An epistolary suffragette

Elizabeth Robins
February 16, 1996

This scholarly biography, drawing upon a wide range of sources including Elizabeth Robins's diaries, letters, drafts of novels and reviews, explores the ways in which Robins chose to present herself at different times throughout her life. Always elusive, she was aware of her own part in shaping others' views of her. In one diary entry she declared that she told "not a hundredth & I tell that little to remind myself of what I do not tell". Furthermore, she re-read her diaries, excising, burning and commenting on entries, as well as using them as sources for her fiction writing and memoirs. Such actions do not make the biographer's task an easy one. Wisely, Angela John attempts to present not the "real" Elizabeth Robins but, in these postmodern times, her shifting identities.

Born in Kentucky in 1862, Robins spent over two-thirds of her life in England. She began her career as an actress, and a brief marriage to an actor, George Parks, ended tragically when he committed suicide. Financial worries, his wife's rising stardom and their increasing estrangement all contributed to his depression. John also speculates as to whether Robins, who was tormented by fears of hereditary mental instability, had terminated a pregnancy against her husband's wishes and thus deepened his unhappiness.

In September 1888, Robins arrived back in London and began the most illustrious aspect of her career, as an actress, especially of Ibsen plays. Then, in November 1902, aged 40, she suddenly left the stage. Writing journalism and fiction, once a means of supplementing her income at the beginning of her acting career, had by now become a habit, and she increasingly devoted her time to such pursuits.

The fledgling actress who had once camouflaged herself as Clare Raimond in America reinvented herself as a fiction writer in Britain under the male nom de plume C. E. Raimond. Although novels such as The Magnetic North, a tale about rugged men in Alaska, were popular in their time, today Robins is mainly remembered as a feminist playwright and for her 1907 documentary novel of the struggle for women's suffrage, The Convert. She joined the militant Women's Social and Political Union, founded in 1903 by Emily Pankhurst and her eldest daughter, Christabel, and became a member of its central committee. Yet she always kept a careful distance from militant acts, preferring instead to incite others to "deeds, not words" by using her pen and writing essays such as "Sermons in stones".

John presents a detailed account of Robins's heterosexual history, including her supposedly epistolary affair with the future poet laureate, John Masefield. However, her networks and friendships with other women such as Octavia Wilberforce, a doctor with whom Robins shared a permanent home, in Sussex from 1920, are downplayed. In the early years of this friendship, it was the young aspiring medical student who depended on the older, glamorous figure. But as old age descended on Robins, the roles were reversed. She became rheumatic and had to do exercises to try to correct her increasingly humped back. Obsessive about "tidying" her life during her last years, she died in her 90th year, in 1952, leaving behind 102 packing cases of documents - as well as 25 black hats, all in perfect condition.

This meticulously researched book places Robins firmly within her social and cultural context. By skilfully weaving the social history of her time into the circumstances that Robins may have faced at any particular historical moment, John breaks away from the traditional literary account of a life and presents historical biography at its best. This book will be a rich source for scholars of women's history, biography and the theatre.

June Purvis is professor of sociology, University of Plymouth.

Elizabeth Robins: Staging a Life, 1862-1952

Author - Angela V. John
ISBN - 0 415 06112 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £25.00
Pages - 283

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