Another straphanger cliffhanger

A few months ago I blogged about a biography of Harriet Wilson that I was reading on my commute to work. My latest tart-on-the-tracks experience was with this biography of Mary Robinson by Paula Byrne–Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson.

It’s a pretty good biography, but you don’t get a sense of who Mary Robinson really was. There’s something enigmatic about her–she did an excellent cover-up job with the media and with her own writing. Even her biography is, acccording to Ms. Byrne, fairly typical for its time, full of omissions and inventions, always anxious to appear a nice, respectable girl. First and foremost an actress, she was adept at assuming roles–as a leader of fashion, a woman of politics (Fox was her lover for a time), an abandoned waif, child bride, tragic heroine. She began her theatrical career as a protegee of Garrick (although she probably wasn’t his mistress), before attracting the attention of the youthful Prince of Wales. He became besotted with her in the role of Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, referring to himself as Florizel, when she was a lovely young thing of 20 or 21, and he was as much of a lovely young thing as he was ever going to be at the age of 17.

The other love of her life was Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a hero of the American Revolutionary Wars, and not a particularly pleasant person (his nickname over here was “Butcher,” a dead give away). But there must have been something about him (maybe it was his third arm as the portrait suggests)–their affair lasted for years, with Mary, ever the publicity hound, submitting sentimental poems to newspapers at each breakup and reconciliation. They were the Posh and Becks, the Jennifer and Brad of their time, adored, imitated, extravagant leaders of fashion. Politically they were at opposite ends of the spectrum. She was a supporter of the abolitionist movement and in sympathy with the French revolution; Tarleton came from a rich Liverpool family and was pro-slavery and old school; nevertheless Mary wrote (some of) his political speeches and they co-authored a book together about his military experiences. I can’t help but think of Mary leaning over his shoulder correcting his spelling while he writes with his lips moving.

She gave up her stage career at the request of the Prince of Wales, who proved unreliable thereafter in his annuity payments, and after illness and disability from rheumatic fever ended her career as a courtesan, earned her living writing poetry and novels. Godwin and Coleridge were her friends and admired her work. She was rediscovered in academic circles in the 1990s though I have to admit the poetry copiously quoted in Ms. Byrne’s biography left me cold and/or slightly cringing at its sprightly archness.

I must admit she didn’t appeal to me as much as Harriet Wilson, but I enjoyed this biography–there are some great descriptions of clothes and of late eighteenth-century London; it’s just a pity that Mary is presented mostly as a series of public personae. And that’s the way she would have liked it…here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson…

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