'Perdita' Mary Robinson

Perdita Mary Robinson portrait by Gainsborough (detail)

Mary Robinson (1756-1800) was one of the most flamboyant free spirits of the late 18th century, an advocate of women's rights who figured in the early Romantic Movement and was described by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as ‘a woman of undoubted genius’.

Principal London address: 21 St James’s Place
Tube: St James’s

Mary Robinson (nee Darby) was born to a sea captain and his wife in Bristol. Whilst she was still a child her father abandoned his family to establish a fishery among the Canadian Eskimos.

Aged 16 she married Thomas Robinson and the couple moved to London. They joined the social round of the ‘ton’ (see Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire) where Mary’s outstanding beauty made her the ‘talk of the town’.

However, Robinson was not wealthy (as he had claimed), and spending way over their means landed the couple and their baby in the Fleet Prison for debt.

Whilst in the prison Mary's first book of poetry, Poems was published in 1775, and gained her the patronage of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Perdita and the Prince of Wales

On her release, Mary's friendship with Georgiana brought her into contact with Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the playwright and owner-manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. She became one of the Theatre Royal’s most alluring actresses.

In 1779 she famously played Perdita in Garrick’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale before a rapt audience that included the young Prince of Wales, who fell madly in love and, in his love letters to her, addressed her as Perdita. She became a celebrated courtesan, being an occasional attraction at Mrs Windsor’s 'nunnery’ at 4 King’s Place.

When the Prince suddenly dropped her, she used his ardent love letters as blackmail, and received court payments for their return. This enabled her to pay off her debts accrued from her opulent lifestyle. From 1784 until 1796 Mary lived at 21 St James’s Place.

Mary Robinson, engraving after portrait by Reynolds

Poet, editor and campaigner

After being struck down by paralysis, following a miscarriage, Mary Robinson concentrated on her writing. She wrote several popular Gothic novels, including Vancenza (1792) Hubert de Servac (1796) and The Natural Daughter (1799).

Her volumes of poetry included the sonnet sequence Sappho and Phaon (1796), much admired by intellectuals of the day.

She was on the radical wing of the Whigs, welcoming the French Revolution in 1789 and writing campaign speeches, songs and notices for her lover, Banastre Tarleton in 1790.

By 1796 her friends included William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, whose views on women’s rights, marriage, sexuality, slavery and education, she shared. In 1799 she published a feminist pamphlet, A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination.

Mary Robinson became the poetry editor of The Morning Post, in February 1800, publishing both Wordsworth and Coleridge (who she saw regularly) and consolidating their shared themes, interests and metrics.

Her Lyrical Tales (1800) were written ‘in the manner of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads’ (1798), juxtaposing subjects menaced by a supernatural agency and those that are the victims of society. They eulogised each other’s work and clearly inspired each other.

Mary Robinson's best work, such as 'The Haunted Beach’, which inspired Wordsworth, and the long narrative poem ‘Golfre’, with its echoes of Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’, are now recognised as part of the early Romantic Movement.

After her death, Mary’s work declined in popularity, partly due to her reputation as a courtesan. Her daughter, also called Mary, edited her Memoirs (1801) and Poetical Works (1806).

Her complexity and beauty were such that both Gainsborough, who painted her in 1781 (see detail at top), and Reynolds, who painted her as Perdita in 1782, were criticised for failing to do justice to her on canvas.

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