Infamous Scribblers

women writers of the long eighteenth century

Performing Perdita: Lifestyles of the Infamous Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson was one hot and talented chick.


Mary Darby Robinson (1758 – 1800)

“I was delighted at the Play last Night, and was extremely moved by two scenes in it, especially as I was particularly interested in the appearance of the most beautiful Woman, that I ever beheld, who acted with such delicacy that she drew tears from my eyes.” —George, Prince of Wales

“There is not a woman in England so much talked of and so little known as Mrs. Robinson.” Morning Herald, April 23, 1784

“I am allowed the power of changing my form, as suits the observation of the moment.” —Mary Robinson, “The Sylphid”

When we think of Mary Robinson today, indeed if we think of her at all, we conjure images of the actress, the Prince’s mistress, the poet, the novelist. Yet this infamous celebrity was known in the eighteenth century by another sobriquet: Perdita. Becoming Perdita—the subject who would capture the heart of a prince, the love of a war hero, the respect of a politician, and the eyes of the beau monde—was not simply the work of one famous performance, but rather the reiteration of that phantasmatic performance and all the subversive, radical possibilities it embodied.


Infamous Exhibit A: Above is a satirical cartoon commenting on Robinson’s relationship with her younger beau, the Crown Prince of Wales. Notice how her bared breast is equated with the royal insignia on his chest.


While the drawing above suggests a relationship between gender, social status, and power (the dynamic, I suppose, between prince/politician and actress, men and women, etc), the artist’s rendering of Robinson and Prince George is surprisingly reminiscent of cross-dressing. This makes sense if we take into context that Perdita, Robinson’s famous role, involved a sort of class cross-dressing (a princess-in-disguise). More fascinating, however, is the fact that Robinson is so preoccupied with cross-dressing, whether it be while she played breeches roles (like Rosalind in As You Like It) on the stage, or while she wrote about it in novels like Walsingham.

My newest post is dedicated to Mary Robinson because of her deliciously infamous participation in the literary, theatrical, and political world, as an actress, playwright, poet, novelist, pamphlet writer, and a mistress. Yeah, she was awesome.

Good Reads:

Robinson, Mary. A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799).

—.Sappho and Phaon. In a Series of Legitimate Sonnets (1796).

—.Walsingham; or, the Pupil of Nature (1797).

Byrne, Paula. Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson. New York: Random House, 2006.

Mellor, Anne K. “Making an Exhibition of Her Self: Mary ‘Perdita’ Robinson and Nineteenth-Century Scripts of Female Sexuality.” Nineteenth Century Contexts 22 (2000): 271-304.

A Snippet from Sappho and Phaon:

Sonnet XI. Rejects the Influence of Reason

O! Reason! vaunted Sovreign of the mind!

Thou pompous vision with a sounding name!

Can’st thou, the soul’s rebellious passions tame!

Can’st thou in spells the vagrant fancy bind?

Ah, no! capricious as the wav’ring wind,

Are sighs of Love that dim thy boasted flame,

While Folly’s torch consumes the wreath of fame,

And Pleasure’s hands the sheaves of truth unbind.

Press’d by the storms of Fate, hope shrinks and dies;

Frenzy darts forth in mightiest ills array’d;

Around thy throne destructive tumults rise,

And hell-fraught jealousies, thy rights invade!

Then, what art thou? O! Idol of the wise!

A visionary theme!—a gorgeous shade!


About Rachel

Doctoral Candidate in Literature

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This entry was posted on March 11, 2013 by .

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