Though her Memoirs are briefly sketched, they are sufficiently vivid to present us with various pictures of the social life of the period of which she was the centre. Now we find her at the Pantheon, with its coloured lamps and brilliant music, moving amidst a fashionable crowd, where large hoops and high feathers abounded, she herself dressed in a habit of pale pink satin trimmed with sable, attracting the attention of men of fashion. Again she is surrounded by friends at Vauxhall Gardens, and barely escapes from a cunning plot to abduct her–a plot in which loaded pistols and a waiting coach prominently figure; whilst on another occasion she is at Ranelagh, where, in the course of the evening, half a dozen gallants "evinced their attentions"; and ultimately she makes her first appearance as an actress on the stage of Drury Lane before a brilliant house, David Garrick, now retired, watching her from the orchestra, whilst she played Juliet in pink satin richly spangled with silver, her head ornamented with white feathers.
The fact of her becoming an actress brought about the turning-point in her life; it being whilst she played Perdita in The Winter's Tale before royalty that she attracted the Prince of Wales, afterwards George IV., who was then in his eighteenth year. The incidents which followed are so briefly treated in the Memoirs that explanations are necessary to those who would follow the story of her life.
The performance of the play in which the Prince saw her, probably for the first time, took place on the [Page ix] 3rd of December, 1779. It was not until some months later, during which the Prince and Perdita corresponded, that she consented to meet him at Kew, where his education was being continued and strict guard kept upon his conduct. During 1780 he urged his father to give him a commission in the army, but, dreading the liberty which would result from such a step, the King refused the request. It was, however, considered advisable to provide the Prince with a small separate establishment in a wing of Buckingham House; this arrangement taking place on the 1st of January, 1781.
Being now his own master, the Prince became a man about town, attended routs, masquerades, horseraces, identified himself with politicians detested by the King, set up an establishment for Mrs. Robinson, gambled, drank, and in a single year spent ten thousand pounds on clothes. He now openly appeared in the company of Perdita at places of public resort and amusement; she, magnificently dressed, driving a splendid equipage which had cost him nine hundred guineas, and surrounded by his friends. We read that–" To-day she was a paysanne with her straw hat tied at the back of her head. Yesterday she perhaps had been the dressed belle of Hyde Park, trimmed, powdered, patched, painted to the utmost power of rouge and white lead; to-morrow she would be the cravated Amazon of the riding house; but, be she what she might, the hats of the fashionable promenaders swept the ground as she passed." [Page x]
This life lasted about two years, when just as the Prince, on his coming of age, was about to take possession of Carlton House, to receive £30,000 from the nation towards paying his debts, and an annuity of £63,000, he absented himself from Perdita, leaving her in ignorance of the cause of his change, which was none other than an interest in Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott.
In the early fervour of his fancy he had assured Mrs. Robinson his love would remain unchangeable till death, and that he would prove unalterable to his Perdita through life. Moreover, his generosity being heated by passion, he gave her a bond promising to pay her £20,000 on his coming of age.
On the Prince separating from her, Perdita found herself some £7,000 in debt to tradespeople who became clamorous for their money, whereon she wrote to her royal lover, who paid her no heed; but presently she was visited by his friend, Charles James Fox, when she agreed to give up her bond in consideration of receiving an annuity of £500 a year.
She would now gladly have gone back to the stage, but that she feared the hostility of public opinion. Shortly after she went to Paris, and on her return to England devoted herself to literature. It was about this time she entered into relations with Colonel– afterwards Sir Banastre–Tarleton, who was born in the same year as herself, and had served in the American army from 1776 until the surrender of Yorktown, on which he returned to England. For [Page xi] many years he sat in Parliament as the representative of Liverpool, his native town; and in 1817 he gained the grade of Lieutenant-General, and was created a baronet. His friendship with Mrs. Robinson lasted some sixteen years.
It was whilst undertaking a journey on his behalf, at a time when he was in pecuniary difficulties, that she contracted the illness that resulted in her losing the active use of her lower limbs. This did not prevent her from working, and she poured out novels, poems, essays on the Condition of Women, and plays. A communication written by her to John Taylor, the proprietor of the Sun newspaper and author of various epilogues, prologues, songs, &c., gives a view of her life. This letter, now published for the first time, is contained in the famous Morrison collection of autograph letters, and is dated the 5th of October, 1794.
"I was really happy to receive your letter. Your silence gave me no small degree of uneasiness, and I began to think some demon had broken the links of that chain which I trust has united us in friendship for ever. Life is such a scene of trouble and disappointment that the sensible mind can ill endure the loss of any consolation that renders it supportable. How, then, can it be possible that we should resign, without a severe pang, the first of all human blessings, the friend we love ? Never give me reason again, I conjure you, to suppose you have wholly forgot me.
"Now I will impart to you a secret, which must not be revealed. I think that before the 10th of Decem-[Page xii] ber next I shall quit England for ever. My dear and valuable brother, who is now in Lancashire, wishes to persuade me, and the unkindness of the world tends not a little to forward his hopes. I have no relations in England except my darling girl, and, I fear, few friends. Yet, my dear Juan, I shall feel a very severe struggle in quitting those paths of fancy I have been childish enough to admire–false prospects. They have led me into the vain expectation that fame would attend my labours, and my country be my pride. How have I been treated ? I need only refer you to the critiques of last month, and you will acquit me of unreasonable instability. When I leave England– adieu to the muse for ever–I will never publish another line while I exist, and even those manuscripts now finished I WILL DESTROY.
"Perhaps this will be no loss to the world, yet I may regret the many fruitless hours I have employed to furnish occasions for malevolence and persecution.
"In every walk of life I have been equally unfortunate, but here shall end my complaints.
"I shall return to St. James's Place for a few days this month to meet my brother, who then goes to York for a very short time, and after his return (the end of November) I DEPART. This must be secret, for to my other misfortunes pecuniary derangement is not the least. Let common sense judge how I can subsist upon £500 a year, when my carriage (a necessary expense) alone costs me £200. My mental labours have failed through the dishonest conduct of [Page xiii] my publishers. My works have sold handsomely, but the profits have been theirs.
"Have I not reason to be disgusted when I see him to whom I ought to look for better fortune lavishing favours on unworthy objects, gratifying the avarice of ignorance and dulness, while I, who sacrificed reputation, an advantageous profession, friends, patronage, the brilliant hours of youth, and the conscious delight of correct conduct, am condemned to the scanty pittance bestowed on every indifferent page who holds up his ermined train of ceremony ?
"You will say, ' Why trouble me with all this ? ' I answer, ' Because when I am at peace you may be in possession of my real sentiments and defend my cause when I shall not have the power of doing it.'
"My comedy has been long in the hands of a manager, but whether it will ever be brought forward time must decide. You know, my dear friend, what sort of authors have lately been patronised by managers; their pieces ushered to public view, with all the advantages of splendour; yet I am obliged to wait two long years without a single hope that a trial would be granted. Oh, I am TIRED OF THE WORLD and all its mortifications. I promise you this shall close my chapters of complaints. Keep them, and remember how ill I have been treated. "
Eight days later she wrote to the same friend:
"In wretched spirits I wrote you last week a most melancholy letter. Your kind answer consoled me. The balsam of pure and disinterested friendship never [Page xiv] fails to cure the mind's sickness, particularly when it proceeds from disgust at the ingratitude of the world."
The play to which she referred was probably that mentioned in the sequel to her Memoirs, which was unhappily a failure. It is notable that the principal character in the farce was played by Mrs. Jordan, who was later to become the victim of a royal prince, who left her to die in poverty and exile.
The letter of another great actress, Sarah Siddons, written to John Taylor, shows kindness and compassion towards Perdita.
"I am very much obliged to Mrs. Robinson," says Mrs. Siddons, "for her polite attention in sending me her poems. Pray tell her so with my compliments. I hope the poor, charming woman has quite recovered from her fall. If she is half as amiable as her writings, I shall long for the possibility of being acquainted with her. I say the possibility, because one's whole life is one continual sacrifice of inclinations, which to indulge, however laudable or innocent, would draw down the malice and reproach of those prudent people who never do ill, ' but feed and sleep and do observances to the stale ritual of quaint ceremony.' The charming and beautiful Mrs. Robinson: I pity her from the bottom of my soul. "
Almost to the last she retained her beauty, and delighted in receiving her friends and learning from them news of the world in which she could no longer move. Reclining on her sofa in the little drawing-room of her house in St. James's Place she was the [Page xv] centre of a circle which comprised many of those who had surrounded her in the days of her brilliancy, amongst them being the Prince of Wales and his brother the Duke of York.
Possibly, for the former, memory lent her a charm which years had not utterly failed to dispel.
August, 1894. J. F. M.
[List of Plates]
From The Memoirs of Mary Robinson by Mary Darby Robinson & Mary Elizabeth Robinson, with an introduction and notes by J. Fitzgerald Molloy. London: Gibbings and Company, Ld., 1895.