Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herself. With Some Posthumous Pieces (in 4 vols.)
London: Wilks & Taylor, 1801.
London: Wilks & Taylor, 1801. First edition. Contemporary tree calf with gilt and morocco to spines. All edges speckled blue. Joints professionally secured and spine ends renewed. Retaining original labels to volumes I-II and with labels replaced to style on volumes III-IV. Measuring 160 x 90mm and collating complete with frontis to volume I: , 192; , 187, ; , 184; , 196. Containing her memoirs in the first two volumes, and her literary works previously unpublished in the final two volumes. Armorial bookplates of William O'Bryen, Marquis of Thomond to front pastedowns; ownership signature of Eliza O'Bryen to header of title to volume I. Small bookseller's ticket to front pastedown of volume I. A bit of foxing and offsetting to endpapers, but internally a crisp, fresh copy. Scarce institutionally and in trade, this exemplar of the scandalous memoir genre is held at a modest 20 libraries in the U.S. and has only appeared twice at auction in the last half century. The present is the only example on the market.
Following the death of the famed actress, writer, and courtesan Mary "Perdita" Robinson, it was her daughter Maria Elizabeth who accepted the commission of completing her mother's life story and bringing it to print. Robinson had begun her memoirs in the late 18th century, inspired in part by her close friendship with Mary Wollstonecraft. Like Wollstonecraft, she had a complex self-identification wherein being a professional, an intellectual, and a mother were not at odds but instead wove together. Critics have noted that Wollstonecraft's A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796) -- the first memoir of a woman traveling on business -- resonates within much of Robinson's own prose as she tells her life story.
Having come to notoriety first on the stage, most famously as Shakespeare's Perdita, and then as courtesan to the Prince of Wales, Robinson later "reinvented herself as a member of the radical intelligentsia and established a highly successful literary career that secured her place within the history of British Romanticism...and her Memoirs provides a rich source for considering the complexities of family relationships, collaborative authorship, female patronage, and artistic networks" (Culley). The Memoirs are indeed dominated by members of her female community; and her reflections on the women artists, writers, and sex workers who surround her "provide alternative models of female creativity from the maternal" (Culley). Robinson and her cohort are not entirely defined by their biological ability to bear children; and for those who do incorporate maternity into their lives and identities -- Robinson notable among them -- this is a choice rather than a given. Robinson revels in motherhood and her relationship with her daughter. In commissioning her own daughter to cap her literary legacy, Robinson was able to firmly insert Maria Elizabeth into this alternative feminine economy as well -- exposing her to the glories and pitfalls of celebrity based in intellectual and sexual reputation.
A Memoir and a historical figure that have gained traction in recent scholarship, and which deserve continued attention in dialogues about the scandalous memoir and women's life writing more generally. (Item #4986)