Mary Darby was born on November 27, 1758, the third of five children born to John Darby and his wife Hester Seys. Her father deserted the family when Mary was seven, uncertain finances causing the struggling family to relocate frequently and Mary’s formal education to suffer. Eventually Mrs Darby starting her own school for young girls, and by her fourteenth birthday Mary was teaching at the school. Sadly, less than a year later during one of his brief returns to the family, Captain Darby forced the school’s closure, as he was entitled to do by English law.
Mary, just fifteen, was sent to a finishing school run by a Mrs. Hervey. While there, she was brought to the attention of famed actor David Garrick.
Garrick was delighted with everything I did. He would sometimes dance a minuet with me, sometimes request me to sing the favourite ballads of the day; but the circumstance which most pleased him was my tone of voice, which he frequently told me closely resembled that of his favourite Cibber.
Never shall I forget the enchanting hours which I passed in Mr. Garrick’s society; he appeared to me as one who possessed more power, both to awe and to attract, than any man I ever met with. His smile was fascinating, but he had at times a restless peevishness of tone which excessively affected his hearers; at least it affected me so that I never shall forget it. The Memoirs of Mary Robinson
Garrick proposed marriage, but Mrs. Darby and Mary (who was a beauty with several suitors) opted for another man with better prospects. Thomas Robinson, an articled clerk who claimed to have expectations from elderly relatives, married sixteen-year-old Mary on April 1774. It wasn’t long before discovering that Thomas Robinson was not wealthy nor gentle-born. Nevertheless, the couple lived in London beyond their means, gambling and socializing as their debts mounted. Demands from creditors ending up in a flight to Wales, where Mary’s only living daughter was born in November, before Thomas Robinson was imprisoned for debt. Mary and their daughter, Maria Elizabeth, lived in King’s Bench prison with him for over a year. It was during this time that Mary Robinson’s first volume of poems were published. Although the work made little money, she did attain the patronage of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.
After Thomas Robinson obtained his release from prison, Mary called upon Garrick and returned to the theater. She debuted as Juliet in 1776 at Drury Lane, and for the next four years acted in several roles. While her public acclaim increased with glowing reviews and better roles, the death of her second daughter Sophia at four months of age, and Mr. Robinson’s continued philandering and gambling brought personal sadness and difficulty.
In 1779 at the age of twenty-one, and already a veteran of the London stage, Mary performed as Perdita in Garrick’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It proved to be the turning point in Mary’s life. The Prince of Wales, then a mere seventeen, saw Mary as Perdita and determined to have her as his mistress. Dubbing himself “Florizel” the Prince aggressively pursued with hot letter exchanges, expensive gifts, money, and grand promises. Eventually Mary succumbed, and for the year their liaison lasted Mary’s public notoriety earned her a new social prominence. She became a trend-setter in London — introducing a loose, flowing muslin style of gown based upon Grecian statuary that became known as the Perdita — and her every move was reported in the gossip papers of the era.
“Fortune has again smiled on Perdita; on Sunday she sported an entire new phaeton, drawn by four chestnut-coloured ponies, with a postillion and servant in blue and silver liveries. The lady dashed into town through Hyde Park turnpike at four o’clock, dressed in blue great coat prettily trimmed in silver; a plume of feathers graced her hat, which even Alexander the Great might have prided himself in.” Morning Herald, June 12, 1781
When her relationship with the Prince of Wales ended, Mary Robinson was left in a difficult position. She had ruined her reputation and given up a promising career as an actress. The Prince had promised £20,000 provision for his ex-mistress, but he did not follow through. Her reputation already destroyed, and the Robinsons deeply in debt (largely due to her husband), Mary risked further scandal by demanding £25,000 or she would make public the letters the Prince wrote to her during their affair. She settled for £5,000, paid by George III “to get my son out of this shameful scrape.” In 1782, Mary obtained a further £500 annuity for herself, and a £200 annuity during the life of Maria Elizabeth.
Thereafter Mary lived separately from her husband, and had several love affairs, most notably with the Prince Regent’s emissary Lord Malden, and later Banastre Tarleton, a soldier who had distinguished himself fighting in the American Revolutionary War. Their relationship survived for the next fifteen years, through Tarleton’s rise in military rank and his concomitant political successes, through a miscarriage and various illnesses, through travels and relocations abroad, through financial vicissitudes, and the efforts of Tarleton’s own family to end the relationship.
In 1783, at the age of twenty-six, Mary suffered a mysterious illness that left her partially paralyzed. Biographer Paula Byrne speculates that a streptococcal infection resulting from a miscarriage led to a severe rheumatic fever that left her disabled for the rest of her life. It was during the 1780s that Mary returned to her writing, and became distinguished for her poetry and fiction prose.
By 1789 her relationship with Tarleton ended when he married another woman, an heiress named Susan Bertie. Undeterred, Mary flourished as a writer in the years following. In addition to poems she wrote six novels, two plays, a feminist treatise, and an autobiographical manuscript that was incomplete at the time of her death in 1800. Like her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft, she championed the Rights of Women and was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution.
In her final writings, Mary Robinson sought to describe and justify her life. She expressed her disillusionment with marriage in a work of social criticism, entitled A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799). Mary argued for the choice of a wife to leave her husband, as she had done years before.
Mary’s health became increasingly poor, and she died on December 26, 1800. Her daughter Maria Elizabeth edited and published the unfinished memoirs — Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herself, With Some Posthumous Pieces, 1801 — and a collected edition of her Poetical Works, 1806.
Though Mary Robinson’s reputation may have helped to sell her writing during her lifetime, it seriously limited her popularity after her death. From the Regency to the Victorian age, increasing strict attitudes led to a rejection of the literary work of such a notorious woman. After years of scholarly neglect, awareness of women writers is leading to the examination and re-evaluation of her work, particularly her later poetry. Additionally, her autobiography is of interest as a historical record of her life and the times in which she lived.
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