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Scandalous Facts About Mary Robinson, The English Sappho

Dancy Mason

Honestly, most women can only hope to be half the babe that Mary Robinson was. This royal mistress had one beautiful brain to go along with her busty figure, and she loved showing off both, indulging in poetry and publicity campaigns alike. Still, all beauty fades—though in Mary’s case, it plummeted down into one heartbreaking end.


Mary Robinson Facts

1. Her Childhood Seemed Perfect

Mary Robinson’s early life looked idyllic on the outside. Her father, Nicholas Darby, was a dashing Naval captain, and mother Hester doted on the young girl after giving birth to her on November 27, 1756.  The good-looking couple seemed warm and comfortable with their growing family…but in truth, they were rotting from the inside out.

2. She Had Abandonment Issues

When Mary was still just a child, her father dealt her a nasty betrayal. Captain Darby up and left the family to live with his mistress, completely deserting poor Hester and not bothering to send any money to support her or the children. When Hester begged Daddy to change his mind and come home, he staunchly refused. And then he really dug the knife in.

3. Her Father Was Cruel To Her

With no other way to make ends meet, Mary’s mother Hester started a school for girls in London, even employing Mary as a teacher there when her daughter started showing a quick mind and an easy character. It was all going so swimmingly…until Captain Darby swooped in to close down Mary’s mother’s school, just because he could.

Then, he left just as quickly as he’d reappeared. Dad of the year, this one. Sadly, worse was coming for Mary.

4. She Was A Legendary Beauty

There’s no two ways about it: Mary was stunningly beautiful. Even as a teenager, she had a long neck, wide eyes, and a plaintive face that drove men wild. Unfortunately, good looks or not, the poor scrappy girl didn’t have much in the way of prospects—yet the family knew that getting her married off was their best chance at prosperity. This led to some very bad decisions.

5. Her Mother Pushed Her To Marry

When Mary was only 15 years old, a middle-class clerk named Thomas Robinson came into her life. He seemed stable and unexciting, but he did have one secret weapon. Thomas claimed he had a vast inheritance coming down the pipes for the woman willing to wait it out. Mary’s mother was over the moon, and pushed her daughter to accept a proposal and a better life. As for Mary? Well…

6. She Had Dreams Of The Stage

Like any hot, mega smart girl who knew her worth, Mary (rightfully) thought she could do better than Thomas Robinson. Besides, at the time she was taking acting lessons and trying to get a stage career going, and having a man would only tie her down. Accordingly, Mary tried to convince her mother to reconsider the proposition…but fate had other plans.

7. She Was A Teenage Bride

Thomas Robinson could clearly sense that the young girl had major “ick” feelings about him, so he put his not-so considerable charms into overdrive and pulled out all the courtships stops. He even helped to take care of Mary’s younger siblings when she fell ill. Sadly, it worked: In the end, family duty won out and Mary reluctantly agreed to tie the knot. She would regret it almost instantly.

8. Her Husband Lied To Her

Just after Mary officially became Mrs. Robinson, her husband revealed his darkest secret. You know that big inheritance he banged on about? Yeah, well, he lied. He didn’t have a penny to his name, and he never would. So much for Mary’s whole “support the family” plan, except now she had a pesky ring on her finger. And then her husband’s other flaws started to show.

9. She Had A Horrific Marriage

As you’d expect from a guy who entraps a poor teenage girl into marriage, Thomas Robinson was a total sleaze. While he loved spending extravagantly, he also hated working, forcing Mary to try to make ends meet all by herself. As if that weren’t enough, Thomas flaunted multiple mistresses in front of his super-hot wife, as if to say, “You ain’t that great, honey.” And then the world dealt Mary another curveball.

10. She Was A Teen Mom

In 1774, when Mary was still just a 17-year-old child herself, she fell pregnant with Robinson’s baby and eventually gave birth to a daughter, the little Mary “Maria” Elizabeth. Did the miracle of birth make Thomas start becoming even a half-decent person? Um, no. He just kept on with his philandering and supreme laziness.

The good news here is: Thomas got his comeuppance. The bad news? He took Mary right down with him.

11. She Was Thrown Behind Bars

In the mid 1770s, Mary’s life unraveled before her eyes. Thomas got into so much debt that he was thrown into prison. Now, normally I’d be clapping here, but at the time, it was normal for wives to dutifully follow their husbands inside, which meant Mary and her six-month-old baby Maria were locked up right along with him. Ugh.

But this is where Mary rolled up her sleeves and made a darn name for herself.

12. She Earned A Powerful Ally

While they were behind bars, Thomas Robinson still refused to do any work even when people offered him jobs. However, Mary—a better woman than me—didn’t respond to this by actually committing a crime against her husband. No, instead she started publishing poetry to earn pocket change, and ended up with the powerful and fabulous Duchess Georgiana Cavendish as a patron. Then, quite suddenly, Mary moved from obscurity to infamy.

Keira Knightley as Georgina Cavendish in The Duchess.

13. She Was A Rising Star

In 1776, Mary Robinson and her no-good husband finally got out of the clinker, and she wasted no more time delaying her dreams. She struck up an acting career, playing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the famed Drury Lane Theatre in London. It was a date with destiny. Mary’s popularity exploded, and she became particularly famous for playing Shakespeare’s cross-dressing  “breeches parts.” Soon enough, she caught the attention of a very powerful man indeed…

14. A Prince Lusted After Her

One evening, Mary was treading the boards as Perdita in Florizel and Perdita, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. As it happened, the second most important person in all of England was in the audience: the future King George IV, then just the young and green Prince of Wales. No sooner did George look at Mary than he lusted—but Mary couldn’t have known just who and what she was dealing with.

King George IV

15. She Had A Bad Boy Lover

Although Prince George was just 17 years old the night he first set eyes on the 21-year-old Mary, he had already racked up quite the reputation for himself. A rake who loved drinking, gambling, and especially older women, George drove the royal family half crazy with his antics. So when he decided to seduce Mary Robinson, you can bet he stopped at nothing to get her.

16. She Got A Shocking Letter

The day after her fateful performance as Perdita, Mary Robinson received a letter at her door. Its contents were scandalous. In it, the Prince of Wales wrote passionately to the married actress of his ardor, begging her to become his mistress and make him the happiest cad in the world. He even signed it “Florizel,” AKA the fictional Perdita’s lover, for that extra lothario flourish.

Well, then he sent another letter, and another. At first, Mary was reluctant—after all, her track record with men was, uh, not great—until George made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.

17. She Accepted An Indecent Proposal

After his many courtly attempts to woo Mary Robinson proved futile, Prince George really brought out the royal big guns. Desperate to get the beautiful star into his bedchamber, George eventually promised her a whopping 20,000 pounds to be his mistress. Well, Mary hadn’t spent months in a debtors’ prison to say no to that, and she finally fell into his arms and separated from her no-good husband. But that didn’t mean it was smooth sailing.

A young King George IV

18. She Became An Overnight Sensation

In accepting the position as Prince George’s official sidepiece, Mary bit off way more than she could chew. A rising star of the stage before she met George, she was now an instant, overnight celebrity. Everyone in the press nicknamed her “Perdita” because of the way she had met the Prince of Wales, and the tabloids of the day were splashed with her image week after week. But rather than run from it, our girl leaned right in.

19. She Pulled Publicity Stunts

Mary Robinson was sharp and hard-working, and she knew an opportunity to flaunt what she had when she saw one. Although somewhat wary of the attention, she gave the people what they wanted, and soon became infamous for dressing herself up to the nines and taking very public rides around town in near-priceless carriages.

That’s right, Mary was doing the pap walk before it was even a thing. And she had more up her sleeve—literally.

20. She Started A Trend

Mary Robinson quickly became a trendsetter in English society, and she loved introducing the strait-laced British women to fanciful French styles. In 1781, designers even graced her name onto one of their designs, calling a flouncy “chip hat with a bow and pink ribbons” the “Perdita” after their fashionable muse. Robinson was flying high…yet all good things come to an end.

21. She Went Through A Horrific Split

Around 1780, after years of “servicing” George, the Prince of Wales hit her with a crushing blow. The rakish prince’s wandering eye eventually grew tired of Mary, and he unceremoniously dumped our girl to take up with yet another mistress. Now, this was already worthy of a girl’s night out and a man-bashing sesh, but then George had to go and make it so much worse.

Illustration merging King George IV and Mary Robinson

22. Her Breakup Turned Nasty

See, that whole “buttload of money” thing that Prince George had promised if Mary bedded him? It came with strings attached. Since he was still only the Prince of Wales and didn’t have access to the royal coffers, the money was just an “IOU” that George said he’d pay once he came of age and came into power. Except…he never did, and Mary never got her money. Instead, she had to get revenge.

23. She Made A Scandalous Threat

Prince George really was going to leave hot girl Mary Robinson high and dry, but he had forgotten one crucial thing. She still had all his steamy letters proving they had a dalliance. Naturally, the whip-smart girl threatened to use them against George—whose family would be none too happy—unless he coughed up at least some of the money he owed her.

Sweating through his shirt, the royal complied, giving her a tidy but incomplete sum. But do you think Mary Robinson stopped there? Ha, no.

24. She Got The Best Payback

After literally blackmailing the heir to the throne, Mary Robinson did one better; she got into bed with the enemy. According to some sources, Mary took up with the handsome politician Charles James Fox, who was one of the throne’s most outspoken critics at the time. It paid off tenfold: When the Prince of Wales came of age at 21, Fox helped negotiate a comfortable annuity for Mary.

In other words, Robinson’s revenge was now complete…but her infamy wasn’t over.

Charles James Fox

25. She Was Involved In A Kidnapping

Men were so gaga about Mary Robinson, they truly couldn’t control themselves; and even though gentlemen propositioned her constantly, Robinson didn’t always bite. One time, this turned dangerous. The former royal mistress once accused a man named George Fitzgerald of trying to bodily abduct her from Vauxhall to have his way with her. Yep, Mary actually had to beat them away with a stick.

26. She Took Up With A Killer

Although no one could have guessed it, Mary’s next move was somehow more scandalous than her royal affair. This stone cold vixen took up with Banastre Tarleton, a dashing soldier who was celebrated in England but utterly despised in America for his central role in the still-raging War of Independence. But it was how Tarleton and our heroine met that really takes the cake.

Banastre Tarleton

27. She Had A “She’s All That” Plot Twist

Just before she met Tarleton, Mary had been amusing herself with a man named Lord Malden, who was a rake and something of an arrogant gambler. In fact, Malden was so cocksure that Robinson loved him, he made a bet with his friends, Banastre Tarleton among them, that no one could seduce her away. Well, guess what? Banastre totally did. And then he did so much more.

Banastre Tarleton

28. She Found The Love Of Her Life

Mary Robinson’s time as royal mistress turned her into a celebrity, but it was her relationship with Tarleton that was the real love story. They were together for a whopping 15 years, which is especially impressive when you consider how dang hot, smart, and eligible Robinson was. Except, underneath the surface, their affair was less fairy tale, more Shakespearean tragedy.

29. She Had A Romeo And Juliet Story

Before long, Tarleton and Robinson were deeply in love, but they were doomed from the start. Just as they got together, Tarleton skyrocketed to fame for his military prowess, and his uppity, ambitious family deeply disapproved of his choice of mistress, believing he could (somehow) do better than Mary and trying to break them up constantly. Well, they didn’t need to hold their breath.

30. She Loved Bad Boys

In truth, although Banastre Tarleton was the love of her life, he wasn’t exactly good for Mary. Unsurprisingly, given the way they got together, Tarleton was an inveterate gambler. So even despite both of their notable talents and charms, the hot young couple always seemed to be short of money when it mattered most. This would have devastating consequences.

31. She Had Serious Trust Issues

In 1783, near the beginning of their affair, Mary became pregnant with Tarleton’s child. Her response was frightening. Not sure if she should trust her new spendthrift lover, Mary began to worry that Tarleton would abandon her and the unborn baby. So when she saw him leave the city, she made a rash decision she would rue for the rest of her life.

32. She Suffered An Immense Tragedy

Mary was never one to back down from a challenge, and she actually hopped in a carriage and pursued her lover through the night, hoping to convince him to reconsider, take her back, and start a family. Sadly, that’s not what happened at all. Instead, the exertion likely made her miscarry her baby. And Robinson’s nightmare wasn’t over.

33. She Went Through A Mysterious Illness

Shortly after experiencing her miscarriage, the 26-year-old Mary Robinson went through a bizarre ordeal that altered her entire being. A mysterious illness ravaged her body, leaving her partially paralyzed in her legs when she was still all too young. And while we still can’t be sure what the culprit was, historians do have a chilling suggestion.

34. She Met A Cruel Twist Of Fate

Mary Robinson’s biographer Paula Byrne believes that the cause of her paralysis was none other than her miscarriage of Tarleton’s child. Yeah, as if that whole debacle weren’t tragedy enough. In Byrne’s theory, Robinson’s miscarriage caused an infection that then turned into rheumatic fever, which rendered her permanently disabled.

35. She Was Desperate For A Cure

Robinson’s disability forced her to make drastic changes in her life. She was left so lame that she often had to get attendants to carry her in and out of her house and her carriage, and she spent vast sums of time and money traveling to health spas in Bath and Brighton in search of a cure. It never came—but that didn’t mean Mary was down and out. Yet.

36. Her Lover Made A Grand Gesture

Romantically enough, Tarleton didn’t abandon Robinson in her time of need—as she had very much feared—but stayed by her side and nursed her back to health. It was still, however, a fragile relationship. Tarleton’s celebrity was now in full force, while Mary’s public image was slowly waning, and they never had any more children. It led to a gut-wrenching end.

Banastre Tarleton

37. Her Relationship Came To A Heartbreaking End

In 1797, after more than a decade together, Tarleton dropped Mary like a hot potato. Although he had seen her best and worst years, their love wasn’t enough—for his wallet, that is. The newly promoted Major General gave up Robinson to marry the wealthy and much younger heiress Susan Bertie. Gee, thanks a lot. Yet if Banastre thought Mary wouldn’t get along without him, he was so, so wrong.

38. She Was “The English Sappho”

Mary Robinson’s lameness actually allowed her to focus in a new way on her writing, giving her more time to devote to the craft she had left by the wayside so long ago. The results were magnificent. Her poetry, novels, and other works were wildly popular, and she was reincarnated as a celebrity writer, earning the nickname “The English Sappho.”

But inevitably, literary circles always seem to bring about personal drama…

39. She Had A Girl Crush

One of the other great literary luminaries of Robinson’s day was Mary Wollstonecraft, the radical feminist writer and future mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Robinson deeply admired Wollstonecraft and, as they were both sharp, feminist celebrities, she thought they would be natural BFFs. She was super wrong about this.

Mary Wollstonecraft

40. Her Idol Hated Her

When Robinson finally met Wollstonecraft, she was in for a huge disappointment. Robinson may have been gaga about Wollstonecraft, but the feeling wasn’t mutual in the slightest. Wollstonecraft not only wrote a scathing review of one of Robinson’s works, she also felt that Robinson herself was “considerably less appealing” than her characters. Welp, there goes my fanfiction.

Mary Wollstonecraft

41. She Got Early Access To A Famous Text

Despite Wollstonecraft’s dislike of Robinson, our Mary did have friends in high places in the literary world. None other than the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called her one of his closest intimates, and he even showed her his most famous poem, “Kubla Khan,” long before he published it. Take that, Mary Wollstonecraft.

Believe me when I say, though, that this wasn’t enough to erase the tragedy of Robinson’s final years.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

42. She Had A Brutal Downfall

In the late 1700s, Mary’s life took a sharp turn for the worse. Although she was conscientious about her money and wrote diligently to pay her debts, her living expenses still far outstripped her income. After all, her disability forced her to keep an expensive carriage, and her no-good ex Prince George was never very timely with his annuity payments. It all led to a disturbing climax.

King George IV

43. She Became A Middle-Aged Convict

In 1800, when Mary was in her early 40s, her debts got so bad that she even found herself back in the debtors’ prison, this time all on her own steam. Obviously, somebody at the top still remembered her, because she managed to get herself released shortly after. Still, the stint could only have brought back terrifying memories—and her bad luck wasn’t over.

44. She Became Immortal

Like any good-time gal worth her salt, Mary Robinson loved to have her picture captured—in portraits, I mean. Her face was already famous all over England, but she immortalized her money-maker by sitting for renowned artists like Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. All the portraits show Robinson’s undeniable beauty, natch.

45. She Had One True Love

By all accounts, Mary Robinson was a devoted mother to her only daughter Maria. When the girl was still a baby, she doted on her and called her “[my] adored and affectionate secondself.” Mother and daughter remained close throughout their lives and, as we’ll see, Maria went to the ends of the Earth to do her daughterly duties.

46. She Had A Christmas Tragedy

The winter of 1800 was devastatingly difficult for Mary Robinson, whose health plummeted from “fragile” to “nonexistent.” It all crashed down in a tragic way. Just the day after Christmas, Robinson passed on at the still young age of 44, impoverished and nearly forgotten by the society who had once obsessed over her every move.

Somehow, though, that wasn’t even the most heartbreaking thing about Mary’s end.

47. Her Funeral Was Heartbreaking

Mary might have been beloved during the highs of her life, but most of her friends abandoned her during her lowest periods. In fact, her funeral was a somber and sparse affair. Only two people attended: the satirist John Wolcot and, ironically, her rival Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband, the writer William Godwin. Yet Mary Robinson did live on in one key way.

William Godwin

48. She Had A Final Wish

Just before she passed, Robinson had one last dying wish. She had been writing her own autobiography, which was an incredibly boss move for a woman at the time, since women weren’t supposed to do much to even write home about. When she felt herself slipping away, Robinson begged her daughter Maria to publish the manuscript after she was gone.

Maria dutifully accepted, and Memoirs came out just a few months after Mary passed.

49. She Had A Renaissance

In the end, Mary Robinson’s struggle for life and recognition was not in vain, although she would not live to see her second coming. Soon after her passing, her literary accomplishments fell into obscurity, but in recent years her works, particularly her essays on feminist thought, have come back into vogue again. Good on you, Mary.

50. Her Grave Holds A Secret

Although Mary’s burial was a Spartan affair, she may have taken a priceless keepsake with her to the grave. When she was still with Prince George, he gave her a miniature of his likeness. Mary, scorned ex that she was, never gave it back—and no one ever recovered from her belongings. Robinson’s biographer Hester Davenport believes the portrait is with her corpse to this day.

King George IV

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5


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