Skip to main content

Robinson, Martha Harrison

ROBINSON, Martha Harrison

Born circa 1830s or 1840s; died death date unknown

Virtually nothing is known about Robinson's life. Helen Erskine (1870), her only book, is a good example of conventional 19th-century feminine fiction. It is escapist in nature, approaching the gothic at times, and contains that staple of ladies's fiction, the ward and her wealthy guardian.

Helen Erskine is written in the American Anglophile tradition; it curls up happily in a fantasy projection of English aristocracy. The main plot concerns the dutiful and stalwart Hugh Bolton's pursuit of the remarkable and equally honorable Helen Erskine. Hugh, in his late twenties, is legally related to Helen, a lass in her mid-twenties, but there is no blood connection. Helen's mother had been married to Hugh's uncle, but Helen was the result of her mother's first marriage. When Helen's stepfather, a Scottish laird, dies, he leaves his enormous holdings to Hugh. Hugh then becomes a variety of guardian to Helen's mother, Helen, and Helen's half-sister, Janet, the offspring of her mother's marriage to Hugh's uncle.

Hugh falls in love with Helen's stern rigorousness, but Helen cannot see the real motive for his offer to share his wealth and insists on working as a teacher to provide for herself. It is only after Hugh's attempted suicide (he throws himself from a cliff) that Helen agrees to marry him. Robinson writes with a prodigious range of vocabulary. Her prose plays over a richly colored rainbow of words and allusions. On occasion, Robinson uses interesting images; a particularly arresting sexual metaphor has an unknown masked cavalier getting his rapier tangled in the lace bedecking a luscious masked lady.

Robinson uses rather modern techniques to introduce the novel. She opens with an unmediated, entirely dramatized discussion of Hugh's virtues by two relatively minor characters. Without a word of direct commentary from the narrator, the main character is introduced and the moral tone of the novel is set. Perhaps Robinson's most interesting achievement is the creation of a strong, independent heroine who is chosen by the ideal man from among a bevy of passive conventional heroines. Helen exhibits, at least initially, the characteristics of the ideal liberated woman. She is intelligent, energetic, compassionate, dutiful, and courageous. After she has struggled to make her own way, however, Hugh nearly dies for her, and Helen admits her independence was really the sin of pride. In a larger way, the passivity of the privileged is also lionized—work, in this novel, is quite hateful. Robinson leaves us a novel highly charged with aristocratic romanticism and a subterranean streak of feminism.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Robinson, Martha Harrison." American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. . 20 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Robinson, Martha Harrison." American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. . (January 20, 2019).

"Robinson, Martha Harrison." American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. . Retrieved January 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.