Perdita: Royal mistress, Writer, Romantic

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9780593052082: Perdita: Royal mistress, Writer, Romantic
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A singular history of Georgian England through the prism of the rags-to-riches story of Mary Robinson who rose to become mistress of George IV and a cause celebre in 18th century England.

Few women’s lives have described such an arc as that of Mary Robinson – or Perdita, as she was widely known. She began her career as an actress, royal mistress and possible blackmailer, and ended it just two decades later as a Romantic poet and early feminist thinker of note. She was the subject of paintings by Gainsborough and Reynolds, and of a hundred political cartoons. Variously portrayed as a wounded innocent and a harlot, she deliberately chose, in her later career, to make a political issue of her sexuality.

Born in 1758, she married at fifteen, and shortly after, followed her husband into debtor’s prison where she wrote her first book of poems. Encouraged by Sheridan and Garrick, who admired her beauty, she went on the stage. It was her role as Perdita in A Winter’s Tale that brought her to the attention of the 17-year-old Prince of Wales, and they embarked on a widely satirized liaison. Mary had made her mark in fashionable Georgian high society and, over the next two decades, this was where she contrived to stay.

This wonderful biography, vividly and compellingly told by the acclaimed biographer of Arbella Stuart, explores Georgian England during a period of extreme political upheaval through the life of one extraordinary woman.

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About the Author:

Sarah Gristwood is a regular contributor to The Times, Guardian, Independent and the Evening Standard. Her widely acclaimed historical biography of Arbella Stuart (Arbella) is now available in paperback.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
The Sublime and the Beautiful

On 25 August 1781, in the tawdry, sultry days at the tag-end of a London summer, the papers reported briefly that the famous Mary Robinson was sitting for her portrait to Thomas Gainsborough. He made two images of her in the second half of that year. The smaller is the softer and more likeable: a charming oval head, originally part of Mary's own collection, it hangs in Waddesdon Manor today.

But it is the larger and more dramatic of the two pictures that is discussed among students of art history: a colossal full-length portrait, now in the Wallace Collection. From her Mayfair home, Mary had travelled the brief distance to Schlomberg House in Pall Mall where, in the darkened painting room at the back of the west wing (only yards away from where the notorious Dr Graham had his Temple of Health and Hymen), the sombre, rusty trees of the picture's background sprang to lowering life under the sweeping strokes of Gainsborough's long brush.

In the foreground, Mary sits on a rustic bank, exquisitely if inappropriately dressed, a Pomeranian dog — a symbol of fidelity, and Gainsborough's favourite breed — perched panting by her side. A miniature picture is held in one hand, a crumpled handkerchief in the other. The pose owes a debt to Watteau's La Ręveuse, but Mary's expression is hardly that of the wistful, yearning dreamer. The dog looks more tranquilly pensive than she. Her position, indeed, is static and graceful; her arms are relaxed; her face is the polite oval of non-expression that was the hallmark of gentility. But, staring challengingly from behind the beautiful mask, her dark eyes tell a different story. The Mary who looks out of them seems both angry and wary. As she had reason to be.

As August dragged to a close, she was coming to the end of a long summer month of the most agonizing negotiations. The miniature Mary holds in her hand is almost certainly a picture of the young Prince of Wales, who had commissioned this Gainsborough portrait. But by now the prince had abandoned Mary for another woman, leaving her to arrange for the rest of her life as best she might. She had, at the prince's request, thrown away both her marriage and a promising career on stage — and with them her only sources of security. She had expected the prince to provide for her, splendidly. But he showed no sign of wishing to do so, and the only tools still left to Mary's hand were the letters he had written her — rash, impetuous letters promising her the world, and pouring out his bitter feelings about the rest of the royal family. Now the overriding concern of the prince and his advisers was to get these damning documents back into their hands. Mary professed herself very willing to give them, the inducement being her 'earnest wish' to restore the prince's peace of mind. But she reminded the prince of everything he owed her ... If she were to hand the letters back, would he show a similar generosity?

Throughout all of the past month, an angry correspondence had crackled back and forth between the prince's representative, Colonel Hotham, and the young Viscount Malden, representing Mary. Hotham offered five thousand pounds for all copies of the letters. Not only did the amount seem woefully inadequate, but Mary was shocked Hotham should state the deal so bluntly. Nothing could be more 'injurious to her feelings' than the idea of a simple trade, wrote Malden sympathetically, 'nor will she bear the idea of having it supposed that she has sold papers so dear to her'. It did not suit her pride, or her picture of herself as a creature of romance and delicacy. She excused her adultery to the world on the grounds that she truly loved the prince — and perhaps she had come to convince herself that she did. To Hotham, of course, this was nothing more nor less than a blackmailer's quibbling — and in this nerve-wracking game of poker, the cards went all the palace's way. As Mary assumed her pose for Gainsborough, the date for which the handover was fixed was only three days away.

So Mary did indeed have reason to be angry; so tense, perhaps, that it is no wonder Gainsborough, widely praised for his ability to seize a likeness, failed, this time, to capture his subject's face precisely. The tilt of the head Gainsborough gave her is hers; in other portraits, too, she carries herself in that enquiring way. But enchanting though the painting is, it was not felt properly to represent Mary. Contemporaries called this work one of Gainsborough's few failures, and he withdrew it from exhibition at the next Royal Academy.

Writer after writer praised Mary's loveliness. She had, wrote the parliamentary diarist Nathaniel Wraxall, 'surprising beauty, such as I have rarely seen equalled in any woman'.* 'She was unquestionably very beautiful,' agreed one grudging, but honest lady — 'but more so in face than figure.' Her figure, if anything, was not quite luscious enough for the taste of the day, too boyish — for, just as she had energies and ambitions deemed more acceptable in a man, so, when she played breeches parts on stage, one critic wrote that she made a better male than any other actress. But though her face was her fortune, it is harder to be sure of its exact shades and lineaments. The fine dark brows are a fashion of the period, which also dictated that, though she was still in her early twenties, her hair should be powdered into grey. And the observant would notice how Mary could change the impression she projected, from the sportswoman to the painted belle, and again to the simple country girl.

Perhaps, this time, Gainsborough's likeness withered and died under the force of Mary's very wariness. She tried always to control her image carefully. And what Gainsborough did paint here was above all else the portrait of a lady. For the same Royal Academy exhibition, he painted the dancer mistress of a royal duke in costume; but that would never have done for Mary. Instead, the delicate swirls of her silk dress melt away into the darkling landscape. She is to be seen as at one with nature, sensitive and introspective: a creature of sensibility.

The cult of sensibility — the great eighteenth-century foregrounding of imagination and individuality — informs much of the writing of these later decades. It certainly informs that of Mary. Later in life, Mary was to become a poet — perhaps the poet — of sensibility. And when, towards the end of her life, she began to write her Memoirs, sensibility — the emotive, feeling tones of a heart too sensitive for its own good — was the language she would use to tell her own story.

She began her Memoirs with her birth, conventionally enough. But she made a good story of it. Mary was born, she wrote, in Bristol's 'antient' city; in a tall old house huddled on one side against the cathedral itself, and on the other against the ruined cloisters of St Augustine's monastery. Once, perhaps, the Minster House (or the 'Prior's Lodging', as it was sometimes called) had sheltered visitors to the abbey. Long since destroyed, it was falling into ruin even in Mary's day. 'A spot more calculated to inspire the soul with mournful meditation can scarcely be found amidst the monuments of antiquity.'

Mrs Darby came to childbirth, as Mary later wrote, on a November night, and never remembered a more stormy hour. 'The wind whistled round the dark pinnacles of the chamber tower, and the rain beat in torrents against the casements of her chamber.' Dark and dismal, ancient and atmospheric, that room is one of even 'mid-day gloom', reached only by a winding staircase, a cloistered path. Recalling it, the grown-up Mary aptly called the setting 'Gothic', and that, indeed, is what she was describing: a scene fit for a Gothic novel of the day. She evoked for the reader an apt starting point for a life of pain and woe. 'Through life the tempest has followed my footsteps; and I have in vain looked for a short interval of repose from the perseverance of sorrow,' she continued, dramatically.

The 'tempestuous' night Mary was born was, so her published Memoirs read, 27 November 1758.* However, recent research into the cathedral's baptismal register shows that 'Polle', daughter of Nicholas and Hester Darby, was baptized, not born, on that November day. Polly — a common pet name for a girl called Mary — had been born over two years earlier, in July 1756. If Mary did deliberately omit the date in her manuscript to mislead the reader, it is not hard to see why. Her Memoirs were a piece of special pleading, written to convince a sceptical world that in all the adventures of her early adult life, she acted innocently. For every bad decision she made, youth was to be her best excuse; so, obviously, the younger the better.

She was born into a time and place of contradiction. The traditional view of England's eighteenth century is of a world at peace, dignified and practical, elegant and successful; of a century that began with the expectation of Hanoverian succession and ended, true, with the Napoleonic wars, but with Nelson's battle of the Nile holding out a promise of victory to come. This was an England of successful commercial men and ladies in panniered skirts, of hair powder and tea, ruled by a rubicund, roast-beef-eating squirearchy. It was a stereotype the Georgians themselves, with their popular caricatures of a beef-bolting John Bull triumphing over a half-starved Frenchman, valued enormously. Lord David Cecil, writing a quarter of a century ago, saw a world 'social and practical', envisaged a 'clear breezy climate of good sense and good humour'. More recently, other historians have done much to undermine this cosily static picture, taking on board the period's cruelties and its opportunities; its sheer contradictory energy; the number of subsequently influential ideas, social and scientific, that were actually born in the eighteenth century. But the old image has never quite gone away. Roy Porter, intro...

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Book Description Transworld Publishers Ltd, United Kingdom, 2005. Hardback. Condition: New. Language: N/A. Brand New Book. Few women s lives have described such an arc as that of Mary Robinson - or Perdita, as she was widely known. She began her career as an actress, royal mistress and possible blackmailer, and ended it just two decades later as a Romantic poet and early feminist thinker of note. She was the subject of paintings by Gainsborough and Reynolds, and of a hundred political cartoons. Variously portrayed as a wounded innocent and a harlot, she deliberately chose, in her later career, to make a political issue of her sexuality. Born in 1758 in the shadow of Bristol cathedral, she married at fifteen - one Thomas Robinson, an articled clerk of seemingly good family. But Mary had barely made her curtsey to society before discovering that Robinson was little better than a conman. As things grew worse, she followed her husband into debtors prison, where she wrote her first book of poems. Encouraged by Sheridan and Garrick, who admired her beauty, she went on the stage, and over the next four years appeared in nearly forty plays before being cast as Perdita in A Winter s Tale. The performance was witnessed by the 17-year-old Prince of Wales, and they embarked on a widely satirized liaison that saw the prince offering to pay Mary #20,000 when he came of age. Mary had made her mark in fashionable Georgian high society and this, over the next two momentous decades, was where she contrived to stay. Mary s brief life saw a radical change in western society. Born at a time when women dressed their hair with powder and wore stiff brocade over whalebone, she died when simple muslin shifts clad women in comparative nudity; a sea change as abrupt as any before the advent of the mini-skirt. Above all, her career saw the moments when the French queen lost her head, and America declared independence. With all these events, Mary Robinson was associated; sometimes directly. This wonderful biography, vividly and compellingly told by the acclaimed biographer of Arbella Stuart, will explore Georgian England during a period of extreme political upheaval through the life of one extraordinary woman. Seller Inventory # AAO9780593052082

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Book Description Transworld Publishers Ltd, United Kingdom, 2005. Hardback. Condition: New. Language: N/A. Brand New Book. Few women s lives have described such an arc as that of Mary Robinson - or Perdita, as she was widely known. She began her career as an actress, royal mistress and possible blackmailer, and ended it just two decades later as a Romantic poet and early feminist thinker of note. She was the subject of paintings by Gainsborough and Reynolds, and of a hundred political cartoons. Variously portrayed as a wounded innocent and a harlot, she deliberately chose, in her later career, to make a political issue of her sexuality. Born in 1758 in the shadow of Bristol cathedral, she married at fifteen - one Thomas Robinson, an articled clerk of seemingly good family. But Mary had barely made her curtsey to society before discovering that Robinson was little better than a conman. As things grew worse, she followed her husband into debtors prison, where she wrote her first book of poems. Encouraged by Sheridan and Garrick, who admired her beauty, she went on the stage, and over the next four years appeared in nearly forty plays before being cast as Perdita in A Winter s Tale. The performance was witnessed by the 17-year-old Prince of Wales, and they embarked on a widely satirized liaison that saw the prince offering to pay Mary #20,000 when he came of age. Mary had made her mark in fashionable Georgian high society and this, over the next two momentous decades, was where she contrived to stay. Mary s brief life saw a radical change in western society. Born at a time when women dressed their hair with powder and wore stiff brocade over whalebone, she died when simple muslin shifts clad women in comparative nudity; a sea change as abrupt as any before the advent of the mini-skirt. Above all, her career saw the moments when the French queen lost her head, and America declared independence. With all these events, Mary Robinson was associated; sometimes directly. This wonderful biography, vividly and compellingly told by the acclaimed biographer of Arbella Stuart, will explore Georgian England during a period of extreme political upheaval through the life of one extraordinary woman. Seller Inventory # AAO9780593052082

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