Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson

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9781400061488: Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson
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This thoroughly engaging and richly researched book presents a compelling portrait of Mary Robinson–darling of the London stage, mistress to the most powerful men in England, feminist thinker, and bestselling author, described by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as “a woman of undoubted genius.”

One of the most flamboyant free spirits of the late eighteenth century, Mary Robinson led a life that was marked by reversals of fortune. After being abandoned by her merchant father, who left England to establish a fishery among the Canadian Eskimos, Mary was married, at age fifteen, to Thomas Robinson. His dissipation landed the couple and their baby in debtors’ prison, where Mary wrote her first book of poetry, gaining her the patronage of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

On her release, Mary rose to become one of the London theater’s most alluring actresses, famously playing Perdita in The Winter’s Tale for a rapt audience that included the Prince of Wales, who fell madly in love with her. Never one to pass up an opportunity, she later used his ardent and numerous love letters as blackmail. After being struck down by paralysis, apparently following a miscarriage, she remade herself yet again, this time as a popular writer who was also admired by the leading intellectuals of the day.

Filled with triumph and despair, and then triumph again, the amazing, multifaceted life of “Perdita” is marvelously captured in this stunning biography.

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About the Author:

PAULA BYRNE has a Ph.D. from the University of Liverpool, where she is a research fellow in English literature. A regular contributor to The Times Literary Supplement, she lives in Warwickshire with her two young children and her husband, the critic and biographer Jonathan Bate. Perdita is her first book to be published in the U.S.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

“during a tempestuous night”

The very finest powers of intellect, and the proudest specimens of mental labour, have frequently appeared in the more contracted circles of provincial society. Bristol and Bath have each sent forth their sons and daughters of genius.

—Mary Robinson, “Present State of the Manners, Society,etc. etc. of the Metropolis of England”

Horace Walpole described the city of Bristol as “the dirtiest great shop I ever saw.” Second only to London in size, it was renowned for the industry and commercial prowess of its people. “The Bristolians,” it was said, “seem to live only to get and save money.”1 The streets and marketplaces were alive with crowds, prosperous gentlemen and ladies perambulated under the lime trees on College Green outside the minster, and seagulls circled in the air. A river cut through the center, carrying the ships that made the city one of the world’s leading centers of trade. Sugar was the chief import, but it was not unusual to find articles in the Bristol Journal announcing the arrival of slave ships en route from Africa to the New World. Sometimes slaves would be kept for domestic service: in the parish register of the church of Saint Augustine the Less one finds the baptism of a Negro named “Bristol.” Over the page is another entry: Polly—a variant of Mary—daughter of Nicholas and Hester Darby, baptized July 19, 1758.2

Nicholas Darby was a prominent member of the Society of Merchant Venturers, based at the Merchants’ Hall in King Street, an association of overseas traders that was at the heart of Bristol’s commercial life. The merchant community supported a vibrant culture: a major theater, concerts, assembly rooms, coffee houses, bookshops, and publishers. Bristol’s most famous literary son was born just five years before Mary. Thomas Chatterton, Wordsworth’s “marvellous Boy,” was the wunderkind of English poetry. His verse became a posthumous sensation in the years following his suicide (or accidental self-poisoning) at the age of 17. For Keats and Shelley, he was a hero; Mary Robinson and Samuel Taylor

Coleridge both wrote odes in his memory.

Coleridge himself also developed Bristol connections. His friend and fellow poet Robert Southey, the son of a failed linen merchant, came from the city. The two young poets married the Bristolian Fricker sisters, and it was on College Green, a stone’s throw from the house where Mary was born, that they hatched their “pantisocratic” plan to establish a commune on the banks of the Susquehanna River.

Mary described her place of birth at the beginning of her Memoirs. She conjured up a hillside in Bristol, where a monastery belonging to the order of Saint Augustine had once stood beside the minster:

On this spot was built a private house, partly of simple and partly of modern architecture. The front faced a small garden, the gates of which opened to the Minster-Green (now called the College-Green): the west side was bounded by the Cathedral, and the back was supported by the antient cloisters of St. Augustine’s monastery. A spot more calculated to inspire the soul with mournful meditation can scarcely be found amidst the monuments of antiquity.

She was born in a room that had been part of the original monastery. It was immediately over the cloisters, dark and Gothic with “casement windows that shed a dim mid-day gloom.” The chamber was reached “by a narrow winding staircase, at the foot of which an iron-spiked door led to the long gloomy path of cloistered solitude.” What better origin could there have been for a woman who grew up to write best-selling Gothic novels? If the Memoirs is to be believed, even the weather contributed to the atmosphere of foreboding on the night of her birth. “I have often heard my mother say that a more stormy hour she never remembered. The wind whistled round the dark pinnacles of the minster tower, and the rain beat in torrents against the casements of her chamber.” “Through life,” Mary continued, “the tempest has followed my footsteps.”3

The Minster House was destroyed when the nave of Bristol Minster was enlarged in the Victorian era, but it is still possible to stand in the courtyard in front of the Minster School and see the cloister that supported the house in which Mary was born. And next door, in what is now the public library, one can look at an old engraving which reveals that the house was indeed tucked beneath the great Gothic windows and the mighty tower of the cathedral itself.

The family had Irish roots. Mary’s great-grandfather changed his name from MacDermott to Darby in order to inherit an Irish estate. Nicholas Darby was born in America and claimed kinship with Benjamin Franklin.4 As a young man he was engaged in the Newfoundland fishing trade in St. John’s. His daughter described him as having a “strong mind, high spirit, and great personal intrepidity,” traits that could equally apply to herself.5

Mary was always touchy about issues of rank and gentility. In her Memoirs she took pains to emphasize the respectability of the merchant classes. Her father had some success in cultivating the acquaintance of the aristocracy: in an unpublished handwritten note, Mary remarked with pride that “Lord Northington the Chancellor was my Godfather” and that at her christening “the Hon Bertie Henley stood for him as proxy.”6

Mary’s mother, Hester, née Vanacott, made a romantic match with Nicholas Darby when she married him on July 4, 1749 in the small Somerset village of Donyatt. Hester was a descendant of a well-to-do family, the Seys of Boverton Castle in Glamorganshire, and a distant relation (by marriage) of the philosopher John Locke. Vivacious and popular, she had many suitors, and her parents would have expected her to marry into a landed family. They did not approve of her union with Darby.

In 1752, three years after their marriage, Nicholas and Hester had a son, whom they named John.7 A daughter called Elizabeth followed in January 1755. She died of smallpox before she was 2 and was buried in October 1756. It was a great comfort to Nicholas and Hester when Mary was born just over a year later, on November 27, 1757.*

In the days before vaccination, smallpox was a lethal threat to children. The disease took not only the infant Elizabeth, but probably also a younger brother, William, when he was 6. Another younger brother for Mary, named George, fared better: he and John both grew up to become “respectable” merchants, trading at Leghorn (Livorno) in Italy.

Hester soon found that she had entered into an unhappy union. Nicholas spent much of his time in Newfoundland on business. By 1758, he was putting down roots there, joining with other merchants in an enterprise to build a new church. He returned to Bristol for the winter months, but he can only have been a shadowy presence in his daughter’s early life.

The Darby boys were extremely handsome, with auburn hair and blue eyes. Mary took after her father; she described her own childhood looks as “swarthy,” with enormous eyes set in a small, delicate face. She was a dreamy, melancholy, and pensive child who reveled in the gloominess of her surroundings in the minster. The children’s nursery was so close to the great aisle that the peal of the organ could be heard at morning and evening service. Mary would creep out of her nursery on her own and perch on the winding staircase to listen to the music: “I can at this moment recall to memory the sensations I then experienced, the tones that seemed to thrill through my heart, the longing which I felt to unite my feeble voice to the full anthem, and the awful though sublime impression which the church service never failed to make upon my feelings.” Rather than playing on College Green with her brothers she would creep into the minster to sit beneath the lectern in the form of a great eagle that held up the huge Bible. The only person who could keep her away from her self-imposed exile there was the stern sexton and bell-ringer she named Black John, “from the colour of his beard and complexion.”8

As soon as she learned to read, she recited the epitaphs and inscriptions on the tombstones and monuments. Before she was 7 years old, she had memorized several elegiac poems that were typical of the verse of the eighteenth century. Her taste in music was as mournful as her taste in poetry.

Mary confessed that the events of her life had been “more or less marked by the progressive evils of a too acute sensibility.” One thinks here of Jane Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, with its satirical portrait of the ultra-sensitive Marianne Dashwood: she bears more than a passing resemblance to the melancholy young Mary Darby, quoting morbid poetry and thoroughly enjoying the misery of playing somber music and being left in solitary contemplation. As a writer, Mary was always acutely aware of her audience: her image of herself in the Memoirs as a child of sensibility was designed to appeal to the numerous readers of Gothic novels and sentimental fiction. At the same time, her self-image appealed to the romantic myth of the writer as a natural genius who begins as a precociously talented but lonely child escaping into the world of imagination.

Though Mary presented herself as a “natural” genius, she was the beneficiary of improvements in education and the growth of printed literature aimed at a young audience. This was a period when private schools for girls of middling rank sprang up all over England. Bristol was the home of Hannah More, playwright, novelist, Evangelical reformer, and political wri...

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