Perdita: Royal mistress, writer, Romantic by Sarah Gristwood

Take Posh, and Madonna, add a dash of the Princess of Wales, plus Linda Evangelista... Suzi Feay examines the extraordinary life of an actress-courtesan turned author who was an early celebrity casualty
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The Independent Culture

Beauty being so perishable, it is a quality impossible to grasp and define after two centuries. Charles II's bevy of mistresses in the National Portrait Gallery look like so many fat-cheeked and double-chinned slatterns. The incredible story of Perdita - Mary Robinson - is impossible to understand without a notion of the haunting beauty that set it all off.

Beauty being so perishable, it is a quality impossible to grasp and define after two centuries. Charles II's bevy of mistresses in the National Portrait Gallery look like so many fat-cheeked and double-chinned slatterns. The incredible story of Perdita - Mary Robinson - is impossible to understand without a notion of the haunting beauty that set it all off.

Examine the portraits and they all seem to show different women, and not necessarily, by our standards, beautiful ones. In some she has a decidedly long nose. She can look voluptuous, ethereal or merely pert. They were rarely recognised as good likenesses in their day. Joshua Reynolds was one painter who confessed himself utterly defeated by her dazzling looks.

Mrs Robinson was one of the most admired, reviled, painted and written about women of the 18th century. The phrase "actress, model, whatever" is a modern one, but Perdita was the ultimate "whatever". She couldn't go shopping without a press of people materialising around her. Her exploits were written up in the gutter press; her clothes were scrutinised and copied. Sarah Gristwood can't quite resist the urge to call Mary and her lover Banastre Tarleton "the Posh and Becks of their day" (though as she points out, there are also dashes of Madonna and Princess Diana). And, much as visiting football fans sang pornographic chants about Mrs Beckham, she became the focus of scurrilous prints, fantasies and bawdy verse.

By her mid-teens the stunning Mary Darby of Bristol had come to London and captivated (purely professionally) the renowned actor Garrick, who wanted to put her on the stage. She married the useless gambler and wastrel Robinson but once on the boards came swiftly to the attention of the Prince of Wales (the future George IV). She was playing Perdita in The Winter's Tale; he promptly dubbed himself her Florizel, and pursued her hysterically. She was his first great passion, and set the pattern for all the others. He was clinging, fond and babyish. There was no warning of the final breach; the last time they met as lovers, he was as ardent and attentive as ever. Then the lightning bolt fell. She was ruined and dumped by the prince before she was even out of her teens, and her attempts to get a fair settlement from him make for grim reading. The man who acted as go-between, Viscount Malden, became her new protector. From this point it seems Mary was little more than a courtesan: definitely shop-soiled, but still an object of goggling fascination for the masses.

"Who'd not love a soldier?" runs the speech bubble in a Gillray cartoon entitled The Thunderer, where an effigy of Mary, legs akimbo, dangles above an inn-sign ("Alamode beef, hot every night"), while a muscular soldier slices the head off a figure, the plumes of blood forming the Prince of Wales's feathers. Yes, Mary had a new lover, Banastre Tarleton, a hero (from the British point of view) of the American War of Independence. The Americans called him "Butcher Tarleton", and Gristwood, a respected film journalist, points out that if he seems like a black-hearted Brit villain in a Mel Gibson movie, that's because he is one: the sadistic killer played by Jason Isaacs in The Patriot was based on Tarleton.

In her memoirs, later in life, Mary presents herself as a devotee of the cult of sensibility, too sensitive ever to thrive in this cruel world. Tarleton, by contrast, was an old-fashioned pig (so old-fashioned, in fact, that he was still doughtily defending slavery at a time when "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" had become the fashionable rallying cry). Gristwood tells a horrifying story of their first meeting, culled from the pornographic supposed "Memoirs of Perdita", which nevertheless contain significant facts about her life. Her long-term lover, Malden, offered a jeering Tarleton 1,000 guineas if he could seduce her. For that, Tarleton could both seduce her and jilt her, he claimed; and Mary woke up in the small village out of town to which his passion had swept her to find that he had left her with the bill. A humiliated Mary couldn't pay, and applied to Malden, the source of all the trouble. He refused to help her out.

It's an ugly story, and of course the provenance makes it suspect. But it's not difficult to see Tarleton in that misogynist light. However, if that's truly what happened, he was to find he could not shake off Mary's charms so lightly. They were soon an item, and their relationship lasted for 15 years. Their relationship even brought Mary back into the circle of the Prince of Wales, who was a close friend of the dissolute dragoon.

But life was not easy. His family was horrified at his association with such a notorious female, and refused to pay his gambling debts unless he cast her off. On one occasion he was ordered to France to escape her clutches. Pursuing him hysterically to Dover - as she had once desperately followed the Prince of Wales to Windsor over highwayman-haunted Hounslow Heath - she was thrown about in the bumpy coach. She may have had a miscarriage, though Gristwood thinks it doubtful, but from that night onwards she was never to be free from pain. She was struck down by a mystery ailment - possibly rheumatoid arthritis - which eventually left her so weak that she was unable to walk. To Tarleton's credit, he did stay with her through years of this illness, though he finally ran off with a young heiress, leaving Mary absolutely distraught. I regret to report that his marriage seems to have been entirely happy.

The next part of Perdita's life is the most extraordinary, given all that had gone before. For some time she had penned heavily autobiographical poems, devoured by her public as a key to her turbulent emotional life. Now novels and journalism also poured from her pen. Her novels were immensely popular, though criticised for being too hastily composed; but her poetry was praised by Coleridge and Wordsworth, who might even have picked up a few ideas. While never a feminist (she pointed out bitterly that women had always been more spiteful about her than men), she was the respected friend of Mary Wollstonecraft, and became close to her widower, William Godwin. Not far from death, she asked him to visit her, but without his family, confessing to "a feeling of disgust respecting young children". It's funny to think that one of these youngsters was Mary Shelley. A bluestocking who scraped her living by her pen: this was the last and unlikeliest starring role Mrs Robinson ever played.

It's a great pity that this well-written and sensitive biography is likely to be overshadowed by Paula Byrne's Perdita: The life of Mary Robinson (Harper Perennial £7.99), which just pipped her to the post. It's already out in paperback and has been chosen for Richard & Judy's Book Club. Gristwood's own account is very readable, but there is an opacity at the heart of Mary Robinson which is very difficult to penetrate.

In her very last paragraph, Gristwood says that if she were to make a TV programme about Perdita, she would first call on the assistance of a Jungian analyst and a literary historian (it's slightly perplexing to find she hasn't done this already). But most of all, says Gristwood, she'd contact Max Clifford. "For of all the challenges the much-painted Mary faced, perhaps the greatest was this: how best to present an acceptable profile to posterity?"

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