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The Attempted Abduction, Original painting by B. Wesley Rand
Beaux & Belles of England:
Mrs. Mary Robinson
Written by Herself
With the Lives of the Duchesses of Gordon and Devonshire by Grace and Philip Wharton
London, EDITION DE LUXE
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION TO THE ORIGINAL EDITION
The following brief memoirs of a beautiful, engaging, and, in many respects, highly gifted woman require little in the way of introduction. While we may trace same little negative disingenuousness in the writer, in regard to a due admission of her own failings, sufficient of uncoloured matter of fact remains to show the exposed situation of an unprotected beauty—or, what is worse, of a female of great personal and natural attraction, exposed to the gaze of libertine rank and fashion, under the mere nominal guardianship of a neglectful and profligate husband. Autobiography of this class is sometimes dangerous; not so that of Mrs. Robinson, who conceals not the thorns inherent in the paths along which vice externally scatters roses; For the rest, the arrangement of princely establishments in the way of amour is pleasantly portrayed in this brief volume, which in many respects is not without its moral. One at least is sufficiently obvious, and it will be found in the cold-hearted neglect which a woman of the most fascinating mental and personal attractions may encounter from those whose homage is merely sensual, and whose admiration is but a snare.
The author of these memoirs, Mary Robinson, was one of the most prominent and eminently beautiful women of her day. From the description she furnishes of her personal appearance, we gather that her complexion was dark, her eyes large, her features expressive of melancholy; and this verbal sketch corresponds with her portrait, which presents a face at once grave, refined, and charming. Her beauty, indeed, was such as to attract, amongst others, the attentions of Lords Lyttelton and Northington, Fighting Fitzgerald, Captain Ayscough, and finally the Prince of Wales; whilst her talents and conversation secured her the friendship and interest of David Garrick, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Charles James Fox, Joshua Reynolds, Arthur Murphy, the dramatist, and various other men of distinguished talent.
Though her memoirs are briefly sketched, they are sufficiently vivid to present us with various pictures of the social life of the period of which she was the centre. Now we find her at the Pantheon, with its coloured lamps and brilliant music, moving amidst a fashionable crowd, where large hoops and high feathers abounded, she herself dressed in a habit of pale pink satin trimmed with sable, attracting the attention of men of fashion. Again she is surrounded by friends at Vauxhall Gardens, and barely escapes from a cunning plot to abduct her,—a plot in which loaded pistols and a waiting coach prominently figure; whilst on another occasion she is at Ranelagh, where, in the course of the evening, half a dozen gallants “evinced their attentions;” and ultimately she makes her first appearance as an actress on the stage of Drury Lane, before a brilliant house, David Garrick, now retired, watching her from the orchestra, whilst she played Juliet in pink satin richly spangled with silver, her head ornamented with white feathers.
The fact of her becoming an actress brought about the turning-point in her life; it being whilst she played Perdita in “The Winter’s Tale” before royalty that she attracted the Prince of Wales, afterward George IV., who was then in his eighteenth year. The incidents which follow are so briefly treated in the memoirs that explanations are necessary to those who would follow the story of her life.
The performance of the play in which the prince saw her, probably for the first time, took place on the 3d of December, 1779. It was not until some months later, during which the prince and Perdita corresponded, that she consented to meet him at Kew, where his education was being continued and strict guard kept upon his conduct. During 1780 he urged his father to give him a commission in the army, but, dreading the liberty which would result from such a step, the king refused the request. It was, however, considered advisable to provide the prince with a small separate establishment in a wing of Buckingham House; this arrangement taking place On the 1st of January, 1781.
Being now his own master, the prince became a man about town, attended routs, masquerades, horse-races, identified himself with politicians detested by the king, set up an establishment for Mrs. Robinson, gambled, drank, and in a single year spent ten thousand pounds on clothes. He now openly appeared in the company of Perdita at places of public resort and amusement; she, magnificently dressed, driving a splendid equipage which had cost him nine hundred guineas, and surrounded by his friends. We read that: “To-day she was a paysanne, with her straw hat tied at the back of her head. Yesterday she perhaps had been the dressed belle of Hyde Park, trimmed, powdered, patched, painted to the utmost power of rouge and white lead; to-morrow she would be the cravated Amazon of the riding-house; but, be she what she might, the hats of the fashionable promenaders swept the ground as she passed.”
This life lasted about two years, when, just as the prince, on his coming of age, was about to take possession of Carlton House, to receive £30,000 from the nation toward paying his debts, and an annuity of £63,000, he absented himself from Perdita, leaving her in ignorance of the cause of his change, which was none other than an interest in Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott.
In the early fervour of his fancy, he had assured Mrs. Robinson his love would remain unchangeable till death, and that he would prove unalterable to his Perdita through life. Moreover, his generosity being heated by passion, he gave her a bond promising to pay her £20,000 on his coming of age.
On the prince separating from her, Perdita found herself some £7,000 in debt to tradespeople, who became clamorous for their money, whereon she wrote to her royal lover, who paid her no heed; but presently she was visited by his friend, Charles James Fox, when she agreed to give up her bond in consideration of receiving an annuity of £500 a year.
She would now gladly have gone back to the stage, but that she feared the hostility of public opinion. Shortly after, she went to Paris, and on her return to England devoted herself to literature. It was about this time she entered into relations with Colonel—afterward Sir Banastre—Tarleton, who was born in the same year as herself, and had served in the American army from 1776 until the surrender of Yorktown, on which he returned to England. For many years he sat in Parliament as the representative of Liverpool, his native town; and in 1817 he gained the grade of lieutenant-general, and was created a baronet. His friendship with Mrs. Robinson lasted some sixteen years.
It was whilst undertaking a journey on his behalf, at a time when he was in pecuniary difficulties, that she contracted the illness that resulted in her losing the active use of her lower limbs. This did not prevent her from working, and she poured out novels, poems, essays on the condition of women, and plays. A communication written by her to John Taylor, the proprietor of the Sun newspaper and author of various epilogues, prologues, songs, etc., gives a view of her life. This letter, now published for the first time, is contained in the famous Morrison collection of autograph letters, and is dated the 5th of October, 1794.
“I was really happy to receive your letter. Your silence gave me no small degree of uneasiness, and I began to think some demon had broken the links of that chain which I trust has united us in friendship for ever. Life is such a scene of trouble and disappointment that the sensible mind can ill endure the loss of any consolation that renders it supportable. How, then, can it be possible that we should resign, without a severe pang, the first of all human blessings, the friend we love? Never give me reason again, I conjure you, to suppose you have wholly forgot me.
“Now I will impart to you a secret, which must not be revealed. I think that before the 10th of December next I shall quit England for ever. My dear and valuable brother, who is now in Lancashire, wishes to persuade me, and the unkindness of the world tends not a little to forward his hopes. I have no relations in England except my darling girl, and, I fear, few friends. Yet, my dear Juan, I shall feel a very severe struggle in quitting those paths of fancy I have been childish enough to admire,—false prospects. They have led me into the vain expectation that fame would attend my labours, and my country be my pride. How have I been treated? I need only refer you to the critiques of last month, and you will acquit me of unreasonable instability. When I leave England,—adieu to the muse for ever,—I will never publish another line while I exist, and even those manuscripts now finished I will destroy.
“Perhaps this will be no loss to the world, yet I may regret the many fruitless hours I have employed to furnish occasions for malevolence and persecution.
“In every walk of life I have been equally unfortunate, but here shall end my complaints.