Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

ROBINSON, MARY [Perdita] (1758-1800)

ROBINSON, MARY [Perdita] (1758-1800), English actress and author, was born in Bristol on the 27th of November 1758, the daughter of a captain of a whaler named Darby. In 1774 she was married to Thomas Robinson, a clerk in London, where her remarkable beauty brought her many attentions; and when, after two years of fashionable life, her husband was arrested for debt, she shared his imprisonment. She had been a precocious child, encouraged to write verses, and while in Kingʼs Bench prison she completed the collection published in two volumes in 1775. On her release, thanks to Carrick, she secured an engagement at Drury Lane, making a successful first appearance as Juliet in 1776. On the 3rd of December 1779 she was Perdita in Garrickʼs version of The Winterʼs Tale, and her beauty so captivated George, prince of Wales (afterwards George IV.), then in his eighteenth year, that he began a correspondence with her, signing himself Florizel. She was for about two years his mistress, but he then deserted her, even dishonouring his bond for £20,000, payable when he came of age, and left her to obtain a pension of £500 in exchange for it from Charles James Fox. Owing to the hostility of public opinion, she feared to return to the stage, but she published some more volumes of her writings. There are numerous charming portraits of Perdita; two in the Wallace Collection, by Reynolds and by Gainsborough, reveal her grave, refined beauty. Hoppner, Cosway and Romney also painted her.

See Memoirs of Mary Robinson, Perdita, with introduction and notes by J.F. Molloy (1894).

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

ROBINSON, Mary (1758-1800) by Sharon Setzer

The 1910-1911 Encyclopedia Britannica rightly identifies Mary Robinson as an author as well as the legendary actress who played the role of Perdita in David Garrick’s adaptation of The Winter’s Tale and subsequently won notoriety as mistress of the teenage Prince of Wales (later George IV). The Britannica entry minimizes the scope and significance of Robinsonʼs literary achievements, however, by mentioning only that she published her first collection of poems in 1775 and later published more volumes of her writings. These additional volumes included her most noteworthy collections of verse: Poems, by Mrs. M. Robinson (1791), a second volume titled Poems, by Mrs. M. Robinson (1793), Sappho and Phaon: In a Series of Legitimate Sonnets (1796), and Lyrical Tales (1800), a work inspired, in part, by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. Although poetry was her forte, Robinson also published seven novels, a tragedy, periodical essays, and a long proto-feminist Letter to the Women of England, On the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1798). The contents of these volumes, together with some separately published and unpublished pieces, are collected in the eight-volume Works of Mary Robinson (Pickering & Chatto 2009-2010), establishing her rightful place as one of the most wide-ranging and influential British authors of the 1790s.

Mary Robinson
Dance, George. Mary Robinson (née Darby). 1793, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

Robinson rose to prominence as a poet in 1788, through her association with the fashionable Della Cruscan School of Poetry originating with Robert Merry (aka Della Crusca). Following his lead, Robinson adopted a variety of pseudonyms to publish ornate, histrionic verse in London newspapers. According to one highly critical reviewer, Robinson was a misguided proselyte of harmonious drivellers, who bewitched the idle multitude . . . with a sweet sound which passed for poetry. The warm reception of her pseudonymous lines, stanzas, sonnets, and odes nevertheless encouraged Robinson to republish them in elegant volumes that bore her own name and fostered her reputation as the English Sappho.

In the 1790s, Robinson expanded her poetic repertoire to include gothic ballads, satiric sketches of the fashionable world, and numerous depictions of humble, everyday life. As a regular contributor to the Morning Post in the late 1790s, she advanced its reformist agenda with sympathetic portraits of slaves, wounded soldiers, prisoners, and other solitary figures beyond the pale of polite society. Circulating with the morning news, these poems often intervened in public debates over such controversial issues as the slave trade, the war in France, and government measures to squelch domestic unrest. At the same time, Robinson’s portraits of solitary outcasts also constituted an ongoing dialogue with her philosophical friend and mentor William Godwin as well as her fellow poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Robert Southey. Although she was scorned in some quarters as a radical Jacobin Poet, Robinson was praised in others as a Friend to Humanity. According to Coleridge, one of her warmest admirers, Robinson was also a woman of undoubted Genius.

Despite her success as a poet and novelist, Robinson ultimately failed to achieve financial security or to overcome her reputation as Perdita. After years of poor health and financial distress, she died in her early forties (her date of birth is not fully settled). While most of her writing fell into obscurity during the early nineteenth century, Robinson’s posthumously published Memoirs (1801) remained in circulation and perpetuated her reputation as a beautiful actress, royal mistress, fashion icon, and unfortunate victim of sensibility. As the single paragraph on Robinson in the Britannica suggests, her renown as the charming subject of portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds and other prominent artists completely eclipsed her fame as an accomplished poet.

By the late twentieth century, burgeoning critical interest in the recovery of women writers prompted substantive revaluations of Robinson’s oeuvre. Now routinely included in anthologies of eighteenth-century and Romantic-period verse, Robinson is once again credited with owning liberal sentiments, a fertile imagination, and a highly-refined poetic ear. In her most widely anthologized poem, To the Poet Coleridge, Robinson not only pays tuneful tribute to the creative genius exhibited in Kubla Khan, but also represents herself as his compeer in the exploration of Imagination’s boundless space. Composed near the end of her life, sixteen years before the publication of Kubla Khan, Robinson’s tribute to Coleridge prefigures the formation of a Romantic canon that was almost unimaginable in 1911.

to Top