‘Women Wednesday’ will hereby be a pit-stop, quick-fire, on-the-go history of numerous historical women. Historical men are great, too, but who doesn’t love an underdog? I plan to take a sneaky peak at those women who got lost in translation.
Quick note – ignore that this was posted on a Thursday. It won’t happen again. Maybe.
Anyway, I want to introduce you to the badass Mary Robinson (née Darby) 1757 – 1800.
Mary was, in essence, a kind of human embodiment of the 18th century fascination with both morality and debauchery. Her careers included actress, author, and mistress, all of which caused a cocktail of fame and ridicule in the public eye.
Now, Mary didn’t lead a ‘bad’ life, but it wasn’t easy being a woman in the 1700s, let alone a woman with several lovers and some naughty literature under your skirts. Her father, having galloped off with another woman when Mary was young, was the beginning of her bad luck. Following this, and a brief interlude of acting, her mother married her off to a money-squandering scoundrel who ended up in debtor’s jail (they eventually separated, but this was the least of her troubles). Mary then went back to acting as a way of financial support. This, pretty much, is where she gets shoved into the sour limelight.
It was her performance as “Perdita” in Florizel and Perdita that caught the regal eye of George IV, Prince of Wales (who, may I add, was a few years her junior) and consequently bribed into becoming his mistress. Mixed feelings on her part, euphoric on his. Unsurprisingly, the boy Prince of Wales then got bored, and poor Mary was kicked out without a redundancy package, with just her damaged reputation in tow.
It was now that Mary started to swing between more high-profile lovers, and write seriously, contributing some amazing works to 18th Century literature. I will highlight two of her writings, Sappho and Phaon: A Series of Legitimate Sonnets, and A Letter to the Women of England
– Mary also contributed much to the emergence of Romanticism, but that’s a whole other story.
In short, Sappho and Phaon is a ~naughty~ poem. But a naughty poem that was way ahead of it’s time, and one that is arguably proto-feminist. It concerns Sappho, an ancient authoress, and Phaon her lover. Now, Mary deliberately uses Sappho as a character to convey her own romantic and sexual experiences. Themes of sex in 18th century literature were usually rare, covert, and almost always masculine. So not only does Mary dare to write about this, she also writes about this from her perspective. Bad. Ass.
Three years after this, and a year before her death, Mary would pen a letter to the women of England. In this letter, she draws attention to the issues and injustices against English women. Most interestingly is that Mary writes this after the death of the famous proto-feminist Mary Wallstonecraft,
I will not expatiate largely on the doctrines of certain philosophical sensualists, who have aided in this destructive oppression, because an illustrious British female, (whose death has not been sufficiently lamented, but to whose genius posterity will render justice) has already written volumes in vindication of The Rights of Woman.
Mary clearly saw her strength of character and intelligence in Mary Wollstonecraft, and this letter in her memory thus serves as a kind of reiteration of her progressive beliefs. Mary was ruthless, even to the end.
She died in 1800 at the age of 43, partially paralysed, very ill, and unfortunately in poverty.