History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 February 2008

ALL FOR LOVE, Part Deux: Researching Mrs. Robinson

Call it synchronicity. A few years ago, U.K. publishers brought out three biographies of Mary Robinson within about 18 months of each other, each with its own perspective on Mrs. Robinson’s life. One of them was reviewed in The New York Times, and sparked my interest in the woman known during an entire era as “Perdita.”

I hadn’t heard of Mary Robinson before that. And the sad fact is, that most Americans still don’t know who she was, and in many ways, Mary, for all her flaws (because, as I have to remind readers, she was a human being, not a fictional character) is a role model for women’s empowerment; a feminist before the word was coined. But I have to confess that I was initially drawn to Mary because, like me, she was a redheaded actress turned author.

I read the trio of Mary Robinson biographies, as well as her own very slanted, half-finished memoirs (hey, if you were a huge celebrity telling your own story, you’d make yourself look as saintly as possible in the face of criticism, wouldn’t you). And what I came away with—which is what made me want to give Mary her own place in the sun in the pantheon of popular historical fiction—was that she was an incredible survivor in a world where men called the shots. And she learned the hard way that a girl could never count on a man to be her protector (starting with her father, who definitely fell down on the job)—despite the fact that those were the roles her society had assigned to males and females.

1781 portrait of Mary Robinson by Thomas Gainsborough

Mary Robinson was the rare 18th-century woman to earn her own living at all—and to do so through her art. Honestly, how many women these days are supporting themselves and their kid(s) by doing what they really love to do? And how many of them are in the arts? It’s still not easy for most of us.

When my editor bought the book, she gave me a sort of mental pie-chart to consider, its variously sized “slices” corresponding to the amount of focus she wanted me to devote to the different aspects of Mary’s life, which is why the book has been constructed the way it has. As a reader I sometimes wonder why an author did something; so from the other side of the computer, this research post allows me to share what transpired behind the scenes during the writing process of All For Love.

As I delved deeper into my research, I discovered a couple of challenges. Mary became a celebrated poet (and bestselling novelist) and I wanted to include some of her actual writing in my novel, because what’s the point of writing about a woman who became a famous writer without including any of what made her so? But the more I read of Mary’s poetry, and I read almost everything she ever wrote that saw the light of day, I realized that it’s something of an acquired taste for a 21st century audience. Also, my editor feared that I might alienate the readers with too much poetry, or that it might bring the narrative to a halt, so I had to cherry-pick what to use, and I did choose verses that are more accessible to contemporary readers.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97; portrait by John Opie)

Mary Robinson became a friend of Mary Wollestonecraft and her husband William Godwin, and took up the “feminist” banner after Wollestonecraft’s death, writing her “Letter to the Women of England,” which is a remarkable treatise in and of itself. But knowing that Mary had in her youth been a celebrated Shakespearean actress and that she (as I do) applied techniques she learned as an actress to her writing, I had to include some of it when I noticed echoes of Shakespeare in that essay. When Mary posited “Is not woman a human being, gifted with all the feelings that inhabit the bosom of man? Has not woman affections, susceptibility, fortitude, and an acute sense of injuries received? Does she not shrink at the touch of persecution? Does not her bosom melt with sympathy, throb with pity, glow with resentment, ache with sensibility, and burn with indignation?” you can just hear Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes…?” speech from The Merchant of Venice.

Another challenge I faced was how to portray the "Green Dragoon" -- the military hero Col. Banastre Tarleton, who was Mary’s lover of fifteen years. Tarleton was no hero to Americans, and although my characters and location are English, our publishers skew their historical fiction titles to American readers. But I was writing from Mary’s POV in a first-person narrative. She saw him as a hero, not as “Butcher Tarleton” and or “Bloody Tarleton,” or “the scourge of the Carolinas” as he was known in the colonies. As the author, I was cheering when during the Revolutionary War (ours) he made an utter cock-up at Waxhaws and the tide turned in the colonists’ favor. Yet Mary was obviously on King George’s side of the conflict.

Banastre Tarleton (1754-1833; portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Tarleton came from a prominent political family in Liverpool, a port city that played a major role in the slave trade to the West Indies. The Tarletons themselves had been enriched by it. Mary harbored Quaker sensibilities, although she was technically an Anglican. As a famous poet, she wrote stirring verses that “humanized” the Africans and she favored abolition. But her heart had been captured by the man who vociferously defended the slave trade in Parliament. Tarleton’s debates with William Wilberforce have been well chronicled. And Mary ghost-wrote many of her lover’s speeches espousing a subject that she herself found abhorrent.

As an author, I had to square the debate between Mary’s heart and her brain, and what it cost her emotionally to write those speeches, especially for a man who blew hot and cold and treated her poorly as often as he was passionate about her. I constantly reminded myself that Mary was a real person; that she actually did these things. Why? This was one instance where I applied my theatre training and as I was “playing” the role of Mary by writing the novel in her voice, I looked for my/her motivation.

It goes back to the title of the novel. Mary violated her own conscience for love; Tarleton was her drug and she couldn’t do without that fix. Sad to say it, but I identified in a big way with a woman whose lover’s politics are the polar opposite of hers, but the passion (when the man finds the wherewithal to display it) is so intense (and, okay, the sex too amazing) to be clearheaded about a lot of the things that are wrong with the relationship. Destructive or not, it’s all-too-human behavior. Been there, done that, disposed of the corset.

I can’t end this post without a little sidebar about Hollywood’s version of Banastre Tarleton, in the interest of verisimilitude. I really hate it when they do this. If you saw the film Amazing Grace, you would have seen Ciaran Hinds cast as “Lord Tarleton,” debating an astonishingly sexy Wilberforce (which in itself is romantic casting). Tarleton was in fact a prominent MP—in the House of Commons. He never was a lord. Hinds’s Tarleton is also missing the wrong two fingers from his right hand, which the character says he lost in Virginia (the battle in which he lost them actually took place in South Carolina). Hinds also didn’t use a Liverpudlian accent. They’re details, and grant it, most American filmgoers haven’t a clue who Banastre Tarleton was, and for that reason the goofs wouldn’t bother them; but in a multi-million-dollar production (and as long as the screenwriters had to research the guy anyway to put him in the film), why not get those details right?

Believe it or not, Tarleton was more accurately depicted in a totally fictional version of the character. Loosely based on Banastre Tarleton, Col. William Tavington, the villain of Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, played to handsome, sneering perfection by Jason Isaacs, both looked a lot like Tarleton, and behaved just as ruthlessly in battle.
I'm always surprised that in the recent and current Hollywoodization of so many stories ripped from the pages of 18th and 19th century novels and turned into costume dramas, that there haven't been more biopics of some of the amazing women who lived during that era. Emma Hamilton's story hasn't been told since Olivier and Leigh steamed up the silver screen in That Hamilton Woman in 1941, and the studio highly truncated and sanitized it. Mary Robinson's life also took enough dramatic twists and turns to qualify her for celluloid as well, but it hasn't happened yet.
However ... Keira Knightly heads the cast in a film being made about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; and there was the recent Miss Austen Regrets and Becoming Jane. Female filmlovers flock to these kind of movies. With all the commercial success that these movies achieve, do you wonder why more real-life stories from the Georgian and Regency eras haven't made it to film, or do you think the tide is turning?


Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Interesting questions, Amanda, and fascinating subject. As you suggest, it may be difficult for an American audience to figure out who the "good guys" are here, because there are so points of contention, so many different sides to be on, so many progressive initiatives and so many horrors -- how does one, for example, parse the new, slaveholding American republic?

For me, one of the most interesting movies made about this period was the Merchant/Ivory Jefferson in Paris, taking place before and after the storming of the Bastille. And no, I was never a Merchant/Ivory fan -- slow as molasses and snooty to boot. But here screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jabvala had me -- for the whole movie we're thinking the weirdos are the overdressed, highly rouged, over-ideological French, only to realize, little by little, that it's the hunky slaveholding Virginia genius Jefferson who's become the object of our rage and astonishment.

So many historical ironies, so many complicated turns.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Margaret Porter said...

Thanks for sharing your approach to telling Mary's life story for the modern fiction audience.

There has been another film about Emma Hamilton. In Bequest to the Nation (in the US, The Nelson Affair) Glenda Jackson plays a sottish and emotional Emma during her final days with Nelson at Merton, before he sailed to his doom. It's a far earthier depiction that the delicacy of Vivien Leigh's. Both films have their merits and their faults, and each is very much a product of its era!

Mary's durable but tortued relationship with Tarleton is such an interesting component to her character.

My next project deals with a contemporary of Mary's, and someone who shared her profession/s. So even if I didn't already know about Mary I'd be interested in your novel.

If these Northern snows subside, I can hasten to Borders.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Margaret, I remember seeing Bequest to the Nation years ago on public television. There was also another television mini-series called I Remember Nelson where Geraldine James played a very coarse Emma Hamilton, much coarser than even Glenda Jackson's. I think Vivien Leigh captured more of Emma's delicate prettiness than Glenda Jackson who was much better at playing women like Elizabeth R.
I think its partly the expense that keeps films like Georgiana from being filmed more often. The costume budget alone even if they rented instead of made the costumes must be prohibitive. It's taken almost 8 years for Georgiana's story to make to the screen since Amanda Foreman's book came out.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Vivien Leigh lacked the big-boned earthiness and bawdiness of Emma Hamilton (not exactly her stock in trade, but she does capture her vulnerability). I have seen "Bequest to the Nation" and found the principals SO miscast that I couldn't watch it. Glenda Jackson could not have been more wrong for Emma. She is incredibly mannish -- and nothing could be more inappropriate for Emma Hamilton with her knee-length red tresses and her voluptuous curves, the nonpareil of feminine pulchritude. I forgot who played Nelson to Jackson's Emma, but I recall finding the casting equally boneheaded.

Pam, I have to admit, I'm a Merchant-Ivory junkie! And I have always loved Ruth Prawer Jabvala's screenplays. I read a fascinating interview with her several years, ago, when she was speaking about the adaptations she'd done, on E.M. Forster, for example, taking the story from the page to the screen. She said you must begin with tremendous respect for the source material -- and then rip it to shreds, so that you can retell the same story in a different medium.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Margaret Porter said...

Peter Finch was Glenda Jackson's Nelson.

I enjoyed the film more for the settings and costumes, less for the casting choices, I confess.

1:47 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

You have touched on the thing that makes Mary so fascinating - she was larger than life, a woman ahead of her time AND she was all too human. Every woman probably has that man she loves or loved who was basically "crack" in trousers. He obviously had something that she needed badly enough to throw much of what she was to get it. In situations like that the heart trumps the brain every time. Amanda, I cannot wait to read your book. It sounds as if you went to enormous lengths to get to know her, the real her, and that will make your book all the more poignant and spell-binding.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Doglady, your "crack in trousers" phrase is not only spot-on (for Mary Robinson AND myself), it's hysterically brilliant!

What a great comment to come home to after a really long day, and discovering that the only light in my home office had fritzed out for the 2nd time in as many weeks!

5:33 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Sorry to be chiming in late, I was out all day. Another fascinating post. Mary's relationship with Tarleton sounds so intriguing. I can imagine a woman ghost writing her lover's speeches (I have Mélanie ghost writing some of Charles's, so it's nice to hear a real life example :-), and I can imagine a woman having a lover she disagreed with politically. But the two together are really startling. And Tarleton obviously valued Mary's skills as a writer enough that he trusted her to pen persuasive arguments despite their disagreements.

I too love Merchant Ivory films, and I thought "Jefferson in Paris" did a brilliant job of capturing the uncomfortable contradictions of Jefferson and of the era.

I saw "The Hamilton Woman" when I was about eleven and just getting into Georgette Heyer. It was so exciting to see a movie with a Regency-ish setting. I'm sure it's very romanticized, but as a movie I think it works quite well.

11:16 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, I was just reading "Daughter of the Game" and when I came to the part about the ghostwritten speeches I thought of your 2 protagonists, in reference to Mary and Tarleton. Part of the deliciousness of "That Hamilton Woman" is that the subject matter -- two people, each already married to someone else, fall passionately in love and move in together, shocking society, mirrors the relationship of the film's stars. Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier were each married to someone else and met on the set (of "Fire Over England" I think) and flouted convention and propriety by leaving their respective spouses to move in together in a London flat. And while you're watching Nelson and Emma fall in love in the movie and play out that scenario, you just know the actors are thinking about their own relationship. And the movie audience at the time knew all about the Olivier & Leigh scandal, too, so they were also enjoying an inside joke as they watched the movie.

5:13 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, it's lovely to know you're reading "Daughter of the Game"/"Secrets of a Lady" and so cool that we had the same thought about the speeches! (I have to say, it's always great to find out that something you had your fictional characters do is similar to something real people actually did :-).

The off-set background of "That Hamilton Woman" definitely adds an element to the movie. The chemistry in the movie's great--I remember a scene where they're in a a tavern/inn together, I think, and she's interpreting his expressions and he says "do you know what this one is?" She says something like "Nelson allowing himself to be happy." And he says "Nelson in love." It made a big impression on me at the age of eleven :-).

4:24 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

The same scene made a huge impression on me the first time I saw the movie, which was about 20 years ago (I wasn't 11)and it still melts my heart when I watch it. Yes, she says, tentatively, "Nelson allowing himself to be ... just a LITTLE bit ... happy."

Re: "Daughter of the Game" (I do love the earlier title so much, it's both evocative and provocative), I was so tickled that you named the cat Berowne. I played Jacquenetta in LOVE'S LABOR'S LOST, and not too many people remember Berowne in the canon of WS's comic heroes.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

It's such a heart-melting scene, isn't it? (Seeing the line written out, I can hear Vivien Leigh saying it). That would be a fun blog topic--heart-melting moments on film :-).

I love "Daughter of the Game" as a title too--(actually my original title for the book was "The End of Reckoning" which is also Shakespeare---"Truth is truth to the end of reckoning" from "Measure for Measure"). It was my publisher who wanted a new title for the reprint and loved "Secrets of a Lady," which works fine for the book and I've grown to like, but it isn't quite as evocative. I wasn't going to argue though--I was just excited about the reprint :-).

9:55 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...


Berowne is right up there with Benedick as one of my favorite heroes of Shakespearean comedy.

10:24 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Me, too. I love Benedick (and wish I had a nickel for everyone who misspelled the name as "Benedict." The mention of Berowne brought back a flood of bittersweet memories connnected with the production of L3 that I was in. Jacquenetta speaks all of 13 syllables over 6 (or maybe it's 7) lines, but she has one of the rare exclamation points in Shakespeare, at least per the First Folio.

4:49 AM  

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