Mary “Perdita” Robinson

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Mary “Perdita” Robinson (Darby)

Also Known As: "Perdita"
Birthdate: (43)
Birthplace: Bristol, City of Bristol, England, United Kingdom
Death: December 26, 1800 (43)
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Capt. Nicholas Darby, RN and Hester Darby
Wife of Thomas Robinson
Mother of Maria Elizabeth Robinson and Sophia Robinson

Occupation: Poet, novelist
Managed by: Erica Howton
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Mary “Perdita” Robinson

Mary Robinson (née Darby) (27 November 1757 – 26 December 1800) was an English poet and novelist. During her lifetime she is known as 'the English Sappho'[1][2]. She was also known for her role as Perdita (heroine of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale) in 1779 and as the first public mistress of George IV.


‘Imagine Nicole Kidman, Monica Lewinsky, Susan Sontag and Madonna all rolled into one, then ask yourself, how is it that we’ve never heard of her? -- Vogue

"Every event of my life has more or less been marked by the progressive evils of a too acute sensibility. " -- Mary Darby Robinson, The Memoirs of Mary Robinson, p. 8

Mary Robinson was destined in her brief life to become an actress, a poet, a novelist and one of the most famous courtesans of Georgian London. Her relationship with Tarleton lasted for fifteen years, finally terminating only a few months before he met his future wife, Susan Priscilla Bertie. Although they didn't marry, their association seems to have been closer to a modern common-law partnership than the standard protector/mistress paradigm of the period.

After two centuries of obscurity, Robinson has begun to re-enter the limelight with a vengeance, drawing interest from literary historians and, in particular, from those interested in 18th century feminism. The growing consensus seems to be that all of her published biographies -- including her own memoirs -- are untrustworthy.

Who's Whistling In Charleston?

The exquisite Perdita, a beautiful and talented European actress, made her debut in Charleston and became the darling of all. At one time, she was the mistress of George IV. Dr. Joseph Ladd who lived on Church Street was completely taken by Perdita -- she had won the heart of most of the men in Charleston. Ladd was an affable young man, well liked in Charleston. He always walked down the streets of the city whistling on his way to tend his patients. One night a young man from Rhode Island, Mr. Delancy, made crude remarks about the actress at a tavern. Ladd overheard the remarks and demanded a retraction. They argued and Delancy slapped Ladd in the face with his gloves -- the challenge of a duel. The two young men met at dawn the next morning in the mist, squared off and shot. Ladd was shot and died several days later. They say you can still hear him whistling as he goes along the streets of Charleston. The gardener at the Church Street House told me recently that he asked if they heard the ghost and the owners asked him not to mention "ghost" as they did not want the children to know it was a ghost they heard whistling.


Mary Darby Robinson died on December 26, 1800. She left a draft of her memoirs to her daughter, with a request that it be published. The draft covered her childhood, marriage, early writing, and career in the theatre. Her daughter Mary Elizabeth (referred to in the memoirs as 'Maria') continued and published the memoirs. They were first published in 1801 as Memoirs, with some Posthumous Pieces, in four volumes.

The on-line edition of Mary Robinson's Memoirs is a recreation of an 1895 edition by J. Fitzgerald Molloy. To Mary Robinson's memories and her daughter Maria's continuation, Molloy added a preface, footnotes, and a set of plates portraying Mrs. Robinson and her contemporaries.


Mary Robinson was an English actress, poet, dramatist, novelist, and celebrity figure. During her lifetime she was known as "the English Sappho". She earned her nickname "Perdita" for her role as Perdita (heroine of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale) in 1779. She was the first public mistress of King George IV while he was still Prince of Wales.

Robinson was born in Bristol, England to Nicholas Darby, a naval captain, and his wife Hester (née Vanacott) who had married at Donyat, Somerset, in 1749, and was baptised 'Polle' at St Augustine, Bristol, 19 July 1758, the entry noting that she was born 27 November 1756. In her memoirs, Robinson gives her birth in 1758 but the year 1757 seems more likely according to recently published research (see appendix to Byrne, 2005). Her father deserted her mother and took on a mistress when Robinson was still a child. The family hoped for a reconciliation, but Captain Darby made it clear that this was not going to happen. Without the support of her husband, Hester Darby supported herself and the five children born of the marriage by starting a school for young girls in Little Chelsea, London, (where Robinson taught by her 14th birthday). However, during one of his brief returns to the family, Captain Darby had the school closed (which he was entitled to do by English law). Darby died in the Russian naval service in 1785. Robinson, who at one point attended a school run by the social reformer Hannah More, came to the attention of actor David Garrick.

Hester Darby encouraged her daughter to accept the proposal of an articled clerk, Thomas Robinson, who claimed to have an inheritance. Mary was against this idea; however, after being stricken ill, and watching him take care of her and her younger brother, she felt that she owed him, and she did not want to disappoint her mother who was pushing for the engagement. After the early marriage, Robinson discovered that her husband did not have an inheritance. He continued to live an elaborate lifestyle, however, and had multiple affairs that he made no effort to hide. Subsequently, Mary supported their family. After her husband squandered their money, the couple fled to Talgarth, Wales (where Robinson's only daughter, Mary Elizabeth, was born in November). Here they lived in a fairly large estate, called Tregunter Park. Eventually Her husband was imprisoned for debt in the Fleet Prison where she lived with him for many months. While it was common for the wives of prisoners to live with their husbands while indebted, children were usually sent to live with relatives to keep them away from the dangers of prison. However, Robinson was deeply devoted to her daughter Maria, and when her husband was imprisoned, Robinson brought the 6-month-old baby with her. It was in the Fleet Prison that Robinson’s literary career really began, as she found that she could publish poetry to earn money, and to give her an escape from the harsh reality that had become her life. Additionally, Darby was offered work in the form of copying legal documents so he could try to pay back some of his debts, but he refused to do anything. Robinson, in an effort to keep the family together and to get back to normal life outside of prison, took the job instead, collecting the pay that her husband neglected to earn. During this time, Mary Robinson found a patron in Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who sponsored the publication of Robinson's first volume of poems, Captivity.

After her husband obtained his release from prison, Robinson decided to return to the theatre. She launched her acting career and took to the stage, playing Juliet, at Drury Lane Theatre in December 1776. Robinson was best known for her facility with the 'breeches parts', her performances as Viola in William Shakespeare'sTwelfth Night and Rosalind in As You Like It won her extensive praise. But she gained popularity with playing in Florizel and Perdita, an adaptation of Shakespeare, with the role of Perdita (heroine of The Winter's Tale) in 1779. It was during this performance that she attracted the notice of the young Prince of Wales, later King George IV of the United Kingdom.[8] He offered her twenty thousand pounds to become his mistress.[9] With her new social prominence, Robinson became a trend-setter in London, introducing a loose, flowing muslin style of gown based upon Grecian statuary that became known as the Perdita. It took Robinson a considerable amount of time to decide to leave her husband for the Prince, as she did not want to be seen by the public as that type of woman. Throughout much of her life she struggled to live in the public eye and also to stay true to the values in which she believed. She eventually gave in to her desires to be with a man whom she thought would treat her better than Mr. Robinson. However, the Prince ended the affair in 1781, refusing to pay the promised sum. "Perdita" Robinson was left to support herself through an annuity promised by the Crown (but rarely paid), in return for some letters written by the Prince, and through her writings. After her affair with the young Prince of Wales she became famous rides in her extravagant carriages and her celebrity like perception by the public.

Mary Robinson, who now lived separately from her husband, went on to have several love affairs, most notably with Banastre Tarleton, a soldier who had recently distinguished himself fighting in the American War of Independence. Prior to their relationship beginning, Robinson had been having an affair with a man named Lord Malden. According to one account, Malden and Tarleton were betting men, and Malden was so confident in Robinson’s loyalty to him, and believed that no man could ever take her from him. As such, he made a bet of a thousand guineas that none of the men in his circle could seduce her. Unfortunately for Malden, Tarleton accepted the bet and swooped in to not only seduce Robinson, but establish a relationship that would last the next 15 years. This relationship, though rumored to have started on a bet, saw Tarleton's rise in military rank and his concomitant political successes, Mary's own various illnesses, financial vicissitudes and the efforts of Tarleton's own family to end the relationship. They had no children, although Robinson had a miscarriage. However, in the end, Tarleton married Susan Bertie, an heiress and an illegitimate daughter of the young 4th Duke of Ancaster, and niece of his sisters Lady Willoughby de Eresby and Lady Cholmondeley. In 1783, Robinson suffered a mysterious illness that left her partially paralysed. Biographer Paula Byrne speculates that a streptococcal infection resulting from a miscarriage led to a severe rheumatic fever that left her disabled for the rest of her life. From the late 1780s, Robinson became distinguished for her poetry and was called "the English Sappho". In addition to poems, she wrote eight novels, three plays, feminist treatises, and an autobiographical manuscript that was incomplete at the time of her death. Like her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft, she championed the rights of women and was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. She died in poverty at Englefield Cottage, Englefield Green, Surrey, 26 December 1800, aged 44, having survived several years of ill health, and was survived by her daughter, Maria Elizabeth (1774-1818), who was also a published novelist. Administration of her estate was granted to her husband Thomas Robinson from whom she had long been separated and who in 1803 inherited a substantial estate from his half-brother William. One of Robinson’s dying wishes was to see the rest of her works published. She tasked her daughter, Maria Robinson, with publishing most of these works. She also placed her Memoirs in the care of her daughter, insisting that she publish the work. Maria Robinson published Memoirs just a few months later. Robinson requested to be buried in Old Windsor church-yard, the sole reason being its close proximity to the place where she and the Prince of Wales had been lovers.

In 1792 Robinson published her most popular novel which was a Gothic novel titled, Vancenza; or The Dangers of Credulity. The books were "sold out by lunch time on the first day and five more editions quickly followed, making it one of the top-selling novels in the latter part of the eighteenth century." It did not receive either critical or popular acclaim. In 1794 she wroteThe Widow; or, A Picture of Modern Times which portrayed themes of manners in the fashionable world. Since Robinson was a fashion icon and very much involved in the fashion world the novel did not get a lot of favorable reception in 1794 as it might have now. In 1796 she wrote Angelina; A Novel, it cost more money than it brought in. Through this novel, she offers her thoughts on the afterlife of her literary career. After years of scholarly neglect, Robinson's literary afterlife continues apace. While most of the early literature written about Robinson focused on her sexuality, emphasizing her affairs and fashions, she also spoke out about woman’s place in the literary world, for which she began to receive the attention of feminists and literary scholars in the 1990s. Robinson recognized that, ”women writers were deeply ambivalent about the myths of authorship their male counterparts had created” and as a result she sought to elevate woman’s place in the literary world by recognizing women writers in her own work. In A Letter to the Women of England, Robinson includes an entire page dedicated to English women writers to support her notion that they were just as capable as men of being successful in the literary world. These ideas have continued to keep Mary Robinson relevant in literary discussions today. In addition to maintaining literary and cultural notability, she has re-attained a degree of celebrity in recent years when several biographies of her appeared, including one by Paula Byrne entitled Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, and Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson that became a top-ten best-seller after being selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club. An eight-volume scholarly edition of Robinson's complete works was published in 2009-2010. In 2011, Daniel Robinson (no relation), editor of the poetry for the edition, published the first scholarly monograph to focus exclusively on her literary achievement--The Poetry of Mary Robinson: Form and Fame. A second monograph on Robinson's literary career, Mary Robinson and the Genesis of Romanticism: Literary Dialogues and Debts, 1784-1821, by Ashley Cross, appeared in 2016. Although, Robinson's novels were not as successful as she hoped, she had a talent for her poetry. Her ability to produce poetry can be seen furthermore in her poems titled "Sappho and Phaeon". Since the press had given her the name "The English Sappho", a clear relationship can be drawn between these poems and her literary name. The poems are love poems and many scholars have come to the conclusion that they represent her affairs with the Prince of Wales. Mary Darby Robinson was not only praised in ther literary circle for her poetry but also for her works written in prose. The two best known examples are "A Letter to the Women of England" (1798) and "The Natural Daughter" (1799). Both her works are dealing with the role of women during the Romantic Era. Mary Robinson as much as Mary Wollenstonecraft tried to put the focus on how inferior women were treated in comparison to men. The discrepecy can be seen in both of her works. "The Natural Daughter" can be seen as an autobiography of Mary Robinson. The characters are in many ways patterns of her own life and the stages of her life. All the characters are symbols of her own coming of age or people she met in her life.

From the late 1780s, Robinson,striving to separate herself from her past scandals, and life as a theatre actress, turned to writing as a full-time career. Robinson, disregarding her previous associations with the nickname “Perdita”, meaning “Lost one”, soon became distinguished for her poetry and was reclassified as "the English Sappho" by the English public. During her 25-year writing career, from 1775 until her premature death in 1800, Robinson produced an immense body of work. In addition to eight collections of poems, Robinson wrote eight novels, three plays, feminist treatises, and an autobiographical manuscript that was incomplete at the time of her death.

Poems by Mrs. Robinson, was published by C. Parker, in London, in 1775. "Poems" consisted of “twenty-six ballads, odes, and elegies” that “echo traditional values, praising values such as charity, sincerity, and innocence, particularly in a woman”. Robinson's husband, Thomas Robinson was imprisoned at the King’s Bench Prison for fifteen months for the gambling debts he acquired. Robinson originally intended for the profits made from this collection to help pay off his debts. But the publication of Poems could not prevent his imprisonment. Robinson lived for nine months and three weeks with Thomas and their baby within the squalor of prison.

Motivated by the months she spent in prison, Robinson wrote Captivity; a Poem and Celadon and Lydia, a Tale, published by T. Becket, in London, in 1777. This collection “described the horrors of captivity and painted a sympathetic picture of the ‘wretch’ and the ‘guiltless partners of his poignant woes’…The poem ends admonishing people to open their hearts and to pity the unfortunate…”

Following the publication of Captivity, Robinson established a new poetic identity for herself. Robinson let go of her Della Cruscan style when she wrote wrote Poems by Mary Robinson, published in 1791 by J. Bell in London, and Poems by Mrs. Robinson, published in 1793 by T. Spilsbury in London. A review was written by the Gentleman's Magazine and the reviewer stated that if Robinson had been less blessed with "beauty and captivating manners","her poetical taste might have been confined in its influence". At the end of the review, "the Gentleman's Magazine describes her poetry as elegant and harmonious.

In 1795, Robinson wrote a satirical poem titled London's Summer Morning, but it was published after her death in 1800. This poem showcased Robinson's critical perspective of the infrastructure and society of London. Robinson described the busy and loud sounds of the industrialized city in the morning. She employed characters such as the chimney-boy, and ruddy housemaid to make a heavy critique on the way English society treated children as both innocent and fragile creatures.

In 1796, Robinson argued for women's rationality, their right to education and illustrated ideas of free will, suicide, rationalization, empiricism and relationship to sensibility in Sappho and Phaon: In a Series of Legitimate Sonnets.

During the 1790s, Robinson was highly inspired by feminism and desired to spread her liberal sentiments through her writing. She was an ardent admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft, an established and influential feminist writer of the period. But to Robinson’s surprise, her intense feelings were not reciprocated by Wollstonecraft. While Robinson expected a strong friendship between the two of them to flourish, Wollstonecraft “found Robinson herself considerably less appealing than the title character of Angelina”. In 1796, Wollstonecraft wrote an extremely harsh review of Robinson’s work in the Analytical Review. It was this critique that was not critical, or well thought out. Instead, Wollstonecraft’s review of Robinson proved to be relatively shallow and pointed at her jealousy of Robinson’s comparable freedom. Wollstonecraft had the potential to spend more of her own time writing, instead of having to entertain her husband, William Goodwin. Robinson's "Letter to the Women of England against Mental Subordination" is still powerful reading. Robinson reiterates the rights women have to live by sexual passion.

Lastly, in 1800, after years of failing health and decline into financial ruin, Robinson wrote her last piece of literature during her lifetime: a series of poems titled the Lyrical Tales, published by Longman & Rees, in London. This poetry collection explored themes of domestic violence, misogyny, violence against destitute characters, and political oppression. “Robinson’s last work pleads for a recognition of the moral and rational worth of women: ‘Let me ask this plain and rational question,--as not woman a human being, gifted with all the feelings that inhabit the bosom of man?". Robinson's main objective was to respond to Lyrical Ballads written by authors Wordsworth and Coleridge; who were not as well known at the time.Although it was not as highly praised as May Wollstonecraft’s "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman", published in 1792, Lyrical Tales provides a “powerful critique of the division of duties and privileges between the sexes. It places Robinson firmly on the side of the ‘feminist’ thinkers or ‘modern’ philosophers of the 1790s, as one of the strong defenders of her sex".

Robinson was known as a sexualized celebrity, but she was a very talented writer. Robinson didn't receive recognition for her work until much later because of "strict attitudes led to a rejection of the literary work of such a notorious woman." She became a lesson to young girls about the dangers of promiscuity, and pleasure seeking. She was named by friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge "as a woman of undoubted genius." The collection of Poems published in 1791 had a "subscription list of 600 people was headed by His Royal Highness, George, Prince of Wales, and included many other members of the nobility. Some people subscribed because of her writing, some because of her notoriety, and some perhaps out of pity for the former actress, now crippled and ill. Reviews were generally kind, and noted traces in her poems of a sensibility that would later be termed Romanticism." Twenty years after her death the Poetical Works of The Late Mrs. Robinson was published in 1824, which speaks to her ongoing popularity. Robinson's second novel The Widow, and in her controversial comedy Nobody: A Comedy in Two Acts both of which, according to newspaper reports, offended fashionable women. Needless to say, Robinson's playwright career was short-lived after all the bad reviews of her play. The upper class interpreted her satire as mockery on female gambling and it was an attack on moral legitimacy of the Whig elite. The upper class interpretation of Nobody reveals a great deal about the social and political anxieties during the revolutionary era. Robinson's poems were popular, especially after she produced a variety of poems, while working at the newspaper the Morning Post. The poetry columns had a double agenda of pleasing a substantial and diverse audience and shaping them into a select group of elite readers eager to buy and consume books. The public adored the novel Vancenza; or The Dangers of Credulity, but the critical reception was mixed. Furthermore, a biographer Paula Byrne recently dismissed it as a “product of the vogue for Gothic fiction [that] now seems overblown to the point of absurdity.” Although, Robinson's poetry was more popular than her other works the most lucrative "was her prose. The money helped to support herself, her mother and daughter, and often Banastre Tarleton. Novels such as Vancenza (1792), The Widow (1794), Angelina (1796), and Walsingham (1797) went through multiple editions and were often translated into French and German. They owed part of their popularity to their suspected autobiographical elements. Even when her characters were placed in scenes of gothic horror, their views could be related to the experiences of their author." Mary Robinson was one of the first female celebrities of the modern era. She was scandalous, but on the other hand educated and able to be partially independent from her husband. She was one of the first women to enter the sphere of writing, and to be successful there. Scholars often argue that she used her celebrity and fame status only in her own advantage, but it has to be noted how much she contributed to the awareness of early feminism. She tried to ellaborate the ideas of equality for women in England during the late 18th century. Nevertheless, many contemporary women were not amused with how she exposed herself to the public and ostracized her. They did not want to be associated with her, since they feared to receive a bad reputation sympathizing with Mary Robinson.

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Mary “Perdita” Robinson's Timeline

November 27, 1757
Bristol, City of Bristol, England, United Kingdom
Age 16
Bristol, England
Age 20
December 26, 1800
Age 43