Actress, Courtesan, Poet and Novellist
Born 1757 Died 1800
Mary Robinson was actually born in 17571, rather than in 1758, and strictly speaking she wasn't exclusively 'English' either, but rather of more mixed parentage. Her father Nicholas Darby was of Irish origin, born in the American Colonies as a MacDermott who later adopted the surname 'Darby' when he came to England, whilst her mother Hester was from the Sey family of Boverton Castle in Glamorganshire. Although it is worth noting that there is some question as to whether Nicholas Darby was really her father: many believed that her godfather Lord Northington was her true father.2
Nicholas Darby was also much more than a simple whaling captain; he was a member of the prestigious Bristolian Society of Merchant Venturers3 and ended his life in the service of Catherine the Great of Russia. But the important thing about Nicholas Darby, was that he deserted his wife and family in favour of his mistress, and thus his family moved to London. It was there Mary took an interest in a stage career and was tutored by David Garrick, but abandoned the plan after she was persuaded to marry an articled clerk with prospects by the name of Thomas Robinson.
Unfortunately Thomas' prospects were illusory; his 'rich uncle' turned out to be his estranged father, one Thomas Harris of Glamorganshire (Thomas Robinson was illegitimate). The elder Thomas was Justice of the Peace and a country squire of some note but disinclined to send any money his son's way and so the Robinsons were forced to endure married life on the meagre salary of an articled clerk. But despite the Robinsons lack of immediate funds they began mixing with the best of London society and lived far beyond their means. Their extravagant lifestyle was funded by loans, some of which were obtained fraudulently, with the inevitable result that Thomas was imprisoned for debt. It was in order to escape prison that Thomas Robinson agreed to his wife appearing on the stage; not an easy decision for a 'respectable' gentleman to make, since at the time the profession of actress was regarded as almost synonymous with that of prostitute.
Mary therefore approached Richard Brindsley Sheridan who, with the assistance of David Garrick (who came out of retirement specifically for the purpose), began tutoring her for the stage. On the 10th December 1776 she made her debut as Juliet playing opposite Thomas Bereton as Romeo. She was an instant success and immediately commanded the fee of £10 a performance, which was the top rate for an actress at the time.
But whilst Mary's acting career blossomed, her marriage was not particularly successful, as her husband, now released from prison, began spending his time with a succession of mistresses. There was also gossip that she was having an affair with Sheridan, and Mary probably did develop some kind of relationship with a baronet by the name of John Lade. She certainly turned down an offer from Charles Manners, 4th Duke of Rutland to become his mistress on a salary of £600 a year, although one suspects it was the amount rather than the principle that was at issue.
It was in the year 1756 that David Garrick produced a play entitled Florizel and Perdita, which was essentially the final two acts of Shakespeare's Winter's Tale padded out with additional material by Garrick himself and the odd song. Sheridan now decided to revive the play with Mary Robinson playing the female lead of Perdita, and it was in this role that Mary Robinson ensnared the young Prince of Wales or fell victim to his advances, depending on whose version of events you prefer.
Their courtship (if one can call it that) was a lengthy affair with a certain George Capel, Lord Malden 4 acting as go-between. A considerable volume of correspondence passed between the two before Mary agreed to become the Prince's mistress and only then after George had promised to pay her the sum of £20,000 when he came of age. Since that amount is equivalent to roughly £1 million in 2005 pounds, one can see that Mary had hit the jackpot.
Mary therefore abandoned her stage career in the summer of 1780 and became the full-time mistress of the future George IV. It is important to note that there was nothing discrete about any of this, as it was a very public affair. Stage actresses in 18th century London commanded the same kind of celebrity as the Hollywood actresses of today; newspapers and magazines of the day were full of gossip about their private lives, and the relationship between Mary Robinson and the Prince of Wales was well known, although they were referred to in print under the transparent pseudonyms of 'Perdita' and 'Florizel'.
Naturally the king wasn't happy about his son having an affair with an older married woman and pressure was put to bear on the young George to abandon the relationship. Eventually Mary was dropped by the Prince of Wales in 1782 and she never got her £20,000, but she did get £5,000 in return for the letters that George had sent her, which since she was £7,000 in debt at the time wasn't quite sufficient to make her fortune.
Thereafter Mary Robinson took upon the profession of courtesan to make ends meet. Her clients including the aforementioned Lord Malden, the Whig politician Charles James Fox and a gentleman named Banastre Tarleton5. During this time Mary continued to live in the public eye, becoming one of the leaders of London fashion and was credited with the introduction into England of Marie Antoinette's great fashion innovation of the chemise. It appears that she became genuinely attached to Tarleton, perhaps the least wealthy of all her 'companions', since he himself was often short of money and was forced to flee to France to avoid arrest for debt in 1783. It was whilst she was enroute to Dover seeking to intercept the fleeing Tarleton that Mary suffered an attack of rheumatic fever that forced her to abandon her journey.
Poet and Author
Not only did this attack of rheumatic fever result in a Mary suffering a miscarriage (she was pregnant with Tarleton's child at the time) but it also left her essentially crippled for the remainder of her life. As this disability now prevented her from carrying out her former profession, she became increasingly short of money. Although she was in receipt of a small pension from the Prince of Wales and could count on help from Fox whom she campaigned on behalf of, mounting debts forced her to flee to France in 1784. She spent the next few years drifting around continental health resorts such as Aix-le-Chappelle and St Amand les Eaux in Flanders and also spent some in Paris. Whilst she was abroad on the continent, the public gradually forgot about Mary Robinson the actress and courtesan and a premature report of her death even appeared in the Morning Post of the 14th July 1786.
She eventually returned to England and in order to try and earn a living
turned to writing poetry, adopting the then fashionable but now almost forgotten Della Cruscan style of poetry. This was published under a variety of pen names such as 'Laura Maria', 'Laura' and 'Oberon' and it was not until the publications of her Poems in 1791 that she revealed herself as the true author. She soon abandoned the embarrassingly florid Della Cruscan style and attracted something of a poetic reputation and became known as the 'English Sapho' largely as the result of the publication of her 1796 volume entitled Sapho and Phaon which contained a series of forty-four linked sonnets, and in 1797 she was appointed poetical correspondent of the Morning Post.
Her fame as a poet enabled her to publish her first novel Vancenza; or, the Dangers of Credulity on the 2nd February 1792, a Gothic Romance and an immediate bestseller whose entire print run sold out on the first day of publication. Unfortunately she made no money on the book as her publisher promptly went bankrupt. Further novels followed such as The Widow, or a Picture of Modern Times in 1794 which satirized fashionable society and Angelina which displayed her sympathy for the radical ideas of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Walsingham 1797, The False Friend 1798 and The Natural Daughter 1799 where other works that flowed from her pen, some of which sold reasonably well, but never generated sufficient money to pay off her debts and on more than one occasion she was forced to disappear abroad to escape her creditors.
In her quest for liquidity Mary also wrote an opera entitled Kate of Aberdeen and a comedy Nobody, the later intended as a vehicle for Dora Jordan. But the opera was never performed and Nobody ran for three nights before closing for lack of interest. A further play entitled The Sicilian Lover never made it to the stage.
Her one-off affair with Banastre Tarleton finally came to an end in December 1797 when he married an illegitmate daughter of the Duke of Ancaster who was worth £20,000 a year. Mary Robinson finally abandoned London in favour of a cottage near Windsor where she flirted with political radicalism and earned the reputation of being something of a Jacobin. William Godwin became one of her close friends and she wrote a polemical feminist treatise, A letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination. Her health however, gradually began to detoriate and she died of heart failure on the 26th December 1800
shortly after the publication of her final volume of poetry Lyrical Tales.
She was buried in the churchyard at Old Windsor where her grave and weathered memoral stone may be found to this day, lying directly beneath the flight path for Heathrow airport.
From being a famous and well known actress and mistress of the future King of Great Britain, Mary Robinson later reinvented herself as poet and novelist and became one of the most important literary figures of the 1790s. On her death she left behind a manuscript version of her Memoirs6 which contained a largely fictionalised account of her life until the time she met the Prince of Wales which was extended and edited by her daughter for publication. However this and all her literary contributions were afterwards entirely forgotten as they were soon overshadowed by the works of William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
If she was remembered at all it was as Perdita and for her 'romantic' entanglement with the Prince of Wales. During the Regency Crisis of 1808 a number of satirical novels were published that used the affair as a means of attacking the Prince, and the tale was often retold through the medium of a popular historical fiction, most recently in Perdita's Prince by Jean Plaidy. There was also a darker side to her fame as Mary Robinson was also the heroine (if one can call it that) of the frankly pornographic Memoirs of Perdita which also enjoyed a certain notoriety as a 'classic' work of eighteenth century erotica.
It is only in recent years, when it has become the academic fashion to search out forgotten female writers that Mary Robinson's work has been rediscovered. However her works are read only by students of eighteenth century literature; it would appear unlikely that they will ever gain a popular audience.
1 The records show that Mary Robinson was baptised at the church of St Augustine the Less in Bristol on the 19th July 1758. Her daughter simply made an error when preparing her mother's manuscript for publication and ascribed the wrong year to her birthdate of the 27th November.
2 Being Robert Henley, 1st Earl of Northington.
3 The Society of Merchant Venturers continues to this day although it is no longer involved in trade.
4 Being later George Capell-Coningsby, 5th Earl of Essex, known during his father's lifetime under the courtesy title of Lord or Baron Malden.
5 Otherwise known as 'Butcher Tarleton', and the nearest thing to a hero that the American War of Independence had produced on the British side.
6 Published as the Memoirs of the Late Mrs Robinson, Written by Herself
Information taken from Paula Byrne,Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson (Harper Perennial, 2005)