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Mary Robinson: the First Modern Day Celebrity
by Anna M. Evans, Poet & Independent Scholar

his is the tale of a beautiful woman who became a celebrated actress, but after allowing herself to be embroiled in sexual scandal with a young prince, grew so notorious that she was hounded by the press through several more unfortunate affairs. Ultimately her ill health became so precarious that she was forced to re-invent herself as a writer and humanitarian. Such a story could have leapt from the pages of any less salubrious contemporary checkout magazine; however, this is actually the colorful biography of eighteenth-century born Mary Robinson, who was arguably not only a brilliant English poet whose influence can be seen in the Romantics and beyond, but also the world's first modern day celebrity.


As many celebrities do, in the last years before her death Robinson prepared an autobiographical manuscript, The Memoirs of Mary Robinson, and exacted a promise from Maria Elizabeth, her surviving daughter, to see it into print. Unfortunately, through a combination of editorial zeal from Maria Elizabeth and self-censorship or blatant airbrushing by the author herself, it is difficult to grant this text definitive authority. As her biographer Paula Byrne advises, "Mary's Memoirs should, of course, be treated with a healthy degree of skepticism" (358).

Indeed, the Memoirs fail even to confirm Robinson's correct birth date, which has entered posterity as November 27th 1758, but is believed by Byrne, citing church records, to have been at least a year earlier (399). Whatever the truth of this, there is no doubt that Mary was the daughter of the prosperous merchant Nicholas Darby and his wife Hester and enjoyed an idyllic childhood spent between her parents' house in Bristol and a girls' school run by the intellectual Hannah More, until around 1765.

It was at this time that Darby conceived a Newfoundland-based money making scheme which Mary calls in the Memoirs "as wild and romantic as it was perilous to hazard" (23). He duly departed for the new world, leaving his family behind. Two years later, not only had the scheme failed drastically, but Darby was also reportedly living with a mistress, necessitating the family's removal to London and Mary's enrollment in a Chelsea boarding school run by Meribah Lorrington.

According to the Memoirs, Lorrington had been given:

a masculine education...[having been] early instructed in all the modern accomplishments, as well as classical knowledge. She was mistress of the Latin, French and Italian languages; she was said to be a perfect arithmetician and astronomer. (29)

Lorrington proceeded to impart this knowledge, along with a love of books and learning, to her favorite pupil, who rewarded her by beginning to compose verses.

Lorrington's losing battle with alcoholism, along with Darby's delinquency in the provision of child support, brought an end to this fruitful educational stage and ultimately saw the teenage Mary moving with her mother and brother to Chancery Lane, London, where Mary met two men who would figure largely in her life—the influential actor David Garrick and her soon-to-be husband, solicitor's clerk Thomas Robinson.

Struck by Mary's beauty and intelligence, Garrick began grooming her for a stage career—a situation which the Memoirs describe filling Mary's mother with fear: "She dreaded the perils, the temptations to which an unprotected girl would be exposed in so public a situation" (35). Hester was no doubt influential in persuading young Mary instead to accept the hand of Thomas Robinson, who claimed to be a rich man's nephew and heir but turned out instead to be an illegitimate son with few genuine prospects.

Despite the couple's relative poverty, "with a smart address, a flashy phaeton, and Mary's dazzling good looks, they burst upon the London social scene, determined to get themselves noticed" (Byrne 41). Mary was indeed noticed, catching the eye of the dilettante Lord Lyttelton, whose failed attempts to seduce her provoked him into "embark[ing] upon a strategy of ruination and bankruptcy for [Thomas] Robinson, taking him to gaming houses and brothels" (45). Robinson neglected the now pregnant Mary, and the couple plunged into debt. Six months after their daughter, Maria Elizabeth was born, Robinson was arrested and committed to the Fleet Debtors' prison, where he would spend fifteen months.

This time was not wasted for Mary, however. Choosing to bring her daughter and accompany her husband to prison, she returned to writing poetry, and while much of this early work, published as the 1775 volume, Poems, is forgettable, a few poems, such as "Letter to a Friend on Leaving Town" hint at her range and potential:

No more the Mall, can captivate my heart,
No more can Ranelagh, one joy impart.
Without regret I leave the splendid ball
And the inchanting shades of gay Vauxhall.
Far from the giddy circle now I fly,
Such joys no more, can please my sicken'd eye. ("Selected" 72)

Poems also won her an influential patron and friend in the shape of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Robinson was released, and Mary, now fully aware that the couple had no means to support the lavish London lifestyle she desired, approached Garrick once more with a view to becoming an actress. A second pregnancy notwithstanding, with his support she made her successful debut in the lead role of Romeo & Juliet on December 10, 1776. Many more acclaimed roles followed, and Mary even wrote her own play, a musical farce called The Lucky Escape.

Her admirers were legion, and in the gossip columns her name was already being linked with several men of her acquaintance, when in 1779 she played the female lead in Florizel and Perdita. King George III and Queen Charlotte were in the audience, along with their seventeen-year-old son George, who was immediately smitten by the woman he would always call Perdita.

The relationship was, of course, doomed, but as soon as it had blossomed into an official "arrangement"—Mary was still married, and anyway, Prince George could never have married a woman of such low birth—there were two immediate results: Mary had to resign from her lucrative stage career and her status as a main target of the nascent paparazzi was assured. As Mary states in the Memoirs:

...every petty calumny was repeated with tenfold embellishments. Tales of the most infamous and glaring falsehood were invented, and I was again assailed by pamphlets, by paragraphs, and caricatures, and all the artillery of slander...(117)

Mary's own narrative breaks off shortly after this, denying the curious any personal account of her various affairs following her separation from the Prince. However, she is believed to have been involved with several influential political and aristocratic figures such as Charles James Fox and Lord Malden. She even reputedly had an affair with a French noble, the Duke of Lauzun, when she visited France in 1781. During the same sojourn she met Marie-Antoinette, who inspired her sympathy and also several poems, including "Marie-Antoinette's Lamentation":

The rabble's din, the tocsin's fateful sound—
The cannon thund'ring through the vaulted sky—
The curling smoke, in columns rising round,
Which from my iron lattice I descry,
Rouse my lethargic mind! I shriek in vain;
My tyrant Jailor only mocks my pain. ("Selected" 135)

Her longest, least secretive liaison was with Colonel Banastre Tarleton, whom she met, although possibly not for the first time, in the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds's studio in January 1782 (Byrne 176). Tarleton, newly returned from fighting heroically, although ultimately to no avail, in the American Revolution, was "the one romantic figure in a drawn-out, dirty, disappointing war" (168).

The couple's on/off relationship lasted until 1797 and is significant for two reasons: firstly, because when Tarleton's History of the Campaigns in Virginia and the Neighboring Provinces was published in 1787, it "was widely assumed that Mrs. Robinson's pen had done much of the work on her lover's behalf" (Byrne 241). Secondly, a quarrel between the two lovers in 1784 is believed to have been at the root of the unspecified illness—possibly acute rheumatic fever—which caused Mary to spend the last quarter of her life as a near invalid, and which led in turn to the revival of her literary aspirations. Never financially secure, she considered her writing as a source of income and was consequently prolific—"In the last decade of her short 42-year life, Mary Robinson published four collections of poetry, seven novels, a play, two political tracts, a translation, and countless individual poems which appeared pseudonymously in contemporary newspapers" (Binhammer 1). She died on December 26, 1800, in a small cottage in Windsor, with her beloved daughter at her bedside, and is buried in Old Windsor Churchyard.


The Della Cruscans were a group of poets, led by the now-forgotten Robert Merry, whose poems, published in the newspaper, The World, inspired Mary into imitation. Much of Mary's first mature collection, Poems (1791), is written in the Della Cruscans' "flowery and ornate style," which was anathema to Wordsworth but popular with the reading public and influential upon the early work of Coleridge, among others (Byrne 247). Take the opening lines of Mary's "Ode to Della Crusca":

Enlighten'd Patron of the sacred Lyre!
Whose ever-varying, ever-witching song
Revibrates on the heart
With magic thrilling touch. ("Selected" 85)

According to Byrne, Mary "came to regret her involvement with the Della Cruscan movement" and even satirized Merry in Walsingham, her strongest novel, published in 1797 (256). She must have found its aesthetics useful, however, in the composition of her first novel, Vancenza; or the Dangers of Credulity (1792), a Gothic romance of the kind detested by Jane Austen and parodied by her in Northanger Abbey. Mary's other novels, written largely as money-spinners, take their places on a spectrum of artistic merit, depending on how desperately she was in need of money at the time of writing.

Most of the pieces in Poems had already appeared in newspapers, typically under one of the array of pseudonyms—Lauria Maria, Julia, Oberon, Tabitha Bramble, Daphne, Echo and Louisa—she assumed in a vain attempt to conceal her identity, but it was the publication of her sequence of forty-four Petrarchan sonnets, "Sappho and Phaon" (1796), which crystallized Mary's rights to the title "the English Sappho," marked an evolution of her talents, and earned her the reputation, along with Charlotte Smith, of being responsible for instigating a revival of the sonnet form. As Linda Peterson points out, "Robinson's sonnet sequence can of course be read ...as a thinly disguised account of her agonies over her loss of the Prince of Wales and fall from power (or, alternatively, over her later loss of Banastre Tarleton)" (40).

Why art thou chang'd? O Phaon! tell me why?
Love flies reproach, when passion feels decay;
Or, I would paint the raptures of that day,
When, in sweet converse, mingling sigh with sigh,
I mark'd the graceful languor of thine eye
As on a shady bank entranc'd we lay. ("Selected" 166)

Subsequently a further volume of Mary's Poems was published in 1794, and in 1800, much influenced by the first edition of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads, she brought out her own Lyrical Tales, somewhat to Wordsworth's distaste.

Wordsworth was never reconciled to the value of Mary's poetry, but Coleridge, who met her in 1796, called her a woman of "undoubted genius" (qtd. in Byrne 355). The two wrote poems to each other, and in 1800 Coleridge shared with her the manuscript of "Kubla Khan," (Written in 1797 but not published until 1816) which may owe a debt to Mary's own opium-inspired poem, "The Maniac," composed in 1791 after taking 80 drops of laudanum for pain, "in the stupor which opium frequently produces, repeating like a person talking in her sleep" ("Memoirs" 139).

Much more narrative in style than her imitative Della Cruscan verses, "The Maniac" addresses a figure, based on a local impoverished madman known as "mad Jemmy," imploring him to explain the reasons for his sad condition (Byrne 267):

Why dost thou rend thy matted hair,
And beat thy burning bosom bare?
Why is thy lip so parch'd? thy groan so deep?
Why dost thou fly from cheerful light,
And seek in caverns mid-day night?
And cherish thoughts untold, and banish gentle sleep? ("Selected" 123)

Coleridge may well have admired the meter of "The Maniac," as he later admired that of her poem "Jasper" in a letter to Robert Southey (qtd. in Byrne 355). Indeed Mary's metrical innovations are one of her major influences on contemporary and later poets. At the time, most metrical verse was composed in a relatively limited selection of meters—iambic pentameter couplets reminiscent of Pope, blank verse as epitomized by Wordsworth's own "Tintern Abbey," and ballad stanzas such as those Coleridge employed in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." According to Peter Ponzio, Lyrical Ballads was not as groundbreaking as contemporary critics might have us believe: "Wordsworth and Coleridge made use of a number of poetic conventions appearing in poems which were published in the literary magazines of the late eighteenth century."

Therefore, although it may seem conventional to the twenty-first century eye, Mary's use of tetrameter couplets interspersed with rhyming hexameter lines in "The Maniac" was distinctive in its day, as were many of the other schemes Mary followed in Lyrical Tales, such as the rolling anapestic tetrameter of "The Poor, Singing Dame":

Beneath an old wall, that went round an old castle,
For many a year, with brown ivy o'erspread;
A neat little hovel, its lowly roof raising,
Defied the wild winds that howl'd over its shed:
The turrets, that frown'd on the poor simple dwelling,
Were rock'd to and fro, when the tempest would roar,
And the river, that down the rich valley was swelling,
Flow'd swiftly beside the green step of its door.

According to Stuart Curran, in his 1994 essay "Mary Robinson's Lyrical Tales in Context":

As Robinson expands the range of voices to be accommodated by a deflated, interiorized poetic, she also opens up its metrical possibilities. Generally eschewing simple ballad meter or the vernacular forms favored by Southey, Lyrical Tales is notable for its virtuoso employment of stanzaic and sonic patterns. (27)

Robinson, then, should be credited with much more of the innovation typically attributed to the two men of the "Lake School" (Wordsworth and Coleridge) than is academically the case. As Curran goes on to say:

As unassuming as is Robinson's expansion of metrical possibility in this volume, extraordinary claims could be made for the effects it presages, if not directly impels. Among the thousands of volumes of verse published in the eighteenth century, there are probably no more than a handful like hers. Except for the four pieces in deflated blank verse, all of the poems of Lyrical Tales are constructed differently; most are unpretentiously masterful in their metrical effect. (29)

Mary's other great contribution to the history of English poetry comes through her subtle use of satire, particularly under her Tabitha Bramble pen name, in the poems typically published in newspapers such as the Morning Post, in which her "device was to satirize fashionable London life by squinting at the foibles of the ton through the eyes of an outsider" (Byrne 336). Mary confesses that "before [she] was seven years old, [she] could correctly repeat Pope's "Lines to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady" ("Memoirs" 22). It is not much of a stretch to assume that she considered Pope an influence, or that she imagined the baton of English satire had been passed from his hand to hers. Mary's most famous satirical poem, "Modern Male Fashions," first appeared in the Morning Post in 1800:

Crops like hedgehogs, high-crown'd hats,
Whispers like Jew MOSES;
Collars padded, thick cravats,
And Cheeks as red as roses.

Faces painted deepest brown,
Waistcoats strip'd and gaudy ;
Sleeves, thrice doubled, thick with down,
And Straps, to brace the body!

Short Great Coats, that reach the knees,
Boots like French Postillion;
Meant the lofty race to please,
But laugh'd at by the million.

Square-toed Shoes, with silken Strings,
Pantaloons, tight fitting;
Fingers, deck'd with golden Rings,
And Small-clothes, made of Knitting.

Bludgeons, like a Pilgrim's Staff,
Or Canes, as slight as Osiers;
Doubled Hose, to shew THE CALF,
And swell the bills of HOSIERS!

Curricles so low, that they
Along the earth are dragging;
Hacks that weary half the day
In Rotten Row are fagging.

Bull-dogs fierce, and Boxers bold,
In their train attending;
Beauty, which is bought with Gold,
And Flatt'rers, vice commending.

Married Women, who have seen
The fiat of the Commons;
Tradesmen, with terrific mien,
And Bailiffs, with a Summons!

TAILORS, with their Bills unpaid;
Parasites, high feeding;
Letters, from a Chamber maid,
And Billets, not worth reading!

Perfumes; Wedding rings, to shew
Many a LADY's favour,
Bought by ev'ry vaunting Beau,
With mischievous endeavour.

Such is giddy Fashion's SON !
Such a modern LOVER!
Oh ! wou'd their reign had ne'er begun !
And may it SOON BE OVER! ("Selected" 360-361)

Here Mary accurately lampoons the fashionable world in which she had once played such a major role, and it is tempting to envisage this a portrait of Prince George, Mary's first faithless lover, as he had become by 18008212;no longer the handsome young man of their youth, but fast becoming the "fat, lecherous, dissipated hedonist of later years" (Byrne 96).

The extent to which Mary's contributions to the world of letters were influenced by her own life story is nowhere more pronounced than in the political tract, "A Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination," published in 1799, in which Mary "exposes the double standard that exists in attitudes to everything from money to sex" (Byrne 346). A follower of Mary Wollstonecroft, Mary deserves recognition for having brought this theme, also detectable in her novel The Natural Daughter, to greater prominence in the last few years of her life.

Like a modern day celebrity, Mary had her fifteen minutes—or more accurately years—of fame, in which she ultimately succeeded in "wrestling her public image as a courtesan into the image of a true 'Woman of Feeling'" (Binhammer). Ironically, her critical reputation waned steadily over the following centuries, and even her historical status as George IV's first mistress and celebrated courtesan was at risk of becoming forgotten. Fortunately, since the 1990s both feminists and literary scholars have begun to reassess her importance, both as a writer and a socio-political figure. Perdita, Prince George's pet name for Mary, comes from the Latin and means "The Lost One," but Mary Darby Robinson's contribution to the English literary scene of the late 1700s is too significant to allow its loss. And despite her acclaimed beauty, which does survive in portraits by Hopper, Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Romney, Mary herself recognized the importance of her words surviving, rather than her image—she wrote this in a poem to Tarleton called "Stanzas to a Friend, Who Desired to Have My Portrait":

But what are features? what is form?
To combat life's tempestuous storm?
Can they TIME's pinions bind?
Truth whispers, No! Then take, my FRIEND,
The LASTING sketch, which I here send,
The PICTURE of MY MIND! ("Selected" 140)

1 Tabitha Bramble is a character in Tobias Smollett's 1771 novel "The Expedition of Humphry Clinker," depicted as a shrewish spinster.

2 In the eighteenth century both capitals and italics were frequently used for emphasis. These are Mary's own.

Additional Poems

The Poor Singing Dame

Beneath an old wall, that went round an old Castle,
For many a year, with brown ivy o'erspread;
A neat little Hovel, its lowly roof raising,
Defied the wild winds that howl'd over its shed:
The turrets, that frown'd on the poor simple dwelling,
Were rock'd to and fro, when the Tempest would roar,
And the river, that down the rich valley was swelling,
Flow'd swiftly beside the green step of its door.

The Summer Sun, gilded the rushy-roof slanting,
The bright dews bespangled its ivy-bound hedge
And above, on the ramparts, the sweet Birds were chanting,
And wild buds thick dappled the clear river's edge.
When the Castle's rich chambers were haunted, and dreary,
The poor little Hovel was still, and secure;
And no robber e'er enter'd, or goblin or fairy,
For the splendours of pride had no charms to allure.

The Lord of the Castle, a proud, surly ruler,
Oft heard the low dwelling with sweet music ring:
For the old Dame that liv'd in the little Hut chearly,
Would sit at her wheel, and would merrily sing:
When with revels the Castle's great Hall was resounding,
The Old Dame was sleeping, not dreaming of fear;
And when over the mountains the Huntsmen were bounding
She would open her wicket, their clamours to hear.

To the merry-ton'd horn, she would dance on the threshold,
And louder, and louder, repeat her old Song:
And when Winter its mantle of Frost was displaying
She caroll'd, undaunted, the bare woods among:
She would gather dry Fern, ever happy and singing,
With her cake of brown bread, and her jug of brown beer,
And would smile when she heard the great Castle-bell ringing,
Inviting the Proud—to their prodigal chear.

Thus she liv'd, ever patient and ever contented,
Till Envy the Lord of the Castle possess'd,
For he hated that Poverty should be so chearful,
While care could the fav'rites of Fortune molest;
He sent his bold yeomen with threats to prevent her,
And still would she carol her sweet roundelay;
At last, an old Steward, relentless he sent her—
Who bore her, all trembling, to Prison away!

Three weeks did she languish, then died, broken-hearted,
Poor Dame! how the death-bell did mournfully sound!
And along the green path six young Bachelors bore her,
And laid her, for ever, beneath the cold ground!
And the primroses pale, 'mid the long grass were growing,
The bright dews of twilight bespangled her grave
And morn heard the breezes of summer soft blowing
To bid the fresh flow'rets in sympathy wave.

The Lord of the Castle, from that fatal moment
When poor Singing MARY was laid in her grave,
Each night was surrounded by Screech-owls appalling,
Which o'er the black turrets their pinions would wave!
On the ramparts that frown'd on the river, swift flowing,
They hover'd, still hooting a terrible song,
When his windows would rattle, the Winter blast blowing,
They would shriek like a ghost, the dark alleys among!

Wherever he wander'd they followed him crying,
At dawnlight, at Eve, still they haunted his way!
When the Moon shone across the wide common, they hooted,
Nor quitted his path, till the blazing of day.
His bones began wasting, his flesh was decaying,
And he hung his proud head, and he perish'd with shame;
And the tomb of rich marble, no soft tear displaying,
O'ershadows the grave, of THE POOR SINGING DAME!

Sonnet XVIII (from Sappho & Phaon)

Why art thou chang'd? O Phaon! tell me why?
Love flies reproach, when passion feels decay;
Or, I would paint the raptures of that day,
When, in sweet converse, mingling sigh with sigh,
I mark'd the graceful languor of thine eye
As on a shady bank entranc'd we lay:
O! Eyes! whose beamy radiance stole away
As stars fade trembling from the burning sky!
Why art thou chang'd? dear source of all my woes!
Though dark my bosom's tint, through ev'ry vein
A ruby tide of purest lustre flows,
Warm'd by thy love, or chill'd by thy disdain;
And yet no bliss this sensate Being knows;
Ah! why is rapture so allied to pain?

Works Cited

Binhammer, Katherine. "Mary Darby Robinson, 1758-1800." 2000. www.chawtonhouse.org/library/biographies/files/. pdf file.

Byrne, Paula. Perdita. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.

Curran, Stuart. "Mary Robinson's Lyrical Tales in Context." Re-visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776-1837. Ed. Carol Shiner Wilson & Joel Haefner. Philadelphia: U. of Penn. Press, 1994. Print.

Peterson, Linda H. "Becoming an Author: Mary Robinson's Memoirs." Re-visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776-1837. Ed. Carol Shiner Wilson & Joel Haefner. Philadelphia: U. of Penn. Press, 1994. Print.

Ponzio, Peter. "Wordsworth's Literary Precedents." Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/1240992

Robinson, Mary. Selected Poems. Ontario: Broadview, 2000. Print.

Robinson, Mary. Perdita: The Memoirs of Mary Robinson. London: Peter Owen Publishers, 1994. Print.


Poems by Mrs. Robinson (London: C. Parker, 1775)
Captivity; a Poem. And Celadon and Lydia; a Tale. (London: T. Becket, 1777)
The Lucky Escape (London: For the Author, 1778)
Impartial Reflections on the Situation of the Queen of France (London: J. Bell, 1791)
Poems, Volume I. (London: J. Bell, 1791)
Vancenza, or the Dangers of Credulity, 2 vols (London: J. Bell, 1792)
Modern Manners (London: For the Author 1793)
Sight, The Cavern of Woe, and Solitude (London: J. Evans and T. Becket, 1793)
Poems, Volume II. (London: J. Bell, 1794)
The Widow, or a picture of modern times, 2 vols (London: Hookham and Carpenter, 1794)
Audley Fortescue (London: William Lane, 1795)
Angelina. (1796)
Hubert de Sevrac, 3 vols (Hookham and Carpenter, 1796)
The Sicilian Lover; A Tragedy in Five Acts (London: Hookham and Carpenter, 1796)
Sappho and Phaeon. In a Series of Legitimate Sonnets (London: For the Author, 1796)
Julie St. Laurence (Leipzig: Nauck, 1797)
Walsingham; or, The Pupil of Nature (London: T. N. Longman, 1797)
The False Friend: A Domestic Story, 4 vols (London: T. N. Longman and O. Rees, 1799)
A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (London: T. N. Longman and O. Rees, 1799)
The Natural Daughter, 2 vols (London: T. N. Longman and O. Rees, 1799)
Lyrical Tales (London: T. N. Longman, 1800)
Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herself, 4 vols (London: Phillips, 1801)

Mary Robinson
Years: 1757-1800
Birthplace: England
Language(s): English
Forms: Sonnets, ballads, blank verse, nonce rhymed metrical stanzas
Subjects: Romance, satire, lyrical narratives
Entry By: Anna M. Evans
32 Poems
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