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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.

—MARTHA NOCHIMSON

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