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.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
March 13, 2006
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Perdita by Paula Byrne
"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