AMONG those persons who have at various periods attracted the attention of the public, there are few whose virtues have been so little known, or whose characters have been so unfairly estimated, as the subject of the preceding memoir. To compress within narrow limits the numerous circumstances by which the later years of Mrs. Robinson's life were chequered, will be a task of no little difficulty. The earlier periods of her existence, rendered more interesting as narrated by her own pen, have doubtlessly been justly appreciated by the reflecting and candid reader, whose sympathy they could not fail to awaken. That she lived not to conclude the history of a life scarcely less eventful than unfortunate, cannot but afford a subject of sincere regret. [Page 169]
The conflicts which shook the mind, and the passions which succeeded to each other in the breast of Mrs. Robinson, at the period when her narrative closes, a crisis perhaps the most important in her life, may be more easily conceived than described. A laborious though captivating profession, the profits of which were unequal to the expenses of her establishment, and the assiduities of her illustrious lover, to whom she naturally looked for protection, combined to divide her attention and bewilder her inexperienced mind. The partiality of her royal admirer had begun to excite observation, to awaken curiosity, and to provoke the malignant passions which, under an affected concern for decorum, assumed the guise of virtue. The daily prints teemed with hints of the favour of Mrs. Robinson with "one whose manners were resistless, and whose smile was victory." These circumstances, added to the constant devoirs of Lord Malden, whose attentions were as little understood as maliciously interpreted, conspired to distract a young creature, whose exposed situation, whose wavering and unformed character, rendered her but too obnoxious to a thousand errors and perils.
To terminate her correspondence with the [Page 170] Prince appeared the most painful remedy that could be adopted by a heart fascinated with his accomplishments and soothed by his professions of inviolable attachment. She was aware that, in the eye of the world, the reputation of the wife is supposed unsullied while the husband, enduring passively his dishonour, gives to her the sanction of his protection. The circles of fashion afforded more than one instance of this obliging acquiescence in matrimonial turpitude. Could Mrs. Robinson have reconciled it to her own feelings to remain under the roof of her husband, whose protection she had forfeited, and to add insult to infidelity, the attentions of her illustrious admirer might have given to her popularity an additional éclat. Neither might her husband have suffered in his worldly prospects, from being to the motives of his royal visitor a little complaisantly blind. But her ingenuous nature would not permit her to render the man for whom she had once felt an affection an object of ridicule and contempt. She determined therefore to brave the world, and, for a support against its censures, to rely on the protection and friendship of him to whom she sacrificed its respect.
The managers of Drury Lane Theatre, suspect-[Page 171] ing that Mrs. Robinson purposed, at the conclusion of the season, to withdraw from the stage, omitted no means that might tend to induce her to renew her engagements. With this view, they offered a considerable advance to her salary, while to their solicitations she returned undecisive answers. Hourly rising in a profession to which she was enthusiastically attached, the public plaudits which her appearance never failed to excite, were too gratifying to be relinquished without regret.
During this irresolution, she was persecuted by numerous anonymous letters, which she continued to treat with derision or contempt. The correspondence between Mrs. Robinson and the Prince had hitherto been merely epistolary. This intercourse had lasted several months, Mrs. Robinson not having acquired sufficient courage to venture a personal interview, and bid defiance to the reproaches of the world.
At length, after many alternations of feeling, an interview with her royal lover was consented to by Mrs. Robinson, and proposed, by the management of Lord Malden, to take place at his lordship's residence in Dean Street, Mayfair. But the restricted situation of the prince, controlled by a rigid tutor, rendered this project [Page 172] of difficult execution. A visit to Buckingham House was then mentioned; to which Mrs. Robinson positively objected, as a rash attempt, abounding in peril to her august admirer. Lord Malden being again consulted, it was determined that the Prince should meet Mrs. Robinson for a few moments at Kew, 1 on the banks of the Thames, opposite to the old palace, then the summer residence of the elder princes. For an account of this incident, an extract from a letter of Mrs. Robinson, written some years afterwards to a valued and since deceased friend, who during the period of these events resided in America, may not be unacceptable to the reader. The date of this letter is in 1783.
"At length an evening was fixed for this long-dreaded interview. Lord Malden and myself dined at the inn on the island between [Page 173] Kew and Brentford. We waited the signal for crossing the river in a boat which had been engaged for the purpose. Heaven can witness how many conflicts my agitated heart endured at this most important moment ! I admired the Prince; I felt grateful for his affection. He was the most engaging of created beings. I had corresponded with him during many months, and his eloquent letters, the exquisite sensibility which breathed through every line, his ardent professions of adoration, had combined to shake my feeble resolution. The handkerchief was waved on the opposite shore; but the signal was, by the dusk of the evening, rendered almost imperceptible. Lord Malden took my hand, I stepped into the boat, and in a few minutes we landed before the iron gates of old Kew Palace. The interview was but of a moment. The Prince of Wales and the Duke of York (then Bishop of Osnaburg) were walking down the avenue. They hastened to meet us. A few words, and those scarcely articulate, were uttered by the Prince, when a noise of people approaching from the palace startled us. The moon was now rising; and the idea of being overheard, or of his Royal Highness being seen out at so unusual an hour, [Page 174] terrified the whole group. After a few more words of the most affectionate nature uttered by the Prince, we parted, and Lord Malden and myself returned to the island. The Prince never quitted the avenue, nor the presence of the Duke of York, during the whole of this short meeting. Alas ! my friend, if my mind was before influenced by esteem, it was now awakened to the most enthusiastic admiration. The rank of the Prince no longer chilled into awe that being who now considered him as the lover and the friend. The graces of his person, the irresistible sweetness of his smile, the tenderness of his melodious yet manly voice, will be remembered by me till every vision of this changing scene shall be forgotten.
"Many and frequent were the interviews which afterwards took place at this romantic spot; our walks sometimes continued till past midnight; the Duke of York and Lord Malden were always of the party; our conversation was composed of general topics. The Prince had from his infancy been wholly secluded, and naturally took much pleasure in conversing about the busy world, its manners and pursuits, characters and scenery. Nothing could be more delightful or more rational than our mid-[Page 175] night perambulations. I always wore a dark-coloured habit, the rest of our party generally wrapped themselves in great-coats to disguise them, excepting the Duke of York, who almost universally alarmed us by the display of a buff coat, the most conspicuous colour he could have selected for an adventure of this nature. The polished and fascinating ingenuousness of his Royal Highness's manners contributed not a little to enliven our promenades. He sung with exquisite taste, and the tones of his voice breaking on the silence of the night have often appeared to my entranced senses like more than mortal melody. Often have I lamented the distance which destiny had placed between us. How would my soul have idolised such a husband! Alas ! how often, in the ardent enthusiasm of my soul, have I formed the wish that that being were mine alone ! to whom partial millions were to look up for protection.
"The Duke of York was now on the eve of quitting the country for Hanover; the Prince was also on the point of receiving his first establishment; and the apprehension that his attachment to a married woman might injure his Royal Highness in the opinion of the world, rendered the caution which we invariably [Page 176] observed of the utmost importance. A considerable time elapsed in these delightful scenes of visionary happiness. The Prince's attachment seemed to increase daily, and I considered myself as the most blest of human beings. During some time we had enjoyed our meetings in the neighbourhood of Kew, and I now only looked forward to the adjusting of his Royal Highness's establishment for the public avowal of our mutual attachment.
"I had relinquished my profession. The last night of my appearance on the stage, I represented the character of Sir Harry Revel, in the comedy of The Miniature Picture, written by Lady Craven;1 and The Irish Widow. On entering the green-room, I informed Mr. Moody, who played in the farce, that I should appear no more after that night; and, endeavouring to smile while I sung, I repeated–
"'Oh joy to you all in full measure,
So wishes and prays Widow Brady ! '
which were the last lines of my song in The Irish Widow. This effort to conceal the emotion I felt on quitting a profession I [Page 177] enthusiastically loved, was of short duration, and I burst into tears on my appearance. My regret at recollecting that I was treading for the last time the boards where I had so often received the most gratifying testimonies of public approbation; where mental exertion had been emboldened by private worth; that I was flying from a happy certainty, perhaps to pursue the phantom disappointment, nearly overwhelmed my faculties, and for some time deprived me of the power of articulation. Fortunately, the person on the stage with me had to begin the scene, which allowed me time to collect myself. I went, however, mechanically dull through the business of the evening, and notwithstanding the cheering expressions and applause of the audience, I was several times near fainting.
"The daily prints now indulged the malice of my enemies by the most scandalous paragraphs respecting the Prince of Wales and myself. I found it was now too late to stop the hourly augmenting torrent of abuse that was poured upon me from all quarters. Whenever I appeared in public, I was overwhelmed by the gazing of the multitude. I was frequently obliged to quit Ranelagh, owing to the crowd [Page 178] which staring curiosity had assembled round my box; and, even in the streets of the metropolis I scarcely ventured to enter a shop without experiencing the greatest inconvenience. Many hours have I waited till the crowd dispersed which surrounded my carriage, in expectation of my quitting the shop. I cannot suppress a smile at the absurdity of such proceeding, when I remember that, during nearly three seasons, I was almost every night upon the stage, and that I had then been near five years with Mr. Robinson at every fashionable place of entertainment. You, my dear sir, in your quiet haunts of Transatlantic simplicity, will find some difficulty in reconciling these things to your mind–these unaccountable instances of national absurdity. Yet, so it is. I am well assured, that were a being possessed of more than human endowments to visit this country, it would experience indifference, if not total neglect, while a less worthy mortal might be worshipped as the idol of its day, if whispered into notoriety by the comments of the multitude. But, thank Heaven ! my heart was not formed in the mould of callous effrontery. I shuddered at the gulf before me, and felt small gratification in the knowledge of having taken a step, which many [Page 179] who condemned would have been no less willing to imitate had they been placed in the same situation.
"Previous to my first interview with his Royal Highness, in one of his letters I was astonished to find a bond of the most solemn and binding nature, containing a promise of the sum of twenty thousand pounds, to be paid at the period of his Royal Highness's coming of age.
"This paper was signed by the Prince, and sealed with the royal arms. It was expressed in terms so liberal, so voluntary, so marked by true affection, that I had scarcely power to read it. My tears, excited by the most agonising conflicts, obscured the letters, and nearly blotted out those sentiments which will be impressed upon my mind till the latest period of my existence. Still, I felt shocked and mortified at the indelicate idea of entering into any pecuniary engagements with a Prince, on whose establishment I relied for the enjoyment of all that would render life desirable. I was surprised at receiving it; the idea of interest had never entered my mind. Secure in the possession of his heart, I had in that delightful certainty counted all my future treasure. I had refused many splendid gifts which his Royal Highness [Page 180] had proposed ordering for me at Grey's and other jewellers. The Prince presented to me a few trifling ornaments, in the whole their value not exceeding one hundred guineas. Even these, on our separation, I returned to his Royal Highness through the hands of General Lake.
"The period now approached that was to destroy all the fairy visions which had filled my mind with dreams of happiness. At the moment when everything was preparing for his Royal Highness's establishment, when I looked impatiently for the arrival of that day in which I might behold my adored friend gracefully receiving the acclamations of his future subjects; when I might enjoy the public protection of that being for whom I gave up all, I received a letter from his Royal Highness, a cold and unkind letter–briefly informing me that 'we must meet no more ! '
"And now, my friend, suffer me to call God to witness, that I was unconscious why this decision had taken place in his Royal Highness's mind. Only two days previous to this letter being written I had seen the Prince at Kew, and his affection appeared to be boundless as it was undiminished. [Page 181]
"Amazed, afflicted, beyond the power of utterance, I wrote immediately to his Royal Highness, requiring an explanation. He remained silent. Again I wrote, but received no elucidation of this most cruel and extraordinary mystery. The Prince was then at Windsor. I set out in a small pony phaeton, wretched, and unaccompanied by any one except my postillion (a child of nine years of age). It was near dark when we quitted Hyde Park Corner. On my arrival at Hounslow the innkeeper informed me that every carriage which had passed the heath for the last ten nights had been attacked and rifled. I confess the idea of personal danger had no terrors for my mind in the state it then was, and the possibility of annihilation, divested of the crime of suicide, encouraged rather than diminished my determination of proceeding. We had scarcely reached the middle of the heath when my horses were startled by the sudden appearance of a man rushing from the side of the road. The boy on perceiving him instantly spurred his pony, and, by a sudden bound of our light vehicle, the ruffian missed his grasp at the front rein. We now proceeded at full speed, while the footpad ran endeavouring to overtake us. At [Page 182] length, my horses fortunately outrunning the perseverance of the assailant, we reached the first 'Magpie,' a small inn on the heath, in safety. The alarm which, in spite of my resolution, this adventure had created, was augmented on my recollecting, for the first time, that I had then in my black stock a brilliant stud of very considerable value, which could only have been possessed by the robber by strangling the wearer.
"If my heart palpitated with joy at my escape from assassination, a circumstance soon after occurred that did not tend to quiet my emotion. This was the appearance of Mr. H. Meynell and Mrs. A––. My foreboding soul instantly beheld a rival, and, with jealous eagerness, interpreted the hitherto inexplicable conduct of the Prince from his having frequently expressed his wish to know that lady.
"On my arrival the Prince would not see me. My agonies were now undescribable. I consulted with Lord Malden and the Duke of Dorset, whose honourable mind and truly disinterested friendship had on many occasions been exemplified towards me. They were both at a loss to divine any cause of this sudden change [Page 183] in the Prince's feelings. The Prince of Wales had hitherto assiduously sought opportunities to distinguish me more publicly than was prudent in his Royal Highness's situation. This was in the month of August. On the 4th of the preceding June I went, by his desire, into the Chamberlain's box at the birth-night ball; the distressing observation of the circle was drawn towards the part of the box in which I sat by the marked and injudicious attentions of his Royal Highness. I had not been arrived many minutes before I witnessed a singular species of fashionable coquetry. Previous to his Highness's beginning his minuet, I perceived a woman of high rank select from the bouquet which she wore two rosebuds, which she gave to the Prince, as he afterwards informed me, 'emblematical of herself and him.' I observed his Royal Highness immediately beckon to a nobleman, who has since formed a part of his establishment, and, looking most earnestly at me, whisper a few words, at the same time presenting to him his newly-acquired trophy. In a few moments Lord C–– entered the Chamberlain's box, and, giving the rosebuds into my hands, informed me that he was commissioned by the Prince to do so. I [Page 184] placed them in my bosom, and, I confess, felt proud of the power by which I thus publicly mortified an exalted rival. His Royal Highness now avowedly distinguished me at all public places of entertainment, at the King's hunt near Windsor, at the reviews, and at the theatres. The Prince only seemed happy in evincing his affection towards me.
"How terrible, then, was the change to my feelings ! And I again most solemnly repeat that I was totally ignorant of any just cause for so sudden an alteration.
"My 'good-natured friends' now carefully informed me of the multitude of secret enemies who were ever employed in estranging the Prince's mind from me. So fascinating, so illustrious a lover could not fail to excite the envy of my own sex. Women of all descriptions were emulous of attracting his Royal Highness's attention. Alas ! I had neither rank nor power to oppose such adversaries. Every engine of female malice was set in motion to destroy my repose, and every petty calumny was repeated with tenfold embellishments. Tales of the most infamous and glaring falsehood were invented, and I was again assailed by pamphlets, by paragraphs, and caricatures, and all the [Page 185] artillery of slander, while the only being to whom I then looked up for protection was so situated as to be unable to afford it.
"Thus perplexed, I wrote to you, my friend, and implored your advice. But you were far away; your delighted soul was absorbed in cherishing the plant of human liberty, which has since blossomed with independent splendour over your happy provinces. Eagerly did I wait for the arrival of the packet, but no answer was returned. In the anguish of my soul I once more addressed the Prince of Wales; I complained, perhaps too vehemently, of his injustice; of the calumnies which had been by my enemies fabricated against me, of the falsehood of which he was but too sensible. I conjured him to render me justice. He did so; he wrote me a most eloquent letter, disclaiming the causes alleged by a calumniating world, and fully acquitting me of the charges which had been propagated to destroy me.
"I resided now in Cork Street, Burlington Gardens. The house, which was neat, but by no means splendid, had recently been fitted up for the reception of the Countess of Derby, on her separation from her lord. My situation now every hour became more irksome. The [Page 186] Prince still unkindly persisted in withdrawing himself from my society. I was now deeply involved in debt, which I despaired of ever having the power to discharge. I had quitted both my husband and my profession. The retrospect was dreadful !
"My estrangement from the Prince was now the theme of public animadversion, while the newly invigorated shafts of my old enemies, the daily prints, were again hurled upon my defenceless head with tenfold fury. The regrets of Mr. Robinson, now that he had lost me, became insupportable; he constantly wrote to me in the language of unbounded affection, nor did he fail, when he met, to express his agony at our separation, and even a wish for our reunion.
"I had, at one period, resolved on returning to my profession; but some friends whom I consulted dreaded that the public would not suffer my reappearance on the stage. This idea intimidated me, and precluded my efforts for that independence of which my romantic credulity had robbed me. I was thus fatally induced to relinquish what would have proved an ample and honourable resource for myself and my child. My debts accumulated to near seven thousand pounds. My creditors, whose [Page 187] insulting illiberality could only be squalled by their unbounded impositions, hourly assailed me.
"I was, in the meantime, wholly neglected by the Prince, while the assiduities of Lord Malden daily increased. I had no other friend on whom I could rely for assistance or protection. When I say protection, I would not be understood to mean pecuniary assistance, Lord Malden being, at the time alluded to, even poorer than myself–the death of his lordship's grandmother, Lady Frances Coningsby, had not then placed him above the penury of his own small income.
"Lord Malden's attentions to me again exposed him to all the humiliation of former periods. The Prince assured me once more of his wishes to renew our former friendship and affection, and urged me to meet him at the house of Lord Malden in Clarges Street. I was at this period little less than frantic, deeply involved in debt, persecuted by my enemies, and perpetually reproached by my relations. I would joyfully have resigned an existence now become to me an intolerable burthen; yet my pride was not less than my sorrow, and I resolved, whatever my heart might suffer, to wear a [Page 188] placid countenance when I met the inquiring glances of my triumphant enemies.
"After much hesitation, by the advice of Lord Malden, I consented to meet his Royal Highness. He accosted me with every appearance of tender attachment, declaring that he had never for one moment ceased to love me, but that I had many concealed enemies, who were exerting every effort to undermine me. We passed some hours in the most friendly and delightful conversation, and I began to flatter myself that all our differences were adjusted. But what words can express my surprise and chagrin, when, on meeting his Royal Highness the very next day in Hyde Park, he turned his head to avoid seeing me, and even affected not to know me !
"Overwhelmed by this blow, my distress knew no limits. Yet heaven can witness the truth of my assertion, even in this moment of complete despair, when oppression bowed me to the earth, I blamed not the Prince. I did then, and ever shall, consider his mind as nobly and honourably organised, nor could I teach myself to believe that a heart, the seat of so many virtues, could possibly become inhuman and unjust. I had been taught from my [Page 189] infancy to believe that elevated stations are surrounded by delusive visions, which glitter but to dazzle, like an unsubstantial meteor, and flatter to betray. With legions of these phantoms it has been my fate to encounter; I have been unceasingly marked by their persecutions, and shall at length become their victim."
Here the narrative of Mrs. Robinson breaks off, with some reflections to which the recital had given rise. Though diligent search has been made to elucidate the obscurity in which the preceding events are involved, but little information has been gained. All that can be learned with certainty is her final separation from the Prince of Wales in the year 1781.
The genius and engaging manners of Mrs. Robinson, who was still very young, had procured her the friendship of many of the most enlightened men of this age and country; her house was the rendezvous of talents. While yet unconscious of the powers of her mind, which had scarcely then unfolded itself, she was honoured with the acquaintance and esteem of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Messrs. Sheridan, Burke, Henderson, Wilkes, Sir John Elliot, &c., men of distinguished talents and character. But though surrounded by the wise, the witty, and [Page 190] the gay, her mind, naturally pensive, was still devoured by secret sorrow; neither could the blandishments of flattery, nor the soothings of friendship, extract the arrow that rankled in her heart. Involved beyond the power of extrication, she determined on quitting England, and making a tour to Paris.
To desert her country, to fly like a wretched fugitive, or to become a victim to the malice, and swell the triumph of her enemies, were the only alternatives that seemed to present themselves. Flight was humiliating and dreadful, but to remain in England was impracticable. The terrors and struggles of her mind became almost intolerable, and nearly deprived her of reason. The establishment of the Prince had now taken place; to him, for whom she had made every sacrifice, and to whom she owed her present embarrassments, she conceived herself entitled to appeal for redress. She wrote to his Royal Highness, but her letter remained unanswered. The business was at length submitted to the arbitration of Mr. Fox, and, in 1783, her claims were adjusted by the grant of an annuity of five hundred pounds, the moiety of which was to descend to her daughter at her decease. This settlement was to be considered as an equivalent [Page 191] for the bond of twenty thousand pounds given by the Prince to Mrs. Robinson, to be paid on his establishment, as a consideration for the resignation of a lucrative profession at the particular request of his Royal Highness. To many persons the assurance of an independence would have operated as a consolation for the sufferings and difficulties by which it had been procured; but the spirit of Mrs. Robinson bent not to a situation which the delicacy of her feelings led her to consider as a splendid degradation.
About this period Mrs. Robinson, notwithstanding the change in her affairs, determined to visit Paris, to amuse her mind and beguile her thoughts from the recollection of past scenes. Having procured letters of introduction to some agreeable French families, and also to Sir John Lambert, resident English banker at Paris, she quitted London, with the resolution of passing two months in the gay and brilliant metropolis of France. Sir John Lambert, on being informed of her arrival, exerted himself to procure for her commodious apartments, a remise, a box at the opera, with all the fashionable and expensive et-ceteras with which an inexperienced English traveller is immediately provided.
This venerable chevalier united to the cordi-[Page 192] ality of the English character the bienfaisance of a Frenchman–every hour was devoted to the amusement of his admired guest, who came to him highly recommended. Parties were, with the most flattering assiduity, formed for the different spectacles and places of public entertainment. A brilliant assemblage of illustrious visitors failed not to grace at the opera the box of la belle Anglaise.
A short time after the arrival of Mrs. Robinson at Paris, the Duke of Orleans and his gallant friend and associate, the Duke de Lauzun (afterwards Duke de Biron) were presented to her by Sir John Lambert. This unfortunate prince, with all the volatility of the national character, disgraced human nature by his vices, while the elegance of his manners rendered him a model to his contemporaries.
The Duke of Orleans immediately professed himself devoted to the fair stranger. His libertine manners, the presumption with which he declared his determination to triumph over the heart of Mrs. Robinson, assisted to defend her against him; and, while he failed to dazzle her imagination by his magnificence, he disgusted her by his hauteur.
The most enchanting fêtes were given at
from an Engraving by Daniell after Dance
In the evening, amidst a magnificent illumination, every tree displayed the initials of la belle Anglaise, composed of coloured lamps, interwoven with wreaths of artificial flowers. Politeness compelled Mrs. Robinson to grace with her presence a fête instituted to her honour. She, however, took the precaution of selecting for her companion a German lady, then resident at Paris, while the venerable chevalier Lambert attended them as a chaperon.
Some days after the celebration of this festival, the Queen of France signified her intention of dining in public, for the first time after her accouchement with the Duke of Normandy, afterwards Dauphin. The duke brought to [Page 194] Mrs. Robinson a message from the Queen, expressing a wish that la belle Anglaise might be induced to appear at the grand couvert. Mrs. Robinson, not less solicitous to behold the lovely Marie Antoinette, gladly availed herself of the intimation, and immediately began to prepare for the important occasion. The most tasteful ornaments of Mademoiselle Bertin, the reigning milliner, were procured to adorn a form that, rich in native beauty, needed little embellishment. A pale green lustring train and body, with a tiffany petticoat, festooned with bunches of the most delicate lilac, were chosen by Mrs. Robinson for her appearance, while a plume of white feathers adorned her head; the native roses of her cheeks, glowing with health and youth, were stained, in conformity to the fashion of the French Court, with the deepest rouge.
On the arrival of the fair foreigner, the Duke d'Orleans quitted the King on whom he was then in waiting, to procure her a place, where the Queen might have an opportunity of observing those charms by the fame of which her curiosity had been awakened.
The grand convert, at which the King acquitted himself with more alacrity than grace, [Page 195] afforded a magnificent display of epicurean luxury. The Queen ate nothing. The slender crimson cord, which drew a line of separation between the royal epicures and the gazing plebeians, was at the distance but of a few feet from the table. A small space divided the Queen from Mrs. Robinson, whom the constant observation and loudly whispered encomiums of Her Majesty most oppressively flattered. She appeared to survey, with peculiar attention, a miniature of the Prince of Wales, which Mrs. Robinson wore on her bosom, and of which, on the ensuing day, she commissioned the Duke of Orleans to request the loan. Perceiving Mrs. Robinson gaze with admiration on her white and polished arms, as she drew on her gloves, the Queen again uncovered them, and leaned for a few moments on her hand. The Duke, on returning the picture, gave to the fair owner a purse, netted by the hand of Antoinette, and which she had commissioned him to present, from her, to la belle Anglaise. Mrs. Robinson not long after these events quitted Paris, and returned to her native country.
In 1784 her fate assumed a darker hue. She was attacked by a malady, to which she had nearly fallen a victim. By an imprudent ex-[Page 196] posure to the night air in travelling, when, exhausted by fatigue and mental anxiety, she slept in a chaise with the windows open, she brought on a fever, which confined her to her bed during six months. The disorder terminated at the conclusion of that period in a violent rheumatism, which progressively deprived her of the use of her limbs. Thus, at four-and-twenty years of age, in the pride of youth and the bloom of beauty, was this lovely and unfortunate woman reduced to a state of more than infantile helplessness. Yet, even under so severe a calamity, the powers of her mind and the elasticity of her spirits triumphed over the weakness of her frame. This check to the pleasures and vivacity of youth, by depriving her of external resource, led her to the more assiduous cultivation and development of her talents. But the resignation with which she had submitted to one of the severest of human calamities gave place to hope, on the assurance of her physician, that by the mild air of a more southern climate she might probably be restored to health and activity.
The favourite wish of her heart, that of beholding her relations, from whom she had been so many years divided, it was now in her power [Page 197] to gratify. From her elder brother she had frequently received invitations, the most pressing and affectionate, to quit for ever a country where an unprotected woman rarely fails to become the victim of calumny and persecution, and to take shelter in the bosom of domestic tranquillity, where peace, to which she had long been a stranger, might still await her. Delighted with the idea of combining with the object of her travels an acquisition so desirable, and after which her exhausted heart panted, she eagerly embraced the proposal, and set out to Paris, with the resolution of proceeding to Leghorn. But a letter, on her arrival, from her physician, prescribing the warm baths of Aix-la-Chapelle in Germany, as a certain restorative for her complaints, frustrated her plans Once more she proceeded in melancholy pursuit of that blessing which she was destined never more to obtain.
During her sojourn at Aix-la-Chapelle, a dawn of comparative tranquillity soothed her spirits. Secure from the machinations of her enemies, she determined, though happiness seemed no more within her reach, to endeavour to be content. The assiduities and attentions shown her by all ranks of people presented a [Page 198] striking medium between the volatility and libertine homage offered to her at Paris, and the persevering malignity which had followed her in her native land. Her beauty, the affecting state of her health, the attraction of her manners, and the powers of her mind, interested every heart in her favour; while the meekness with which she submitted to her fate excited an admiration not less fervent, and more genuine, than her charms in the full blaze of their power had ever extorted.
Among the many illustrious and enlightened persons then resident at Aix-la-Chapelle who honoured Mrs. Robinson by their friendship, she received from the late amiable and unfortunate Duke and Duchess du Châtelet peculiar marks of distinction. The Duke had, while ambassador in England, been the friend and associate of the learned Lord Mansfield; his Duchess, the élève of Voltaire, claimed as her godmother Gabrielle Emilia, Baroness du Châtelet, so celebrated by that lively and admirable writer. This inestimable family, consisting of the Duke and Duchess, their nephews the Counts de Damas, and a niece married to the Duke de Simianne, were indefatigable in their efforts to solace the affliction [Page 199] and amuse the mind of their fair friend. Balls, concerts, rural breakfasts, succeeded to each other in gay and attractive variety; the happy effects produced on the health and spirits of Mrs. Robinson were considered by this English family as an ample compensation for their solicitude. When compelled by severer paroxysms of her malady to seclude herself from their society, a thousand kind stratagems were planned and executed to relieve her sufferings, or soften the dejection to which they unavoidably gave rise. Sometimes, on entering her dark and melancholy bath, the gloom of which was increased by high grated windows, she beheld the surface of the water covered with rose-leaves, while the vapour baths were impregnated with aromatic odours. The younger part of the family, when pain deprived Mrs. Robinson of rest, frequently passed the night beneath her windows, charming her sufferings and beguiling her of her sorrows, by singing her favourite airs to the accompaniment of the mandolin.
Thus, in despite of sickness, glided away two agreeable winters, when the transient gleam of brightness became suddenly obscured, and her prospects involved in deeper shade. [Page 200]
About this period Mrs. Robinson had the misfortune to lose her brave and respected father–a blow as forcible as unexpected, which nearly shook her faculties, and, for a time, wholly overwhelmed her spirits. Captain Darby had, on the failure of his fortunes, been presented to the command of a small ordnance vessel, through the interest of some of his noble associates in the Indian expedition. Not having been regularly bred to the sea, this was the only naval appointment which he could receive. Enthusiastically attached to his profession, he omitted no occasion of signalising himself. The siege of Gibraltar, in the year 1783, afforded to him an opportunity after which he had long panted, when his small vessel and gallant crew extorted by their courage and exertions the admiration and applause of the fleet. Having fought till his rigging was nearly destroyed, he turned his attention to the sinking Spaniards, whom he sought to snatch from the flaming wrecks, floating around him in all directions, and had the satisfaction to preserve, though at the hazard of his life, some hundreds of his fellow beings. The vessel of Captain Darby was the first that reached the rock by nearly an hour. On his landing, General Elliot re-[Page 201] ceived and embraced him with the plaudits due to his gallant conduct.
In the presence of his officers, the general lamented that so brave a man had not been bred to a profession to which his intrepidity would have done distinguished honour. To this eulogium he added, that, with the courage of a lion, Captain Darby possessed the firmness of the rock which he had so bravely defended.
To his care was entrusted by the commander a copy of the despatches, which Captain Darby delivered four-and-twenty hours before the arrival of the regular vessel. For this diligence, and the conduct which had preceded it, he received the thanks of the Board of Admiralty, while on the other captain was bestowed the more substantial recompense of five hundred pounds. An injustice so glaring was not calculated to lessen Captain Darby's distaste for England, which he quitted, after taking of his unhappy family an affectionate farewell.
At sixty-two years of age, he set out to regain in a foreign country the fortune he had sacrificed in the service of his own. With powerful recommendations from the Duke of [Page 202] Dorset and the Count de Simolin, he proceeded to Petersburg. From the Count de Simolin he continued to experience, till the latest period of his existence, a steady and zealous friendship. Captain Darby had been but two years in the Russian imperial service, when he was promoted to the command of a seventy-four gun ship, with a promise of the appointment of admiral on the first vacancy. On the 5th of December, 1785, death put a stop to his career. He was buried with military honours, and attended to the grave by his friends, Admiral Greig, the Counts Czernichef and De Simolin, with the officers of the fleet. 1 [Page 203]
This honourable testimony to her father's worth was the only consolation remaining to [Page 204] his daughter, whose enfeebled health and broken spirits sunk beneath these repeated strokes. [Page 205]
During the four succeeding years of the life of Mrs. Robinson, but few events occurred [Page 206] worthy of remark. In search of lost health, which she had so long and vainly pursued, she determined to repair to the baths of St. Amand, in Flanders, those receptacles of loathsome mud, and of reptiles, unknown to other soils, which fasten on the bodies of those who bathe. Mrs. Robinson made many visits to these distasteful ditches before she could prevail on herself to enter them. Neither the example of her fellow-sufferers, nor the assurance of cures performed by their wonderful efficacy, could for a long time overcome her disgust. At length, solicitude for the restoration of her health, added to the earnest remonstrances of her friends, determined her on making the effort. For the purpose of being near the baths, which must be entered an hour before the rising of the sun, she hired a small but beautiful cottage near the spring, where she passed the summer of 1787. These peaceful vales and venerable woods were, at no distant period, destined to become the seat of war and devastation, and the very cottage in which Mrs. Robinson resided was converted into the headquarters of a Republican French general.
Every endeavour to subdue her disorder [Page 207]  proving ineffectual, Mrs. Robinson relinquished her melancholy and fruitless pursuit, and resolved once more to return to her native land. Proceeding through Paris, she reached England in the beginning of 1787, from which period may be dated the commencement of her literary career. On her arrival in London she was affectionately received by the few friends whose attachment neither detraction nor adverse fortunes could weaken or estrange. During an absence of five years death had made inroads in the little circle of her connections; many of those whose idea had been her solace in affliction, and whose welcome she had delighted to anticipate, were now, alas ! no more. 1
Once more established in London, and surrounded by social and rational friends, Mrs. [Page 208] Robinson began to experience comparative tranquillity. The Prince of Wales, with his brother the Duke of York, frequently honoured her residence with their presence; but the state of her health, which required more repose, added to the indisposition of her daughter, who was threatened by a consumptive disorder, obliged her to withdraw to a situation of greater retirement. Maternal solicitude for a beloved and only child now wholly engaged her attention; her assiduities were incessant and exemplary for the restoration of a being to whom she had given life, and to whom she was fondly devoted.
In the course of the summer she was ordered by her physician to Brighthelmstone, for the benefit of sea bathing. During hours of tedious watching over the health of her suffering child, Mrs. Robinson beguiled her anxiety by contemplating the ocean, whose successive waves, breaking upon the shore, beat against the wall of their little garden. To a mind naturally susceptible, and tinctured by circumstances with sadness, this occupation afforded a melancholy pleasure, which could scarcely be relinquished without regret. Whole nights were passed by Mrs. Robinson at her window in deep medita-
from an Engraving by Birch after Reynolds
Every device which a kind and skilful nurse could invent to cheer and amuse her charge was practised by this affectionate mother, during the melancholy period of her daughter's confinement. In the intervals of more active exertion, the silence of a sick chamber proving favourable to the muse, Mrs. Robinson poured forth those poetic effusions which have done so much honour to her genius and decked her tomb with unfading laurels. Conversing one evening with Mr. Richard Burke,1 respecting the facility with which modern poetry was composed, Mrs. Robinson repeated nearly the whole of those beautiful lines, which were afterwards given to the public, addressed–"To him who will understand them."
THOU art no more my bosom's friend;
Here must the sweet delusion end,
That charm'd my senses many a year,
Through smiling summers, winters drear.
O, friendship ! am I doom'd to find
Thou art a phantom of the mind ?
A glitt'ring shade, an empty name,
An air-born vision's vap'rish flame ?
And yet, the dear deceit so long
Has wak'd to joy my matin song,
Has bid my tears forget to flow,
Chas'd ev'ry pain, soothed ev'ry woe;
That truth, unwelcome to my ear,
Swells the deep sigh, recalls the tear,
Gives to the sense the keenest smart,
Checks the warm pulses of the heart,
Darkens my fate, and steals away
Each gleam of joy through life's sad day.
Britain, farewell ! I quit thy shore,
My native country charms no more;
No guide to mark the toilsome road;
No destin'd clime; no fix'd abode:
Alone and sad, ordain'd to trace
The vast expanse of endless space;
To view, upon the mountain's height,
Through varied shades of glimm'ring light,
The distant landscape fade away
In the last gleam of parting day:
Or, on the quiv'ring lucid stream,
To watch the pale moon's silv'ry beam;
Or when, in sad and plaintive strains
The mournful Philomel complains,
In dulcet notes bewails her fate,
And murmurs for her absent mate;
Inspir'd by sympathy divine,
I'll weep her woes–for they are mine.
Driven by my fate, where'er I go
O'er burning plains, o'er hills of snow,
Or on the bosom of the wave,
The howling tempest doom'd to brave,–
Where'er my lonely course I bend,
Thy image shall my steps attend;
Each object I am doom'd to see,
Shall bid remem'brance picture thee.
Yes; I shall view thee in each flow'r,
That changes with the transient hour:
Thy wand'ring fancy I shall find
Borne on the wings of every wind:
Thy wild impetuous passions trace
O'er the white wave's tempestuous space:
In every changing season prove
An emblem of thy wav'ring love.
Torn from my country, friends, and you,
The world lies open to my view;
New objects shall my mind engage;
I will explore th' historic page;
Sweet poetry shall soothe my soul;
Philosophy each pang control:
The muse I'll seek– her lambent fire
My soul's quick senses shall inspire;
With finer nerves my heart shall beat,
Touch'd by heaven's own promethean heat;
Italia's gales shall bear my song
In soft-link'd notes her woods among;
Upon the blue hill's misty side,
Thro' trackless deserts waste and wide,
O'er craggy rocks, whose torrents flow
Upon the silver sands below.
Sweet land of melody ! 'tis thine
The softest passions to refine;
Thy myrtle groves, thy melting strains,
Shall harmonize and soothe my pains,
Nor will I cast one thought behind,
On foes relentless, friends unkind:
I feel, I feel their poison'd dart
Pierce the life-nerve within my heart;
'Tis mingled with the vital heat
That bids my throbbing pulses beat;
Soon shall that vital heat be o'er,
Those throbbing pulses beat no more !
No–I will breathe the spicy gale;
Plunge the clear stream, new health exhale;
O'er my pale cheek diffuse the rose,
And drink oblivion to my woes.
This improvisatore produced in her auditor not less surprise than admiration, when solemnly assured by its author that this was the first time of its being repeated. Mr. Burke 1 entreated her to commit the poem to writing, a request which was readily complied with. Mrs. Robinson had afterwards the gratification of finding this offspring of her genius inserted in the Annual Register, with a flattering encomium from the pen of the eloquent and ingenious editor .
Mrs. Robinson continued to indulge in this solace for her dejected spirits, and in sonnets, elegies, and odes, displayed the powers and versatility of her mind. On one of these nights [Page 213] of melancholy inspiration she discovered from her window a small boat, struggling in the spray, which dashed against the wall of her garden. Presently two fishermen brought on shore in their arms a burthen, which, notwithstanding the distance, Mrs. Robinson perceived to be a human body, which the fishermen, after covering with a sail from their boat, left on the land and disappeared. But a short time elapsed before the men returned, bringing with them fuel, with which they vainly endeavoured to reanimate their unfortunate charge. Struck with a circumstance so affecting, which the stillness of the night rendered yet more impressive, Mrs. Robinson remained some time at her window motionless with horror. At length, recovering her recollection, she alarmed the family; but before they could gain the beach the men had again departed. The morning dawned, and day broke in upon the tragical scene. The bathers passed and repassed with little concern, while the corpse continued extended on the shore, not twenty yards from the Steine. During the course of the day many persons came to look on the body, which still remained unclaimed and unknown. Another day wore away and the corpse was [Page 214]  unburied, the lord of the manor having refused to a fellow-being a grave in which his bones might decently repose, alleging as an excuse, that he did not belong to that parish. Mrs. Robinson, humanely indignant at the scene which passed, exerted herself, but without success, to procure by subscription a small sum for performing the last duties to a wretched outcast. Unwilling, by an ostentatious display of her name, to offend the higher and more fastidious female powers, she presented to the fishermen her own contribution, and declined farther to interfere. The affair dropped; and the body of the stranger, being dragged to the cliff, was covered by a heap of stones, without the tribute of a sigh or the ceremony of a prayer.
These circumstances made on the mind of Mrs. Robinson a deep and lasting impression; even at a distant period she could not repeat them without horror and indignation. This incident gave rise to the poem entitled "The Haunted Beach," written but a few months before her death.
In the winter of 1790, Mrs. Robinson entered into a poetical correspondence with Mr. Robert Merry, under the fictitious names of "Laura," [Page 215] and "Laura Maria"; Mr. Merry assuming the title of "Della Crusca." 1
Mrs. Robinson now proceeded in her literary career with redoubled ardour; but, dazzled by the false metaphors and rhapsodical extravagance of some contemporary writers, she suffered her judgment to be misled and her taste to be perverted: an error of which she became afterwards sensible. During her poetical disguise, many complimentary poems were addressed to her; several ladies of the Blue Stocking Club, while Mrs. Robinson remained unknown, even ventured to admire, nay more, to recite her productions in their learned and critical coterie.
The attention which this novel species of correspondence excited, and the encomiums which were passed on her poems, could not fail to gratify the pride of the writer, who sent her next performance, with her own signature, to the paper published under the title of The World, avowing herself at the same time the author of the lines signed "Laura," and "Laura Maria." This information being received by Mr. Bell, though a professed admirer of the genius of Mrs. Robinson, with some degree of [Page 216] scepticism, he replied, "That the poem with which Mrs. Robinson had honoured him was vastly pretty; but that he was well acquainted with the author of the productions alluded to." Mrs. Robinson, a little disgusted at this incredulity, immediately sent for Mr. Bell, whom she found means to convince of her veracity, and of his own injustice.
In 1791 Mrs. Robinson produced her quarto poem, entitled "Ainsi va le Monde." This work, containing three hundred and fifty lines, was written in twelve hours, as a reply to Mr. Merry's "Laurel of Liberty," which was sent to Mrs. Robinson on a Saturday; on the Tuesday following the answer was composed and given to the public.
Encouraged by popular approbation beyond her most sanguine hopes, Mrs. Robinson now published her first essay in prose, in the romance of Vancenza, of which the whole edition was sold in one day, and of which five impressions have since followed. It must be confessed that this production owed its popularity to the celebrity of the author's name, and the favourable impression of her talents given to the public by her poetical compositions, rather than to its intrinsic merit. In the same year the poems of [Page 217] Mrs. Robinson were collected and published in one volume. The names of nearly six hundred subscribers, of the most distinguished rank and talents, graced the list which precedes the work.
The mind of Mrs. Robinson, beguiled by these pursuits from preying upon itself, became gradually reconciled to the calamitous state of her health; the mournful certainty of total and incurable lameness, while yet in the bloom and summer of life, was alleviated by the consciousness of intellectual resource, and by the activity of a fertile fancy. In 1791 she passed the greater part of the summer at Bath, occupied in lighter poetical compositions. But even from this relief she was now for a while debarred: the perpetual exercise of the imagination and intellect, added to a uniform and sedentary life, affected the system of her nerves, and contributed to debilitate her frame. She was prohibited by her physician, not merely from committing her thoughts to paper, but, had it been possible, from thinking at all. No truant, escaped from school, could receive more pleasure in eluding a severe master, than did Mrs. Robinson, when, the vigilance of her physician relaxing, she could once more resume her books and her pen. [Page 218]
As an example of the facility and rapidity with which she composed, the following anecdote may be given. Returning one evening from the bath, she beheld, a few paces before her chair, an elderly man, hurried along by a crowd of people, by whom he was pelted with mud and stones. His meek and unresisting deportment exciting her attention, she inquired what were his offences, and learned with pity and surprise that he was an unfortunate maniac, known only by the appellation of "mad Jemmy." The situation of this miserable being seized her imagination and became the subject of her attention. She would wait whole hours for the appearance of the poor maniac, and, whatever were her occupations, the voice of "mad Jemmy." was sure to allure her to the window. She would gaze upon his venerable but emaciated countenance with sensations of awe almost reverential, while the barbarous persecutions of the thoughtless crowd never failed to agonise her feelings.
One night after bathing, having suffered from her disorder more than usual pain, she swallowed, by order of her physician, near eighty drops of laudanum. Having slept for some hours, she awoke, and calling her daughter, [Page 219] desired her to take a pen and write what she should dictate. Miss Robinson, supposing that a request so unusual might proceed from the delirium excited by the opium, endeavoured in vain to dissuade her mother from her purpose. The spirit of inspiration was not to be subdued, and she repeated, throughout, the admirable poem of "The Maniac," 1 much faster than it could be committed to paper.
She lay, while dictating, with her eyes closed, apparently in the stupor which opium frequently produces, repeating like a person talking in her sleep. This affecting performance, produced in circumstances so singular, does no less credit to the genius than to the heart of the author.
On the ensuing morning Mrs. Robinson had only a confused idea of what had passed, nor could be convinced of the fact till the manuscript was produced. She declared that she had been dreaming of mad Jemmy throughout the night, but was perfectly unconscious of having been awake while she composed the poem, or of the circumstances narrated by her daughter.
Mrs. Robinson, in the following summer, determined on another continental tour, purposing to remain some time at Spa. She [Page 220] longed once more to experience the friendly greeting and liberal kindness which even her acknowledged talents had in her native country failed to procure. She quitted London in July, 1792, accompanied by her mother and daughter. The susceptible and energetic mind, fortunately for its possessor, is endowed with an elastic power, that enables it to rise again from the benumbing effects of those adverse strokes of fortune to which it is but too vulnerable. If a lively imagination add poignancy to disappointment, it also has in itself resources unknown to more equal temperaments. In the midst of the depressing feelings which Mrs. Robinson experienced in once more becoming a wanderer from her home, she courted the inspiration of the muse, and soothed, by the following beautiful stanzas, the melancholy sensations that oppressed her heart.
Ah ! within my bosom beating,
Varying passions wildly reign;
Love, with proud Resentment meeting,
Throbs by turns, of joy and pain.
Joy, that far from foes I wander,
Where their taunts can reach no more;
Pain, that woman's heart grows fonder
When her dream of bliss is o'er !
Love, by fickle fancy banish'd,
Spurn'd by hope, indignant flies;
Yet when love and hope are vanish'd,
Restless mem'ry never dies.
Far I go, where fate shall lead me,
Far across the troubled deep;
Where no stranger's ear shall heed me,
Where no eye for me shall weep.
Proud has been my fatal passion !
Proud my injured heart shall be !
While each thought, each inclination,
Still shall prove me worthy thee !
Not one sigh shall tell my story;
Not one tear my cheek shall stain;
Silent grief shall be my glory,–
Grief, that stoops not to complain !
Let the bosom prone to ranging,
Still by ranging seek a cure;
Mine disdains the thought of changing,
Proudly destin'd to endure.
Yet, ere far from all I treasur'd,
– ere I bid adieu;
Ere my days of pain are measur'd,
Take the song that's still thy due !
Yet, believe, no servile passions
Seek to charm thy vagrant mind;
Well I know thy inclinations,
Wav'ring as the passing wind.
I have lov'd thee,–dearly lov'd thee,
Through an age of worldly woe;
How ungrateful I have prov'd thee
Let my mournful exile show !
Ten long years of anxious sorrow,
Hour by hour I counted o'er;
Looking forward, till to-morrow,
Every day I lov'd thee more !
Pow'r and splendour could not charm me;
I no joy in wealth could see !
Nor could threats or fears alarm me,
Save the fear of losing thee !
When the storms of fortune press'd thee,
I have wept to see thee weep !
When relentless cares distress'd thee,
I have lull'd those cares to sleep !
When with thee, what ills could harm me ?
Thou couldst every pang assuage;
But when absent, nought could charm me;
Every moment seem'd an age.
Fare thee well, ungrateful rover !
Welcome Gallia's hostile shore:
Now the breezes waft me over;
Now we part–TO MEET NO MORE.
On landing at Calais Mrs. Robinson hesitated whether to proceed. To travel through Flanders, then the seat of war, threatened too many perils to be attempted with impunity; she determined therefore for some time to remain at Calais, the insipid and spiritless amusements of which presented little either to divert her attention or engage her mind. Her time passed in listening to the complaints of the impoverished aristocrats, or in attending to the air-built projects of their triumphant adversaries. The arrival of travellers from England, or the return of those from Paris, alone diversified the scene, and afforded a resource to the curious and active inquirer.
The sudden arrival of her husband gave a turn to the feelings of Mrs. Robinson: he had crossed the Channel for the purpose of carrying back to England his daughter, whom he wished to present to a brother newly returned from the East Indies. Maternal conflicts shook on this occasion the mind of Mrs. Robinson, which [Page 224] hesitated between a concern for the interests of her beloved child, from whom she had never been separated, and the pain of parting from her. She resolved at length on accompanying her to England, and, with this view, quitted Calais on the memorable 2nd of September, 1792, 1 a day which will reflect on the annals of the Republic an indelible stain.
They had sailed but a few hours when the arrët arrived, by which every British subject throughout France was restrained.
Mrs. Robinson rejoiced in her escape, and anticipated with delight the idea of seeing her daughter placed in wealthy protection, the great passport in her own country to honour and esteem. Miss Robinson received from her new relation the promise of protection and favour, upon condition that she renounced for ever the filial tie which united her to both parents. This proposal was rejected by the young lady with proper principle and becoming spirit.
In the year 1793 a little farce, entitled Nobody, was written by Mrs. Robinson. This piece, designed as a satire on female gamesters, was received at the theatre, the characters dis-[Page 225] tributed, and preparations made for its exhibition. At this period one of the principal performers gave up her part, alleging that the piece was intended as a ridicule on her particular friend. Another actress also, though in "herself a host," was intimidated by a letter, informing her that "Nobody should be damned !" The author received likewise, on the same day, a scurrilous, indecent, and ill-disguised scrawl, signifying to her that the farce was already condemned. On the drawing up of the curtain, several persons in the galleries, whose liveries betrayed their employers, were heard to declare that they were sent to do up Nobody. Even women of distinguished rank hissed through their fans. Notwithstanding these man¦uvres and exertions, the more rational part of the audience seemed inclined to hear before they passed judgment, and, with a firmness that never fails to awe, demanded that the piece should proceed. The first act was accordingly suffered without interruption; a song in the second being unfortunately encored, the malcontents once more ventured to raise their voices, and the malignity that had been forcibly suppressed burst forth with redoubled violence. For three nights the theatre presented a scene [Page 226] of confusion, when the authoress, after experiencing the gratification of a zealous and sturdy defence, thought proper wholly to withdraw the cause of contention. 1
Mrs. Robinson in the course of this year lost her only remaining parent, whom she tenderly loved and sincerely lamented. Mrs. Darby expired in the house of her daughter, who, though by far the least wealthy of her children, had proved herself through life the most attentive and affectionate. From the first hour of Mr. Darby's failure and estrangement from his family, Mrs. Robinson had been the protector and the support of her mother. Even when pressed herself by pecuniary embarrassment, it had been her pride and pleasure to shelter her widowed parent, and preserve her from inconvenience.
Mrs. Darby had two sons, merchants, wealthy and respected in the commercial world; but to these gentlemen Mrs. Robinson would never suffer her mother to apply for any assistance [Page 227] that was not voluntarily offered. The filial sorrow of Mrs. Robinson on her loss for many months affected her health; even to the latest hour of her life her grief appeared renewed when any object presented itself connected with the memory of her departed mother.
Few events of importance occurred during the five following years, excepting that through this period the friends of Mrs. Robinson observed with concern the gradual ravages which indisposition and mental anxiety were daily making upon her frame. An ingenuous, affectionate, susceptible heart is seldom favourable to the happiness of the possessor. It was the fate of Mrs. Robinson to be deceived where she most confided, to experience treachery and ingratitude where she had a title to kindness and a claim to support. Frank and unsuspicious, she suffered her conduct to be guided by the impulse of her feelings; and, by a too credulous reliance on the apparent attachment of those whom she loved, and in whom she delighted to trust, she laid herself open to the impositions of the selfish, and the stratagems of the crafty.
In 1799 her increasing involvements and declining health pressed heavily upon her mind. [Page 228] She had voluntarily relinquished those comforts and elegancies to which she had been accustomed; she had retrenched even her necessary expenses, and nearly secluded herself from society. Her physician had declared that by exercise only could her existence be prolonged; yet the narrowness of her circumstances obliged her to forego the only means by which it could be obtained. Thus, a prisoner in her own house, she was deprived of every solace but that which could be obtained by the activity of her mind, which at length sank under excessive exertion and inquietude.
Indisposition had for nearly five weeks confined her to her bed, when, after a night of extreme suffering and peril, through which her physician hourly expected her dissolution, she had sunk into a gentle and balmy sleep. At this instant her chamber door was forcibly pushed open, with a noise that shook her enfeebled frame nearly to annihilation, by two strange and ruffian-looking men, who entered with barbarous abruptness. On her faintly inquiring the occasion of this outrage, she was informed that one of her unwelcome visitors was an attorney and the other his client, who had thus, with as little decency as humanity, [Page 229] forced themselves into the chamber of an almost expiring woman. The motive of this intrusion was to demand her appearance, as a witness, in a suit pending against her brother, in which these men were parties concerned. No entreaties could prevail on them to quit the chamber, where they both remained, questioning, in a manner the most unfeeling and insulting, the unfortunate victim of their audacity and persecution. One of them, the client, with a barbarous and unmanly sneer, turning to his confederate, asked, "Who, to see the lady they were now speaking to, could believe that she had once been called the beautiful Mrs. Robinson ?" To this he added other observations not less savage and brutal; and, after throwing on the bed a subpoena, quitted the apartment. The wretch who could thus, by insulting the sick, and violating every law of humanity and common decency, disgrace the figure of a man, was a professor and a priest of that religion which enjoins us–"not to break the bruised reed," "and to bind up the broken in heart !" His name shall be suppressed, through respect to the order of which he is an unworthy member. The consequences of this brutality upon the poor invalid were violent convulsions, [Page 230] which had nearly extinguished the struggling spark of life.
By slow degrees her malady yielded to the cares and skill of her medical attendants, and she was once more restored to temporary convalescence; but from that time her strength gradually decayed. Though her frame was shaken to its centre her circumstances compelled her still to exert the faculties of her mind.
The sportive exercises of fancy were now converted into toilsome labours of the brain–nights of sleepless anxiety were succeeded by days of vexation and dread.
About this period she was induced to undertake the poetical department for the editor of a morning paper, 1 and actually commenced a series of satirical odes, on local and temporary subjects, to which was affixed the signature of "Tabitha Bramble." Among these lighter compositions, considered by the author as unworthy of a place with her collected poems, a more matured production of her genius was occasionally introduced, of which the following "Ode to Spring," written April 30, 1780, is a beautiful and affecting example: [Page 231]
Varying the sea-green wave; while the young moon,
Scarce visible amid the warmer tints
Of western splendours, slowly lifts her brow
Modest and icy-lustred ! O'er the plain
The light dews rise, sprinkling the thistle's head,
And hanging its clear drops on the wild waste
Of broomy fragrance. Season of delight !
Thou soul-expanding pow'r, whose wondrous glow
Can bid all nature smile ! Ah ! why to me
Come unregarded, undelighting still
This ever-mourning bosom ? So I've seen
The sweetest flow'rets bind the icy urn;
The brightest sunbeams glitter on the grave;
And the soft zephyr kiss the troubled main,
With whispered murmurs. Yes, to me, O Spring !
Thou com'st unwelcom'd by a smile of joy;
To me ! slow with'ring to that silent grave
Where all is blank and dreary ! Yet once more
The Spring eternal of the soul shall dawn,
Unvisited by clouds, by storms, by change,
Radiant and unexhausted ! Then, ye buds,
Ye plumy minstrels, and ye balmy gales,
Adorn your little hour, and give your joys
To bless the fond world-loving traveller,
Who, smiling, measures the long flow'ry path
That leads to death ! For to such wanderers
Life is a busy, pleasing, cheerful dream,
And the last hour unwelcome. Not to me,
O ! not to me, stern Death, art thou a foe;
Thou art the welcome messenger, which brings
A passport to a blest and long repose
A just value was at that time set upon the [Page 233] exertions of Mrs. Robinson by the conductors of the paper, who "considered them as one of the principal embellishments and supports of their journal."
In the spring of 1800 she was compelled by the daily encroachments of her malady wholly to relinquish her literary employments.
Her disorder was pronounced by the physicians to be a rapid decline. Dr. Henry Vaughan, who to medical skill unites the most exalted philanthropy, prescribed, as a last resource, a journey to Bristol Wells. A desire once again to behold her native scenes induced Mrs. Robinson eagerly to accede to this proposal. She wept with melancholy pleasure at the idea of closing her eyes for ever upon a world of vanity and disappointment in the place in which she had first drawn breath, and terminating her sorrows on the spot which gave her birth; but even this sad solace was denied to her from a want of the pecuniary means for its execution. In vain she applied to those on whom honour, humanity, and justice, gave her undoubted claims. She even condescended to entreat, as a donation, the return of those sums granted as a loan in her prosperity. [Page 234]
The following is a copy of a letter addressed on this occasion to a noble debtor, and found among the papers of Mrs. Robinson after her decease:
"MY LORD,–Pronounced by my physicians to be in a rapid decline, I trust that your lordship will have the goodness to assist me with a part of the sum for which you are indebted to me. Without your aid I cannot make trial of the Bristol waters, the only remedy that presents to me any hope of preserving my existence. I should be sorry to die at enmity with any person; and you may be assured, my dear lord, that I bear none towards you. It would be useless to ask you to call on me; but if you would do me that honour, I should be happy, very happy, to see you, being,
"My dear lord,
To this letter no answer was returned ! ! Farther comments are unnecessary.
The last literary performance of Mrs. Robinson was a volume of Lyrical Tales. She [Page 235] repaired a short time after to a small cottage ornée, belonging to her daughter, near Windsor. Rural occupation and amusement, quiet and pure air, appeared for a time to cheer her spirits and renovate her shattered frame. Once more her active mind returned to its accustomed and favourite pursuits; but the toil of supplying the constant variety required by a daily print, added to other engagements, which she almost despaired of being capacitated to fulfil, pressed heavily upon her spirits, and weighed down her enfeebled frame. Yet, in the month of August, she began and concluded, in the course of ten days, a translation of Dr. Hager's "Picture of Palermo"–an exertion by which she was greatly debilitated. She was compelled, though with reluctance, to relinquish the translation of "The Messiah" of Klopstock, which she had proposed giving to the English reader in blank verse–a task particularly suited to her genius and the turn of her mind.
But, amidst the pressure of complicated distress, the mind of this unfortunate woman was superior to improper concessions, and treated with just indignation those offers of service which required the sacrifice of her integrity.
She yet continued, though with difficulty and [Page 236] many intervals, her literary avocations. When necessitated by pain and languor to limit her exertions, her unfeeling employers accused her of negligence. This inconsideration, though she seldom complained, affected her spirits and preyed upon her heart. As she hourly declined towards that asylum where "the weary rest," her mind seemed to acquire strength in proportion to the weakness of her frame. When no longer able to support the fatigue of being removed from her chamber, she retained a perfect composure of spirits, and, in the intervals of extreme bodily suffering, would listen while her daughter read to her, with apparent interest and collectedness of thought, frequently making observations on what would probably take place when she had passed that "bourn whence no traveller returns." The flattering nature of her disorder at times inspired her friends with the most sanguine hopes of her restoration to health; she would even herself, at intervals, cherish the idea. But these gleams of hope, like flashes of lightning athwart the storm, were succeeded by a deeper gloom, and the consciousness of her approaching fate returned upon the mind of the sufferer with increased conviction.
Within a few days of her decease she collected [Page 237] and arranged her poetical works, which she bound her daughter, by a solemn adjuration, to publish for her subscribers, and also the present Memoir. Requesting earnestly that the papers prepared for the latter purpose might be brought to her, she gave them into the hands of Miss Robinson, with an injunction that the narrative should be made public, adding, "I should have continued it up to the present time–but perhaps it is as well that I have been prevented. Promise me that you will print it !" The request of a dying parent, so made, and at such a moment, could not be refused. She is obeyed. Upon the solemn assurances of her daughter, that her last desire so strongly urged should be complied with, the mind of Mrs. Robinson became composed and tranquil; her intellects yet remained unimpaired, though her corporeal strength hourly decayed.
A short time previous to her death, during an interval of her daughter's absence from her chamber, she called an attending friend, whose benevolent heart and unremitting kindness will, it is hoped, meet hereafter with their reward, and entreated her to observe her last requests, adding, with melancholy tenderness, "I cannot talk to my poor girl on these sad subjects." Then, [Page 238] with an unruffled manner and minute precision, she gave orders respecting her interment, which she desired might be performed with all possible simplicity. "Let me," said she, with an impressive though almost inarticulate voice, "be buried in Old Windsor churchyard." For the selection of that spot she gave a particular reason. She also mentioned an undertaker, whose name she recollected having seen on his door, and whom she appointed from his vicinity to the probable place of her decease. A few trifling memorials, as tributes of her affection, were all the property she had to bequeath. She also earnestly desired that a part of her hair might be sent to two particular persons.
One evening, her anxious nurses, with a view to divert her mind, talked of some little plans to take place on her restoration to health. She shook her head with an affecting and significant motion. "Don't deceive yourselves," said she; "remember, I tell you, I am but a very little time longer for this world." Then pressing to her heart her daughter, who knelt by her bedside, she held her head for some minutes clasped against her bosom, which throbbed, as with some internal and agonising conflict. "Poor heart," murmured she, in a deep and stifled [Page 239] tone, what will become of thee !" She paused some moments, and at length struggling to assume more composure, desired in a calmer voice that some one would read to her. Throughout the remainder of the evening she continued placidly and even cheerfully attentive to the person who read, observing that, should she recover, she designed to commence a long work, upon which she would bestow great pains and time. "Most of her writings," she added, "had been composed in too much haste."
Her disorder rapidly drawing towards a period, the accumulation of the water upon her chest every moment threatened suffocation. For nearly fifteen nights and days she was obliged to be supported upon pillows, or in the arms of her young and affectionate nurses. 1 Her decease, through this period, was hourly expected. On the 24th of December she inquired how near was Christmas Day ! Being answered, "Within a few days "–"Yet," said she, "I shall never see it." The remainder of this melancholy day passed in undescribable tortures. Towards midnight, the sufferer exclaimed, "O God, O just and merciful God, help me to support this agony !" The whole [Page 240] of the ensuing day she continued to endure great anguish. In the evening a kind of lethargic stupor came on. Miss Robinson, approaching the pillow of her expiring mother, earnestly conjured her to speak, if in her power. "My darling Mary !" she faintly articulated, and spoke no more. In another hour she became insensible to the grief of those by whom she was surrounded, and breathed her last at a quarter past twelve on the following noon.
The body was opened, at the express wish of Drs. Pope and Chandler. The immediate cause of her death appeared to have been a dropsy on the chest; but the sufferings which she endured previously to her decease were probably occasioned by six large gall-stones found in the gall-bladder.
All her requests were strictly observed. Her remains were deposited, according to her direction, in the churchyard of Old Windsor; the spot was marked out by a friend to whom she had signified her wishes. The funeral was attended only by two literary friends.
Respecting the circumstances of the preceding narrative, every reader must be left to form his own reflections. To the humane mind, the [Page 241] errors of the unfortunate subject of this Memoir will appear to have been more than expiated by her sufferings. Nor will the peculiar disadvantages by which her introduction into life was attended, be forgotten by the candid–disadvantages that, by converting into a snare the bounties lavished on her by nature, proved not less fatal to her happiness than to her conduct. On her unhappy marriage, and its still more unhappy consequences, it is unnecessary to comment. Thus circumstanced, her genius, her sensibility, and her beauty combined to her destruction, while, by her exposed situation, her inexperience of life, her tender youth, with the magnitude of the temptations which beset her, she could scarcely fail of being betrayed.
"Say, ye severest–
–what would you have done ?"
The malady which seized her in the bloom of youth, and pursued her with unmitigable severity through every stage of life, till, in the prime of her powers, it laid her in a premature grave, exhibits, in the history of its progress, a series of sufferings that might disarm the sternest, soften the most rigid, and awaken pity [Page 242] in the hardest heart. Her mental exertions through this depressing disease, the elasticity of her mind and the perseverance of her efforts amidst numberless sources of vexation and distress, cannot fail, while they awaken sympathy, to extort admiration. Had this lovely plant, now withered and low in the dust, been in its early growth transplanted into a happier soil–sheltered from the keen blasts of adversity, and the mildew of detraction, it might have extended its roots, unfolded its blossoms, diffused its sweetness, shed its perfumes, and still flourished, beauteous to the eye, and grateful to the sense.
To represent the character of the individual in the circumstances of life, his conduct under those circumstances, and the consequences which they ultimately produce, is the peculiar province of biography. Little therefore remains to be added. The benevolent temper, the filial piety, and the maternal tenderness of Mrs. Robinson are exemplified in the preceding pages, as her genius, her talents, the fertility of her imagination and the powers of her mind are displayed in her productions, the popularity of which at least affords a presumption of their merit. Her manners were polished and conciliating, [Page 243] her powers of conversation rich and varied. The brilliancy of her wit and the sallies of her fancy were ever tempered by kindness and chastened by delicacy. Though accustomed to the society of the great, and paying to rank the tribute which civil institutions have rendered its due, she reserved her esteem and deference for those only whose talents or whose merits claimed the homage of the mind.
With the unfortunate votaries of letters she sincerely sympathised, and not unfrequently has been known to divide the profits of her genius with the less successful or less favoured disciples of the muse.
The productions of Mrs. Robinson, both in prose and verse, are numerous, and of various degrees of merit; but to poetry the native impulse of her genius appears to have been more peculiarly directed. Of the glitter and false taste exhibited in the Della Crusca correspondence 1 she became early sensible; several of her poems breathe a spirit of just sentiment and simple elegance. [Page 244]
Remembrance shall dwell on her smile,
And dwell on her lute and her song;
That sweetly my hours to beguile,
Oft echoed the valleys along.
Once more the fair scene let me view,
The grotto, the brook, and the grove
Dear valleys, for ever adieu !
Adieu to the DAUGHTER of LOVE !
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