1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Robinson

William Clarke and Robert Shelton Mackenzie, in The Georgian Era: Memoirs of the most eminent Persons who have flourished in Great Britain (1832-34) 4:403-05.



This lady, whose maiden name was Darby, was born at Bristol, on the 27th of November, 1758. Her father, by birth an American, was at one time possessed of a large fortune, but lost it by speculation in a project for civilizing the Esquimaux Indians. At the age of ten, she went to a school in London, kept by Miss Hannah More and her sisters, and when in her fourteenth year, assisted her mother in the instruction of a few pupils. She completed her education at a seminary in Mary-le-bone, the dancing-master of which, being ballet-master at Covent Garden, introduced her to Garrick, who was so pleased with her, that he resolved on her appearing as Cordelia to his Lear.

At the age of sixteen, she was clandestinely married to Mr. Robinson, then under articles to an attorney. For two years she lived with her husband in great splendour; but on his arrest for debt, she accompanied him to prison, and remained with him for fifteen months. After this, she again turned her thoughts to the stage, when Garrick, although he had retired, became her instructor. Having fixed upon Juliet for her debut he himself spoke the part of Romeo, during the rehearsals: and on the night of her appearance, sat in the orchestra to witness her performance. Her reception was of the most flattering description, and it was not long before George the Fourth (then Prince of Wales), saw and admired her in the part of Perdita. It is to be observed, that, at this time, her husband was leading a most abandoned life, but she rejected the most splendid offers to live separately from him, even when she discovered that he was supporting two mistresses from the proceeds of her own labours.

At length, through the Earl of Essex, a correspondence was entered into with her, on the part of the prince, between whom and herself, an interview took place, for the first time, at Kew. "The meeting," she says, in her account of it, "was but of a moment. The Prince of Wales, and the Duke of York (then Bishop of Osnaburg) were walking down the avenue. They hastened to meet us. A few words, and those scarcely articulate, were uttered by the prince, when a noise of people approaching from the palace startled us. The moon was now rising, and the idea of his royal highness being seen out at so unusual an hour, terrified the whole groupe. After a few more words of the most affectionate nature, uttered by the prince, we parted. The rank of the prince," she continues, "no longer chilled into awe that being who now considered him as the lover and the friend. The graces of his person, the irresistible sweetness of his smile, the tenderness of his melodious, yet manly voice, will be remembered by me, till every vision of this changing scene shall be forgotten."

Mrs. Robinson had several subsequent meetings with the prince in Kew Gardens, and shortly afterwards made her last appearance on the stage, as Sir Henry Revell, in The Miniature Picture. Previously to her first interview with the prince, he had enclosed her a bond of 20,000, to be paid on his coming of age; but on the very day of his majority, she received a cold letter from him, saying, "we must meet no more." After having in vain sought an explanation, by letter, she set off, one night, for Windsor, and, on her way, was robbed by some highwaymen on Hounslow Heath. On her arrival, the prince would not see her, but she had an interview with her friends the Duke of Dorset and the Earl of Essex, neither of whom could account for the prince's conduct. Her royal paramour at length condescended to see her once more, when he assured her of his unabated affection; but on meeting her in the Park, the next day, passed her unnoticed.

Her embarrassments now rendered it necessary for her to leave England for Paris, when she wrote to the prince, but received no answer. The business was at length referred to Mr. Fox, and, in 1784, her claims were adjusted by an annuity of 500 a year for herself, and a moiety of that sum to descend to her daughter on her death. At Paris she became an object of great interest, and was noticed by Marie Antoinette, who called her "La belle Anglaise," and gave her a purse netted by her own hand.

In the interim she is said to have attached herself to a general officer of celebrity, and with such sincerity, as to part with all her disposable property in his behalf, besides incurring a violent rheumatism, by suddenly following him to the sea-side, to procure his release from arrest. She continued for some time to reside alternately in France and England, and in 1787, she fixed her residence at Brighton. Here she wrote the admired lines, "To him who will understand them," and the poem The Haunted Beach. In the winter of 1790, she entered into a poetical correspondence with Mr. Robert Merry, under the assumed names of Laura and Laura Maria; her productions gaining, in every circle, the highest commendations.

She subsequently wrote several poems, which were collected into one volume; Vaucenza, a romance; and a farce called Nobody, which nobody admired. These were followed by The Sicilian Lover, a tragedy; some novels, entitled, respectively, The Widow, Angelina, Hubert de Levrac, Walsingham, The False Friend, and The Natural Daughter; Lyrical Tales; Impartial Reflections on the Situation of the Queen of France; Thoughts on the Condition of Women; and two volumes of poems.

In 1799, she undertook the poetical department of The Morning Post, but her contributions to this paper were soon terminated by her death, which took place on the 26th of December, 1800.

The person of Mrs. Robinson was lovely in the extreme; and such was the early ripeness of her charms, that she received an offer of marriage before she was thirteen years of age. Her disposition was ingenuous and affectionate, and in unbounded affection for her mother and daughter, she gave decisive proofs of the tenderness of her heart. Her manners were highly polished; and among other accomplishments, she was mistress of the French, German, and Italian languages. Her only faults originated in her misfortunes: and if she erred in flying from the arms of a profligate husband, to those of a heartless libertine, the sufferings which followed such a step, render condemnation superfluous.

As an actress, her career was brief and brilliant; her personation of Perdita was exquisitely touching; and had she remained on the stage, she would, probably, have stood alone in all characters where the soft, tender, and graceful, prevail over the impetuous, proud, and ambitious. Her poetry (which touches, in many parts, on her own misfortunes), is easy, natural, and tender; and in her novels, good-natured satire, with just views, and much knowledge of life, are combined.