by Victoria Hinshaw
In 1781, Mary sat for a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, commissioned by the Prince. In this version of the painting in the Wallace Collection above (another is in the Royal Collection), Mary holds a miniature of the Prince in her right hand.
Mary had only a brief time in the limelight of the London demi-monde. Only a few year later, she was reported to be “desperately ill.” Various explanations for her condition have been suggested, but the causes of her maladies remain mysterious. In May of 1791, she published a book of poems, “a small but handsomely bound volume with marbeled end papers,” made possible by sums raised by 600 subscribers, including the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, the Duke of Clarence and many other luminaries.
In 2010, Kristine and Victoria, along with Kristine’s daughter, Brooke, visited with Hester Davenport in Windsor, here at the Castle.
Hester Davenport chronicles the reception Mary’s book received. Readers seem to ask, “How was it possible to connect the frivolous woman of 1780s gossip with a writer of pensive odes, elegies and sonnets?” That Mary acquired the title ‘The English Sappho,’ possibly at her own instigation, may have added to the this (seductive) sense of being wooed.
Mary lived only a few more years, dying in 1800, having never recovered her health. She had, however, continued to write poetry as well as her memoirs, several novels, plays and feminist essays.
As an endorsement of the value of her literary work, the painting of Mary Robinson by Hoppner, above, was acquired for the Chawton House Library, where it is displayed prominently. Many works by Mary Robinson are available from their website. Her biography is here.
We all hope that future scholars will pay attention to this fascinating woman and her body of work. In the epilogue of her biography, Hester Davnport writes, “Mary Robinson was dead: the talented actress, spectacular Cyprian, accomplished and industrious author, committed feminist and radical, charming and witty hostess, spendthrift, devoted daughter and mother, compassionate, sensitive and sometimes spikily difficult woman. A genius? Perhaps only in her extraordinary versatility, but not undeserving of the ‘One little laurel wreath,’ she craved.”