Beautiful and talented actress, poet and fashion icon, Mary Robinson was one of the most famous women of her time – yet she died virtually penniless, her reputation in ruins. For Mary was destined always to be betrayed by the men she loved – her father, her husband and, most seriously, by the Prince of Wales, later George IV, for whom Mary gave up her career, her husband and her independence, only to be cruelly abandoned. This is her enthralling story: a tale of ambition, passion, scandal and heartbreak.
Lady of Passion is a brief, but fairly comprehensive account of the life of Mary Robinson, one of the mistresses of George, Prince of Wales (later George IV). I know little about her, other than of her relationship with George and that he became enamoured of her when she was playing the role of Perdita in The Winter’s Tale. What I hadn’t known was that in her later years, she became well known as a poet and author – in fact, she had written poetry all her life and the publication of the odd volume here and there in fact helped to keep her financially solvent.
While in many ways she appears to have been dreadfully naïve – mostly about the men in her life – she was witty and intelligent, counting a number of political and literary figures among her friends – people such as David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, Richard Sheridan, the Duchess of Devonshire and Charles James Fox. Even though Mary is principally known for having been the mistress of a prince and a handful of other men, she appears to have been a woman of independent spirit (given the way her men treated her, I think she had little alternative!), and in fact struck up a friendship with Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous advocate of women’s rights in the 1790s.
Mary’s life wasn’t an easy one. Her father abandoned her and her mother when she was quite young, and while not destitute, they found it difficult to make ends meet. Barely out of girlhood, Mary was already attracting male attention and at the age of fifteen, and with her mother’s encouragement, she gave up her dream of a career on the stage and married Thomas Robinson, a young lawyer with good prospects.
Unfortunately however, Robinson proved to be dissolute and faithless, frequenting the gambling tables, taking a string of mistresses, and ultimately landing them in debtor’s prison.
Despite her husband’s infidelities, Mary never strayed, even though she was never short of men offering to act as her protector. It wasn’t until she attracted the interest of the young Prince of Wales (at seventeen, he was about five years her junior) that Mary finally fell in love and was convinced to break her marriage vows.
Their relationship was not long-lived, partly due to the pressure brought to bear on George by his father, and partly, I would imagine, through George’s own inclination. When their affair ended, Mary, having given up her stage career, was left with little alternative but to find herself another protector.
Mary’s life seems to have been one of high peaks and low troughs. Blissfully happy with her Prince, she was devastated when he abandoned her; having lived well beyond her means, she had to flee to the continent to escape her creditors, and when she returned three years later, she had been all but forgotten. Even though she was regarded as a demimondaine (a woman whose sexual promiscuity means she is not respectable in the eyes of good society), Mary did not take many lovers, and was faithful to those she did. When she finally met the man she described as the love of her life some years later, their fifteen-year relationship was a tempestuous one during which Mary had a traumatic miscarriage which seems to have brought on the rheumatism that afflicted her until her death.
One of the things that struck me as rather ironic was the fact that the press back in the 1780s seems to have acted in a very similar manner to today! As a famous actress, celebrated beauty and former royal mistress, Mary was often the target of unpleasant gossip in the news-sheets, and in the book, she frequently laments her regular inclusion in them, especially considering that the stories about her are untrue. Plus ça change, indeed.
In Lady of Passion, Mary comes across as an odd mixture of the naïve and the knowing. For an intelligent woman, she certainly made some bad decisions when it came to the men in her life, most of whom betrayed her with other women and were content to be financially dependent upon her. What that says about the men of that time, I’m not sure; perhaps Mary was a victim of her own circumstances – her beauty, her lack of fortune and a father-figure seem almost to have given her little choice as to the direction her life would take – or perhaps she suffered because of her own poor choices.
Whatever the case, hers is a compelling story. However, I do have reservations about the book which prevented me from rating it more highly; things which are to do with the execution rather than the content.
This is a matter of personal preference, I know, but I am not fond of historical fiction written in the first person. I find the viewpoint is often too limited, the style too simplistic and that it frequently leads to clunky exposition of the “as you know, Bob” variety, where information is inserted into conversations or thoughts in a very unrealistic manner because there is no other way to convey it to the reader.
But a review is always going to be subjective and as such, I recognise that others may not share my tastes. Were I rating the book for content alone, I would probably have given it 4 stars. Lady of Passion was easy to read and I got through it in two or three sittings. The story moves quickly – sometimes too quickly as I felt that there were times things were glossed over, but it did hold my interest, and I enjoyed reading it.