The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson

By Paula Byrne

Random House. 445 pp. $27.50

The life of Mary Robinson provides an object lesson in a problem that chronically afflicts biographers. Here is an amazing story, that of a girl with modest prospects who makes her mark as an actress, dabbles in poetry, writes novels and plays and becomes mistress of the Prince of Wales -- and all of this before dying at the age of 43. Such accomplishments would be startling in any epoch. Yet she did it in the 18th century. "Perdita," as she was called (after her most famous role), was well enough known to be the subject of cartoonists and the favorite model for such portraitists as Hoppner, Romney, Gainsborough and Reynolds.

A snap, one would think, to write about. Yet 200 years later nobody knows who she is. This makes it all the more unusual that a book like this has been published. More often, no publisher would take it, or the advance would be minuscule, the work arduous and sales disappointing. Only someone not easily deterred would persevere in such a situation, particularly since gathering facts about such a life is even more akin to looking for the right pebbles on a beach than most biographical exercises. A labor of love, one might conclude. Yet without such punishing, almost masochistically arduous work, the Mary Robinsons of this world would disappear into obscurity.

That would be a pity since, as Paula Byrne demonstrates, a patient search can give us a more intimate insight into a woman and her epoch than contemporary readers could otherwise imagine. Byrne paints an unforgettable picture of the prosperous, grimy port of Bristol, where Robinson was born, and of her father, who left his wife and three children to establish a fishery in the Canadian north. How this abandoned wife managed to go on paying the bills is the kind of question to which the author bends her mind. How a girl of that period had to think is also something that Byrne addresses sympathetically. Obviously, this young woman could not afford to marry for love. But after the security she sought in her one and only marriage proved to be a chimera, Mary, with a baby in tow, voluntarily joined her spendthrift husband in debtor's prison.

Forced to become the major breadwinner, Robinson turned to writing, one of the few respectable avenues for young women in that epoch. Her poetry, almost unreadable nowadays, was nevertheless admired enough to be published, and gained her a patron in the person of another independent spirit, Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire. Robinson had a gift for attracting distinguished supporters, not just because she was a beauty but also because she was full of life and brimming over with talents just waiting to be discovered by older and wiser mentors. The playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan was entranced with her; so was the actor David Garrick. While still in her teens, she was cast in demanding roles and made an immediate impression. One concludes that she was either a natural in everything she did or a fast study, and both are probably true, because the ease with which she maneuvered her way into the worlds of art and society is otherwise inexplicable. She charmed. She performed. She found ways to dress beautifully and set fashions so convincingly that she rivaled the great Georgiana herself.

The steps by which Robinson, a struggling young married woman with baby, became a notorious young actress with no visible baby or husband and lots of lovers are amusingly detailed. Byrne describes a number of protectors, some more handsome than others, before "Perdita" made her most famous conquest in the young Prince of Wales, the future George IV. Seeing her on the stage, he fell in love with this vision when he was just 17. How much love played a part in her response is an open question. She certainly made the most of her opportunity, incidentally securing a national role for herself in the sometimes scurrilous cartoons that followed her. There were more lovers, more theatrical triumphs, more books and, at the end, a memoir. The admirable skill with which her biographer winds through this turbulent progression is a treat to read.

One must add a caveat: The author's ear for style has a way to go before it reaches the level of her erudition. Nothing is more contagious for someone immersed in the writings of a bygone period than the style itself. And so we have such quaint anachronisms as "repaired to Bristol" and "Considered in this light, his commitment could not be doubted" -- phrases that look doubly stilted when placed against modern slang. There are other lapses; incorrect use of words and some completely impenetrable phrases make one wonder where the editor was.

Still, Perdita is not just an important addition to our knowledge of history but also a highly enjoyable story, told with much care and insight. Brave, witty, dashing and gifted -- such women speak to any age. *

Meryle Secrest, author of the recently published "Duveen: A Life in Art," is working on a biography of Modigliani.

Two portraits of Mary Robinson by Sir Joshua Reynolds