Mary Robinson (née Darby; November 27, 1757 – December 26, 1800) was an English actress, poet, dramatist, novelist, and celebrity figure. She lived in England, in the cities of Bristol and London; she also lived in France and Germany for a time. She enjoyed poetry from the age of seven and started working, first as a teacher and then as actress, from the age of fourteen. She wrote many plays, poems and novels. She was a celebrity, gossiped about in newspapers, famous for her acting and writing. She was the first public mistress of King George IV while he was still Prince of Wales.
Mary Robinson was born in Bristol, England to Nicholas Darby, a naval captain, and his wife Hester (née Vanacott) who had married at Donyatt, Somerset, in 1749, and was baptised ‘Polle(y)’ (“Spelt ‘Polle’ in the official register and ‘Polly’ in the Bishop’s Transcript”) at St Augustine’s Church, Bristol, July 19, 1758, the entry noting that she was born November 27, 1756.
In her memoirs, Robinson gives her birth in 1758, but the year 1757 seems more likely according to recently published research. Her father deserted her mother and took a mistress when Robinson was still a child.
The family hoped for a reconciliation, but Captain Darby made it clear that this was not going to happen. Without the support of her husband, Hester Darby supported herself and the five children born of the marriage by starting a school for young girls in Little Chelsea, London, (where Robinson taught by her 14th birthday).
However, during one of his brief returns to the family, Captain Darby had the school closed (which he was entitled to do by English law). Darby died in the Russian naval service in 1785. Robinson, who at one point attended a school run by the social reformer Hannah More, came to the attention of actor David Garrick.
Hester Darby encouraged her daughter to accept the proposal of an articled clerk, Thomas Robinson, who claimed to have an inheritance. Mary was against this idea; however, after falling ill and watching him take care of her and her younger brother, she felt that she owed him, and she did not want to disappoint her mother who was pushing for the engagement.
After the early marriage, Robinson discovered her husband did not have an inheritance. He continued to live an elaborate lifestyle, however, and made no effort to hide multiple affairs. Subsequently, Mary supported their family. After her husband squandered their money, the couple fled to Talgarth, Breconshire (where Robinson’s only daughter, Mary Elizabeth, was born in November).
Here they lived in a fairly large estate, called Tregunter Park. Eventually her husband was imprisoned for debt in the Fleet Prison where she lived with him for many months. While it was common for the wives of prisoners to live with their husbands while indebted, children were usually sent to live with relatives to keep them away from the dangers of prison.
However, Robinson was deeply devoted to her daughter Maria, and when her husband was imprisoned, Robinson brought the 6-month-old baby with her.
It was in the Fleet Prison that Robinson’s literary career really began, as she found that she could publish poetry to earn money, and to give her an escape from the harsh reality that had become her life. Her first book, Poems By Mrs. Robinson, was published in 1775 by C. Parker.
Additionally, Robinson’s husband was offered work in the form of copying legal documents so he could try to pay back some of his debts, but he refused to do anything. Robinson, in an effort to keep the family together and to get back to normal life outside of prison, took the job instead, collecting the pay that her husband neglected to earn.
During this time, Mary Robinson found a patron in Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who sponsored the publication of Robinson’s second volume of poems, Captivity.
After her husband obtained his release from prison, Robinson decided to return to the theatre. She launched her acting career and took to the stage playing Juliet at Drury Lane Theatre in December 1776. Robinson was best known for her facility with the ‘breeches parts’, and her performances as Viola in William Shakespeare’sTwelfth Night and Rosalind in As You Like It won her extensive praise.
But she gained popularity with playing in Florizel and Perdita, an adaptation of Shakespeare, with the role of Perdita (heroine of The Winter’s Tale) in 1779. It was during this performance that she attracted the notice of the young Prince of Wales, later King George IV of the United Kingdom. He offered her twenty thousand pounds to become his mistress. During this time, the very young Emma, Lady Hamilton sometimes worked as her maid and dresser at the theatre.
She was the first public mistress of George, then Prince of Wales, and was catapulted into the stratosphere of celebrity, becoming even more popular and trend-setting. Sadly their affair ended in 1781, and Mary went on to become distinguished for her poetry.
Mary Robinson, who now lived separately from her husband, went on to have several love affairs, most notably with Banastre Tarleton, a soldier who had recently distinguished himself fighting in the American War of Independence. Prior to their relationship, Robinson had been having an affair with a man named Lord Malden.
According to one account, Malden and Tarleton were betting men, and Malden was so confident in Robinson’s loyalty to him, and believed that no man could ever take her from him. As such, he made a bet of a thousand guineas that none of the men in his circle could seduce her. Unfortunately for Malden, Tarleton accepted the bet and swooped in to not only seduce Robinson, but establish a relationship that would last the next 15 years.
This relationship, though rumoured to have started on a bet, saw Tarleton’s rise in military rank and his concomitant political successes, Mary’s own various illnesses, financial vicissitudes and the efforts of Tarleton’s own family to end the relationship. They had no children, although Robinson had a miscarriage.
However, in the end, Tarleton married Susan Bertie, an heiress and an illegitimate daughter of the young 4th Duke of Ancaster, and niece of his sisters Lady Willoughby de Eresby and Lady Cholmondeley. In 1783, Robinson suffered a mysterious illness that left her partially paralysed.
Lastly, in 1800, after years of failing health and decline into financial ruin, Robinson wrote her last piece of literature during her lifetime: a series of poems titled the Lyrical Tales, published by Longman & Rees, in London. This poetry collection explored themes of domestic violence, misogyny, violence against destitute characters, and political oppression.
Mary Robinson died on December 26, 1800.
Mary Robinson was one of the first female celebrities of the modern era. She was dubbed as scandalous, but on the other hand educated and able to be partially independent from her husband. She was one of the first women to enter the sphere of writing, and to be successful there. Scholars often argue that she used her celebrity status only in her own advantage, but it is to be noted how much she contributed to the awareness of early feminism.