History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

05 February 2008

ALL FOR LOVE & what Mary Robinson did for it

Overnight she became a star. Over many nights she became a legend.

The amorous adventures of a celebrated English courtesan come to life in a novel rich with the pageantry of history—and with the notorious desires of the men and women who helped to define it.

Today marks the release of my fourth historical fiction title, ALL FOR LOVE: The Scandalous Life and Times of Royal Mistress Mary Robinson.

Narrated in Mary’s voice, the novel charts the steep rise and descent of one of the great celebrities of the 18th century, and yet Mary Robinson is little known to Americans. Yet she hobnobbed with so many luminaries of the Georgian era, which are “household names” to us: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, David Garrick, Thomas Gainsborough, Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and of course, her first lover, the teenage Prince of Wales, later George IV. All of these august personages figure as characters in ALL FOR LOVE.

Mary’s writings, so well known in her time, are scarcely taught in our high schools and universities, although I was delighted to meet a University of Pennsylvania English professor who not only teaches Mary’s work but has written about it himself from the academic’s perspective.

At only fifteen, Mary Robinson was married off to an unfaithful wastrel. During the next seven years, her spellbinding talent, beauty, and drive would lead her from the denigration of debtors’ prison to the London stages, where a star was born. With the heart of a poet and face of an angel she was sold as society’s darling. Though dubbed “the priestess of taste” for her dashing style, her unabashed exploits made her the queen of scandal, envied by women worldwide, and desired by every man within reach.

The future George IV

From Mary Robinson’s shocking affair with the Prince of Wales and the fortuitous liaisons that titillated the country, to heartbreaking betrayals and a restless pursuit of true romance, this breathtaking novel paints a vivid portrait of a woman who changed history by doing as she pleased—for money, for fame, for pleasure, and above all, for love.

John Dryden (1631-1700)

The title of my novel is taken from the 1677 drama about Antony and Cleopatra by John Dryden, the full title of which is ALL FOR LOVE—OR THE WORLD WELL LOST. Not only did Mary Robinson perform in that play during her career as the brightest light on the London stage in the 1770s, but the full title has such beautiful resonance to the story of her life. Although Mary played many of Shakespeare's heroines, numerous other classical roles and several leading parts written by contemporary playwrights, she was best known for the role in which she attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales--Perdita, the lost princess disguised as a shepherdess in Twelfth Night, or more accurately, in Garrick's reworking of the play, retitled Florizel and Perdita. "Perdita" literally means lost girl, which also describes Mary in many ways. Signing himself "Florizel," the prince wrote copious love letters to his Perdita.

Born between 1756 and 1758 (I settled on 1757) Mary’s early childhood was spent in an affluent merchant’s home in Bristol. But her father, Nicholas Darby, an adventurer as well as a dreadful businessman, turned out to be an adulterer as well, and abandoned his wife and their three children (one of Mary’s brothers died of smallpox a few years later) He returned from a failed venture in the North American fur trade, and took up residence in London with his mistress, expecting his wife Hester to fend for herself and her children. But when Hester, needing an income, opened a school, her estranged husband was scandalized. How dare she bring shame upon his name by working?!

Mary was one of the rare girls to have some formal schooling during the era. She attended the academy run by the More sisters in Bristol, and Hannah More, in her pre-evangelical years was one of Mary’s tutors. Mary displayed an early aptitude for acting and eventually won an audition for David Garrick, artistic director of the Drury Lane theatre.

David Garrick (1717-79)

But her theatrical debut was postponed by two events: a bout of smallpox, and her mother’s insistence that she marry well instead of pinning her hopes on a stage career. What happened next set the wheels in motion for the rest of her life, and I won’t give away all the dips and turns on its wild ride. Suffice it to say that every time Mary hit rock bottom, she courageously managed to reinvent herself and in each profession she tried, from acting to courtesanry, to writing (poetry, bestselling novels, plays, operas, and essays) to radical feminism. Off the bat, I can’t think of any women of our era who have managed to attain a zenith in so many careers, all while raising her only child, Maria Elizabeth, as a devoted single mother.

Mary died of illness in 1800 at the age of forty-three, having accomplished an extraordinary number of things, including a vast body of writing, during her short life. Sure, she had flaws—she was, after all, a real person. But she also impresses the heck out of me, I must admit. And I can’t help thinking what else she might have been able to achieve, had she spent more time on earth.

Had you ever heard of Mary Robinson before?

On Thursday I’ll talk about the challenges I faced during my research and writing.


Blogger Tracy Grant said...

How fascinating! Yes, I have heard of Mary Robinson and seen a portrait of her. I knew she was an actress, that she was referred to as "Perdita," that she was an earlier lover of the Prince of Wales, and that she was also a writer. But I didn't know too much more than that. I didn't know the extent of her writings (operas? did she write the librettos or compose as well?) and I confess I haven't read any of her writing (which is something I need to remedy). Amanda, what was the most surprising you think learned in researching 'All for the Love"?

9:14 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Same with me as Tracy. I probably first learned about her when I read about Dora Jordan. And I remember thinking that someone (not me) who understood what it's like to be an actor could write a wonderful novel about this woman. ;-}

9:41 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks for your comments, ladies! Mary did not compose, but she wrote librettos, some of which were rejected by her dear friend and one of her mentors, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, when he was running Drury Lane, which really cut her to the quick.

One thing that really surprised me during my research was how much of a hand writers had in getting themselves published, often paying for the privilege themselves -- which, with vanity presses these days being popular, hasn't changed much. I was amazed by "the more things change, the more they stay the same" element of her writing career; Mary's constant feeling that her publishers weren't doing enough to promote her, or were taking advantage of her financially. She challenged this anger into some of her novels. One of my favorite scenes is in "The Natural Daughter" where she has a character (a publisher/editor) named "Mr. Index" counsel the heroine, Mrs. Morley, (an actress-turned-writer) on how to pen a surefire bestseller: "Write with a lancet, not a pen. Cut your subject keenly." He tells her to fictionalize a real-life scandal, give it a provocative title -- and the readers will undoubtedly devour it.

What's changed? :)

Another "wow" moment I encountered during my research (and which also had to go into my book!) was from the same novel when Mary's avatar, Mrs. Morley exclaims "Of all the occupations which industry can pursue, those of literary toil are most fatiguing. That which seems to the vacant eye a mere playful amusement, is in reality an Herculean labor; and to compose a tolerable work is so difficult a task that the fastidiously severe should make the trial before they presume to condemn the humblest effort of imagination."

This struck home with me on such a deeply personal level. I wanted to shout it out to all the clueless, or just plain angry, people who have written so-called "peer" reviews on Amazon, and who have never themselves written a book and/or put themselves and the fruits of their own hard work and creativity out for the public consumption.

What we do, everyday, as writers, is an act of courage. Those who lob dung, yet are too timid themselves to dare to do what we do, are the cowards.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Love that quote, Amanda! It rings so true and shows how the way a writer's mind works is a constant across centuries.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Maggie Robinson said...

How can I resist a heroine named Robinson? This sounds like a must-read book to me. I've seen the portrait as "Perdita" (is it Reynolds?) but didn't know anything about the subject. Can't wait to find out more.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Hi, Maggie!

The portrait of Mary Robinson on my book cover is by John Hoppner, but she was also painted by Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Romney. The famous painting of her with a pastoral background and a hound at her side, holding the miniature portrait the Prince of Wales had given her of himself, which is often called the portrait of Perdita, is by Gainsborough. I'll have that portrait up on my follow-up post to this one on Thursday.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Dear Amanda,
This is absolutely fascinating! I first heard about Mary Robinson as a pre-teen, when I read Jean Plaidy's "Perdita's Prince". It's been years since I read the book, but I remember her portraying Mary as something of a ditzy lightweight, a flaky pretty face whose affair with the Prince was masterminded by her clever dressing woman (drat! what was her name? the one who later became the mistress of Charles James Fox). Makes me wonder what else those Plaidy books got wrong....

11:30 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Lauren,

Elizabeth Armitage was Charles James Fox's mistress and later his wife, but I don't think she was ever Mary Robinson's dresser. Although they may have run across one another while being courtesans. I haven't read, "Perdita's Prince" since high school either. It makes me wonder who her dresser was who became CJF's mistress.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Elizabeth Armistead was (possibly, but I ran with it, which is why it's called "historical FICTION") Mary's dresser when she was a star at Drury Lane. Betty had higher aspirations than the dressing room and did end up having a brief affair herself with the Prince of Wales (after she'd left the theatre) before taking up with Fox, and eventually marrying him. Such an incestuous bunch they all were, from the Devonshire Set to its fringes (that fringe would have encompassed Mary and Betty, since the 2 of them were hardly upper crust no matter who they slept with).

I never read the Jean Plaidy version, but as far as I could find, there's no historical record to prove that Elizabeth Armistead actually was Mary's dresser. Of course, for the purpose of storytelling, it's too irresistible a detail to ignore, which is why probably why Plaidy used it, too.

What did Plaidy get wrong? Just many of the facts. Mary was no flighty flibbertigibbet; she was smart, except in her choce of men, but how many of us proud-to-be-Ivy-League types have crap luck with men? Umm ... don't answer that. It took me all the way until 2006 to get the right-man-thing right.

Mary was a bluestocking of the first order, extremely well read, and about as well educated as a middle class girl could be, given the economic constraints her family eventually suffered. She also taught the younger girls when her mother opened the academy.

And the Prince definitely made the first move on Mary (through Viscount Malden). That's pretty well documented. Most dressers are Eve Harringtons (as Betty Armistead proved to be), eager for the Margo Channings to break their legs as soon as possible, and even in fiction I can't see a scheming dresser setting up the star with a prince.

Actually -- slightly OT, but I was a dresser at the Williamstown Theatre Festival for the summer right after I graduated from college. It was one of the responsibilities of the apprentices. Good thing I also got to act that summer. But it was such a "hardship" job (NOT!!!!) ... I was Christopher Reeve's dresser.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Margaret Evans Porter said...

I know Mary from reading her Memoirs and two fairly recent biographical studies, both of which sold very well in the UK. Theatrical and literary history from 1750-1820is an area of speciality for me, so I've studied her brief professional and literary career, especially the Della Cruscans. And I know her face from the many portraits that adorn galleries, espcially in London.

Needless to say, I'm very much looking forward to this novel, and reading a novelist's view of the fascinating Mary.

12:20 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Margaret, what do you think of the Della Cruscans and their style of poetry. I read everything Mary wrote in the Della Cruscan style and found it way too florid for contemporary tastes in poetry. Her poetry, after she abandoned her flirtation with the Della Cruscans, is much more accessible, I think, and also much better. And her later poetry, which inspired Wordsworth and Coleridge, really does break some of the 18th century poetic conventions in terms of subject as well as rhythm and metre and is quite "radical." I did include part of one of her poems, the one that inspired Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," so that readers could see how good she really was. But even Mary realized she was no Coleridge.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Margaret Evans Porter said...

I so agree with your assessment of her poetry. I'm not very keen on the Della Cruscans. But many of Mary's verses do have merit and attest to her great feeling and her talent.

It was a rare woman who could hold her own amidst the literary lions of the day.

3:04 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

You're so right, Margaret. And not only was Mary's poetry published in multiple periodicals, but she also became the poetry editor of a couple of them, and in some measure can be credited with "discovering" Coleridge. He was just starting out as a poet and submitted poetry to the paper where she was poetry editor and she really believed in his talent and recognized that he was pioneering a whole new style.

Mary was also a bestselling novelist. Her first novel sold out in hours! I've read the ones that I could find still in print, and they do tend to ramble, but they were romans a clef; she was the first to use elements of her own life experience and romantic relationships in her novels.

Still, I wish she were taught in colleges and universities today, for her poetry and because she really bridges a gap between the Fanny Burney type of book and the kind of novel Jane Austen wrote, although Mary was a contemporary of both women, and her writing, the seeds of what would become 19th c. romanticism, was influential on the writing of people like Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Austen.

5:42 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

What a fascinating character. I love reading about these women who "bucked the trends" of their time. And I definitely have a soft spot for courtesans.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

What always amazes me about these women, Doreen, is that all the things these women did and experienced, the relationships they had, the trends they bucked, as you say -- really happened! All sorts of things went through my head as I was researching and writing about them, phrases like "stranger than fiction" or "you can't make this stuff up" -- the rollercoaster lives they led, particularly Emma Hamilton and Mary Robinson, which mirror Cinderella stories in some places, five-act tragedies in others, lives that rival any fictional plot.

6:16 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Yes, Mary Robinson is something of a hero in the music world. I had heard of her, but I cannot wait to read your book! That ability to rise above, to reinvent oneself is the mark of a heroic woman. Too live life on your own terms and to live with the consequences and shine - the mark of an artist.

6:44 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Doglady, do you know anything about the people who composed the scores to the operas Mary Robinson wrote? I really didn't come across anything about them in my research.

I admire Mary so much for being able to reinvent herself, especially in the face of the kind of adversity and setbacks she suffered. To discuss them too much would be to give away the plot of ALL FOR LOVE, but I kept asking myself as I wrote the book, if I would have been as gutsy if I were faced with some of the same challenges she was.

Everybody ... thanks so much for your incredibly insightful comments. Please stop by again on Thursday to continue this really fascinating discussion.

8:03 PM  

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