Top critical review
Never really gets to the heart of Perdita...
on 29 July 2015
Prior to reading this, I had just finished Claire Tomalin's Mrs Jordan's Profession, and it was an interesting contrast. Both biographies are about Regency actresses who became royal mistresses, Mary Robinson to the Prince of Wales, subsequently George IV, and Dora Jordan to the Duke of Clarence, later William IV. Both women left the stage for their royal lovers, who subsequently abandoned them; although Dora Jordan's abandonment after twenty years contrasts strongly with Mary Robinson's fling of less than a year, and Dora returned to the stage numerous times through her relationship with Clarence.
So there are strong similarities between the books, and yet whilst I could not put Claire Tomalin's down and felt real affection for Dora Jordan, I can't say the same for this book. Whether that's down to the author or the subject I cannot tell. Certainly, on the surface Mary Robinson is far more an interesting figure than Dora Jordan, who effectively settled down to domesticity and her large brood of children. Whereas to dismiss Mary Robinson as an actress and royal mistress is to do her a disservice: whilst she too was a celebrity, both in the Regency and modern sense of the word, she reinvented herself after a serious accident all but crippled her and was in her later years a notable and lauded literary figure, a writer of poems, plays, farces, operettas, essays, who moved in the same circles as William Goodwin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mary Wollstonecraft, among others. She also became a radical and an early feminist.
And yet somehow this book never gelled for me - I never felt wholly absorbed in Mary's life, I never came to care for her, in the way that the best biographies can make you thoroughly partisan on the side of the subject. I was almost bored, to be honest. Part of that could have been the over-abundance of quotation of Mary's poetry - melodramatic purple 'Romantic' poetry has never been my taste - and part perhaps is the fact that I could never quite believe Mary herself. So often a biography comes to life through the subject's own words, but with Mary Robinson I could never shake the feeling that mentally she never left the stage, that she was always playing a part. And whether that role was actress, society belle, fashion innovator, woman of letters, radical or feminist, I never once felt that Paula Byrne had managed to penetrate to the real heart of Mary Robinson. Again, that could be a failing of either author or subject, I don't know. But it meant that for me this biography only painted a picture of Perdita, much as Reynolds, Gainsborough and others painted her, that it never really captured her.