'Tis pity she's still an enigma

Perdita
September 2, 2005

The Mary Robinson of Paula Byrne's biography is a product of the gossip columns of her day. Robinson, an actress, royal mistress and writer whose heyday stretched through the 1780s and 1790s, was famous for being famous. Newspapers followed her every move, chronicling her romantic liaisons, public appearances, carriage accidents and travel plans.

In the past 15 years, Robinson has benefited from feminist interest in her literary career, but scholars (led by Robinson's previous biographers, Robert Bass and Martin Levy) have managed to turn up only a small stash of Robinson's letters, along with the manuscript remains of her published memoir.

This leaves Byrne with little access to Robinson's interior life and heavily dependant on second-hand, often untrustworthy accounts of her movements. The woman who emerges from Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson trailing streams of innuendo remains an enigma.

Byrne partially overcomes the paucity of correspondence and diaries by filling out the cultural contexts of epochal moments in her life, for example, the 1779 performance as Perdita in David Garrick's version of The Winter's Tale that precipitated her affair with the Prince of Wales. An adept theatre historian, Byrne helps us to imagine that notorious episode by describing the innovative nature of Robinson's costume, the special treatment afforded to her royal audience members (whose playbills were printed on satin), and the impact of Garrick's Shakespeare alterations.

Byrne is also good at reading Robinson's portraits. She detects how James Gillray appropriated George Romney's ethereal depiction of Robinson in his political caricature of Banastre Tarleton, the war hero who became Robinson's second most famous lover. In Gillray's version, Robinson is impaled on a long pole with legs spread apart and breast exposed, but her face, Byrne cleverly notes, mirrors the Romney portrait.

Byrne occasionally lapses into the kind of salacious speculation that fuelled the spurious letter collections that proliferated in the aftermath of Robinson's affair with the prince. Quoting a double-entendre-laden account of a debilitated Robinson, which alluded to Tarleton "loading and firing" at Robinson's house in Berkeley Square, Byrne tastelessly writes:

"Whether or not the paralysis of Mary's legs affected the process of Tarleton's loading and firing in her bed during the last years of their relationship will never be known."

To call Robinson "Perdita", Byrne rightly avows in a discussion of that name's deployment in political attacks on Charles Fox, "was to rank her among the courtesans, which was a gross injustice to her true status". What gets neglected when "Perdita" is allowed to dominate? Among other things, Robinson's relationship with her daughter, Maria Elizabeth, a shadowy figure who accompanied her mother as she fell in and out of love, debt and fashion.

In The Prince's Mistress , another new (and faster-paced) Robinson biography, Hester Davenport follows the trail of Maria Elizabeth and her companion Elizabeth Weale, turning up manuscript letters in the royal archives that poignantly suggest the daughter's vexed status in the aftermath of her mother's death.

For the casual reader, either new Robinson biography will serve as an entertaining introduction to the woman who managed to enthral Romantic-era readers with both her amorous exploits and her creative accomplishments.

Scholars, however, will want to read the two biographies in tandem since the authors find different ways to compensate for the excess of Robinson gossip and the lack of access to her private thoughts.

Judith Pascoe is associate professor of English, University of Iowa, US.

Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson

Author - Paula Byrne
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 477
Price - £20.00 and £7.99
ISBN - 0 00 716460 2 and 716459 9

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