Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Robinson, Mary
ROBINSON, MARY (1758–1800), known as ‘Perdita,’ actress, author, and mistress of George, prince of Wales (afterwards George IV), of Irish descent, was born on 27 Nov. 1758 at College Green, Bristol. The original name of her father's family, McDermott, had been changed by one of her ancestors into Darby. Her father, the captain of a Bristol whaler, was born in America. Through her mother, whose name was Seys, she claimed descent from Locke. She showed precocious ability and was fond of elegiac poetry, reciting at an early age verses from Pope and Mason. Her earliest education was received at the school in Bristol kept by the sisters of Hannah More [q. v.] A scheme of establishing a whale fishery on the coast of Labrador and employing Esquimaux labour, which her father originated, and in which he embarked his fortune, led to his temporary settlement in America. His desertion of her mother brought with it grave financial difficulties. Mary was next placed at a school in Chelsea under a Mrs. Lorrington, an able erratic but drunken woman, from whom she claims to have learnt all she ever knew, and by whom she was encouraged in writing verses. She passed thence to a school kept by a Mrs. Leigh in Chelsea, which she was compelled to leave in consequence of her father's neglect. After receiving, at the early age of thirteen, a proposal of marriage from a captain in the royal navy, she temporarily assisted her mother in keeping a girls' school at Chelsea. This establishment was broken up by her father, and she was sent to a ‘finishing school’ at Oxford House, Marylebone, kept by a Mrs. Hervey. Hussey, the dancing-master there, was ballet-master at Covent Garden Theatre. Through him she was introduced to Thomas Hull [q. v.], and afterwards to Arthur Murphy [q. v.] and David Garrick.
Struck by her appearance, Garrick offered to bring her out as Cordelia to his own Lear. He paid her much attention, told her her voice recalled that of Mrs. Cibber, and encouraged her to attend the theatre and familiarise herself with stage life and proceedings. But her appearance on the boards was long deferred owing to her marriage, on 12 April 1774 at St. Martin's Church, with Thomas Robinson, an articled clerk, who was regarded by her mother as a man of means and expectations. At his request her nuptials were kept secret, and she lived for a while with her mother in a house in Great Queen Street, on the site now occupied by the Freemasons' Tavern. After a visit to Wales to see the father of her husband, whose birth was illegitimate, she returned to London and lived with Robinson at No. 13 Hatton Garden. During two years she led a fashionable life, neglected by her husband, receiving compromising attentions from Lord Lyttelton and other rakes, and at the end of this period she shared the imprisonment of her husband, who was arrested for debt.
During a confinement in the king's bench prison, extending over almost ten months, she occupied in writing verses the hours that were not spent in menial occupation or attending to her child. Her poems, while in manuscript, obtained for her the patronage of the Duchess of Devonshire; a first collection was published in 1775 (2 vols.). After her release from prison, she took refuge in Newman Street. There she was seen by Sheridan, to whom she recited. At the instance of William Brereton she now applied once more to Garrick, who, though he had retired from the stage, still took an active interest in the affairs of Drury Lane. In the green-room of the theatre she recited the principal scenes of Juliet, supported by Brereton as Romeo. Juliet was chosen for her début by Garrick, who superintended the rehearsals, and on some occasions went through the various scenes with her. A remunerative engagement was promised her, and on 10 Dec. 1776 she appeared with marked success as Juliet. Garrick occupied a seat in the orchestra. On 17 Feb. 1777 she was Statira in ‘Alexander the Great,’ and on 24 Feb. was the original Amanda in the ‘Trip to Scarborough,’ altered by Sheridan from Vanbrugh's ‘Relapse.’ In this she had to face some hostility directed against the piece by a public to which it had been announced as a novelty. She also played for her benefit Fanny Sterling in the ‘Clandestine Marriage.’ On 30 Sept. 1777 she appeared as Ophelia, on 7 Oct. as Lady Anne in ‘Richard the Third,’ on 22 Dec. as the Lady in ‘Comus,’ on 10 Jan. 1778 as Emily in the ‘Runaway,’ on 9 April as Araminta in the ‘Confederacy,’ on 23 April as Octavia in ‘All for Love.’ For her benefit she played somewhat rashly on 30 April Lady Macbeth in place of Cordelia, for which she was previously advertised. On this occasion her musical farce of the ‘Lucky Escape,’ of which the songs only are printed, was produced. Her name does not appear in the list of characters. In the following season she was the first Lady Plume in the ‘Camp’ on 15 Oct. 1778, and on 8 Feb. 1779 Alinda in Jephson's ‘Law of Lombardy.’ She also played Palmira in ‘Mahomet,’ Miss Richly in the ‘Discovery,’ Jacintha in the ‘Suspicious Husband,’ Fidelia in the ‘Plain Dealer,’ and, for her benefit, Cordelia. In her fourth and last season (1779–1780) she was Viola in the ‘Twelfth Night,’ Perdita in the ‘Winter's Tale,’ Rosalind, Oriana in the ‘Inconstant Imogen,’ Mrs. Brady in the ‘Irish Widow,’ and on 24 May 1780 was the original Eliza Campley, a girl who masquerades as Sir Harry Revel in the ‘Miniature Picture’ of Lady Craven (afterwards the margravine of Anspach). At the close of the season she quitted the stage; her last appearance at Drury Lane seems to have been on 31 May 1780.
Her beauty, which at this time was remarkable, and her figure, seen to great advantage in the masculine dress she was accustomed to wear on the stage, had brought her many proposals from men of rank and wealth. On 3 Dec. 1778, when Garrick's adaptation of the ‘Winter's Tale,’ first produced on 20 Nov., was acted by royal command, ‘Gentleman Smith’ [see Smith, William, (d. 1819)], the Leontes, prophesied that Mrs. Robinson, who was looking handsomer than ever as ‘Perdita,’ would captivate the Prince of Wales (subsequently George IV). The prediction was fulfilled. She received, through Lord Malden (afterwards Earl of Essex), a letter signed ‘Florizel,’ which was the beginning of a correspondence. After a due display of coyness on the part of the heroine, who invariably signed herself ‘Perdita,’ a meeting was arranged at Kew, the prince being accompanied by the Duke of York, then bishop of Osnaburgh. This proved to be the first of many Romeo and Juliet-like encounters. Princes do not sigh long, and after a bond for 20,000l., to be paid when the prince came of age, had been sealed with the royal arms, signed, and given her, Mrs. Robinson's position as the royal mistress was recognised. After no long period the prince, who had transferred his ‘interest’ to another ‘fair one,’ wrote her a cold note intimating that they must meet no more. One further meeting was brought about by her pertinacity, but the rupture was final. The royal bond was unpaid, and Mrs. Robinson, knowing how openly she had been compromised, dared not face the public and resume the profession she had dropped. Ultimately, when all her letters had been left unanswered and she was heavily burdened with debt and unable to pay for her establishment in Cork Street, Fox granted her in 1783 a pension of 500l. a year, half of which after her death was to descend to her daughter. She then went to Paris, where she attracted much attention, and declined overtures from the Duke of Orleans; she also received a purse netted by the hands of Marie-Antoinette, who (gratified, no doubt, by the repulse administered to Philippe d'Orléans) addressed it to ‘La Belle Anglaise.’ In Paris she is said to have opened an academy. Returning to England, she settled at Brighton. Report, which is sanctioned by Horace Walpole, coupled her name with Charles James Fox. She formed a close intimacy, extending over many years, with Colonel (afterwards Sir Banastre) Tarleton, an officer in the English army in America. In a journey undertaken in his behalf, when he was in a state of pecuniary difficulty, she contracted an illness that ended in a species of paralysis of her lower limbs.
From this period she devoted herself to literature, for which she had always shown some disposition. She had already published, besides her poems (1775), ‘Captivity,’ a poem, and ‘Celadon and Lydia,’ a tale, both printed together in 4to in 1777. Two further volumes of poems saw the light in 1791, 8vo; ‘Angelina,’ a novel, 3 vols. 12mo, in 1796. ‘The False Friend,’ a domestic story, 4 vols. 12mo, in 1799, ‘Lyrical Tales’ in 1800, and ‘Effusions of Love,’ 8vo, n.d., purporting to be her correspondence with the Prince of Wales. She is also credited with ‘Vaucenza, or the Dangers of Credulity,’ a novel, 1792; ‘Walsingham, or the Pupil of Nature,’ a domestic story, 2nd ed. 4 vols. 12mo, 1805, twice translated into French; and ‘Sappho and Phaon,’ a series of sonnets, 1796, 16mo. ‘Hubert de Sevrac,’ a ‘Monody to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds,’ and a ‘Monody to the Memory of the late Queen of France,’ ‘Sight,’ ‘The Cavern of Woe,’ and ‘Solitude’ were published together in 4to. To these may be added ‘The Natural Daughter,’ ‘Impartial Reflections on the Situation of the Queen of France,’ and ‘Thoughts on the Condition of Women.’ Halkett and Laing attribute to her a ‘Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination, with Anecdotes by Anne Frances Randall,’ London, 1799, 8vo. Under the pseudonym of Laura Maria, she published ‘The Mistletoe,’ a Christmas tale, in verse, 1800. She is said to have taken part under various signatures, in the Della Cruscan literature [see Merry, Robert], and is, by a strange error, credited in ‘Literary Memoirs of Living Authors,’ 1798 [by David Rivers, dissenting minister of Highgate], with being the Anna Matilda of the ‘World,’ who was of course Hannah Cowley [q. v.] Many other poems, tracts, and pamphlets of the latter part of the eighteenth century are ascribed to her, often on very doubtful authority. Her latest poetical contributions were contributed to the ‘Morning Post’ under the signature, ‘Tabitha Bramble.’ Mrs. Robinson's poems were collected by her daughter. What is called the best edition, containing many pieces not previously published, appeared in 1806, 3 vols. 8vo. Another edition appeared in 1826. Her memoirs, principally autobiographical but in part due to her daughter, appeared, 4 vols. 12mo, 1801; with some posthumous pieces in verse, again in 2 vols. 1803; and again, with introduction and notes by Mr. J. Fitzgerald Molloy, in 1894.
Mrs. Robinson was also active as a playwright. To Drury Lane she gave ‘Nobody,’ a farce, never printed, but acted, 29 Nov. 1794, by Banister, jun., Bensley, Barrymore, Mrs. Jordan, Miss Pope, Mrs. Goodall, and Miss de Camp. It was a satire on female gamblers. It was played three or four times amid a scene of great confusion, ladies of rank hissing or sending their servants to hiss. A principal performer, supposed to be Miss Farren, threw up her part, saying that the piece was intended to ridicule her particular friend. Mrs. Robinson also wrote the ‘Sicilian Lover,’ a tragedy, 4to, 1796, but could not get it acted.
Mary Robinson died, crippled and impoverished, at Englefield Cottage, Surrey, on 26 Dec. 1800, aged 40 (according to the tombstone, 43). She was buried in Old Windsor churchyard. Poetic epitaphs by J. S. Pratt and ‘C. H.’ are over her grave. Her daughter, Maria or Mary Elizabeth, died in 1818; the latter published ‘The Shrine of Bertha,’ a novel, 1794, 2 vols. 12mo, and ‘The Wild Wreath,’ 1805, 8vo, a poetical miscellany, dedicated to the Duchess of York.
Mrs. Robinson was a woman of singular beauty, but vain, ostentatious, fond of exhibiting herself, and wanting in refinement. Her desertion by the prince and her subsequent calamities were responsible for her notoriety, and the references to her royal lover in her verse contributed greatly to its popularity. She was to be seen daily in an absurd chariot, with a device of a basket likely to be taken for a coronet, driven by the favoured of the day, with her husband and candidates for her favour as outriders. ‘To-day she was a paysanne, with her straw hat tied at the back of her head, looking as if too new to what she passed to know what she looked at. Yesterday she perhaps had been the dressed belle of Hyde Park, trimmed, powdered, patched, painted to the utmost power of rouge and white lead. To-morrow she would be the cravatted Amazon of the riding-house; but be she what she might, the hats of the fashionable promenaders swept the ground as she passed’ (Hawkins, Memoirs, ii. 24). A companion picture shows her at a later date seated, helplessly paralysed, in one of the waiting-rooms of the opera-house, ‘a woman of fashionable appearance, still beautiful, but not in the bloom of beauty's pride. In a few minutes her liveried servants came to her,’ and after covering their arms with long white sleeves, ‘lifted her up and conveyed her to her carriage’ (ib. p. 34). As an author she was credited in her own day with feeling, taste, and elegance, and was called the English Sappho. Some of her songs, notably ‘Bounding Billow, cease thy motion,’ ‘Lines to him who will understand them,’ and ‘The Haunted Beach,’ enjoyed much popularity in the drawing-room; but though her verse has a certain measure of facility, it appears, to modern tastes, jejune, affected, and inept. Wolcot (Peter Pindar) and others belauded her in verse, celebrating her graces, which were real, and her talents, which were imaginary.
Many portraits of Mary Robinson are in existence. Sir Joshua painted her twice, one portrait being now in the possession of Lord Granville, and another in that of Lady Wallace. He ‘probably used her as model in some of his fancy pictures, for she sat to him very assiduously throughout the year’ (1782) (Leslie and Taylor, Life of Reynolds, ii. 343). The Garrick Club collection has a portrait after Sir Joshua Reynolds, and one by Zoffany, as Rosalind. A portrait, engraved by J. R. Smith, was painted by Romney. Another is in Huish's ‘Life of George IV.’ A full-length portrait of her in undress, sitting by a bath, was painted by Stroehling. Two portraits were painted by Cosway, and one by Dance. A portrait by Hoppner was No. 249 in the Guelph Exhibition. A half-length by Gainsborough was exhibited in the National Portrait Exhibition of 1868. Engraved portraits are in the various editions of her life. In his ‘Book for a Rainy Day,’ J. T. Smith tells how, when attending on the visitors in Sherwin's chambers, he received a kiss from her as the reward for fetching a drawing of her which Sherwin had made.[The chief if not always trustworthy authority for the life of Mrs. Robinson is her posthumous memoirs published by her daughter. Letters from Perdita to a certain Israelite and her Answer to them, London, 1781, 8vo, is a coarse satire accusing her and her husband of swindling. Even coarser is Poetical Epistles from Florizel to Perdita ——, and Perdita's Answer, &c., London, 1781, 4to, and Mistress of Royalty, or the Loves of Florizel and Perdita, n. d. (Brit. Mus. Cat. s.v. ‘Perdita’). Other books consulted are the Life of Reynolds by Leslie and Taylor; Memoirs of her by Miss Hawkins; Genest's Account of the Stage; Monthly Mirror; Walpole Correspondence, ed. Cunningham; Doran's Annals of the Stage, ed. Lowe; Allibone's Dictionary; Bryan's Dictionary of Painters; Georgian Era; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; Biographia Dramatica; Thespian Dictionary; John Taylor's Records of my Life; Gent. Mag. 1804, ii. 1009; Literary Memoirs of Living Authors, 1798; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. iii. 173, 348, iv. 105, 5th ser. ix. 59, 7th ser. vi. 147.]