was born in Bristol and raised in London. A younger sister died of smallpox before Mary's birth. one younger brother, William, died at age six years, and a brother, George, matured along with Mary. She writes of herself in her memoir that upon learning to read she delighted in epitaphs and "monumental inscriptions." She adds, "A story of melancholy import never failed to excite my attention," a trait that may later have affected her decision to become an actress.
Robinson memorized poetry by Alexander Pope and enjoyed ballads by John Gay. Her younger years proved happy ones in elegant surroundings supported by her American-born father. However, she would later move to London with her brother and mother when her parents separated. There she attended school taught by Meribah Lorrington, an "extraordinary woman," with whom Robinson credited "All that I ever learned." The family began to experience financial difficulties as her father did not supply the support he had promised. Her mother began a small school, but her father demanded that she end that occupation. He had taken a mistress, about whom Robinson writes in her memoir. At age 15, she began to take acting lessons from David Garrick and described that pursuit: "the drama, the delightful drama, seemed the very criterion of all human happiness."
Mary's mother decided she should "relinquish [her] theatrical prospects" and marry while still in her teens. In 1774 she wed Thomas Robinson, a man who during his courting had proven "indefatiguable in his attentions." The couple had a daughter named Maria Elizabeth before he went to debtors' prison. Mary and the baby lived with him for 10 months, and other family members were free to come and go from the prison. She wrote in her memoir, "During nine months and three weeks, never once did I pass the threshold of our dreary habitation." She includes a description of her initial reaction to incarceration, writing that she cared little for herself but remained anxious for the baby's health. While "Mr. Robinson was expert in all exercises of strength or activity" and could use the exercise area, she occupied herself with her "beloved and still helpless daughter." Tom Robinson received some financial support from his father, who helped to pay for the two rooms required by the family in jail. Because of her beauty Mary began receiving offers of money from men in exchange for "favors," a situation that would only increase in her future. She remained loyal to her husband in spite of overwhelming evidence of his infidelity, but that devotion would ebb over the next five years.
Robinson began her writing career in prison, later publishing a collection of poems that earned her the support of the duchess of Devonshire. When the family left prison, she began a stage career with the help of Garrick and encouragement including from playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. In an early performance the audience hissed at the actors, causing her to freeze on stage. The other actor fled, leaving her "to encounter the critic tempest." As she reported, the duke of Cumberland (fifth son of George III) called to her to "take courage: 'It is not you, but the play, they hiss.'" His assessment proved correct, and she became incredibly successful. Graceful as well as beautiful, she was a natural on stage and earned the pseudonym Perdita with her famed portrayal of that character in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Her memoir includes mention of 22 parts that she played during her first year. By 1779 her marriage proved a sham, but she continued to be seen with her husband off and on over many years. As she drily described her feelings in her memoir, "His indifference naturally produced an alienation of esteem on my side."
The prince of Wales, later to become King George Iv, fell in love with Robinson and kept the celebrated actress as his mistress for one year; she was the first of many for the then 17-year-old prince. Her memoir concludes at the point when their relationship turned stormy, and it would later be continued by her daughter. Robinson had kept what she described as "almost daily letters" of the prince's confession of love, which afforded her some leverage in bargaining for an income. While he attempted to leave her with no support and a sullied reputation, she managed to procure a bond that acted as a promise of £20,000 when the prince became of age. While she never received the full amount, she would eventually receive sporadic annual support, and Maria Elizabeth would receive a pledge of £200 per year upon Robinson's death.
Robinson returned to her writing career and continued in various relationships with men, including the politician Charles James Fox and the soldier famous for his actions in the American Revolution Colonel Banastre Tarleton. She had become fully involved in what she described in her memoir as "the perils atten dant on a dramatic life." Her pursuit of Tarleton as he fled to the Continent to escape his debts became legendary, inspiring later fiction. However, none of her romantic ventures proved lasting or satisfying. Her great beauty made her a favorite subject of the four most famous portrait artists of her era, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hoppner, and George Romney, and her portraits remain on display into the 21st century. Her name appeared constantly in print, her every move made public. Her wearing of breeches on the stage confirmed for many Robinson's fallen nature, and the public followed her various relationships with great interest.
Robinson suffered partial paralysis at age 25, probably from acute rheumatic fever. Shortly after she had a miscarriage, losing Tarleton's baby as Maria Elizabeth cared for her. In 1792 Tom Robinson reappeared after a long absence with the news that his brother, William, had agreed to support Maria Elizabeth. The news cheered Robinson, who could not hope to give her daughter many advantages. However, William Robinson demanded that Maria Elizabeth renounce legal ties to both parents. She refused, remaining to care for her ailing mother until Robinson's death.
Even while ill, Robinson continued to write, as she was always in debt. Her poetry enjoyed multiple publications, including an erotic sequence of Sonnets, "Sappho and Phaon" (1796); a verse comedy, "Nobody" (1794); and a tragedy, "The Sicilian Lover" (1796); as well as eight novels. She adopted a number of voices, adopting pseudonyms such as Horace Juvenal, Tabitha Bramble, Laura Maria, Sappho, and Anne Frances Randall. Despite her continued poor health, she managed a social literary life, with her friends including the romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and her husband, William Godwin, parents to Mary Shelley. Robinson would carry on a spirited correspondence with Godwin, with whom she quarreled at one point. Despite their disagreements, Godwin would be one of only two people, in addition to Maria Elizabeth, who attended Robinson's funeral. She died at age 42 on December 26, 1800, of "dropsy in the chest," meaning fluid on the lungs, with her work surviving her.
Although her exact age remained in question for a time, Robinson's correspondence helped later critics determine facts about her life, as did her unfinished Memoir. Popularly anthologized poems include "London's Summer Morning," "January, 1795," which expresses her disillusion with her culture and its seeming lack of values, and "To the Poet Coleridge." Robinson remained known into the 19th century for her relationship with King George IV during his youth, as the couple were the subject of various novels. In 1826 Robinson's publisher, Sir Richard Phillips, attempted to sell back to the royal family a lock of the king's hair that Robinson had retained as a keepsake.
Robinson received little scholarly attention until the 1990s, when feminist critics rediscovered her work. However, she still has not received the serious notice of other women writers of her era. Although Coleridge labeled her a genius, Mary Robinson is still not known in the way she had hoped, as a woman of letters, a wish she had expressed in her memoir. Paula Byrne produced the first recent biography, containing a bibliography of early references to Robinson.
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