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Robinson, Mary (1758–1800)

Robinson, Mary (1758–1800)

English actress, author, and mistress of King George IV of England. Name variations: Perdita Robinson; Mrs. Robinson; (pseudonym) Anne Frances Randall. Born Mary Darby of Irish descent in Bristol, England, on November 27, 1758; died in Windsor Park, Berkshire, on December 26, 1800; daughter of a whaling captain named Darby; mother's maiden name was Seys; married Thomas Robinson (a clerk in London), in 1774; children: Mary Elizabeth Robinson (b. around 1775); another daughter who died in infancy.

Born in 1758, Mary Robinson was the daughter of an Irish whaling-ship captain who abandoned his family to set up a factory in Labrador. In 1774, she married Thomas Robinson, a clerk in London, where her stunning beauty brought her to the attention of London society. Thomas was arrested for debt the following year, and Mary shared his imprisonment with their young daughter. Gifted as a child, she had been encouraged to write verses and completed the collection Poems while in King's Bench prison. It was published in two volumes in 1775.

Following her release, David Garrick, who earlier had been struck by her looks, offered Mary an engagement at Drury Lane. She made a successful debut as Juliet in 1776, and continued to act at Drury Lane for several years. On December 3, 1779, Robinson opened in the role of Perdita in Garrick's version of The Winter's Tale. Her beauty so captivated the 18-year-old George, prince of Wales (later King George IV), that he began a correspondence with her, signing his letters "Florizel." Robinson rejected her suitor, and his promise of £21,000 when he turned 21, until she arrived home earlier than usual to find her husband in bed with one of their maids. For about two years, Robinson was mistress to the prince; then he deserted her, dishonoring his bond for £21,000 (though she agreed to return his love letters for £5,000 down, £500 per annum). Owing to the hostility of public opinion because of the affair, she feared a return to the stage. Instead she had relationships with several well-known men, including Colonel Banastre Tarleton, later a member of Parliament from Liverpool (with whom she was involved until 1798), and turned to writing.

Robinson published several collections of poetry, among them Sight: The Cavern of Woe and Solitude (1793) and The Sicilian Lover: A Tragedy (1796), and was a member of the Della Cruscan poets' circle, along with Hester Lynch Piozzi and Hannah Cowley . She also published a number of novels, including Vancenza (1792), The Widow (1794), Hubert de Sevrac (1796), Walsingham (1796), and The Natural Daughter (1799), which the public bought eagerly because of the scandal attached to her name. Robinson counted among her friends Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, and in 1799, under the pseudonym Anne Frances Randall, published a book about marriage called A Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination. Partially paralyzed as the result of an earlier miscarriage, and suffering from ill health in her later years, Robinson died in 1800, at age 42, without finishing her memoirs. These were edited by her daughter Mary Elizabeth Robinson and published the following year. There are numerous portraits of Robinson from her years as an actress, including those by Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hoppner, Richard Cosway, and George Romney.

suggested reading:

Robinson, Mary. Memoirs of Mrs. Robinson. 4 vols., Richard Phillips, 1801 (new edition, edited and with an introduction by Martin J. Levy, published as Perdita: The Memoirs of Mary Robinson, Dufour, 1995).

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