Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson – Paula Byrne

What? An entry with a single book? Since when is that something I do?

Oh, right, I used to do that all the time. Well. Enjoy it while it lasts…

Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson by Paula Byrne arrived in my mailbox a while back as a rabck. The previous journallers for this copy suggest that I should probably get around to reading Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman which is hanging around on my shelves somewhere, and I will, I will, but I thought – also from the comments – that I might as well read Perdita first, leaving the better book for desert, so to say.

In fact, I might as well not write much about Perdita, the first journaller says it all:

Mary Robinson was, without doubt, an extremely interesting and colourful figure, but this book fails to do justice to her story. The author flags up forthcoming information, continually repeats herself and includes so many quotes that the reader loses the plot altogether.

Well. I didn’t mind the quotations so much, but I got rather fed up with the incessant “more of that later”s and the endless repetitions. The most jarring repetitions were the tidbits of biography concerning peripheral characters. Whether you should even need to point out that the Duke of York is the Prince of Wales’ brother is a moot point (honestly, would you read a biography like this and not know that?), but when the information is repeated a few pages later – though now also mentioning the younger two – I simply feel condescended to. * As for the “more of that later”s the most annoying manifestation is I’m sure Byrne said she’d be telling us how Mary met Coleridge at some point, but she never did (or did I blink and miss it?). Not majorly important, and I may have dreamed that single foretelling, but still, it vexed me.

What actually really bothers me, though, is the book’s title. Let me quote a passage from Byrne herself:

The book’s [Mary Robinson’s Memoirs] frequent bouts of self-exculpation, together with its overwrought sentimental style and the unfortunate fact that it breaks off long before she began her career as a serious author, have damaged Robinson’s reputation, encouraging romantic novelists of later years to portray her as ‘Perdita’ the royal mistress rather than ‘Mrs Robinson’ the distinguished writer. As late as 1994, the Memoirs was republished under the title Perdita. (p 383)

Uhm. Yeah. Ok. I know. The publishers insisted, and even biographers must make a living somehow. In that case, perhaps a judicious edit or two – or a comment on your own choice of title would have been appropriate?

A flawed book, then. But on the whole, also an enjoyable book. I knew next to nothing about Mary Robinson, despite the abundance of women’s lit. courses I’ve suffered though, and I enjoyed getting to know her. I will certainly make sure I read one of her novels, at the very least. I suspect I have one or other of them, bundled into a Penguin classic with Maria Edgeworth or someone of the kind. I might even read Byrne’s Jane Austen and the Theatre (listed under “Also by Paula Byrne” at the beginning of the book) at some point, just because I tend to read books about Jane Austen (mind you, it’s been a while, too many books, too little time). But I won’t be in a hurry on that last one.

* (A footnote! Don’t you just love footnotes?)
I was going to use John Taylor as another example of the repetition of biographical tidbits, as I’m sure Byrne manages to mention him being an oculist-gone-publisher at least ten times throughout the book. However, being lazy, and not remembering the first name, I thought I’d simply search wikipedia for “Taylor oculist”. Ahem. Not that wikipedia is the be-all-and-end-all of knowledge, but there seems to be something fishy going on here and I’m going to have to look into it further (as that’s the kind of getting-totally-stuck-on-pretty-unimportant-details kind of person I am). Anyway. Wikipedia has John Taylor (oculist) listed as dying in 1772, when Mary was 15 (or thereabouts, see postscript in Byrne), and Byrne has John Taylor being one of Mary’s closest friends in 1794. Obviously not the same John Taylor. Wikipedia has another John Taylor who is billed as a British publisher, but he would have been 13 in 1794, a tad too young to be a confidante for a Mary in her late thirties. I will investigate further and get back to you.

None of this changes the tediousness of the repetition, of course.

4 thoughts to “Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson – Paula Byrne”

  1. Henry: You are probably right, this is why one Google search didn’t convince me I had the truth 😉 And, no, I never got around to searching further, so thank you for the link, it has saved me some trouble.

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