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Monday 14 July 2014

Mary Robinson - more than Perdita

Mary Robinson  from an engraving by Smith after Romney  in Memoirs of Mary Robinson (1895)
Mary Robinson
from an engraving by Smith after Romney
in Memoirs of Mary Robinson (1895)
Mary Robinson the writer

Mary ‘Perdita’ Robinson (1757-1800) was an actress who famously became the first mistress of George IV when he was still a teenager. But what is less well known today is that in addition to her beauty, her exalted lover and her success on the stage, Mary was a talented writer.

Early patronage

In 1775, Mary published her first volume of poems. She presented the Duchess of Devonshire with a copy, and in return, the Duchess was pleased to offer her support. A second volume of poems in 1777 was dedicated to her patroness.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire  from Posthumous memoirs of his own time  by NW Wraxall (1836)
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
from Posthumous memoirs of his own time
by NW Wraxall (1836)
Reinventing Mary

A severe illness in 1783 left Mary lame and she struggled with ill health for the rest of her life. The following year, Lister published his Memoirs of Perdita, a scandalous history of Mary's life that she was eager to contradict. She wanted to create a new persona for herself as a respectable person and not as the courtesan Perdita that the world labelled her. Her writing gave her that opportunity.

Mary’s obituary

On 14 July 1786, The Morning Post announced that Mrs Robinson, the once famous Perdita, had died a few days before in Paris. It printed an obituary that praised her beauty and person, but reminded its readers of her immoral relationships. Mary’s response was to write a witty letter declaring that she was alive and well, apart from her lameness, and implying that the details of her life were as fictional as her death.

The Della Cruscans

In 1788, Mary started writing poems under the pseudonym of Laura in response to Robert Merry’s Della Crusca in The World. The Della Cruscans favoured a flowery sort of poetry and included Hannah Cowley and Hester Theale amongst their number.

When The Oracle started up as a rival paper to The World, Mary became its regular poet, writing under the pseudonym Laura Maria. One poem of particular note was Insanity (1791) which Mary composed whilst drugged with opium to dull the pain of her illness. It was later renamed The Maniac.

Mary also wrote poems for The Morning Post and essays under the pseudonym The Sylphid.

The English Sappho

Mary published a deluxe anthology of her poems in 1791 with 600 subscribers. It was later republished as a cheaper volume as The Beauties of Mrs Robinson. It was generally well received by the critics and the Monthly Review labelled Mary “our English Sappho”a nickname that stuck.

Her final volume of poetryLyrical Taleswas published in 1800 shortly before her death. This included the poem The Mistletoea Christmas tale. You can read an excerpt from this poem in my blog about mistletoe here.


Mary wrote a number of novels of varying quality. Her first, Vancenza, or the Dangers of Credulity (1792) was a Gothic romance and included veiled references to the Prince of Wales. Her second novel, The Widow, or a Picture of Modern Times (1794), painted faro players in a bad light and was less popular.

Angelina (1796) was enthusiastically reviewed by Mary Wollstonecraft, but Hubert de Sevrac: A Romance of the Eighteenth Century (1796) was hastily written and was a rather poor Gothic novel.

Walsingham (1797) had a cross-dressed hero/heroine, The False Friend (1799) was full of feminist ideas and The Natural Daughter, with portraits of the Leadenhead Family (1799) was her most autobiographical novel but was poorly received because of its radical content.

Writing for the stage

Mary returned to the theatre, not to perform, but to write. However her major attempts did not meet with success. Her play, Nobody, written to showcase the comedic talents of Dora Jordan, but its anti-gambling undertones prompted hate mail to Mary and Dora and it failed after only three performances.

Mrs Jordan  from The Life of Mrs Jordan by J Boaden (1831)
Mrs Jordan
from The Life of Mrs Jordan by J Boaden (1831)
Another play, A Sicilian Lovera tragedywas greatly admired by the Duke of Leeds, but poorly received by everyone else.

She also wrote an opera for Sheridan called Kate of Aberdeen, but it was never performed.

Radical writings

Toward the end of her life, Mary became increasingly radical in her views, possibly influenced by such friends as William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.

In 1790, she wrote a poem Ainsi va le Monde, in support of the French revolution, inscribed to Robert Merry.

She also wrote anti-slavery poems and a feminist essayA Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799) under the pseudonym of Anne Frances Randall. In this essay she advocated the creation of a university for women.

Monodies and Memoirs

Mary wrote a monodya poem lamenting another’s deathin honour of her close friend Sir Joshua Reynolds who died in 1792 and another to the memory of Marie Antoinette in 1793.

Sir Joshua Reynolds  from The Literary Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds  ed Farington and Malone (1819)
Sir Joshua Reynolds
from The Literary Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds
ed Farington and Malone (1819)
Intense personal emotion also impelled her to write Stanzas written between Dover and Calais, July 24th 1792 inscribed to... which were dedicated to her lover Tarleton, when she thought they had separated irrevocably. The stanzas were set to music and became very popular.

Tarleton’s History of the Campaigns in Virginia and the Neighbouring Provinces (1787) was generally believed to have been written, at least in part, by Mary.

Mary also wrote her memoirsMemoirs of the Late Mrs Robinson written by herself (1801)which, though undeniably biased in her own favour, are one of the first examples of an English author writing an autobiography. They were published posthumously by her daughter.

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes faith-based Regency romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

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Sources used include:
Byrne, Paula, Perdita, the life of Mary Robinson (2004)
Levy, Martin J, Robinson, Mary (Perdita) (1756/8-1800) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn Jan 2008, accessed 2 July 2013)
Robinson, Mary, Memoirs of Mary Robinson "Perdita" from the edition edited by her daughter with intro & notes by J Fitzgerald Molloy (1895)
Robinson, Mrs Mary, The Poetical Works of the late Mrs Mary Robinson: including many pieces never before published (1806)


  1. Fantastic article - I first came across Perdita during my dissertation on the depiction of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire in portraiture and print. They were both fascinating characters. How I wish we could have met them!

  2. Great information.Thank you so much for sharing this information.