Little more than one hundred years ago, when Beau Brummell was yet a little boy, and the First Gentleman in Europe had not earned the distinction of being called his "fat friend," when the latter was colonel of the most famous regiment of fops that ever existed (the 10th Hussars); before the wicked Lord Lyttelton had quarrelled with George Ayscough, or had broken off his engagement with Miss Warburton, "who was," according to him, "as cold as an anchorite; formed to be the best wife in the world to a good husband, but by no means calculated to reform a bad one;" about this time, the famous Lord Lyttelton and his friend, George Ayscough, sauntered one evening into the Pantheon Rotunda, to have a look at, and a chat with, the beauties and beaux usually to be found congregated there.
Nominally, a concert was the excuse for the gathering together of this brilliant assemblage. The first women of fashion of the day were amongst the audience — from the first Countess of Tyrconnell, with her pretty brogue, to the sleepy-eyed, lovely, and voluptuous-looking Lady Almeria Carpenter, and the magnificent Marchioness of Townshend. The gay young nobleman and his boon companion mingled with the brilliant throng, where doubtless Mary Warburton — who was at that time betrothed to the former — jealously watched the flirtations of her erratic and susceptible affianced husband. To the same pretty face constant never, Lord Lyttelton was beginning to find the familiar society pall, when he suddenly gave a start, and grasping his friend's arm, earnestly inquired — "Who is she?"
The object of his inquiry was a pretty young girl, in a plain round cap, over which was tied a white chip hat, and her dress was of pink trimmed with sable. The two gallants stared at her so persistently — in those days it was considered a compliment to a woman to stare her out of countenance — that she became quite disconcerted; — she got used to these gallantries very soon, — and taking the arm of the gentleman who accompanied her, she walked away in the opposite direction.
But Lord Lyttelton and George Ayscough had come, had seen, and had been conquered by the beauty and grace of the mysterious fair one. They pursued her and her companion round the circle where the company promenaded whilst listening to the music, now and again stopping their various friends and demanding of them who the stranger was. But although everybody wanted to know, yet nobody knew, until the Earl of Northington, looking critically at the young lady, said dubiously, "Ye-es; I think I know her." And leaving his companions, advanced with a bow, saying —
"Miss Darby — or I am mistaken?"
The young lady has left it upon record, "that my manner and confusion plainly evinced that I was not accustomed to the gaze of impertinent high-breeding." We are willing to give her the benefit of any doubt we may privately cherish, and state upon her own authority that she replied that her name was now changed to Robinson, and "to prevent any awkward embarrassment," she presented her husband, upon whose arm she was leaning.
In such wise did the famous "Perdita" make her first appearance in London society.
An Irishwoman — born in Bristol, in 1758, right in the shadow of Saint Mary Redclyffe — Mary Darby was the daughter of a speculator, named MacDermott, which name he subsequently changed to that of Darby. He went off on some visionary enterprise to North America, and came back in a few years without either money or credit. During his absence, his daughter Mary had been at a school kept by the sisters of the famous Hannah More; and his wife, who had removed to London, had opened a school there, in order to try and support her other children. In this enterprise she was helped by her daughter Mary, now a girl of about fifteen.
She was a very pretty and intelligent girl, but gave early proof that the lessons of gravity and of female propriety, which we may be sure the Misses More endeavoured to implant in her youthful mind, had fallen upon stony ground. Did they ever know of it, it must have shocked the sense of decorum o these good spinsters to learn that their quondam pupil actually flirted from the windows with a young man, who lodged in a house opposite to the one occupied by her mother in Southampton Buildings.
Mary Darby did more than flirt with this young man — she married him, and thus became Mrs. Robinson just at the time that her dancing-master had made her show off before the veteran Garrick, who was so pleased with her dancing and recitations that he was about to allow her to appear in a piece with him at Covent Garden. Mr. Robinson seems to have won the consent of the pretty Mary's mother by flattering the good lady's little foibles, and by sundry presents of books — they were gifts of value in those days — notably a copy of Hervey's Meditations. At first he insisted upon the marriage being kept secret, alleging as an excuse his fear of displeasing a rich uncle in Wales, from whom he had expectations.
But at length the true story came out. The rich uncle was apocryphal — he was in reality a Mr. Harris, and the so-called Mr. Robinson was his illegitimate son. He invited the bride and bridegroom on a visit to Wales, and they accepted the invitation. In her quaintly-written "Confessions" — which she wrote in after years — Mrs. Robinson gives the following graphic account of the visit:—
"Mr. Harris came out to receive me. I wore a dark claret-coloured riding-habit, with a white beaver hat and feathers. He embraced me with excessive cordiality, while Miss Robinson, my husband's sister, with cold formality led me into the house. I never shall forget her looks or her manner. Had her brother presented the most abject being to her, she could not have taken my hand with a more frigid demeanour. Miss Robinson, though not more than twenty years of age, was Gothic in her appearance, and stiff in her deportment; she was of low stature, and clumsy, with a countenance peculiarly formed for the expression of sarcastic vulgarity — a short snub nose, turned up at the point, a head thrown back with an air of hauteur, a gaudy-coloured chintz gown, a thrice-bordered cap, with a profusion of ribands, and a countenance somewhat more ruddy than was consistent with even pure health, presented the personage whom I was to know as my future companion and kinswoman.
"Mr. Harris looked like a venerable Hawthorn; a brown fustian coat, a scarlet waistcoat edged with narrow gold, a pair of woollen spatterdashes, and a gold-laced hat, formed the dress he generally wore. He always rode a small Welsh pony, and was seldom in the house, excepting at meal-time, from sunrise to the close of the evening.
"There was yet another personage in the domestic establishment, who was by Mr. Harris regarded as of no small importance; this was a venerable housekeeper, of the name of Mary Edwards. Mrs. Molly was the female mentor of the family. She dined at the table with Mr. Harris, she was the governess of the domestic department, and a more overbearing, vindictive spirit never inhabited the heart of mortal than that which pervaded the soul of the ill-natured Mrs. Molly.
"It may be easily conjectured that my time passed heavily in this uninteresting circle. I was condemned either to drink ale with 'the Squire,' for Mr. Harris was only spoken of by that title, or to visit the methodistical seminary which Lady Huntingdon had established at Trevecca, another mansion-house on the estate of Mr. Harris. Miss Robinson was of this sect, and though Mr. Harris was not a disciple of the Huntingdonian school, he was a constant church visitor on every Sunday. His zeal was indefatigable, and he would frequently fine the rustics (for he was a justice of the peace, and had been sheriff of the county) when he heard them swear, though every third sentence he uttered was attended by an oath that made his hearers shudder.
"I soon became a considerable favourite with the Squire, but I did not find any yielding qualities about the hearts of Miss Betsy or Mrs. Molly. They observed me with jealous eyes; they considered me an interloper, whose manner attracted Mr. Harris's esteem, and who was likely to diminish their divided influence in the family. I found them daily growing weary of my society; I perceived their sidelong glances when I was complimented by the visiting neighbours on my good looks, or taste in the choice of my dresses. Miss Robinson rode on horseback in a camlet safeguard, with a high-crowned bonnet. I wore a fashionable habit, and looked like something human. Envy at length assumed the form of insolence, and I was taunted perpetually on the folly of appearing like a woman of fortune, that a lawyer's wife had no right to dress like a duchess, and that, though I might be very accomplished, a good housewife had no occasion for harpsichords and books, they belonged to women who had brought wherewithal to support them. Such was the language of vulgar illiberal natures! Yet for three weeks I endured it patiently.
"Knowing that Mr. Harris was disposed to think favourably of me — that he even declared he should 'have liked me for his wife, had I not married Tom,' though he was then between sixty and seventy years of age — I thought it prudent to depart, lest through the machinations of Miss Betsy and Mrs. Molly I should lose the share I had gained in his affections. My mother was still at Bristol, and the morning of our departure being arrived, to my infinite astonishment Mr. Harris proposed accompanying us thither. It was in vain that Molly and Miss interfered to prevent him; he swore that he would see me safe across the Channel, whatever might be the consequence of his journey. We set out together.
"After passing many days at Bristol, Mr. Harris returned to Wales, and our party set out for London. Mr. Robinson's mind was easy, and his hopes were confirmed by the kindness of his uncle; he now considered himself as the most happy of mortals. We removed from Great Queen Street to a house, No. 13, in, Hatton Garden, which had been recently built. Mr. Robinson furnished it with peculiar elegance. I frequently inquired into the extent of his finances, and he as often assured me that they were in every respect competent to his expenses. In addition to our domestic establishment, Mr. Robinson purchased a handsome phaeton, with saddle-horses for his own use. And I now made my debut, though scarcely emerged beyond the boundaries of childhood, in the broad hemisphere of fashionable folly."
It is at this point in her history that Mary Robinson first met Lord Lyttelton and his friend George Ayscough at the Pantheon Rotunda. They followed up the introduction by calling upon her the next day. Lord Lyttelton — the most accomplished libertine of his time — ostensibly courted the husband instead of the wife, professing esteem and admiration for him, and an earnest desire to cultivate his acquaintance. The picture Mrs. Robinson gives of this nobleman is not by any means flattering. She says:—
"Lord Lyttelton was uniformly my aversion. His manners were overbearingly insolent, his language licentious, and his person slovenly, even to a degree that was disgusting."
Although, further on in her Memoirs, Mrs. Robinson tells us that she "abhorred, decidedly abhorred," Lord Lyttelton, yet she seems to have had no scruples about taking presents from him. He wrote poetry to her, for which she says he had considerable facility," and he also constituted himself her cavaliere servente at all places of amusement. It is significant that she says very little about being ever introduced to any ladies, but records the names of the chief men of fashion of the day; Count do Belgiose, the Imperial Ambassador, "one of the most accomplished foreigners I ever remember to have met;" Lord Valentia, Captain O'Byrne, Mr. William Brereton of Drury Lane Theatre, Sir Francis Molyneux, Mr. Alderman Sayer, George Robert Fitzgerald, and many others.
About this time she begins to complain of the neglect of her husband; and it must honestly be admitted that her position was a trying one. Young, beautiful, talented and, — it cannot be denied — intensely vain, and treated with indifference by him who was her natural protector, she was thrown into the constant companionship of the most licentious and fascinating men of the age. She says herself:—
Among "Among the most dangerous of my husband's associates was George Robert Fitzgerald. His manners towards women were interesting and attentive. He perceived the neglect with which I was treated by Mr. Robinson, and the pernicious influence which Lord Lyttelton had acquired over his mind; he professed to feel the warmest interest in my welfare, lamented the destiny which had befallen me, in being wedded to a man incapable of estimating my value, and at last confessed himself my most ardent and devoted admirer. I shuddered at the declaration, for amidst all the allurements of splendid folly my mind, the purity of my virtue, was still uncontaminated.
"I repulsed the dangerous advances of this accomplished person; but I did not the less feel the humiliation to which a husband's indifference had exposed me. God can bear witness to the purity of my soul, even surrounded by temptations and mortified by neglect. Whenever I ventured to inquire into pecuniary resources, Mr. Robinson silenced me by saying he was independent; added to this assurance, Lord Lyttelton repeatedly promised that, through his courtly interest, he would very shortly obtain for my husband some honourable and lucrative situation.
"I confess that I reposed but little confidence in the promises of such a man, though my husband believed them inviolable. Frequent parties were made at his Lordship's house in Hill Street, and many invitations pressed for a visit to his seat at Hagley. These I peremptorily refused, till the noble hypocrite became convinced of my aversion, and adopted a new mode of pursuing his machinations.
"One forenoon Lord Lyttelton called in Hatton Garden, as was almost his daily custom; and on finding that Mr. Robinson was not at home, requested to speak with me on business of importance. I found him seemingly much distressed. He informed me that he had a secret to communicate of considerable moment both to my interest and happiness. I started: 'Nothing, I trust in heaven, has befallen my husband!' said I, in a voice scarcely articulate. Lord Lyttelton I hesitated. 'How little does that husband deserve the solicitude of such a wife!' said he; 'but,' continued his Lordship, 'I fear that I have in some degree aided in alienating his conjugal affections. I could not bear to see such youth, such merit, so sacrificed.' 'Speak briefly, my Lord,' said I. 'Then,' replied Lord Lyttelton, 'I must inform you that your husband is the most false and undeserving of that name!'
"'I do not believe it!' said I, indignantly. 'Then you shall be convinced,' answered his Lordship; 'but remember, if you betray your true and zealous friend, I must fight your husband; for he never will forgive my having discovered his infidelity.'
"'It cannot be true,' said I. 'You have been misinformed.'
"'Hear me,' said he. 'You cannot be a stranger to my motives for thus cultivating the friendship of your husband. My fortune is at your disposal. Robinson is a ruined man; his debts are considerable, and nothing but destruction can await you. Leave him! Command my powers to serve you.'
"I would hear no more; my hours were all dedicated to sorrow, for I now heard that my husband, even at the period of his marriage, had an attachment which he had not broken, and that his infidelities were as public as the ruin of his finances was inevitable. I remonstrated — I was almost frantic. My distress was useless, my wishes to retrench our expenses were ineffectual. Lord Lyttelton now rested his only hope in the certainty of my husband's ruin. He therefore took every step and embraced every opportunity to involve him more deeply in calamity. Parties were made to Richmond and Salthill, to Ascot Heath and Epsom races, in all of which Mr. Robinson bore his share of expense, with the addition of post-horses. Whenever he seemed to shrink from his augmenting indiscretion, Lord Lyttelton assured him that, through his interest, an appointment of honourable and pecuniary importance should be obtained; though I embraced every opportunity to assure his Lordship that no consideration upon earth should ever make me the victim of his artifice.
"Mr. Fitzgerald still paid me unremitting attention. His manners towards women were beautifully interesting. He frequently cautioned me against the libertine Lyttelton, and as frequently lamented the misguided confidence which Mr. Robinson reposed in him.
"About this time a party was one evening made to Vauxhall. Mr. Fitzgerald was the person who proposed it, and it consisted of six or eight persons. The night was warm, and the gardens crowded; we supped in the circle which has the statue of Handel in its centre. The hour growing late, or rather early in the morning, our company dispersed, and no one remained excepting Mr. Robinson, Mr. Fitzgerald, and myself. Suddenly a noise was heard near the orchestra; a crowd had assembled, and two gentlemen were quarrelling furiously. Mr. R. and Fitzgerald ran out of the box. I rose to follow them, but they were lost in the throng, and I thought it most prudent to resume my place, which I had just quitted, as the only certain way of. their finding me hi safety. In a moment Fitzgerald returned; 'Robinson,' said he, 'is gone to seek you at the entrance-door; he thought you had quitted the box.' 'I did for a moment,' said I, 'but I was fearful of losing him in the crowd, and therefore returned.'
"'Let me conduct you to the door; we shall certainly find him there,' replied Mr. Fitzgerald; 'I know that he will be uneasy.' I took his arm, and he ran hastily towards the entrance-door on the Vauxhall Road.
"Mr. Robinson was not there: we proceeded to look for our carriage; it stood at some distance. I was alarmed and bewildered. Mr. Fitzgerald hurried me along. 'Don't be uneasy; we shall certainly find him,' said he, 'for I left him here not five minutes ago.' As he spoke, he stopped abruptly, a servant opened a chaise-door; there were four horses harnessed to it, and by the light of the lamps on the side of the footpath I plainly perceived a pistol in the pocket of the door, which was open. I drew back. Mr. Fitzgerald placed his arm round my waist, and endeavoured to lift me up the step of the chaise, the servant watching at a little distance. I resisted, and inquired what he meant by such conduct. His hand trembled excessively, while he said in a low voice, 'Robinson can but fight me.' I was terrified beyond all description. I made him loose his hold, and ran towards the entrance-door. Mr. Fitzgerald now perceived Mr. Robinson. 'Here he comes!' exclaimed he, with easy nonchalance. 'We had found the wrong carriage, Mr. Robinson; we have been looking after you, and Mrs. Robinson is alarmed beyond expression.'
"'I am, indeed,' said I. Mr. Robinson now took my hand, we stepped into the coach, and Mr. Fitzgerald followed...."
This happened shortly before her eldest child, her "darling Maria," was born; and knowing George Robert Fitzgerald's propensity for duelling, she thought it better not to say anything to her husband about what had occurred. The excuse of having mistaken the carriage seemed so plausible that she let the matter rest. But she had had a warning, and from that time forward tried to avoid Fitzgerald as much as possible.
They seem to have been living in a state of reckless extravagance at this period. The truth was, Mr. Robinson became desperate. The large debts with which he was encumbered before his marriage laid the foundation of all his succeeding embarrassments, and he saw that no effort of economy or of professional labour could arrange his shattered finances. Now came scenes of trial and humiliation. Their property was seized, and they were reduced to the direst straits, during which their noble friends studiously held aloof. Mrs. Robinson was sent to her husband's friends in the country, and there her child was born. But the quiet of a country life did not suit her, and she soon returned to London with her "sweet Maria," and a small volume of her own poems, which she intended publishing. It is not stated that she ever carried out her intention of doing so. Indeed, it is very probable that she never did, and that the manuscript volume of her poems now in the British Museum is the one referred to. As it has neither date nor title-page, it is difficult to decide. Notwithstanding their recent difficulties, Mr. and Mrs. Robinson again soon plunged into all the dissipations of London. The Pantheon Rotunda was revisited, and again she became the object of the attentions of the persevering Fitzgerald and of the odious Lord Lyttelton. The latter had now been for some time past married to Mrs. Apphia Peach, and the hypocrisy of his character is very plainly shown in the way in which he pursued Mrs. Robinson with his dishonourable importunities, whilst at the same time he was writing letters full of beautiful moral sentiments to his father.
Their affairs had now reached such a crisis that Mr. Robinson was once more arrested, and his wife took up her abode with him in the prison. There seemed to be no prospect of his being released, and, being reduced to the direst pecuniary distress, the idea of the stage again recurred to Mrs. Robinson. Through the instrumentality of some friends she was introduced to Sheridan, and gave a specimen of her dramatic powers. In the greenroom of Drury Lane Theatre she repeated the principal scenes from "Romeo and Juliet," in the presence of Garrick, Sheridan, and Brereton, the latter reciting the part of Romeo. The former was much pleased with her, and fixed upon the character or Juliet as the one in which she was to make her debut.
Garrick entertained very sanguine hopes of her success, and when the eventful night arrived sat in the orchestra to watch her. The fame of the new actress's beauty and talent attracted a crowded house, and the critics thronged the greenroom. She was very nervous at first, and did not dare look at her audience during the whole of the first scene; but was greeted with shouts of applause, and as she gained more confidence the enthusiasm of her audience increased. Mrs. Robinson was emphatically a success, but less from her talent as an actress than from her fascinations as a woman. "My dress," she says herself, "was a pale pink satin, trimmed with crape, richly spangled with silver; my head was ornamented with white feathers, and my monumental suit for the last scene was white satin, and completely plain; excepting that I wore a veil of the most transparent gauze, which fell quite to my feet from the back of my head, and a string of beads round my waist, to which was suspended a cross appropriately fashioned."
Sheridan was completely fascinated by the charming actress; and she seems to have taken more than a mere friendly interest in him. "This distinguished being," as she repeatedly calls him in her Memoirs, was a frequent visitor at her house, and does not appear to have lost in her estimation by comparison with her husband. The latter was a gambler and a neglectful husband, and certainly left his beautiful wife too much to herself Her popularity increased, and her pecuniary prospects began to brighten so far as to justify her taking a house in the vicinity of Drury Lane. Here her husband, who had managed to effect his release from the debtors' prison, joined her; and again, with their customary recklessness, they plunged into all the dissipations of a fashionable life. They had horses, phaetons, and ponies. Mrs. Robinson set the fashion in dress; her house was thronged with visitors, and her morning levees were crowded by all the rank and fashion of the day. Mr. Fox and the Earl of Derby were amongst her most devoted admirers; but the only one for whom — at that time — she seemed to have any especial fancy, was Sheridan. "He saw me," she casuistically records in one of her letters, "ill-bestowed upon a man who neither loved nor valued me; he lamented my destiny, but with such delicate propriety, that it consoled, while it revealed to me the unhappiness of my situation."
For two years had Mrs. Robinson now been on the stage, performing in both tragedy and comedy. Her domestic life was very miserable, owing to the neglect of her husband and his unfortunate propensity for gambling. On several occasions their goods and chattels were seized for his debts, and only rescued through the liberality and intervention of sundry of his wife's admirers. Mrs. Robinson had two children at this time — her darling Maria," and another daughter named Sopliia, two years younger. All through her curious life these daughters remained faithful to her.
During, the autumn of 1780, The Winter's Tale was performed at Drury Lane by command of their Majesties. It was the first time Mrs. Robinson had ever played before the Royal family, and the first character in which she was destined to appear was that of Perdita. It was not, however, her first appearance in that part, as she had often before played it to the Hermione of Mrs. Hartley and Miss Farren. When she entered the green-room, dressed for the first act, she looked so exceptionally radiant in her grace and beauty, that the assembled company rallied her good-humouredly upon being bent upon making a conquest of the Prince of Wales. They little foresaw the variety of events that would arise from that night's exhibition!
Throughout the play the Prince regarded her with fixed attention, and whenever her position on the boards brought her within hearing of what was said in the royal box, he made some flattering remarks. So gratifying were they to her vanity, that she became so embarrassed that she could scarcely proceed with the play. Every one in the theatre observed the Prince's particular attention. At the conclusion of the play he bowed to her in a very marked manner; and she returned home to a supper party where the whole conversation centred in, encomiums on the person, graces, and amiable manners of the Heir Apparent.
The most selfish and unprincipled of men, the Prince of Wales, aided and abetted by that most finished scoundrel, his friend Lord Malden, was completely fascinated by the lovely actress, and deliberately set about trying to get her into his power. Weak-minded and inordinately vain, Mrs. Robinson was dazzled by the station, and beguiled by the protestations, of her royal lover. Without in any degree extenuating her follies, this much may be admitted — that she is entitled to some indulgence on the ground of the neglect of the husband who should have protected her, and the persevering arts that were used to ensnare her. How the first advances were made cannot be better told than in her own words.
"Lord Malden made me a morning visit; Mr. Robinson was not at home, and I received him rather awkwardly. But his Lordship's embarrassment far exceeded mine: he attempted to speak, paused, hesitated, apologised. I knew not why. He hoped I would pardon him; that I would not mention something he had to communicate; that I would consider the peculiar delicacy of his situation, and then act as I thought proper. I could not comprehend his meaning, and therefore requested that he would be explicit.
"After some moments of evident rumination, he tremblingly drew a small letter from his pocket. I took it, and knew not what to say. It was addressed to PERDITA. I smiled, I believe, rather sarcastically, and opened the billet. It contained a few words, but those expressive of more than common civility; they were signed, FL0RIZEL.
"'Well, my Lord, and what does this mean?' said I, half angry.
"'Can you not guess the writer?' said Lord Maiden.
"'Perhaps yourself, my Lord?' cried I, gravely.
"'Upon my honour, no,' said the Viscount. 'I should not have dared so to address you on so short an acquaintance.'
"I pressed him to tell me from whom the letter came. He again hesitated: he scorned confused and sorry that he had undertaken to deliver it. 'I hope I shall not forfeit your good opinion,' said he, 'but—'
"'But what, my Lord?'
"'I could not refuse, for the letter is from the Prince of Wales.'
"I was astonished: I confess that I was agitated; but I was also somewhat sceptical as to the truth of Lord Malden's assertion. I returned a formal and a doubtful answer; and his Lordship shortly after took his leave.
"A thousand times did I read this short but expressive letter, still I did not implicitly believe that it was written by the Prince: I rather considered it as an experiment made by Lord Malden either on my vanity or propriety of conduct. On the next evening the Viscount repeated his visit: we had a card party of six or seven, and the Prince of Wales was again the subject of unbounded panegyric. Lord Malden spoke of his Royal highness's manners, as the most polished and fascinating; of his temper, as the most engaging; and of his mind, the most replete with every amiable sentiment. I heard these praises, and my heart beat with conscious pride, while memory turned to the partial but delicately respectful letter which I had received on time preceding morning.
"The next day Lord Malden brought me a second letter. He assured me that the Prince was most unhappy lest I should be offended at his conduct; and that he conjured me to go that night to time Oratorio, where he would by some signal convince me that he was the writer of the letters, supposing I was still sceptical as to their authenticity.
"I went to the Oratorio; and, on taking my seat in the balcony box, the Prince almost instantaneously observed me. He held the printed bill before his face, and drew his hand across his forehead; still fixing his eyes on me. I was confused, and knew not what to do. My husband was with me, and I was fearful of his observing what passed. Still the Prince continued to make signs, such as moving his hand on the edge of the box as if writing, then speaking to the Duke of York (then Bishop of Osnaburg), who also looked towards me with particular attention.
"I now observed one of the gentlemen in waiting bring the Prince a glass of water; before he raised it to his lips he looked at me. So marked was his Royal Highness's conduct that many of the audience observed it; several persons in the pit directed their gaze at the place where I sat; and, on the following day, one of the diurnal prints observed that there was one passage in Dryden's ode which seemed particularly interesting to the Prince of Wales, who—
Gazed on the fair
Who caused his care,
And sigh'd, and look'd, and sigh'd again.
"However flattering it might have been to female vanity to know that the most admired and most accomplished Prince in Europe was devotedly attached to me; however dangerous to the heart such idolatry as his Royal Highness during many months professed in almost daily letters, which were conveyed to me by Lord Malden, still I declined any interview with his Royal Highness. I was not insensible to all his powers of attraction. I thought him one of the most amiable of men. There was a beautiful ingenuousness in his language, a warm and enthusiastic adoration expressed in every letter, which interested and charmed me. During the whole spring, till the theatre closed, this correspondence continued; every day giving me some new assurance of inviolable affection.
"After we had corresponded some months without ever speaking to each other (for I still declined meeting his Royal Highness, from a dread of the eclat which such a connexion would produce, and the fear of injuring him in the opinion of his royal relatives), I received through the hands of Lord Malden the Prince's portrait in miniature, painted by the late Mr. Meyer. This picture is now in my possession. Within the case was a small heart cut in paper, which I also have. On one side was written, 'Je ne change qu'en mourant.' On the other, ' Unalterable to my Perdita through life.'
"During many months of confidential correspondence, I always offered his Royal highness the best advice in my power, and disclaimed every sordid and interested thought. At every interview with Lord Malden, I perceived that he regretted the task he had undertaken; but he assured me that the Prince was almost frantic whenever he suggested a wish to decline interfering. Once I remember his Lordship's telling me that the late Duke of Cumberland had made him a visit, early in the morning, at his house in Clarges Street, informing him that the Prince was most wretched on my account, and imploring him to continue his services only a short time longer. The Prince's establishment was then in agitation: at this period his Royal Highness still resided in Buckingham House.
"A proposal was now made that I should meet his Royal Highness at his apartments, in the disguise of male attire. I was accustomed to perform in that dress, and the Prince had seen me (I believe) in the character of the 'Irish Widow.' To this plan I decidedly objected. The indelicacy of such a step, as well as the danger of detection, made me shrink from the proposal. My refusal threw his Royal highness into the most distressing agitation, as was expressed by the letter which I received on the following morning. Lord Malden again lamented that he had engaged himself in the intercourse, and declared that he had himself conceived so violent a passion for me that he was the most miserable and unfortunate of mortals.
"During this period, though Mr. Robinson was a stranger to my epistolary intercourse with the Prince, his conduct was entirely neglectful. He was perfectly careless respecting my fame and my repose. His indifference naturally produced an alienation of esteem on my side, and the increasing adoration of the most enchanting of mortals hourly reconciled my mind to the idea of a separation. The unbounded assurances of lasting affection which I received from his Royal Highness in many scores of the most eloquent letters, the contempt which I experienced from my husband, and the perpetual labour which I underwent for his support, at length began to weary my fortitude. Still I was reluctant to become the theme of public animadversion, and still I remonstrated with my husband on the unkindness of his conduct."
Contemporary records verify the truth, in the main, of these very candid. confessions of Mrs. Robinson. She emphatically asserts that her husband knew nothing about her intercourse with the Prince. This seems strange, as the newspapers of the day freely ventilated the affair, and spoke openly of the loves of Florizel and Perdita. She obviously looked upon her pertinacious admirer as something more than mortal, and at length, yielding to his solicitations, consented to have an interview. Being of a sentimental and romantic nature, it was contrived to give a sort of melodramatic turn to the whole affair, and moonlight mufflings, and other incidents of secrecy, were pressed into the service.
The first interview took place by moonlight in the avenue of old Kew Palace, in the presence of Lord Malden and the Duke of York. It lasted but for a moment, but was quite long enough to awaken in her mind the most enthusiastic admiration. "The rank of the Prince," she says, "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."
Many and frequent were the interviews which afterwards took place at this romantic spot. The walks sometimes continued till past midnight, the Duke of York and Lord Malden always being of the party. The halo of romance and secrecy which surrounded these meetings contributed in no slight degree to enchain the weak-minded woman, who finally relinquished her profession in order that she might have the more time to bestow upon her royal lover, who was now upon the point of receiving his first establishment. Mrs. Robinson spent the intervening time in a state of visionary happiness, for she looked forward, — upon what grounds Heaven only knows! — to the settlement of the Prince's establishment as the precursor of the public acknowledgment of the affectionate relations between them. His Royal Highness lost no opportunity of publicly avowing his partiality for Mrs. Robinson. At all places of public entertainment, at the King's hunt, at the reviews, and at the theatres, he distinguished her with the most marked attention. It was an unwise proceeding just at the time when he was receiving his first establishment, and the public prints were not slow to take cognisance of what was going on.
Upon the last night of her appearance upon the stage, she represented the character of Sir Harry Revel, in The Miniature Picture, and also played in the farce of The Irish Widow. She did not quit her profession without some regret, and was so overcome that she could scarcely perform with any decent show of equanimity. Grand things had been expected of her in her profession, and the play-loving public resented her relinquishing the stage, especially when it soon became well known why she did so. The newspapers freely indulged in the most scandalous paragraphs respecting the Prince of Wales and her. A pamphlet, which was speedily suppressed, and of which there is a copy at present in the British Museum, was now circulated, commenting in no very complimentary terms upon both. The unfortunate lady comes in for the largest share of contemptuous sarcasm, for at this period she had left home, husband, and children at the solicitations of the future First Gentleman in Europe. Heedless of the consequences, she had given up everything for him. Her equivocal position rendering her an object of public notoriety, she was frequently obliged to quit Ranelagh, owing to the crowd which staring curiosity attracted to her box.
But the Prince soon began to tire of his toy. Mrs. Robinson was too much dazzled by the rank of her royal lover, and by his fascinating manners, to detect the hollowness and faithlessness of his nature. Moreover, she was in ignorance that his affaires de coeur were almost invariably conducted after the same fashion. His advances were always gradual and impassioned — his desertions, abrupt and unexpected. The time was now at hand when the deceived woman was to be rudely awakened from the dreams in which she had been indulging.
One day, shortly before the Prince took possession of his new establishment, Mrs. Robinson received a letter from him full of expressions of the most passionate attachment, and hinting that she would soon enjoy his public protection. Two days afterwards, what was her consternation to receive another missive from her lover — a cold and unkind letter, briefly informing her that they, "must meet no more!"
Unable to account for this change in his conduct, Mrs. Robinson wrote at once to the Prince, demanding an explanation. She received no reply. Again she wrote, but without receiving any elucidation of the mystery. The Prince was at this time staying at Windsor, whither Mrs. Robinson drove in her pony phaeton, accompanied only by her boy-postillion. She performed the journey at the risk of her life, for she was attacked by a footpad on Hounslow Heath, and owed her safety to the fleetness of her ponies.
On her arrival, the Prince refused to see her; and Lord Malden and the Duke of Dorset assured her they could not account for this sudden change in his Royal Highness's sentiments. He persistently refused to see her, and she returned to town utterly bewildered and mortified.
Her "good-natured friends" now carefully informed her of the multitude of secret enemies who were ever employed in estranging the Prince's mind from her. So fascinating, so illustrious a lover, could not fail to excite the envy of her sex. Women of all descriptions were emulous of attracting his Royal Highness's attention. Alas! she had neither rank nor power to oppose such adversaries. Every engine of female malice was set in motion to destroy her repose, and every petty calumny was repeated with tenfold embellishments. Tales of the most infamous and glaring falsehood were invented; and she was again assailed by pamphlets, by paragraphs, by caricatures, and all the artillery of slander, while the only being to whom she then looked up for protection was so situated as to be unable to afford it. "In the anguish of my soul, I once more addressed the Prince of Wales. I complained, perhaps too vehemently, of his injustice, and of the calumnies which had been by my enemies fabricated against me, of the falsehood of which he was but too sensible. I conjured him to render me justice. He did so: he wrote me a most eloquent letter, disclaiming the causes alleged by a calumniating world, and fully acquitting me of the charges which had been propagated to destroy me."
Her situation was at this period most distressing. She resided in an expensive house in Cork Street, Burlington Gardens, and was so deeply involved in debt that she literally did not know what to do. At first she thought of returning to the stage, but some friends whom she consulted advised her not to do so, as they feared the public would not tolerate her. She was obliged to give up the idea, although she was almost without the means of subsistence, and her debts amounted to seven thousand pounds. Lord Malden — who now became very assiduous in his attentions — was too poor to be able to render her any pecuniary assistance; her family refused to have anything to say to her; therefore, when the Prince wrote saying he wished to renew their former friendship and affection, it can scarcely be wondered at that she consented to have an interview with him. The meeting took place at Lord Malden's house in Clarges Street. The Prince accosted her with every appearance of tender attachment — declaring that he had never for one moment ceased to love her, and that his coldness had been the effect of some stories repeated to him by her enemies. Some hours passed, and they parted on affectionate terms, Mrs. Robinson fondly flattering herself that all differences were adjusted. What was her surprise and chagrin when, on meeting the Prince the very next day in Hyde Park, he turned his head to avoid seeing her, and even affected not to know her!
Mrs. Robinson was overwhelmed by this additional cruelty. She did not then know the secret springs which were at work. The truth was, that the "establishment" of which she had dreamed, was only given to the Prince on condition that he gave up Mrs. Robinson. It was a cheap tribute to public decorum for him to do so, as he had ceased to care for her. With his customary meanness, he tried to get rid of her as cheaply as possible, and no answers were returned to her numerous letters. The Prince had given her a bond for twenty thousand pounds, payable on his "establishment," and this was used as an instrument of negotiation. After much discreditable conduct upon both sides, the matter gained such publicity that it was felt that some settlement could not decently be refused. Mr. Fox undertook the office of arbitrator, and the bond was given up in consideration of an annuity of five hundred a year.
A prosaic ending to the loves of Florizel and Perdita! Unquestionably weak-minded and foolish, her conduct is to be severely censured; at the same time, it cannot be denied but that she was very harshly treated. Her story excited some sympathy, and in her altered circumstances she formed some reputable friendships. She now posed as a heroine, and poured forth her sorrows in feeble verses, which appeared in various newspapers. In the winter of 1790 it was announced that "Mrs. Robinson had entered into a poetical correspondence with Mr. Robert Merry, under the fictitious names of 'Laura' and 'Laura Maria;' Mr. Merry assuming the title of 'Della Crusca;'" and asserted that future poets and ages would join, "To pour in Laura's praise, their melodies divine." One of these poems was called "Ainsi va le Monde." It contained three hundred and fifty lines, yet — it is stated — it was written in twelve hours. All her poetry is vapid and weakly sentimental.
"The fair Platonist," as the newspapers of the day styled her, now formed an acquaintance with a Colonel Tarleton, in whose company she went abroad. During the journey she fell ill, and entirely lost the use of her limbs, and this at the age of twenty-four. She became an incurable cripple, and resigned herself to circumstances. Her time was chiefly passed in the composition of those vapid poems before alluded to. Pecuniary troubles also pressed heavily upon her. She found considerable difficulty is getting her annuity paid; and at length wrote to a "noble debtor," to entreat a return of sums lent to him years before in her prosperity. The following copy of the letter was found amongst Mrs. Robinson's papers after her decease
"April 23rd, 1800.
My Lord, — Pronounced by my physicians to be in a rapid decline, I trust that your Lordship will have the goodness to assist me with a part of the sum for which you are indebted to me. Without your aid I cannot make trial of the Bristol waters, the only remedy that presents to me any hope of preserving my existence. I should be sorry to die at enmity with any person; and you may be assured, my dear Lord, that I bear none towards you. It would be useless to ask you to call on me; but, if you would do me that honour, I should be happy, very happy, to see you, being,
My dear Lord, yours truly,
This letter was never answered! Every circumstance points to Lord Malden having been the one to whom it was addressed.
"She was, unquestionably very beautiful," says Miss Hawkins, "but more so in the face than in the figure; and as she proceeded in her course she acquired a remarkable facility in adapting her deportment to her dress. When she was to be seen daily in St. James's Street or Pall Mall, even in her chariot, the variation was striking. 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, perhaps, she 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 cravated Amazon of the riding-house; but be she what she might, the hats of the fashionable promenaders swept the ground as she passed. But in her outset, 'the style' was a high phaeton, in which she was driven by the favoured of the day. Three candidates and her husband were outriders, and this in the face of the congregations turning out of places of worship About the year 1778 she appeared on the stage, and gained, from the character in which she charmed, the name of Perdita. She then started in one of the new streets of Marylebone, and was in her altitude. Afterwards, when a little in the wane, she resided under protection in Berkeley Square, and appeared to guests as mistress of the house as well as of its master. Her manners and conversation were said by those invited to want refinement.... I saw her one day handed to her extravagant vis-a-vis by a man whom she pursued with a doting passion; all was still externally brilliant; she was fine and fashionable, and the men of the day in Bond Street still pirouetted as her carriage passed them. The next day the vehicle was reclaimed by the maker; the Adonis whom she courted fled her: she followed, all to no purpose. She then took up a new life in London, became literary.... What was the next glimpse? On a table in one of the waiting-rooms of the Opera House was seated a woman of fashionable appearance, still beautiful, but not in the bloom of beauty's pride; she was not noticed except by the eye of pity. In a few minutes two liveried servants came to her, and they took from their pockets long white sleeves, which they drew on their arms; they then lifted her up and conveyed her to her carriage; it was the then helpless, paralytic Perdita!" [Author's note: Vide P. Fitzgerald's Romance of the Stage.]
In the autumn of 1800 Mrs. Robinson's health became very much worse. She suffered chiefly from an accumulation of water upon her chest. Her daughters were unceasing in their efforts to alleviate her sufferings; but all was of no avail. On the 21st of December she inquired how near was Christmas Day. Upon being told, she replied, "I shall never live to see it." During the whole of the next day her sufferings were excruciating, and towards the evening she sank into a kind of lethargic slumber. Her favourite daughter, Mary, approached the bedside, and earnestly conjured her mother to speak if it were in her power. "My darling Mary!" she ejaculated, faintly, and spoke no more. She then became unconscious, and breathed her last about the noon of the following day. She was in her forty-third year, twenty-seven of which she had been more or less before the public. Thus ended the career of the lovely PERDITA — the last of the famous pupils of the famous Garrick.
Mrs. Robinson died at Englefield Green, where for long after it was the fashion for Londoners to drive out and visit her shrine. She was buried in Old Windsor churchyard.