Mary Robinson

Portrait of Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson (née Darby) was an English poet, dramatist, actor, novelist and feminist. She was born in Bristol, England on 27th November 1757 and died in Englefield Green, Surrey, England on 26th December 1800 aged 43.

Major Works

“Vancenza; or the Dangers of Credulity” (1792)
Angelina – A novel” (1796)
“A Letter to the Women of England” (1798) 
“The Natural Daughter” (1799)

Biography Timeline

Mary Robinson (nee Darby) was born on 27th November 1757 in Bristol, England. Her father was Nicholas Darby, a sea captain and his wife was Hester, nee Vanacott from Somerset. Mary was baptised on 19th July 1758 as Polle or Polly at St Augustine’s Church in Bristol. She was educated at a school run by the social reformer Hannah More in Bristol. Her father deserted the family and took up with a mistress when Robinson was still a child. Her mother supported herself and her five children by setting up a school for young girls in Little Chelsea in London where Mary was to teach around the age of fourteen. Captain Darby later had the school closed as he did not approve.

1775: Short of money her mother encourages Mary to accept a proposal of marriage from a local legal clerk, Thomas Robinson who said he had an inheritance. Mary is not keen but goes along with it and marries him. Robinson finds out however that her husband does not have an inheritance and worse still lives extravagantly leaving them with debts. They leave for Talgarth in Breconshire in Wales and her only daughter Maria Elizabeth is born in November. They live at Tregunter Park but in time Thomas is arrested and imprisoned in the Fleet Prison in London for debts. Robinson lives with him in the prison with her daughter which is not unusual for the time. Here she realises she can write poetry for money and publishes her first work “Poems By Mrs. Robinson”. She also copies legal documents, earning money which should have gone to her husband but he refused to do the work. The book comes to the notice of several society people and Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire becomes her patron and sponsors her second work entitled “Captivity”.

1776: On release from Fleet prison, Robinson decides to launch an acting career. She plays Juliet in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Drury Lane Theatre in December.

1779: Hereafter she becomes known by the nickname “Perdita” after her role in “Florizel and Perdita” based on Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale”. The young Prince of Wales (Later King George the Fourth) sees her performance and starts an affair with her after offering her twenty thousand pounds to become his mistress. Emma, later to become Lady Hamilton (of Lord Nelson fame) is her dresser at the theatre at this point. Robinson now becomes a fashionable trendsetter about London although she bides her time before she actually leaves her husband.

1781: Sadly, the Prince of Wales ends the affair and refuses to pay the sum of money he promised. Robinson receives a small annuity from the crown but still tries to keep up her lifestyle as a celebrity. She has several other love affairs, in particular with the soldier Banastre Tarleton who had fought in the American War of Independence. Before him she had taken up with Lord Malden and he bets Tarleton that he could never take Mary away from him. Malden loses the bet and Mary and Tarleton continue a relationship for the next fifteen years. This again brings heart ache to Mary as Tarleton finally marries the heiress Susan Bertie, the illegitimate daughter of the fourth Duke of Ancaster. 

1783: She suffers a mysterious illness (probably an infection after a miscarriage) that leaves her partially paralysed. She continues writing poetry and from the late 1780s, she becomes known as “The English Sappho”.

1785: Her father Darby dies whilst in the Russian naval service.

1792: The first of her eight novels to be published is “Vancenza; or the Dangers of Credulity”. The gothic story of seduction is an immediate hit and sells out by lunch time on the first day. The critics, however, do not rate it.

1794: She writes “The Widow; or, A Picture of Modern Times” about manners in the fashionable world. This book is not as popular as “Vancenza”.

1796: She publishes the novel “Angelina”. This costs more money to produce than it brings in with sales. Besides poetry and novels, she writes feminist treatises and, like her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft, she champions the rights of women and was a supporter of the French Revolution. Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes her as “A woman of undoubted genius” and William Godwin his wife Mary Wollstonecraft are also great admirers.

1800: She takes over from Robert Southey as poetry editor of the Morning Post newspaper to which she has been a regular contributor for some years. She publishes “Lyrical Tales”. Her final months are ones of illness, poverty, mounting debts and depression.

Mary Robinson died on 26th December 1800 at Englefield Cottage, Englefield Green in Surrey, England. She is buried at St Peter and St Andrew’s Churchyard in Old Windsor, Berkshire, England. Her dying wish is for her daughter Maria to see the rest of her works published. These, as well as “Memoirs”, are published after her death.

Further Information

List of works by Mary Robinson.