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Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson
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Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson

3.69  ·  Rating Details ·  495 Ratings  ·  44 Reviews
This compelling and richly researched book presents a fascinating portrait of Mary Robinson–darling of the London stage, mistress to the most powerful men in England, feminist thinker, and bestselling author. Though one of the most flamboyant free spirits of the late eighteenth century, Mary led a life that was marked by reversals of fortune. After being abandoned by her f ...more
Paperback, 464 pages
Published March 14th 2006 by Random House Trade Paperbacks (first published November 1st 2004)
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Mary Robinson lived a very interesting life in very interesting times. Famous stage actress, first mistress of Prince George (later George IV aka "Prinny"), influential fashion icon & trend setter, political activist, proto-feminist, loving mother, and celebrated poet/writer, Mary (aka "Perdita" from one of her most famous stage roles) embodied the culture and pagentry of the 18th century English world. She was arguably a woman born ahead of her time. A woman who had a sense of who she was a ...more
Sherwood Smith
Occasionally I have performed on stage. When that happened, the lights were so bright that I couldn't see beyond them, though one can hear the rustles and exhalations of a great crowd packed into a small space.

How much tougher must it have been in the eighteenth century, when candlelight was the most powerful source of light--when it was easy to watch the people in the boxes watching you?

This book was not only a meticulously researched account of a fascinating woman who, like so many eighteenth
Jan 31, 2011 TLW rated it really liked it
Shelves: historical
The more I read of 'classic' novels/historical biographies the more I realise people haven't really ever changed. I can identify with a Jane Austen heroine as much as I can with any modern character and it's easy to pick out the social stereotypes that still exist today. Perdita is an excellent example of this. I fell in love with Mary Robinson through this book - I genuinely hadn't realised such radical feminists had existed in the 1700s, plus her political beliefs still chime with me today. Sl ...more
Hazel Mills
Jul 28, 2016 Hazel Mills rated it liked it
I found the first three quarters of this book for more interesting than the last, partly due to the change in Mary Robinson's circumstances but also in the writing which didn't always hold my attention. It is however a most informative book about a really interesting woman who reinvented herself from actress to Royal mistress and then an author of both poetry and prose. I hadn't realised the word 'celebrity' had been around for so long!
The latter part of the book contains much more of a literary
Nov 25, 2010 Leslie rated it really liked it
What an interesting woman. I wish this book were twice as long or that someone would make a big, fancy expensive movie about her. I liked it more than Duchess of Devonshire and it would be a much better movie. Not so darn depressing. If you like Marie Antoinette and Duchess (both were in this woman's life), read this next!
Mar 03, 2010 Vivienne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, history

A highly researched biography of a fascinating woman who has for many years been ignored by history.

A fashion icon, actress and celebrity of her day she was also a woman of letters writing poetry and novels, a political radical and a feminist. I was very inspired by this life though it was quite dry in places.
Jan 26, 2009 Rebecca rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Actress, novelist, courtesan, poetess, fashion icon, feminist, 'most beautiful woman in England', political activist. All this, and Perdita even did time for debt!

*awed rendition of 'Mrs Robinson'*

Sarah Beth
Aug 04, 2015 Sarah Beth rated it liked it
Mary Robinson was an "actress, entertainer, author, provoker of scandal, fashion icon, sex object, darling of the gossip columns, self-promoter" (xvi). Born in 1757, she was considered by many to be "the most beautiful woman in England" (xv). So beautiful that the Prince of Wales, seeing her play the part of Perdita, began writing her love letters. She subsequently had the dubious honor of being the first of his mistresses. Her life was characterized by a series of misfortunes: her father essent ...more
Jul 06, 2014 Caroline rated it it was ok
This book is an interesting contrast to the previous book I read and reviewed, Claire Tomalin's Mrs Jordan's Profession. Both biographies are about Regency actresses who became royal mistresses, Mary Robinson to the Prince of Wales, subsequently George IV, and Dora Jordan to the Duke of Clarence, later William IV. Both women left the stage for their royal lovers, who subsequently abandoned them; although Dora Jordan's abandonment after twenty years contrasts strongly with Mary Robinson's fling o ...more
Apr 19, 2008 John rated it really liked it
Mary Robinson married young and not well (in her defense, she was duped into thinking that her suitor had an inheritance coming which, in fact, he did not) and she gave up a career in theater to do so, as such a profession was not socially acceptable for a proper woman. The couple lived beyond their means, which soon landed them in debtors' prison. Mary nevertheless stood by her husband quite a long time, even when she discovered an affair or two that he was having. She did, however, go into act ...more
The poor quality of Paula Byrne's writing in Perdita astounded me as I read it. She seemed to think that being a good biographer means having dozens of unnecessary excerpts from her subject's poems and novels (hello, this is a biography, not literary analysis) and infinite references to Mary's Robinson's autobiography that begin with "in the Memoirs Mary said," or "Mary wrote in the Memoirs..." In other words, Byrne's editor let her run a muck and fill up the book with filler that could have (an ...more
Feb 16, 2017 Jennifer rated it did not like it
Shelves: biography
I love biographies but this particular biography was a stinker. I felt no love for the subject and no love for the tremendous amount of effort used in order to describe the life of the being held under the microscope. I'm sorry but there it is.
Jenny Brown
Feb 15, 2012 Jenny Brown rated it it was amazing
An absolutely fascinating look at a woman I'd known nothing about despite having read quite a few 18th century women's novels that were resurrected by people active in women's studies in the 1980s. Byrne did a brilliant job not only of bringing alive her subject, very much "warts and all," but also gave us enough samples of her writing that we can get a feel for what Robinson did that her contemporaries admired so much and also why her work hasn't lasted the way that of some of her contemporarie ...more
Sep 14, 2012 Alexandra rated it it was ok
Couldn't really finish it - I found it a little dull, and I couldn't be convinced of her beauty or genius. I didn't really even know why I ever wanted to read this book - it had sat on my Amazon wishlist for too long, so I finally borrowed it from the library. I got as far as her visit to Wales to meet her husband's "uncle" (actually his father), and then I decided life was too short to carry on reading about someone I couldn't bring myself to care about. If she was such a literary genius, why a ...more
Peter Burton
Dec 28, 2015 Peter Burton rated it it was amazing
An excellent book about a woman I had never heard about - Mary Robinson,Perdita,beautiful,an actress,a woman with many rich lovers,including the Prince Regent,then let down by them,she turned to writing ( novels,poetry,plays ) and became an accomplished and respected literary figure but living in relative poverty and dying aged 43.She's the only woman to be painted by the 4 great painters of her day - Reynolds,Gainsbrough,Hoppner andConstable ( three are in the Wallace collection in London,one i ...more
Dec 08, 2007 Scarlettfish rated it really liked it
Mary Robinson was the Princess Diana of her day. Well, Princess Diana if she became a very accomplished writer. This is a great biography of a very clever and very famous woman. Mistress to the Prince of Wales (briefly), trend-setter, poet, essayist and novelist, Mary Robinson was one of the most fascinating people of late Georgian society. Paula Byrne tells her story in a very honest manner, not hiding the way Mary manipulated her image, but at the same time showing a great deal of respect for ...more
Sarah B.
Mary Robinson made some fascinating life choices, which are here outlined in painstakingly accurate detail. Sadly, the reader has to supply all the excitement, sympathy, outrage, and regret, as the author carefully sticks to only the documented facts. I'm confident that this is an excellent work of history, but it is not very readable. I made it as far as Mary's return from France (about 2/3 of the way through the book), but when she started her poetry career I had to put it down. Byrne's dry pr ...more
Virginia Van
A fascinating biography of Mary Robinson, better known in her early life as "Perdita". In a life full of ups and downs. her marriage lead her to debtors prison before she took to the stage to become a leading actress and the mistress of the Prince of Wales whose letters she would later use as blackmail to secure herself a pension. Struck by ill health at the hit of her fame, she went on to become a feminist thinker and bestselling author and poet.
Book Wormy
Jun 27, 2014 Book Wormy rated it liked it
I struggled with this as non fiction is not my thing but it is fascinating how a woman believed to have influenced Wordsworth, Mary Shelly, Samuel Coleridge and many others has essentially vanished from history.

Living in the 1700's Mary Robinson was more like a modern day independent woman.

She had numerous affairs most notably with the Prince of Wales.

The book contains extracts of her poems and novels and it has promted me to try and find some of her works.
Aug 03, 2011 Tina rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic introduction to an overlooked politically and socially active woman of the late 1700s. Thank you to Paula Byrne for rescuing Mary Robinson from oblivion. Mary Robinson was a woman out of her time, anti-slavery, pro-women's rights, and active and vocal in her opinions. Sadly maligned, she was as much a product of the celebrity world of her time as she was used and abused by it. A fascinating, eventful life, beautifully written by Ms Byrne. Very strongly recommended.
Ron Fortuna
Oct 31, 2016 Ron Fortuna rated it really liked it
A fascinating glimpse into the greedy, selfish world of George IV. Mary Robinson was the first of many women misused by the dastardly Prince. This well-researched book details the life of a fascinating, intelligent lady trying to make her way forward in a word where women had very limited options. Paula Byrne is able to flesh-out a very sympathetic character, very different from the tittle-tattle and gossip of the day. A very good read indeed.
Nov 03, 2010 Angela rated it really liked it
Very good biography of Mary Robinson. It was very interesting to see that she was an early advocate for the rights of women and slaves in her poetry and books. It was not something that women with good
reputations could do. A good companion book to this is The Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Forman. Both well researched books.
Alison Davis
Jul 15, 2016 Alison Davis rated it did not like it
This was our book club read for July and only one person finished it. Not sure what that says about our members but for me I found it too much of a labour. It is no doubt researched fantastically well but I felt it read like a thesis. I could not empathise with 'Perdita' at all. I guess that it demonstrated that a celebrity culture is nothing new but that was never enough to draw me in.
May 14, 2010 Lauren rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Byrne did a good job with a difficult subject. Not many letters existed from Mary's early years, so Byrne was left to weave together Mary's story from several untrustworthy sources: Mary's own memoirs, written with an eye towards how she wanted to be remembered; and tabloids of the time, which --just as tabloids of today--could be true, but were mostly false.
Jun 16, 2012 Lynne rated it really liked it
As someone who never reads non-fiction, and knows nothing about the time period I was surprised that I completed this book. Mary Robinson had an interesting life. I enjoyed that Byrne added some historical perspective. Although I thought that it read a bit like a textbook, I still would recommend this book.
Kimberly Halverson
too much of "she wrote this" but "it probably didn't happen this way"

the most interesting parts were the historical facts about life in the uk during that time

i made it halfway through and had to skim the rest
Dec 28, 2010 astrangerhere rated it really liked it
A fascinating book with far more twists and turns than many of the pop!historical novels that attempt to replicate the period. Mary Robinson could give a number of modern celbutants a number of lessons on remaking themselves and using the press to their advantage.
Mar 09, 2012 Dorothy rated it did not like it
Eh. Needed A LOT of editing. Got about 60% through it and just didn't care anymore. No tangential detail was excluded and much was just filler and adulation. I don't think Mary Robinson was a boring woman but one would not know it from this book.
Aug 08, 2009 Krystal rated it liked it
Byrne did an excellent job of exploring the three main "themes" of Robinson's life but she got a little heavy on the quotations of poetry for my tastes. Overall though, excellent biography - it's hard to make Mary Robinson boring...
Jul 25, 2012 Katy rated it liked it
Really fascinating insight into her life as actress mixing with aristocracy in c18. Split into 3 parts. First two superb and last less good as more focused on her life as an author. Definitely worth reading.
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Paula Byrne is a British author and biographer. She is married to writer Jonathan Bate, the Shakespeare scholar.
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