Robinson, Mary née Darby, 1758—1800
by Benjamin Colbert
Mary Robinson, née Darby, was probably born on 27 November 1758 at Bristol, although Levy identifies a competing baptismal record of 1756. She was the daughter of Nicholas Darby (c. 1720-1785), ship's captain and merchant, and Hester Vanacott (c. 1725-1793).
Robinson’s early education at a school run by Hannah More’s sisters in Bristol was interrupted after her father’s near bankruptcy in a Labradorean fishing scheme. The family moved to London where Robinson continued her education sporadically and developed early talents for composing verse. Her circles widened when she came to the attention of David Garrick and began preparing for a theatrical career. Hardly 14, she was courted by and married Thomas Robinson (d. 1802), an illegitimate son posing as heir of a wealthy uncle, frequently in debt. Her first book, Poems (1775), was published while sharing quarters with him in debtors’ prison.
Robinson’s acting career lasted from 1777 to 1780, the last year of which was overshadowed by her liaison with George, Prince of Wales, who fell for her in her role as Perdita in The Winter’s Tale (3 Dec. 1779). Public notoriety followed their break up, not lessened by Robinson’s subsequent affairs with Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a debt-ridden former military officer on half-pay, and Charles James Fox. Back with Tarleton, Robinson suffered from complications following a miscarriage in 1783 (possibly a paralytic stroke and chronic rheumatism) that rendered her disabled for the remainder of her life. During the 1780s, Robinson sought at various times refuge and recovery in Paris and the south of France, often eluding Tarleton’s creditors.
In the 1790s, partly out of financial necessity, Robinson published prolifically, including volumes of poetry, novels, non-fiction, and magazine verse. Under various pseudonyms, she participated in poetic dialogues with the Della Cruscan poets, John Wolcot (aka ‘Peter Pindar, Esq.’), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey; other friends included William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Her contribution to travel writing came at the extreme end of her career as her health was failing. As her daughter and posthumous memoirist puts it, ‘in the month of August , she began and concluded, in the course of ten days, a translation of Dr. Hager’s “Picture of Palermo;” an exertion by which she was greatly debilitated’ (Memoirs 2: 155). She died on 26 December 1800.
Levy, Martin J. ‘Robinson [née Darby], Mary [Perdita] (1756/58?-1800). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sept. 2004. Web. 17 Dec. 2020. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/23857
Pascoe, Judith. Introduction. Selected Poems: Mary Robinson. Ed. Pascoe. Peterborough: Broadview, 1999. Print.
Robinson, Mary, and Maria Elizabeth Robinson. Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herself. 4 vols. London: R. Phillips, 1801. Print.
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