robinson's conventional narrator, Tabitha Bramble (herself a nosy spinster), mocks Deborah's state, the poem makes clear that Deborah's actions are a result of limits placed on women's reputations. Through the doubling of Deborah in her parrot, the poem exposes how the copy's challenge to the original destroys any authority Deborah thought she had.
The speaker of the poem claims it does not matter what name you call this woman by (“Her name was MISS, or MISTRESS, (sic) BROWN, / Or DEBORAH, or DERBY”) because she has the fixed reputation of a “Spinster pure” (5), “an ancient Maiden” (2), a reputation she is “doom'd” (5) to have despite her desires for companionship. Deborah's displaced desire causes her to act demurely and “model Godly” (29), but the poem implies she is always acting the part of the maiden in order to pray into “small holes in others geer … And microscopic follies, prying view” (41-42). Part of what the townspeople object to is Deborah's attempt to be something she is not. All that is known about Deborah, including the existence of her parrot, however, comes from the gossipmongers “Fame” and “Scandal,” who make clear the villager's increasing dislike of Deborah. They imply, unsympathetically, that Deborah's loneliness results from her ugliness:
And had Miss DERBY'S form been grac'd, Fame adds,—She had not been so chaste;—But since for frailty she would roam, She ne'er was taught—to look at home.
As compensation for her unrequited desires and out of spite, Deborah becomes a snoop and a rat, whose biggest pleasure is “a tripping female to surprize” (10) (which is the agenda of Tabitha Bramble as well). This kind of conflict between women is one of the ways patriarchy works to disable women from seeing their shared oppression; while Deborah is clearly not nice, Robinson's poem implies how embattled her position is.
Deborah's problem is that she desires a husband, but, because of her reputation, she ends up with a parrot instead. Her only companion in the first half of the poem, this parrot becomes, through her teaching, a copy of herself: he is nosy as she is and tries to ruin other people's reputations, usually by accusing them of sexual exploits they have not committed—the kinds of amorous activity from which Deborah in her spinster-state feels excluded. In typical parrot-like fashion, he repeats her teaching. However, as a kind of second self, the parrot speaks for Deborah and articulates her frustration and desire. In particular, she teaches him to cry, “Who with the Parson toy'd? O fie!” (58). Deborah's creation of this copier is meant to empower her within the community (even if it is a negative power). He provides her with a way to defend herself by making (and ruining) the reputations of the very people who have limited her. Those things from which she has been excluded, those things she desires, become others' faults. Unfortunately, “this little joke” (59) fails. Instead, it gets her labeled a “Cynic” (75), brings her parrot to shame, and provokes the revenge of her neighbors, who create a new reputation for her as “the torments of their little Sphere; / He, because mischievously taught, / And She, because a maid austere!” (84-87). As the parrot has failed to rectify her position, Deborah's only chance to escape her reputation and remake herself is to move to a new town, set up camp and buy a husband. And this she does. He, too, is a kind of “second Self” (98), “both in Person and in Age” (96), and she forgets her former parrot-self.
Deborah's replications of self, first in her parrot, and second in her husband, suggest her continual attempts to authorize her own desires. While the husband at first replaces the parrot in the second half of the poem, the neglected parrot returns to repeat his well-learned lines about the parson and thus frames Deborah. Clearly, Deborah's economic power does not equal verbal power. Her own words, repeated by the parrot, now reflect back on her as the copy takes on a life of its own. Her attempts to assert herself instead reveal her inability to control that self, as the parrot reveals Deborah, the copy reveals the original to be other than it is. In fact, Deborah is doubly rebuked by both her second selves for her self-assertion, first in the words of the parrot and then in the physical abuse by her husband, but it is never clear that she has done anything except verbally. That Deborah ends up physically beaten by her husband for her words thus reveals not only the violence of romance that can be seen in other Tales, but also the material impact of words, the danger of asserting and defending oneself publicly, especially for a woman.36 If Deborah's initial action can be read as an attempt to gain (masculine) power, the poem reinforces the feminizing effects of such self-authorizing, the dispossession that reveals the self as other.
Robinson's Lyrical Tales attempts to thwart the double dispossession facing the woman writer by linking her text to Wordsworth's and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads. It is a risky move that both affirms her status as original Genius and threatens to make her just a copy. But it is precisely this gesture that make it impossible to separate the two texts and that creates the writers' mutual debts. Neither copy nor original, Robinson's volume challenges the linear narrative of romantic literary history and asks us to reconsider the difference of gender in establishing not only literary reputation but canon formation as well. As a woman writer, aware of literary history and her own reputation, Robinson fought the very division into a feminine and masculine romanticism that we have created; Lyrical Tales was her final play in the game of literary reputation. It is a challenge we should take to heart as we revalue reputations in constructing a romanticism for the twenty-first century.
On romantic authorship see Robert Brinkley and Keith Hanley, eds., Romantic Revisions (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992); Zachary Leader, Revision and Romantic Authorship (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996); and especially Jack Stillinger, Multiple Authorship and Solitary Genius (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991). For more on the contradictions of late eighteenth-century authorship see Mark Rose, Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993); Trevor Ross, “Copyright and the Invention of Tradition,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 26.2 (Fall 1992): 1-28; and on reputation generally see John Rodden, The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of ‘St George’ Orwell (New York: Oxford UP, 1989). On Wordsworth specifically, see also Peter Stallybras and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986).
On women writers and reputation, see Sonia Hofkosh, “A Woman's Profession: Sexual Difference and the Romance of Authorship,” SiR [Studies in Romanticism] 32 (Summer 1993): 245-72. See also Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction (New York: Oxford UP, 1987); Jane Spencer, The Rise of the Woman Novelist from Aphra Behn to Jane Austen (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986); and Catherine Gallagher, Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820 (Berkeley: U of California P, 1994), whose work has been instrumental in challenging the domestic model of female authorship argued by Spencer and Armstrong. For more on the specific issues facing women poets, see Anne K. Mellor, “The Female Poet and the Poetess: Two Traditions of British Women's Poetry, 1780-1830,” SiR 36 (Summer 1997): 261-76; and Romanticism and Gender (New York: Routledge, 1993); Marlon Ross, The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women's Poetry (New York: Oxford UP, 1989). See also Christine Battersby's work on Genius and gender, Gender and Genius: Toward a Feminist Aesthetics (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989).
Jacqueline Labbe shows how both Mary Robinson and Charlotte Smith were able to write about their own hardships for economic gain in “Selling One's Sorrows: Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, and the Marketing of Poetry,” Wordsworth Circle 25.2 (Spring 1994): 68-71 Susan Luther makes a parallel argument about Robinson's self-presentation in her germinal essay on Robinson's relationship with Coleridge, “A Stranger Minstrel: Coleridge's Mrs. Robinson,” SiR 33 (Fall 1994): 391.
Recent critical essays on Robinson's authorship include Linda H. Peterson, “Becoming an Author: Mary Robinson's Memoirs and the Origins of the Woman Artist's Autobiography,” Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776-1837, eds. Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1994); Eleanor Ty, “Engendering a Female Subject: Mary Robinson's (Re)Presentations of the Self,” English Studies in Canada 21.4 (December 1995): 407-23; Lisa Vargo, “The Claims of ‘real life and manners’: Coleridge and Mary Robinson,” Wordsworth Circle 26 (1995): 134-37; and Kathryn Ledbetter, “A Woman of Undoubted Genius: Mary Robinson and S. T. Coleridge,” Postscript II.I (1994): 43-49.
Preface to Sappho and Phaon in a Series of Legitimate Sonnets, With Thoughts on Poetical Subjects, and Anecdotes of the Greek Poetess (London, 1796), ed. Christopher Nagle et al. in British Poetry 1780-1910: A Hypertext Archive of Scholarly Editions, ed. Jerome McGann, University of Virginia, 13 August 1999 (cited parenthetically as SP). See Jerome McGann, “Mary Robinson and the Myth of Sappho,” Modern Language Quarterly 56.1 (March 1995): 55-76 for an insightful argument on Sappho and Phaon as poetic treatise.
This splitting between the poet's plight and woman's social position also appears in the gender bending of the two main characters of Robinson's novel, Walsingham (1797). The main character, Walsingham, a hysterical, male poet (who writes some of Robinson's well-known poems), is dispossessed of his inheritance by his gentlemanly and effeminate male cousin, Sir Sidney Aubrey. He wanders from mishap to mishap (all of which he blames on his cousin), only to discover at the very end that his cousin is a woman. Of course, they plan to marry after some refashioning of Sidney as a woman. It is tempting to read this as a narrative of poetic relations: the sensitive male poet, who feels threatened by his rival, discovers his soul-mate in the masculinely-educated woman who is his equal and who restores his inheritance.
This self-reference and elision can even be seen in Thoughts on the Condition of Women, as at the end of the treatise she makes a list of important female “literary characters” and includes herself.
Monthly Review (March 1792), cited in Robert D. Bass, The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson (New York: Holt, 1957).
Wordsworth Circle 23.3 (Summer 1992): 168. On Robinson's celebrity status, see also Pascoe, “Mary Robinson and the Literary Marketplace,” in Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices, eds. Paula R. Feldman and Theresa M. Kelley (Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1995) 252-68. See John Klancher, The Making of English Reading Audiences (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987) for more on the development of newspaper audiences at this time.
Jan Fergus and Janice Farrar Thaddeus relay that Longman paid 63 [pounds sterling] for a press run of 1250 copies of Lyrical Tales. In 1796, 172 of 277 books sold by Hookham to G. G. J. and J. Robinson, Booksellers, were by Robinson. Other publications' statistics include: Walsingham (1797), 4 vols. 1000 copies printed, 150 [pounds sterling] copyright; The False Friend (1799) same; The Natural Daughter (1799) 2 vols. 1000 copies, 60 [pounds sterling] (“Women, Publishers, and Money, 1790-1820,” Studies in 18th-Century Culture 17 : 204). On The Morning Post, see Kenneth Curry, The Contributions of Robert Southey to the Morning Post (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1984); Wilfrid Hindle, The Morning Post 1772-1937: Portrait of a Newspaper (Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1937, 1974); and Pascoe, “Mary Robinson and the Literary Marketplace.”
Stuart Curran, “Mary Robinson's Lyrical Tales in Context,” Re-Visioning Romanticism 22. Curran's article laid the groundwork for all future work on the interconnectedness of these poets' work and has provided a basis for my argument. Pascoe, Luther and Betsy Bolton (“Romancing the Stone: ‘Perdita’ Robinson in Wordsworth's London,” ELH 64.3 [Fall 1997]: 727-59) have also further established the poets' responsiveness to one another.
Of course, Robinson was an actress, before she was a writer. On Robinson's performativity and theatricality, see especially Judith Pascoe's book, Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry and Spectatorship (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997) as well as Chris Cullens, “Mrs. Robinson and the Masquerade of Womanliness,” Body and Text in the Eighteenth Century, eds. Veronica Kelly and Dorothea von Mucke (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994) 266-89; and Labbe, “Selling One's Sorrows.” In her Memoirs, Robinson links this dramatic flair to her poetry, claiming she had “an early love of lyric harmony” and “an extraordinary genius for dramatic exhibition” (Perdita: The Memoirs of Mary Robinson, ed. M. J. Levy [London: Peter Owen, 1994] 34).
The first phrase comes from a contemporary satire, “Florizel and Perdita”:
Sometimes she'd play the Tragic Queen, Sometimes the Peasant poor, Sometimes she'd step behind the scenes, And there she'd play the W—.
Two Thousand Pounds, a princely Sight For Doing just no more, Than what is acted every Night By ev'ry Sister W—.
(Quoted in Cullens 283).
The second phrase is Coleridge's comment about Robinson when he asked Southey to include her work in his Annual Anthology (“To Robert Southey,” 25 January 1800, Letter 314 of The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, vol. 1 [Oxford: Clarendon, 1956] 312).
After Robinson's death, Coleridge was one of her main champions (Luther 392-93). See Coleridge's letters to her daughter Maria (Collected Letters, vol. 2).
Kucich, “Gendering the Canons of Romanticism: Past and Present,” Wordsworth Circle 27.2 (Spring 1996): 100. Significantly, Dyce's anthology, Specimens of British Poetesses (1827), does not include a single poem from Lyrical Tales.
Quoted in Kenneth Neill Cameron and Donald Reiman, eds., Shelley and His Circle, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1961) 232.
Letter 140, The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, The Early Years 1787-1805, ed., Ernest D. Selincourt, revised by Chester Shaver, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967) 297.
Dorothy's comment that she is “about publishing” has the additional subtext of here and there, “a woman about town,” in contrast to William's rural context. See Bolton for more on Wordsworth's reaction to Robinson as a “woman about town,” whose associations with romance and the theater he feared and against which he defended himself.
See Susan Eilenberg, Strange Power of Speech: Wordsworth, Coleridge and Literary Possession (New York: Oxford UP, 1992) and Kenneth R. Johnston, The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy (New York: Norton, 1998) on the young Wordsworth's attitudes about reputation.
Robinson, Thoughts on the Condition of Women and on the Injustice of Mental Insubordination (London 1799; Providence: Brown University Women Writers Project, 1990) 97. The British Library copy of the first edition of this text, Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination, eds. Adriana Craciun, et al. is available online at <http://www.otal.umd.edu/rc/eleced/robinson/mrletterjs.htm>.
Review of Lyrical Ballads (1798), Monthly Mirror VI (October 1798): 224-25, reprinted in Donald Reiman, ed., The Romantics Reviewed: Contemporary Reviews of British Romantic Writers, Part A: The Lake Poets (New York: Garland, 1972) 685. Further references will be cited parenthetically as RR.
James Butler and Karen Green, introduction, Lyrical Ballads and Other Poems, 1797-1800 by William Wordsworth (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992) 24. An introduction to “The Mad Mother,” published 2 April 1800, praises the poems, “the whole collection, with the exception of the first piece … is a tribute to genuine nature” (cited in Judith Pascoe, Introduction, Mary Robinson: Selected Poems [Toronto: Broadview P, 2000] 54).
All quotations from Wordsworth's poetry and from Lyrical Ballads (1798) are from Butler and Green's edition of Lyrical Ballads and will be cited parenthetically as LB followed by line numbers. Quotations of Coleridge's poetry not included in Lyrical Ballads are from The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge (Oxford: Clarendon, 1912) and will be cited parenthetically as Coleridge and line numbers).
This response seems to me to be another manifestation of the “girlish childlike gloss” (line 446) associated with romance and the theatre in Book 7 of The Prelude and is especially interesting in that Coleridge has in a sense prostituted Wordsworth here (The Prelude, 1799, 1805, 1850, eds. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams and Stephen Gill [New York: Norton, 1979] 251). See Bolton for a more detailed reading of Wordsworth's figuring of Robinson in The Prelude and Luther 403-4 for another reading of “Alcaeus and Sappho.”
Note to the “Solitude of Binnorie,” The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 2, ed. David V. Erdman (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978) 291; Butler and Green 457-58.
See Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804 (New York: Pantheon, 1989) 279, for dates of composition.
Jacqueline Labbe has recently argued that questions of authorship and Robinson's disestablishment of romance are two separate strands of thought (“Deflected Violence and Dream-Visions in Mary Robinson's Lyrical Tales,” European Romantic Review 10.2 [Spring 1999]: 163-74). My argument shows that these issues are completely intertwined with one another.
For more on Robinson's revisionary practice, see Luther; Sharon Setzer, “Mary Robinson's Sylphid Self: The End of Feminine Self-Fashioning,” Philological Quarterly 75.4 (Fall 1996): 501-20; and Daniel Robinson, “From ‘Mingled Measure’ to ‘Ecstatic Measures’: Mary Robinson's Poetic Reading of Kubla Khan,” Wordsworth Circle 26.1 (Winter 1995): 4-7.
Quotations of Robinson's “To The Poet Coleridge” are from The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson, ed. Maria Robinson (London, 1806, 1824; Providence: Brown University Women Writers Project, 1990).
Wordsworth, “Advertisement to Lyrical Ballads,” in Butler and Green 739.
All quotations from Mary Robinson's Lyrical Tales are from Mary Robinson: Lyrical Tales (Oxford: Woodstock, 1989) and will be cited parenthetically as LT and line numbers.
Significantly this poem establishes the trajectory of the volume; it was also published in The Morning Post on 18 December 1800—the last poem to appear there before Robinson's death—to highlight her most recent volume. That Smart uses this poem, most like Wordsworth's, suggests not only Stuart's keen marketing skills, but also a much deeper interconnectedness between the two volumes. See Curran and Bolton for other interpretations of this poem.
Coleridge had begun working on “Christabel” as early as 1798 and he continued to work on it for the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads. In September 1800, Wordsworth rejected Coleridge's poem completely. See Holmes 279-86. While I have no direct proof to offer, it seems not unlikely that Robinson, who clearly read the manuscript version of “Kubla Khan,” might have seen an earlier draft of “Christabel.” A comparison of “Christabel” and Robinson's “Golfre,” the last poem in Lyrical Tales, would be another paper, given the complexity and length of both poems, but one can begin to see the benefits of a comparative reading if one thinks about the father-daughter dynamic and, in particular, the disorienting moment when Zorietto faints at her marriage, and we are not sure whether she is the daughter or the returned mother.
There are two Tales that do not include women, “Old Barnard, a Monkish Tale,” which rewrites Wordsworth's “Goody Blake and Harry Gill,” and “The Trumpeter, an Old English Tale.” These tales have a similar concern with giving each his due and use disguise (Old Barnard, dressed as a monk, gets his grandson to support him) and the recontextualization of someone's words (the braggart is made into a royal trumpeter). Instead of focusing on gender, however, they address class inequalities.
Kenneth Johnston suggests that the lovers, Annetta and William, in this poem are Robinson's spoof on Wordsworth's relationship with Annette Vallon (790).
See Labbe, “Deflected Violence” on the violence of romance in Robinson's Tales.
Julie Shaffer (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Shaffer, Julie. “Cross-Dressing and the Nature of Gender in Mary Robinson's Walsingham.” In Presenting Gender: Changing Sex in Early-Modern Culture, edited by Chris Mounsey, pp. 136-67. London: Associated University Presses, 2001.
[In the following essay, Shaffer considers gender panic, or cultural anxiety over gender boundaries and sexualized bodies, at the end of the eighteenth century, and reads Mary Robinson's novel Walsingham for its depiction of female cross-dressing and gender identity.]
By most accounts, the tradition of women dressing as men or presenting themselves as masculine, which had remained strong at least through the...
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Stuart Curran (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Curran, Stuart. “Mary Robinson and the New Lyric.” Women's Writing 9, no. 1 (2002): 9-22.
[In the following essay, Curran asserts that Robinson's greatest legacy is her innovative use of metrical and sonic effects to create a contemporary sound and style.]
This article takes its point of departure from Judith Pascoe's contemplation of Mary Robinson's elaborate and continual self-presentation in Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship.1 Denied her career as an actress after becoming the Prince of Wales's mistress, she simply moved to a more encompassing stage, turning the streets of London's West End and the carriageways...
(The entire section is 6434 words.)
Jane Hodson (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Hodson, Jane. “‘The Strongest but Most Undecorated Language’: Mary Robinson's Rhetorical Strategy in Letter to the Women of England.” Women's Writing 9, no. 1 (2002): pp. 87-105.
[In the following essay, Hodson considers Robinson's use of specific linquistic elements to identify purpose and audience in her piece on women's rights entitled Letter to the Women of England.]
Judith Pascoe has described Mary Robinson as a “cultural chameleon” who adopted “every literary fashion” during the 1790s.1 In this article, I shall explore what was perhaps Robinson's most remarkable change of literary colour, her 1799 proto-feminist tract, Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination. Early on in this text, Robinson states her rhetorical strategy in the following terms:
In order that this letter may be clearly understood, I shall proceed to prove my assertion in the strongest, but most undecorated language. I shall remind my enlightened country-women that they are not the mere appendages of domestic life, but the partners, the equal associates of man: and, where they excel in intellectual powers, they are no less capable of all that prejudice and custom have united in attributing, exclusively, to the thinking faculties of man. I argue thus, and my assertions are incontrovertible.2
It is not, of course, particularly surprising to find writers of this decade claiming the epithet “undecorated” for themselves, regardless of how purple their prose might seem to modern readers. During the romantic period as a whole, terms such as “plain”, “artless” and “undecorated” were some of the most highly prized qualities to which a writer could aspire. They were also some of the most subjectively determined: critics repeatedly describe writers of whom they approve politically as having a “plain” style, while castigating those writers with whom they disagree for being “artificial” and “ornate”.3 Even so, “strong” and “undecorated” are hardly the words that spring to mind in connection with Robinson in her earlier literary incarnations as a novelist of sensibility or a poet of the Della Cruscan school.4 Coupled with the direct and assertive tone of the passage, they suggest a clear conception of the kind of pamphlet she is writing, as well as a distinct change of direction from her other writings. In this article, I will explore how far, and in what ways, Robinson puts into practice this statement of stylistic intent, examining in particular the literary persona that she seeks to create for herself, and the way in which she addresses her audience. In order to do so, I will focus on a number of salient linguistic features, including her use of adjectives and personal pronouns.
As a point of reference, I will use her earlier foray as a political writer, Impartial Reflections on the Present Situation of the Queen of France. Published in 1791, Impartial Reflections was a passionate, if somewhat idiosyncratic, contribution to the ongoing French Revolution debate. In it, Robinson expresses strongly pro-Revolution sentiments, describing France as “an enlightened nation, emancipated from slavery by the most sublime and dignified enthusiasm”.5 Simultaneously, however, she laments the imprisonment of Marie Antoinette and appeals to the French nation to end their Queen's suffering. The text draws heavily on the sensationalism and sentimentality of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (even the title of Robinson's text pays homage to Burke), yet it does so in order to maintain a political position in direct opposition to that of Burke (the word “impartial” in Robinson's title presumably carries with it the accusation that Burke's Reflections were anything but “impartial”). This combination of Burke's pro-Marie Antoinette rhetoric with pro-revolution sentiments evidently puzzled the reviewer for the Monthly Review, who comments that:
we have only to observe, in plain language, there appears to be a total difference and opposition between the political ideas of these towering geniuses. Mr. B. was the declared and enraged enemy of the French Revolution: but, on the contrary, the eloquent flowery declaimer, whose performance is now before us, bestows the warmest applause on the great event; which he praises as an act of “the most sublime and dignified enthusiasm, bursting through the bonds of galling subjection”—In short, there is an appearance of inconsistency in this apology for the Queen of France … which leaves us at some loss to determine its real character, or to say what may have been the ultimate view and purpose of the writer.6
Despite the apparent contradiction, Robinson's text can be seen to have two clear rhetorical goals: that of reclaiming the moral authority of sympathising with a wronged woman, and that of using Burke's attack on the “unchivalric” nature of the French Revolution to goad the French into proving him wrong:
It is now in the power of that august Tribunal to prove, that “the Days of Chivalry” are not “at an end;” that as they have given innumerable testimonies of their patriotism and judgment, they also cherish the laudable and dignified sentiment of justice and humanity!7
In terms of style, as the Monthly Review's comments on the “eloquent flowery declaimer” suggest, Robinson is indebted both to Burke's highly charged emotionalism in Reflections, and to her own ornate Della Cruscan poetry. Unsurprisingly, at no point in Impartial Reflections does she claim that her style is either “strong” or “undecorated”. It thus seems reasonable to interpret her statement of stylistic intent at the start of Letter to the Women of England as, at least in part, a reaction against her earlier attempt at political polemic in Impartial Reflections.
As a second point of reference, I will also be comparing Letter to the Women of England to other proto-feminist texts published during the 1790s. It must be remembered that, in writing such a tract in 1799, Robinson was working within an established genre: pamphlets arguing for better education and more opportunities for women had already been published by, among others, Priscilla Wakefield, Mary Hays, Catherine Macaulay and, most famously, Mary Wollstonecraft. Robinson clearly owes much to her immediate forerunners, most notably Wollstonecraft. Even Robinson's declaration that she would use “the strongest, most undecorated language” can be seen as mirroring Wollstonecraft's own declaration at the beginning of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman:
Animated by this important object, I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style;—I aim at being useful, and sincerity will render me unaffected; for, wishing rather to persuade by the force of my arguments, than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time in rounding periods, or in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings, which, coming from the head, never reach the heart.—I shall be employed about things, not words!—and, anxious to render my sex more respectable members of society, I shall try to avoid that flowery diction which has slided from essays into novels, and from novels into familiar letters and conversation.8
Although I would not wish to suggest there is any kind of direct relationship, Wollstonecraft's attack on “that flowery diction” reads almost like a critique of the language of Impartial Reflections. She suggests that in a political pamphlet, elegant and dazzling language (the stock-in-trade of the Della Cruscan poet) quickly becomes self-defeating. Her argument is also strongly gendered: “that flowery diction” is associated with the prototypically female genres of the period (novels, familiar letters and conversation), and she suggests that it is only by rejecting this language that a writer such as herself can hope to be successful in rendering women “more respectable”.9
This alignment of writing style with political respectability and gender is significant, as writing as a woman on the rights of women in the 1790s was by no means unproblematic. Although it was a decade of great public debate about the rights of men, it was, by and large, presumed to be precisely that: a debate about the rights of men. There was a similar assumption that not only the subjects of but also the participants in the debate were male. When, for example, Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Men anonymously in 1790, reviewers assumed her to be male; and when Robinson published Impartial Reflections in 1791, signing herself simply as “a friend to humanity”, the Monthly Review likewise assumed male authorship. When a woman attempted to articulate her own political perspective on issues relating to her own gender, she faced considerable difficulties in placing herself in the subject position and finding a suitable voice in which to write. Should she write to women, about women, or on behalf of women, and what linguistic implications did her decision have? Should she adopt a style deemed appropriate to her gender, or should she attempt to subvert gender expectations? It is possible to see each of the female writers on women's rights of the 1790s grappling with this problem, and Robinson's claims about “the strongest, most undecorated language” suggest that she was, at least in part, influenced by Wollstonecraft's stylistic programme. As I shall demonstrate, however, Robinson does not simply replicate the rhetorical strategies of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She herself states in a footnote:
The writer of this letter, though avowedly of the same school, disdains the drudgery of servile imitation. The same subject may be argued in a variety of ways; and though this letter may not display the philosophical reasoning with which “The Rights of Woman” abounded; it is not less suited to the purpose. For it requires a legion of Wollstonecrafts to undermine the poisons of prejudice and malevolence.10
Robinson may have been following a fashion in writing a tract on the rights of women, but she actively engages with that fashion, and moulds it to her own purposes.
To start at the beginning with Letter to the Women of England, the title creates the expectation that the pamphlet will be written in an epistolary style. In the late eighteenth century, the most salient characteristics of epistolary writing, according to the many manuals on the subject, were that letters should be informal and spontaneous. For example, two educational handbooks, by Fordyce and Hodson respectively, offer the following advice:
As letters are the copies of conversation, just consider what you would say to your friend if he was present, and write down the very words you would speak, which will render your epistle unaffected, and intelligible.11
Of every species of composition, there is none that, in its nature, approaches nearer to familiar conversation, except plain dialogue, than Epistolary writing. A letter is a direct address from one person to another, and should, therefore, contain all the ease, elegance, and familiarity of conversation.12
Letter writing, because of its private nature, is described by both Hodson and Fordyce as being inherently conversational and familiar. This in turn meant that it was held to be particularly suitable for female talents. Wollstonecraft, praising Helen Maria Williams's Letters Written in France in the Analytical Review, makes the following observation:
Women have been allowed to possess, by a kind of prescription, the knack of epistolary writing; the talent of chatting on paper in that easy immethodical manner, which render letters dear to friends, and amusing to strangers.13
Letter writing is again associated with conversation: it is “chatting on paper”, and it is this which makes it a peculiarly female form. It is also clear from Wollstonecraft's comments that it has a somewhat marginal status: it is a “knack” rather than a “skill”; and it is “dear” and “amusing” rather than being important or powerful. But at the same time, it must be noted that Letters Written in France is a fundamentally political text. In it, Williams records her own experiences of revolutionary France in glowing terms and refutes possible criticisms of the new republic.14 Looked at in these terms, Wollstonecraft's potentially condescending comments about “the knack of chatting on paper” appear more aggrandising: she is claiming not just the private letter but the political letter as a peculiarly female form. As such, it is perhaps no coincidence that when, later that year, she came to write her own political text, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, she chose to do so in epistolary form.
When letters were written for explicitly political purposes, however, their marginal status became both a strength and a weakness. On the positive side, the personal and spontaneous nature of letter writing acted as a guarantee of the sincerity of the writer. The writer could further emphasise this by assuring the reader in the preface that the letter was originally written without the intention of publication. Two famous and relevant examples from the 1790s are:
having thrown down his first thoughts in the form of a letter, and indeed when he sat down to write, having intended it for a private letter, [the author] found it difficult to change the form of address, when his sentiments had grown into a greater extent, and had received another direction.15
Many pages of the following letter were the effusions of the moment; but, swelling imperceptibly to a considerable size, the idea was suggested of publishing a short vindication of the Rights of Men.16
On the negative side, however, the personal and spontaneous nature of letter writing always had the possibility of tipping over into carelessness and self-indulgence, or stagnating into artifice (as indeed Wollstonecraft suggests when she criticises the “flowery diction” which has been transmitted through “familiar letters”). Furthermore, the exploitation of the “private” letter for public political purposes itself called into question the inherent sincerity of the epistolary form, as Mary Favret discusses in Romantic Correspondence.
once “looseness” and “negligence” were known to lend themselves to politics, letters could not easily resume a respectable place in the literary market. They were tainted goods.17
Mary Robinson's decision to title her pamphlet as a “letter” is thus a double-edged one. There were distinct disadvantages: the political letter had been severely compromised in the course of the French Revolution debate, and ran the risk of seeming either uncontrolled or insincere. On the positive side, however, by calling it a “letter” she was choosing a form which declared a modestly limited ambition for her text, and which was as appropriate as possible for a woman venturing into the realm of politics.
What is perhaps most interesting about Letter to the Women of England, however, is how non-epistolary the text actually is. So far in my discussion, I have identified a number of features which were seen to characterize the letter at the end of the eighteenth century. Letters were prototypically personal, spontaneous, unregulated, immethodical, conversational and easy. Political letter writers often drew attention to these qualities, as I have illustrated with the passages from Wollstonecraft and Burke. Elsewhere I have argued that criticisms that Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Men is poorly structured fail to take into account the extent to which this perception is deliberately invited by Wollstonecraft herself.18 By emphasising the lack of planning and polish, Wollstonecraft simultaneously emphasises the lack of design or deception. However, in Robinson's Letter, the tropes of “this letter-was-originally-private-but-I-have-been-persuaded-to-publish-it” and “forgive-the-imperfections-of-this-letter-but-it-was-written-quickly” are noticeably absent. In fact, at no time in the entire text does Robinson refer to the circumstances that originally induced her to write the text, or provide any information about its mode of production. Nor does she at any point apologise for a lack of planning or polish.
Another unexpected feature of Robinson's Letter is her sparing use of first person singular pronouns. By definition, a letter is written from one individual to another individual or group of individuals: from the I that is doing the writing, to the you to whom it is addressed. It might therefore be predicted that the letter form will contain many more first person singular pronouns than other, less personal, genres. Indeed, this was one of the chief advantages of the political epistle in the late eighteenth century: it permitted the writer to introduce their own personal viewpoint very directly. However, Robinson uses a very small number of first person singular pronouns. Table I shows a count for the total number of first person pronouns in Letter to the Women of England compared to samples of text of the same size from Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Hays's Appeal to the Men of Great Britain (direct quotations have been excluded from the count as I am interested in the writer's own presentation of self in the text). Surprisingly, both Wollstonecraft and Hays use over three times as many first person singular pronouns as Robinson. Their high usage of first person singular pronouns can be accounted for by the element of direct address in their texts: Hays's pamphlet is an “appeal”, which, like a letter, implies a personal communication from an individual to a group of people; Wollstonecraft's pamphlet opens with a letter to Talleyrand and throughout maintains a strong sense of an individual speaking directly to her audience. Robinson's comparatively small number of first person pronouns remains to be accounted for, however.
Table I. Total number of first person singular pronouns in Robinson's Letter to the Women of England, Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Hays's Appeal to the Men of Great Britain. Direct quotations from other writers have not been included. As Robinson's Letter is then only 10,992 words long, only the first 10,992 words (excluding quotations) of Wollstonecraft's Vindication and Hays's Appeal have been used to make the samples comparable.
Joan Mulholland, discussing Wollstonecraft, analyses some of the problems inherent in the use of “the overt authorial I”. She finds that because it reminds readers of the personal origin of what they are reading, it can, ironically, produce “an impression of impersonal distance and formality”.19 By continually making readers aware of the authorial voice, space is created in which readers can consider whether or not they agree with that voice. This problem becomes apparent when we compare a passage from Wollstonecraft to a passage from Robinson, where both are reasoning about the relationship between bodily strength and intellectual strength in men and women. The passage from Wollstonecraft shows a particularly high use of first person singular pronouns, where the passage from Robinson contains none. It should be noted that these passages are intended to be illustrative of some of the effects created when first person singular pronouns are used, rather than representative of the pamphlets as a whole. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman does not always contain this density of first person pronouns.
Let it not be concluded that I wish to invert the order of things; I have already granted, that, from the constitution of their bodies, men seemed to be designed by Providence to attain a greater degree of virtue. I speak collectively of the whole sex; but I see not the shadow of a reason to conclude that their virtues should differ in respect to their nature. In fact, how can they, if virtue has only one eternal standard? I must therefore, if I reason consequentially, as strenuously maintain that they have the same simple direction, as that there is a God.
In what is woman inferior to man? In some instances, but not always, in corporeal strength: in activity of mind, she is his equal. Then, by this rule, if she is to endure oppression in proportion as she is deficient in muscular power, only, through all the stages of animation the weaker should give precedence to the stronger. Yet we should find a Lord of the Creation with a puny frame, reluctant to confess the superiority of a lusty peasant girl, whom nature had endowed with that bodily strength of which luxury had bereaved him.
There are a number of similarities between these passages. Both writers are attempting to refute a commonly held opinion about the differences between the sexes, and both attempt to do so through reasoned argument. Both use rhetorical questions in order to engage the reader. In terms of their use of first person singular pronouns, however, the passages are very different. Wollstonecraft uses the pronoun “I” six times. This gives the passage a very personal perspective: it is the writing “I” who “see[s] not the shadow of a reason to conclude that their virtues should differ in respect to their nature”, and who feels forced to “strenuously maintain that they have the same simple direction as, that there is a God”. The passage sounds as though Wollstonecraft is actively arguing with an interlocutor, one whom she is guiding through her own thought processes. This has the advantage of encouraging the reader to take up the position of the interlocutor, and thereby feel directly involved in the text. However, it also creates the potential that a reader may feel that they can argue back. A reader who disagrees with Wollstonecraft's perspective may feel that that there is a reason to conclude that women's virtues are different, or that Wollstonecraft is not reasoning consequentially when she deduces women's virtues have the same directions as men's. By contrast, in Robinson's passage, each step of the argument is affirmed as a matter of fact rather than a matter of opinion. This arguably leaves less space for the reader to disagree with her perspective.
It is also noticeable that when Robinson does use first person pronouns, she tends to avoid “private” verbs—that is, those such as think, feel and believe, which are to do with the mental state of the speaker. She does use them occasionally. “I believe” appears three times, “I remember” four times and “I trust” once, but generally, when she use “I”, she tends to use it to describe what she is doing textually: “I shall endeavour to prove”, “I will boldly assert”, “I will not attempt to philosophize”, “I again recur to the prominent subject of my letter”. As such, it is an impersonal device for organising her text, rather than a device for telling us how she feels or what she thinks. For both Hays and Wollstonecraft, there is a much higher instance of “private” verbs. In Wollstonecraft, for example, we find “I am aware”, “I hope”, “I feel whenever I think”, and “I deplore”, and in Hays, “I believe”, “I always feared”, “I begin to hope” and “I trust”.
Although Robinson's comparatively limited, and impersonal, use of the first person singular pronoun mean that the reader is directly reminded less frequently of the individual author who stands behind the opinions and beliefs of the text, it would, of course, be inaccurate to conclude that Robinson's text is impersonal and dispassionate. Her frequent use of exclamation marks, rhetorical questions and emotive adjectives, for example, all register her feelings strongly and clearly. Her use of attributive adjectives is particularly interesting as it both registers the writer's feelings, and is relevant in terms of Robinson's supposed stylistic “floweriness”. Judith Pascoe points out that an excess of descriptive phrases is indicative of the aesthetic priorities of Della Cruscan verse:
A reviewer of Mary Robinson's poetic sequence Sappho and Phaon, reacting to this aspect of her early verse, writes, “Her course would be more graceful, if she would not so often start aside to hunt after flowers.” But Della Cruscan poems have more to do with flowery asides than with staying the course. In the Cowley excerpt just quoted there are fifteen adjectives or adjectival phrases in the space of sixteen lines; indeed the coining of new descriptive phrases is one of the particular pleasures of writing in this mode.22
It could be assumed that when writing a political pamphlet, particularly one which publicly urged a certain group of people towards a certain course of action, “staying the course” would assume a far greater importance. Nevertheless, Impartial Reflections sees any number of “flowery asides”, and a heavy deployment of adjectives. In the text as a whole, there are approximately 103 attributive adjectives (i.e. adjectives premodifying a noun) per 1000 words. This is an astonishingly high figure, and indeed, at several points the text reads very much like a prose Della Cruscan poem, with the plight of Marie Antoinette being taken as the starting point for a series of flowery and emotional apostrophes. For example:
she had no path to choose but the beaten track; she found it besprinkled with roses, nor thought of the pointed thorns cautiously concealed under the gaudy parterre of dazzling magnificence. In this seeming bower of eternal delight, this witching semblance of a terrestrial paradise, the opening blossoms of fascinating pleasure presented themselves before her; the poisonous weeds that overspread an oppressed country, met not her eye, the wide waste of desolating horrors was unknown to her.23
Although, as I have suggested, Impartial Reflections can be seen to have clear rhetorical objectives, the exuberant excess of its descriptiveness means that it is possible to sympathise with the Monthly's perplexity as to the “ultimate view and purpose of the writer”. Comparing Impartial Reflections to Letter to the Women of England, it is possible to see that, by Robinson's standards at least, Letter to the Women of England represents a significant retrenchment in the deployment of adjectives: there are only 65 attributive adjectives per 1000 words. This figure is close to that used by Wollstonecraft, who averages 60 attributive adjectives per 1000 words in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.24 As these figures suggest, neither Robinson nor Wollstonecraft entirely eschew attributive adjectives, and it is possible to find passages with a dense use of highly emotive adjectives. For example:
Nothing can set the regal character in a more contemptible point of view, than the various crimes that have elevated men to the supreme dignity.—Vile intrigues, unnatural crimes, and every vice that degrades our nature, have been the steps to this distinguished eminence; yet millions of men have supinely allowed the nerveless limbs of the posterity of such rapacious prowlers to rest quietly on their ensanguined thrones.
It has lately been the fashion of the time, to laugh at the encreasing consequence of women, in the great scale of human intellect. Why? Because, by their superior lustre, the overweening and ostentatious splendour of some men, is placed in a more obscure point of view. The women of France have been by some popular, though evidently prejudiced writers, denominated little better than she-devils! And yet we have scarcely heard one instance, excepting in the person of the vain and trifling Madame Du Barry, in which females of that country have not displayed almost Spartan fortitude even as they ascended the scaffold.
What is true, however, is that in these texts, both writers typically reserve these strings of emotive adjectives for subjects on which they feel strongly, and that neither engages in quite the same dazzlingly poeticism that we find in Impartial Reflections.
Returning to the subject of first person singular pronouns, it is instructive to think about what these writers are doing when they use a personal pronoun. Although pronouns are often described in textbooks as replacing full nouns, for example, “Pronouns refer to people or things, and are used to replace full nouns (hence their name)”27, this definition applies more accurately to third person pronouns than to first or second person pronouns. Personal pronouns are, as Emile Benveniste notes in his chapter, “The Nature of Pronouns”, peculiarly self-referential terms:
What then is the reality to which I or you refers? It is solely a “reality of discourse,” and this is a very strange thing. I cannot be defined except in terms of “locution,” not in terms of objects as a nominal sign is. I signifies “the person who is uttering the present instance of discourse containing I.”28
In an ordinary correspondence, the way in which the first person pronoun is employed can be manipulated to provide the addressee with a particular impression of “the person who is uttering the present instance of discourse containing I”. The I in a letter written to a bank manager asking for an extended overdraft will be rather different from the I in a letter to an old friend inviting her to stay. In most cases, however, the recipient of the letter will be able to assume that the I corresponds to the signature at the bottom of the letter, and will read the I in the context of whatever other knowledge they have of the writer, be it from a set of bank records, or a long and intimate friendship.
With a published letter, that “other knowledge” will be whatever knowledge the reader already has about the writer. From this perspective, it seems significant that Letter to the Women of England was published under the pseudonym of Anne Frances Randall. As Pascoe has discussed, Robinson used a wide range of pseudonyms when publishing her poetry—Laura Maria, Tabitha Bramble, Oberon, Sappho, Julia, Lesbia, Portia, Bridget, etc.29 Anne Frances Randall, however, is qualitatively rather different from other Robinson pseudonyms. Where names such as Laura Maria, Tabitha Bramble or Sappho announce themselves as pseudonyms, Anne Frances Randall sounds like a real name. Indeed, the reviewer for the Monthly Review comments that he does not know whether she is a Miss Randall or a Mrs Randall, implying a basic assumption that she is a real person.30 In choosing a pseudonym, Robinson was rejecting the alternative means of disguising her identity, which would have been to have published anonymously, as she had done in Impartial Reflections, and as Hays had done the previous year with her Appeal (Hays published it anonymously, while making it clear that the author was female). By not publishing anonymously, Robinson not only disguised her authorship, but also disguised the disguise.
It is possible that in doing so she was influenced by what she would have seen happen to Wollstonecraft's reputation during the 1790s. When Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman under her own name in 1792, it was greeted with warmth by the radical press, and often with patronising good humour by the more conservative press. With the publication of Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, however, both Wollstonecraft's private life and her political ideas were savagely denounced. Godwin's revelations about her sexual history and suicide attempts made it easy for those wishing to attack her political ideas to portray them as inevitably leading to the kind of unconventional private life she was now known to have led, and vice versa. In the passage already quoted from Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft writes of her desire “to render my sex more respectable members of society”. The publication of Godwin's Memoirs proved that anyone wishing to improve the respectability of women had themselves to be both publicly and privately beyond reproach. For Robinson, already infamous for her highly public extramarital affairs, it must have been obvious that any tract on the rights of women published under her own name was guaranteed to be read, and condemned, in the light of her scandalous reputation. She therefore chose to create an alternate writing self, the wholly unknown Anne Frances Randall. In contrast to the excess of facts, rumour and self-publicity which were known about Mary “Perdita” Robinson, the only evidence for “Anne Frances Randall” comes from within the text itself.
The creation of “Anne Frances Randall” can be seen as intimately linked to Robinson's ongoing strategy in Letter to the Women of England of creating a genealogy of learned and literary women, stretching from classical Greece to modern Britain. At one level, this genealogy is clearly intended to empower contemporary women by demonstrating that the intellectual woman has a long and respectable history. At the same time, however, Robinson is constructing a position of authority for herself (or rather, for Anne Frances Randall) through her mastery of these sources. It is noticeable that when a hostile reviewer attempts to undermine Randall's credibility, he does so by discrediting her scholarship. For example, he quibbles with her claims that no male witches have ever been burnt: “This is a mistake. Of many instances which might be produced, which shall mention only two, which immediately occur to us: Anne Duborg, a Counsellor of Paris, and Urban Grandier, a priest”, and further highlights her ignorance by speculating that “Possibly Mrs. R. might take the former for a woman, from his Christian name”.31 By revealing the inadequacy of her scholarship, the reviewer seeks to undermine the intellectual validity both of Randall herself and her argument. Once again, the project of rendering women “more respectable members of society” turns out to be vulnerable to attacks upon the (this time intellectual) reputation of the female writer.
So far, I have suggested that Robinson's text is markedly different from those of Wollstonecraft and Hays in that her use of the first person singular pronoun is both less frequent and less personal. Her use of the second person pronoun is also worthy of investigation. Her text is, after all, Letter to the Women of England, and as such, we might expect a relatively high use of the second person pronoun (see Table II).
Table II. Total number of second person pronouns in Robinson's Letter to the Women of England, Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Hays's Appeal to the Men of Great Britain. Direct quotations from other writers have not been included. As Robinson's Letter is then only 10,992 words long, only the first 10,992 words (excluding quotations) of Wollstonecraft's Vindication and Hays's Appeal have been used to make the samples comparable.
The numbers are much less striking here, being low for all three writers. What is noticeable about Robinson's use of the second person pronoun, however, is that hardly any of them are addressed to the women of England. This can be seen from the beginning of the text, where she does not choose to begin her letter with “My Dear Countrywomen” or any similar form. It may be a letter, but it is not overtly addressed to anyone in the text itself. Similarly, looking back at the passage which I quoted at the start of this article, Robinson refers to women in the third person when she writes that she will “remind my enlightened country-women that they are not the mere appendages of domestic life, but the partners, the equal associates of man”. Given that it is a letter to the women of England, the reader might reasonably expect something more like “I shall remind you, my enlightened country-women, that you are not the mere appendages of domestic life”. In fact, in the text as a whole, the second person pronouns are very inconsistent in their reference, and several appear when she is adopting the voice of a group of people for the sake of her argument. For example, she voices the following argument:
Man says, “you shall be initiated in all the arts of pleasing; but you shall, in vain, hope that we will contribute to your happiness one iota beyond the principle which constitutes our own.” Sensual Egotists! woman is absolutely necessary to your felicity; nay, even to your existence: yet she must not arrogate to herself the power to interest your actions. You idolize her personal attractions, as long as they influence your senses; when they begin to pall, the magick is dissolved; and prejudice is ever eager to condemn what passion has degraded.32
Although there is a direct address to women here, the quotation marks denote the fact that the addressing voice is not that of the writer: it is we men addressing you women. The argument is then taken up in the writer's own voice, and man is directly addressed as you, although it is noticeable that woman is now referred to in the third person singular as she. This avoidance of a direct address to women might be interpreted as revealing an underlying uncertainty about addressing a specifically female readership, or a tacit acknowledgment that the text is intended to be read by men as much as by women. However, it might also be interpreted more positively as a deliberate strategy to include women in political debate. Given the default assumption in the 1790s that political pamphlets were addressed to a male audience, continually reminding her audience that in this pamphlet they were being addressed on the grounds of their gender alone might serve to perpetuate the assumption. Instead, Robinson addresses her female readership impersonally and indirectly, encouraging them to think rationally about women's rights by arguing rationally herself. In fact, there is only one direct and non-ventriloquised address to woman, and this occurs right at the end:
O! my unenlightened country-women! read, and profit, by the admonition of Reason. Shake off the trifling, glittering shackles, which debase you. Resist those fascinating spells which, like the petrifying torpedo, fasten on your mental faculties. Be less the slaves of vanity, and more the converts of Reflection. Nature has endowed you with personal attractions: she has also given you the mind capable of expansion. Seek not the visionary triumph of universal conquest; know yourselves equal to greater, nobler, acquirements: and by prudence, temperance, firmness, and reflection, subdue that prejudice which has, for ages past, been your inveterate enemy.33
Robinson is in barnstorming mode at this point, and for the first time she addresses her female readers as you. In the light of my earlier discussion, it is also interesting to note that this passage is extremely dense in emotive premodifying adjectives: “visionary”, “nobler”, “trifling”, “glittering”, “inveterate”. It seems as though at the point where she wishes to finally turn up the emotional heat, she simultaneously deploys a string of highly emotive adjectives, and exhorts her female reader directly through the second person.
Finally, it is also informative to consider how Robinson uses the first person plural pronoun (Table III).
Table III. Total number of first person plural pronouns in Robinson's Letter to the Women of England, Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Hays's Appeal to the Men of Great Britain. Direct quotations from other writers have not been included. As Robinson's Letter is then only 10,992 words long, only the first 10,992 words (excluding quotations) of Wollstonecraft's Vindication and Hays's Appeal have been used to make the samples comparable.
Again, the numbers are not particularly striking, with Robinson's usage falling squarely between that of Wollstonecraft and Hays. These figures, however, disguise the fact that Robinson's usage is fundamentally different from that of the other two. Both Hays and Wollstonecraft continually shift their use of we. In Hays, for example, we find both of these examples:
But we relinquish willingly this kind of preference which you force upon us, and which we have no title to; and which indeed is an intolerable burthen in the way you contrive to administer it; and instead of this, we only entreat of you to be fair, to be candid, and to admit, that both sexes are upon a footing of equality.34
Indeed, when we consider how many books are written, and read upon every subject—I may rather say how many myriads of books of every degree of necessary.35
In the first example, we is clearly we women, and men are addressed as you (as might be expected in an Appeal to the Men of Great Britain). In the second example, the we invokes a community inclusive of writer and readers engaged in a shared intellectual project (thereby grouping together Hays with her, at least theoretically, male readership). Similar examples can easily be found in Wollstonecraft. It is possible to read this shifting use of we as evidence of the difficulty in writing on the subject of the rights of woman as a woman. On the one hand, it is desirable to show the allegiance of the writer with the rest of womankind, but on the other hand, in order to write authoritatively on the subject, it is desirable to include reader and writer together in a community of rational intellects. By contrast to Hays and Wollstonecraft, Robinson consistently sticks to a single use, that of we rational beings. As we have already seen, when she represents a generic argument between man and woman, she starts speaking as we men addressing you women, but actively avoids replying as we women. This avoidance of we women can be seen as related to her avoidance of talking to women directly as you, and her concern to establish Anne Frances Randall as a rational and in some ways impersonal textual presence. In fact, there is only one example of we women in the entire text, and that occurs on the title page and is a quotation from a play by Nicholas Rowe: “Wherefore are we / Born with high Souls, but to assert ourselves?” Given Robinson's fastidious avoidance of we women, it seems oddly appropriate that on the only occasion she uses it, she attributes it to a man.
In conclusion, Letter to the Women of England is perhaps a surprising text on a number of levels. Its title indicates that it is a letter, yet it lacks many of the features which might be expected from a letter. Its title also indicates that it is to the women of England, yet they are only addressed directly in one paragraph. It is by a woman, yet that woman never includes herself in the first person plural with other women. Overall, I would suggest that this pattern is indicative of the way in which Robinson is struggling to find a means of writing with authority and dignity as a woman to women. At the outset, Robinson declares her intention to use “the strongest but most undecorated language”. These terms are so subjective that it is impossible to state definitively whether she succeeds or fails. However, I would suggest that the stylistic strategy of Letter to the Women of England is, in its own terms, both “strong” and “undecorated”. Robinson rejects much of the “floweriness” of her earlier political pamphlet, Impartial Reflections, particularly in reducing her use of attributive adjectives. At the same time, she has a clear and consistent strategy in terms of the way in which she chooses to address her audience, which is notably different from that adopted by either Hays or Wollstonecraft. Robinson writes as the unknown, but knowledgeable, Anne Frances Randall, and she writes to the women of England. Yet, she actively avoids continually grouping those women together as either we or you. Instead, the rights of women are presented as an intellectual problem with which the reader is invited to engage on the basis of their intellect, not their gender.
Perversely, Robinson did of course destroy this alternate self, and thus this particular writer-reader relationship, with the publication of the second edition in December 1799, under her own name and with slightly different title, where she comments that:
Finding that a Work on a subject similar to the following, has lately been published at Paris, Mrs. Robinson is induced to avow herself the Author of this Pamphlet.36
This announcement is rather puzzling. It is unclear why the publication of a similar work in Paris necessitated the end of anonymity. Was Robinson afraid that someone else was going to claim credit for her ideas? Was this “work on a similar subject” simply a thin excuse for Robinson, ever the ardent self-promoter, to stand forward as the author? Was it simple financial necessity? Did she feel that her own publication needed the additional attention that it might receive if she was identified as the author? (If so, she was to be disappointed as the second edition created very little stir in the reviewing press. It is mentioned briefly in the Monthly Review, but the reviewer passes no comment on whether the revelation of its authorship surprises him, or makes him view the work in a different way.37) Certainly, knowing that it is by Robinson affects the way in which the text is read. For a start, it makes the text seem far more personal. It is difficult, for example, to read her outbursts against the double standards applied to men and women without remembering her own experiences of just such standards. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that this was not the way that Robinson originally intended her text to be read, and while the relationship between A Letter to the Women of England and the life of Mary Robinson is certainly worth exploring, it is also important not to forget the textual relationship between “Anne Frances Randall” and her readership.
Judith Pascoe (1997) Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), p. 1.
Mary Robinson (1799) Letter to the Women of England (London: T. N. Longman & O. Rees), p. 3. Henceforth LWE.
In a survey of contemporary reviews of Paine's Rights of Man, for example, I conclude that “whether Paine's style is considered to be plain and truthful, or rhetorically skilful and deceptive depends almost entirely on whether the writer agrees with Paine politically or not”. Jane Hodson (1999) “The Politics of Style in the French Revolution Debate: Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine and Godwin”, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge, p. 190.
I found confirmation that this was not an unfair generalisation when it provoked spontaneous laughter among the audience at the “Commemorating Mary Robinson” Conference.
Mary Robinson (1791) Impartial Reflections on the Present Situation of the Queen of France (London: John Bell), p. 6. Henceforth IR.
The Monthly Review (1791), 6 n.s., p. 356.
IR, p. 27.
Mary Robinson (1792) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 2nd edn (London: Joseph Johnson), pp. 7-8. Henceforth VRW.
Wollstonecraft's style has, of course, itself provoked considerable discussion. See for example, Syndy McMillen Conger (1994) Mary Wollstonecraft and the Language of Sensibility (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses); Laurie Finke (1992) “Style as Noise: Identity and Ideology in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” in Feminist Theory, Women's Writing (Ithaca: Ithaca University Press); and Gary Kelly (1992) Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft (Basingstoke: Macmillan).
LWE, footnote, p. 2.
David Fordyce (1792?) The New and Complete British Letter-writer (London: C. Cooke), p. 24.
Thomas Hodson (1800) The Accomplished Tutor, 2 vols (London: The Author), vol. 1, p. 77.
Analytical Review (1790), 8, p. 431.
Matthew Bray argues that although Letters Written in France was published before Reflections, it can still be seen as a “sustained critique of the ideas of Edmund Burke”, and an advance rebuttal of Reflections. Burke's Speech on Army Estimates would have ensured that Williams was aware of the likely contents of Reflections. “Helen Maria Williams and Edmund Burke: Radical Critique and Complicity”, Eighteenth Century Life (1992), 16, pp. 1-24.
Edmund Burke (1790) Reflections on the Revolution in France (London: J. Dodsley), pp. iii-iv.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1790) A Vindication of the Rights of Men (London: J. Johnson), pp. iii-iv.
Mary Favret (1993) Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics and the Fiction of Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 24.
Hodson, “The Politics of Style”, ch. 3.
Joan Mulholland (1995) “Constructing Woman's Authority: A Study of Wollstonecraft's rhetoric in her Vindication, 1792”, Prose Studies, 18, pp. 171-187, p. 177.
VRW, p. 49.
LWE, p. 17.
Pascoe, Romantic Theatricality, pp. 74-75.
IR, p. 15, my emphasis.
This figure is based on the first 10,000 words.
VRW, p. 24, my emphasis.
LWE, pp. 26-28, my emphasis.
Laura Wright & Jonathan Hope (1996) Stylistics: A Practical Coursebook (London: Routledge), p. 4.
Emile Benveniste (1971) Problems in General Linguistics, trans. by Mary Elizabeth Meek (Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press), p. 218.
Pascoe, Romantic Theatricality, pp. 173-178.
Monthly Review (1799), 29 n.s., p. 478.
LWE, pp. 84-85.
LWE, pp. 93-94.
Mary Hays (1798) Appeal to the Men of Great Britain, in Behalf of Women (London: J. Johnson & J. Bell), pp. 61-62, my underlining.
Hays Appeal, “Advertisement to the Reader”, my underlining.
Advertisement to the second edition, titled Thoughts on the Condition of Women, and on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799) (London: Printed by G. Woodfall). See the excellent website produced by Adriana Craciun, Anne Irmen Close, Megan Musgrave and Orianne Smith for a further discussion of the relationship between the two texts.
Monthly Review (1800), 31 n.s., p. 331.
Adams, Martin Ray. “Mrs. Mary Robinson: A Study of her Later Career.” In Studies in the Literary Backgrounds of English Radicalism: With Special Reference to the French Revolution, pp. 104-29. Lancaster, Penn.: Franklin and Marshall College Studies, 1947.
Provides a biographical sketch of Mary Robinson, focusing on her later years and her literary output.
Bass, Robert D. The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1956, 386 p.
Chronicles the lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson and their romance.
(The entire section is 569 words.)