Mary Robinson Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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 Reception

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.