Mary Robinson: on trial in the public court.
DURING THE ROMANTIC PERIOD, THE WAYS IN WHICH NARRATIVE STRATEGIES of a variety of discourses influenced and helped construct each other's worlds in relation to the tensions produced by the socio-political stresses of the French Revolution were intensely focused on the family and its networks. These bi-directional influences were so successful that they have become normalized, the literary reflections of these influences being read as indelible textual strategies. This essay considers the production of narrative intersections in legal, popular culture, and literary discourses through the case of Mary Robinson (1758--1800) to examine how a woman celebrity, known for her sexual liaisons and acting career as much as for her copious literary production, and most famous for belonging to the pre-Regency constellation of the demi-monde, responded in nuanced ways to public representations of her--both ad hominem or scandal mongering publications, and politicized or critical public images--in her autobiographical poetry and fiction. These representations participated in the shifting relations between the public sphere and its irascible advocate, publicity. Robinson's literary responses were indirect, often deflecting attention away from her own story and sense of victimization toward the general cultural fate of women. I am particularly interested in Robinson's use of images of the stressed, fractured, or threatened family to expose a variety of gender inequalities that heightened men's political and social flexibility at the expense of women's. In Robinson's texts the family becomes denaturalized, its presumptive structure put in question, not because of female behavior but because of legal codes that safeguarded a cultural double standard in which manliness expends domestic ties. In order to flesh out the relation between legal and cultural standards in Robinson's textual bodies, I will be less concerned with the more obvious choices of her (seemingly) domesticating narratives--her Lyrical Tales for instance, or her novels depicting families in threat--and more concerned with those autobiographical texts that allow her to stage publicly the manly attacks of others on her person as an exploration of the gendered implications of such attacks, and to put forward a self-defense that redresses their legal sanctioning. (2)
1. Proper Discourses
To speak of propriety in relation to one of the more celebrated members of London's late eighteenth-century demi-monde may seem an odd beginning, except that Mary Robinson's literary career was in many ways a quest for respectability, and "proper" was not always a term applicable to the social elite. Neither the Prince of Wales nor any of the women sexually associated with him, including his wife, were able to muster this trait with any frequency, the exception being the mistress to which he repeatedly returned, Maria Fitzherbert. Discursive propriety must itself be held in relation to the fictional quality of any text; even in proper or defensible discourses disinterestedness vies with public interest. As the volume title I have taken for my epigraph reveals despite its disclaimer, the historical fact of legal transcriptions is self-interested: narratively framed as the exposure of private acts for public good, the title titillates even as it screens authorial scandal mongering. The same dynamic was at work in political cartoons of the day, whose immense popularity and often daily publication spread reputed or reported scandal faster than any verbal text could do. (3)
Facts must be balanced against images of the ideal woman and the ideal family that the press simultaneously used to rebuke and slander public figures whether they were "fairly represented, as becomes a faithful Historian" or misreported as becomes the partisan press. Mary Robinson was well aware of this truism as she struggled throughout her life to maintain a reputable character despite what must have seemed at times continuous onslaught in the press, with its vicious political caricatures. The exposure of public sphere assaults on individuals depended on assigning morally questionable intentions to individual or private acts, a dependence also necessary to the trade in criminal conversation or adultery narratives. ("Crim con" trials were suits for damages against the wife's lover, often preliminary to a Parliamentary divorce trial, but also occasionally used by husbands to lucratively pimp their wives. Narratives of these trials were usually anonymous scripts by law students and clerks, cheaply published.) (4) However, the press exposes were amplified by partisan conflict, character slander, and the substitution of proper character for caricature. These elements of public warfare, often amounting to publicity stunts, could take on the group quality of armies battling--Tories, Whigs and radicals fought each other by singling out individuals to stand for the whole--but for the individuals in question, public attack could feel like a dueling match to which they must respond in counter-feints or self-defense. Such an experience was fraught, however, for once individuals speak for themselves they step out of the synecdochal position publicly assigned them, and implicitly accept the charge of impropriety. Their published defense can now be publicly evaluated as a proper discourse or, to use the term for civil cases attempting monetary damages for adultery, as a criminal conversation. The analogy is helpful in understanding the tensions to which women were particularly vulnerable. By the mid-eighteenth century, monetary claims had largely replaced dueling to settle male disputes of honor, and by the 1780s and '90s the courts were virtually flooded with crim con cases. (5) Just as money had symbolically replaced the lawful exchange of sword thrusts or pistol shots, so discourse entered the symbolic realm of repute and character assassination as words became an acceptable vehicle for duels of honor, to be judged thereby. Improper characterization, whether unfounded press attacks or anti-republican, anti-social, or sexually titillating texts, might appeal to the public's love of partisan politicking and scandal, but personal defenses needed to abide by the public-sphere laws of warfare: one may be judged innocent or guilty, but he will be judged by men's laws. Women must know beforehand that these laws privilege idealized femininity, the erasure of real women, and a presumption of female guilt if a woman attempts to defend herself.
For a woman, the figurative charge of criminal conversation was whatever would single her out for publicized attack, whether in the law court, the press, or political cartoons, tarnishing her forever. In "Congreve's Way of the World and Popular Criminal Literature," John E. Loftis explores the relation between actual published accounts of trials and a dramatic scene in which crim con trials are used to leverage behavior in a play that may have influenced Robinson's self-interpretation as legally disenfranchised. (6) Loftis reads the concise dialogue of Congreve's scene to indicate the audience's familiarity with the "events and artifacts and the attitudes associated with them" as well as the way in which the threat of such a trial "embodies values and cultural attitudes in action" (562). Any woman who lived in the public eye needed to emphasize propriety and proper family relations to escape such charges; any woman who inhabited the "ton" as Mary Robinson did, dancing along the edge separating the demi-monde from polite society, was a chargeable target. And yet Robinson could not accept this fact of manly culture, and attempted throughout her career to assert her right to speak out in the public forum.
Although Mary Robinson was born to a respectable middle-class family, her American father's seafaring career and financial disasters eventually led to his desertion of the family, leaving wife and children to manage on their own. Despite this, Robinson received an intermittent formal education, including time at a finishing school north of Westminster where David Garrick saw her. Although she chose to marry rather than act with Garrick in King Lear (he offered to train her as Cordelia, giving her the confidence later to try acting), both options provided similar outcomes in her case. Her law clerk husband Thomas Robinson, an illegitimate son, had married her in an unsuccessful attempt to secure recognition and an inheritance from his father, and after the couple moved to London he sought to use her sexually to gain loans from aristocratic friends. (7) However, escaping marital disaster by taking up the stage at this juncture would also have placed Mary, not born to a thespian family as was Sarah Siddons, in a less than respectable career. In any case, the Robinsons soon landed in debtor's prison where Mary launched her literary career with a subscription volume of poetry, and from there the stage represented a different kind of respectability. (8)
Thus Mary Robinson began her career in an interesting subject-position regarding both the ideal nuclear and extended family model, for her father abandoned their family during her adolescence, and her mother encouraged her to marry--without evidence of his finances--a man who turned out to be a "counterfeit," the illegitimate product of adultery. Within this already improper situation, her husband Thomas Robinson encouraged his friends to consider her sexual favors a token of economic exchange (the same exchange on trial in crim con disputes). When she and her husband separated in 1780 after the birth of two daughters, her acting career, her brief but highly public reign as mistress of the Prince of Wales, and her long-term liaison with the war hero Colonel Tarleton situated Robinson as a demi-mondaine. If all her life she struggled to resist the character of a demi-rep, a woman of tarnished reputation, she nevertheless also labored to retain the status accorded the demi-monde as supplement to le beau monde. Demi-mondaine hostesses and courtesans could wield considerable power, and were sometimes difficult to distinguish from social elites like Lady Jersey and Lady Conyngham, later mistresses to the Prince of Wales (more tarnished now than when Robinson was his intimate). Such power was worth preserving, as Robinson knew.
Herself no icon of domesticity, it may then seem odd that Robinson's poems and novels continually focus on the roles of mothers and daughters, women in love and those deserted by their lovers, in terms of family models in their ideal and exploded forms. But in fact, familial terms are brought to trial in her works, tyrannical relations pitted against companionate marriages, and marital codes compared to the expressive liberation of Rousseau's emotionalism and espousal of sincere love. Robinson also walked the other side of the line: as much as she attempts to think through in literary works the critical nexus of family relations in a radicalized time moving inexorably towards a reactionary conservatism, and as much as her memoir, her Wollstonecraftian feminist pamphlet, and her novels attempt to establish authorial and personal propriety, Robinson also wrote much verse, from her Della Cruscan odes to her autobiographical Sappho and Phaon (1796), that countered a proper self with a Rousseauistic one, playing out her passions publicly for all to see. This emotionalism served to give depth to a character continually at the mercy of public rumor regarding her less than circumspect liaisons, public chastisement in print caricatures, and public opinion regarding adultery and divorce. But such texts did not help Robinson defend herself as did the more proper discourse of her novels and discrete verse. In reflecting on chaste marriage versus Rousseau's assertion of emotional and physical imperatives (leading to the promulgation of "free love" as well as the public fascination with criminal conversation), Robinson's novels could argue against legalistic definitions of the family that made familial irresponsibility possible. Her emotion-based texts, by contrast, draw on an affiliate sensibility to that which fed the desire for lascivious cartoonage and the soft porn of crim con narratives. Why, we should ask, would she engage in both kinds of textual strategies, and why in particular would she indulge in sensualist texts when she was so often herself targeted by misogynist and pornographic caricatures depicting her sexual relations with the Prince of Wales and charged with the partisan politics of those relations? Indeed, long after that one-year affair was over she would have been sensitive to the anonymous moralizing or sensationalizing pamphlets of divorce trial narratives, and I believe would have responded to implicit comparisons between her own story and the scandal-mongering of publicized adultery cases in her most autobiographical works.
The answer to questions about Robinson's flirtation with public reputation must lie in the line drawn for dueling matches, a line similar in nature to the one women must observe in all their choices over proper and improper acts. Robinson derived power from dancing along this line rather than observing its strict demarcation, flirting with impropriety while posing as a proper lady. Her poems and novels, whether tuned to a domestic femininity or a Rousseauistic indiscretion, similarly play with discursive propriety, dwelling not only on the problem of the family's integrity in the face of women's socio-political and legally restricted subject position, but also on the problems of the sexually suspect woman. These texts thus set up the field for verbal duels with public-sphere voices. Her prose revisiting of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication, the Letter to the Women of England (1799), for instance, is a plea for women's need for social and legal self-defense against character slander, especially sexual slander. In thinking through Robinson's choice of textual strategies, it is helpful to consider a third option for women writers to the opposition between discursive propriety and criminal conversation; it is one for which Robinson manfully strove, self assertion. As she herself acknowledges, this is a male option, but in a woman's hands one that challenges the assumptions of gendered roles within the ideal family, that unit of integrity so necessary to the ideal republic.
Ideal families, however, are fictional not historical constructs. In them, servants do not spy on their employers as in real life, where if called for a servant's testimony is required by law. As older versions of ideal family units were being revised into a new tale of Rousseauistic affection, women writers seized on domestic fiction as an ideal way to reassess the prescriptive against the experience of everyday life. Historians of the family describe its physical lineaments in the West as temporally and geographically variable; however two main types dominate through the ages: stable families, which follow the primogeniture model of "patriarchal" and "stem" families, and unstable families, whose size rises and shrinks as children are produced and then leave the household, and which cease to exist on the death of its spousal partners. (9) But novelists like Fanny Burney and Jane Austen after her were considering how supposedly stable families were made unstable when practice did not follow the ideal plan of inheritance laws, wards were cheated or tricked by their guardians, and eldest brothers neglected sisters and female relatives. Robinson, like the radicals Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays, went further in asking what happens when children are conceived outside the marital unit so that different configurations of the ideal family are necessary. For conservative and radical novelists alike, the domestic is the political, the private is a matter for public reevaluation (10) The crucible for this evaluation is the companionate marriage, in which affection rather than property is the reason for the family's birth, and disaffection the reason for its dissolution. (11) Although disaffection may be the root cause of divorce and crim con trials, however, the law judges marital conflict based on the marriage contract, which follows from patriarchal family structure: the provision by the husband of bed, board and clothing, and the provision by the wife of her "conversation" or care, and stainless reputation. (12) For Robinson these barebones of contracts that, like lovers' promises, can be broken by husbands with impunity (as does Thomas Robinson, the Prince of Wales, and eventually Bonastre Tarleton after him), make the exploded family an appropriate subject for her social critique, and make her argue ceaselessly for a relational rather than family model, one based on emotional and not legal contract. Thus her "family," consisting of herself and her surviving daughter, is a viable alternative to the ideal family, while even her long-term liaison with Tarleton is a better "marriage" than what she had experienced with her legal husband. From this perspective, crim con and divorce trials provide the context for Robinson's public face as well as for her social critiques.
2. Facing the Public
Mary Robinson had two public faces--chaste authorial propriety (which she argues for in her Memoirs) and the demi-mondaine (which she exhibited in public outings to Vauxhall and St. James Park as the Prince's mistress)--both of which are stereotypes born of patriarchal conceptions of womanhood. It is on the basis of these stereotypes that the textual and visual attacks on her were launched, and so it is perhaps for very good reasons that she came to find even her dramatic ability to inhabit either of them at will confining (in her writing she is the virtuous mother, but her affairs make clear how at ease she was playing the mistress). Instead, she begins to argue for a third option, that of the vocally assertive woman whose self-respect is more valuable than society's opinion. This is an option that allows her to walk between categories of womanhood, for it is a presumptively male right. It is important, then, to consider the gender inflections of Robinson's public face (maternal femininity, demi-mondaine, or masculinely assertive) as she considers the problem of honor and character assassination.
Robinson's public face can be hard to pin down. Also known as Perdita, Tabitha Bramble, Bridget, Julia, Horace Juvenal, Laura Maria, Lesbia, Oberon, Portia, Anne Francis Randall, and Sappho, one has to ask, who is the private woman? How can we know her? What the political caricatures of her make clear is that wanting to know her privately can be done only as a public venture, as an inquiry into her private, that is sexual, life--and that to make this inquiry in a public way is to politicize it. As the crim con narratives make clear, any publicizing of sexuality makes it public domain, available for political and legal uses and abuses. It is this aspect of publicity that Robinson's Letter to the Women of England, which I will discuss more fully later, brings into the open, analyzes, and argues against. By publishing a pamphlet concerning the abusive gendering of public action, Robinson counters publicity with publication, a conscious offensive against legal duplicity. The Letter, its title emphasizing the publicizing of private texts, creates
a parallel text to Robinson's literary and consciously autobiographical Sappho and Phaon, in which the private life becomes the argument for the public wrong of defamation. Defamation has two senses here, for the poem is intended to refute scandal mongering about Robinson's private life, but its historical reference is the de-fame-ing suffered by women poets who value love over art, emotion over production, private acts over public deeds, and are thus forgotten as artists. The comparative to both of Robinson's texts in this sense is indeed that staple of turn-of-the-century popular culture, the crim con narrative, in which women's private acts are displayed as unretractable, legally criminal products, bodies over which two men may duel not for love but for money and property. (13)
A common claim of the usually anonymous crim con narratives is that their publication is corrective: "This publication may perhaps effect what the law cannot: the transactions of the adulterer and the adulteress will, by being thus publickly circulated, preserve others from the like crimes, from the fear of shame, when the fear of punishment may have but little force." (14) I want to compare the nature of adultery narratives with how Robinson's literary works reflect her vulnerability to the kind of public denuding characteristic of these highly sensationalistic pamphlets, to see how her textual defensiveness and the revisionism tangible in her most autobiographical works reflect a response to the discursive maneuvers such sensationalist narratives employed. Because divorce was nearly impossible and necessitated proving criminal conversation, it was metaphorically an immoral discourse. To be read in terms of the crim con and divorce pamphlets would have turned Robinson, who supported herself and others through her writing, into an unpublishable author. Her response in some of her most important texts, especially her autobiographical sonnet sequence Sappho and Phaon, its prefatory essay, and her Letter to the Women of England, specifically respond to the discursive tactics used by divorce pamphleteers. In giving voice to the sexual or adulterous woman, Robinson reclaims the woman whose sexual favors are the lost property of the crim con trial, but who, in having given away these favors, may now not defend herself either in her own voice or through legal counsel. She is effectively absent, legally less valid than her maid-servants testifying against her.
Significantly, Robinson's Memoirs, composed during the last two years of her life (1798-1800) and finished posthumously by her surviving daughter, Maria Elizabeth, provide a revisionist and defensive depiction of a highly moral woman influenced by her emotional loyalties to important men, and characterized by her deeply maternal feelings for this daughter. If Sappho and Phaon (1796-97) and Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799, signed "Anne Frances Randall") treat the problem of the deserted woman and the undefended woman respectively, her Memoirs treat the problem of family relations as they fail to protect the woman. Of course, readers bought her Memoirs to read it as a tell-all of her affair with the Prince of Wales; Sappho and Phaon traded on her public affair with the war hero Tarleton; and her Letter to the Women of England singles out character attacks against women as the representative corrective for female "mental subordination," but highlights the sensational news story of a woman literally defending her honor. Her autobiographical sonnet sequence and feminist pamphlet can be read together with her memoir, then, as a nexus of texts that use scandal mongering and improper discourse to refocus public regard away from disreputable discourses pervading the literary marketplace, and to contest their authority. Yet, in speaking out, Robinson takes on a masculine edge through this literary dueling with her detractors in the press. Using her reputation for beauty and popularity on the stage, and suppressing her sexual attractiveness to men (which she does in her Memoirs, where she plays the ingenue throughout, and in Sappho and Phaon where she plays the aggressively loving and thus masculine partner to her lover), she combats lewd ploys to objectify her as a mere sexual toy by portraying herself as a victim of male inattention and carelessness. Loss of care (from the wife, however) is, of course, what crim con suits based monetary damages on. The contrast in gendered losses is telling, and by pressing her advantage Robinson highlights the absurdity of women's subject position under the law and under the marital conditions that obtain.
3. Criminal Conversations
Trial narratives about adultery and divorce were necessarily scandalous, given their subject, but they ranged from providing moralizing prefaces that put a good face on the unsuppressed details provided by witnesses, to undisguised titillation enhanced by lascivious frontispieces or first page illustrations of the lady alone or of the lady and her lover. They were typically short octavo pamphlets unbound and without boards, and costing a shilling. Consumers would bind a collection of them, but when resold these volumes were often missing their illustrations, sometimes still discernible however from the transfer of the frontispiece onto the title page. (15) The vanished frontispieces speak loudly of such portraits' fetishistic purpose but not of the lady's person or her own story.
While early crim con trials were often of aristocratic and wealthy families, by the 1790s when Robinson was writing her most defensive works they were largely of middle-class families. Although Robinson was allied through her sexual affairs with the highest classes, she was a merchant's daughter, vulnerable to the sexual economy of crim con narratives with their profiteering from women's secrets. Indeed, the market strategy of these pamphlets is not far from Mary Robinson's account of her husband's own attempts to barter his new wife's sexual favors for loans from his wealthy friends. A typical middle-class trial of this period was Adultery. The Trial of Mr. William Atkinson, Linendraper, of Cheapside for Criminal Conversation with Mrs. Connor, Wife of Mr. Connor, Late of the Mitre, at Barnet: which was tried in Hilary Term, 1789, in the Court of King's Bench, Before Lord Kenyon. (16) The moralizing advertisement of this trial narrative, designed to attract those perusing a bookshop, begins by intoning,
The frequency of trials for Adultery, by which the parties become so much exposed, would alone, it might be thought, be a sufficient reason in some measure to stop some of the many instances that have been exhibited to public view, by a legal investigation of the charges brought by the offended party; or at least have made them more cautious in the commitment of a crime strictly prohibited by the Almighty, and of the most fatal consequence to families ... (Advertisement v)
The Advertisement goes on to explain the criminality of adultery and a cursory history of its punishments, the implicit comparison rendering the mere compensation of financial award a civilized solution. Although the two thousand pounds the former innkeeper, Mr. Connors, is suing for damages will be reduced by half by the jury, the Advertisement makes this enormous amount seem natural compensation for wrongful conversation. This civilizing tone continues into the text itself, in which the anonymous author explains to the lay reader the plea, and justifies his novelized and dramatized version of the trial by commenting that, "The substance, instead of the literal form of the pleadings is thus concisely stated, with a view of conveying at once the real meaning of the action, without perplexing the reader with dry formal cant and professional jargon" (6, emphasis in original). Literal is exchanged for literary, yet salacious details are rendered literally, rewriting the ideolect of the witnesses (all servants at the inn) through dramatic dialogue. The reader effectively reads a narrative that, when not rendering the defending and accusing counsels' statements to the jury, turns to staged drama.
Q. How did Mrs. Connor appear with respect to her cloaths?
A. Her handkerchief was ruffled very much. (13)
The dialogues between barrister and witness not only aid in visualizing the trial, but they efface the reality that an actual play would have revealed: that neither of the accused parties, nor the accuser, play any part in the drama. Their stories are entirely told by others within the restrictions set by legal practice, and guided by the conventions of legal discourse. Thus we discover that the two lovers were seen several times in the bar in a state of rumpled or semi-undress, and one morning Mrs. Connor was discovered in Mr. Atkinson's room at the inn, which he took when visiting Barnet on business, while he was still in bed in his shirt. The maid-servant attested that there was an impression of two bodies in the bed, and that there was "something on the sheets" (15), while the waiter attested that he had seen something on the floor another time, and a third servant that the lovers' hands were often in each others' bosoms.
The defense, however, declared that Mr. Connor had to have known about the affair, since it took place at "a public inn upon a road, where all the transactions passing in the house must be, in a certain degree, public" (22). As private affairs become the currency of public knowledge, the public nature of this liaison justifies the pamphleteer's publicizing of its story, while his use of novel and dramatic technique render the "dry cant" of legalese into bedtime reading. Mary Robinson, novelist, actress, dramatist, and celebrated mistress, would have had a hard time not reading herself into this form of public discourse. Significantly, when she published her sonnet sequence Sappho and Phaon in order to substitute an allegorical account of her long-term affair with the famed Colonel Tarleton of the Green Dragoons 1st Regiment, she borrows from the kind of legalized discourse available in crim con narratives for her defensive preface. (17) Like the anonymous author of the Atkinson trial narrative, Robinson also provides a cursory history of precedents for her role as poet; like him, she too finds in ancient history the grounds for her current undertaking, with its civilizing attention to women's experience in the face of faithless lovers--yet this experience is entirely left out of the Atkinson pamphlet. Robinson's most salient point in the preface is that she will practice the Petrarchan or "legitimate sonnet" in Sappho and Phaon, rescuing this now debased because unregulated--we might say adulterous--form from its criminal practitioners. Poets of 'illegitimate' sonnets "profess the art of poetry" yet compose sonnets of "more than thirty lines," attend to little nile, and follow their own amorous inclinations. (18) Their excesses produce a "heterogeneous mass of insipid and laboured efforts," and Robinson emphasizes the salaciousness of their enterprise when "trembl[ing], lest that chaos of dissipated pursuits which has too long been growing like an overwhelming shadow ... menac[es] the luster of intellectual light." She worries that their "profligacy" will "reduce the dignity of talents to the lowest degradation" (146). Like the author of the Atkinson pamphlet, Robinson uses moralizing terms to root out damaging acts, but unlike him she does so to reduce the transgressive love of others to a dry cant. Her literary efforts to re-establish the purity of the Petrarchan love sonnet, with its strains of true love, are made in the face of the inevitable fate of poetic genius, to be "assailed by envy, stung by malice, and wounded by the fastidious comments of concealed assassins" (148). Wrongful discourse, criminal conversation, intercourse, and narrative all interweave here to produce a strong defense against those who have used her relations with the Prince and Tarleton against her. In Sappho and Phaon, she is announcing, she will retell the story from her own perspective through a dramatization of heroically poetical love, a move that masks the audacity of her role as active lover--the male position--rather than passive beloved, and readers will see Tarleton's betrayal of her as indefensible and (terrible for a war hero) disloyal. This is a strategic move, one resonant with the para-legalese of crim con narratives and the discourses of publicity.
In another published crim con case, The Trial of the Hon. Charles Wyndham (1791), Mr. Hodges brought charges against Wyndham, although the defense showed he was only the last of many of Mrs. Hodges' lovers. One of these lovers was the Prince of Wales himself, the revelation of which led the court to dismiss serious consideration of Hodges' claim for damages. Witnesses testified that the Prince came frequently to visit Mrs. Hodges at night, and that he would ask Hodges to leave them together, and once had Hodges attend a Parliamentary debate for him while he comforted himself in Mrs. Hodges' bed. Such evidence classified Mrs. Hodges with the lower ranks of the Prince's circle of mistresses, among which Mary Robinson must ever reside in genteel and popular judgments. (19) Lord Kenyon ends the Wyndham trial by comparing the behavior of Mr. Hodges and the Prince to another piece of high drama: "I remember a case once, not quite so scandalous as this, where Theophilus Cibber carried a pillow to a gentleman for the express purpose of committing adultery with his wife--His action was afterwards scouted with indignation" (22). As Lord Kenyon notes, Hodges' behavior is that of "prostitut[ing] his wife," a common defense for alleged adulterers to leverage against their accusers, and one which goes back to the historical precedent of Lord Audley, who despite his abusive behavior (in later divorce trials the wife had to prove extreme spouse abuse as well) was tried on moral charges (among them, forcibly prostituting his wife), similar to crim con cases which are retributive rather than vindicative.
The Earl of Castlehaven, Mervyn Lord Audley, was convicted and executed "for carosing and Ravishm't to his wife and comittings of sodomy" in 1631. (20) When a case is ruled through analogy with the Audley principle, the wife's illicit behavior becomes her husband's fault and damages are disallowed. (21) In Audley's trial, Walter Bigges explains to the court that the Countess of Castlehaven's page was given gifts of money and deeds to lands and possessions by Lord Audley: "He let this Henry Skipwith who was called his favorit spend of his estate 500th p[er] anno and if his wife and daughter did want any thing though necessary they must lye first with Skipwith and hee must be their paymaster and not otherwise" (7). According to the Countess' testimony, "He would make Skipwith come naked into hir chamber and bed and delighted in calling up his servants to shew their privityss and make hir looke on and comend those that had the largest," and moreover, Skipwith "lay with hir whilst she made resistance and my Lo[rd] held hir hands and one of hit feete." (22) Audley was also accused of "telling Skipwith and his daughter they being in bed he sitting on the bedside that he had rather have a boy of his getting then by any other in the world" (ms 7). As the prosecuting attorney comments, "But I fynd things beyond imagination for I fynd his ill intentions bent to have his wife prostitute hireselfe to his base groomes which the wickedest man that ever I heard of before would have to be vertous and good, how bad soever himselfe were. But for him he was Baude to his owne wife my let y[ou]r grace suffer mee to speake a more homely word, he was both pander and bawde to his owne wife, most sordid base and inhumane" (ms 6). However, Lady Audley did have a son, and the oddest fact of the trial is how late it took place: Audley's defense was that this son, now 21 years old, had plotted with his wife because "the one desyred lands the other a younger husband and therefore they plotted his death" (ms 11). Sounding eerily like Count Cenci's claims against his family in Shelley's The Cenci (1819), Audley's trial appears to have been the result of a family dissolution that finally caught up with him. Certainly this is his historical reputation, as the father of marital pandering. But Lord Kenyon clearly sees the stage dramatics of the Wyndham case in addition to its family dynamic. In relating the claimant, by Audley precedent to Theophilus Cibber, son of Colley and briefly the husband of Susannah Cibber, to Hodges, Kenyon puts pandering in its place as an illicit staging of private matters. The theatrical world had long been associated with free sex, but here Kenyon draws what is for Robinson a darker connection: acting and prostitution are yoked like a chiasmus as illicit goods. For Robinson there might be an even tighter circle drawn between her husband's attempts to pander her and Theophilus Cibber's attempt to rid himself of his wife, as well as between the well-respected Susannah Cibber and Robinson's own claims of virtue defended. Such cases may well have been at the back of her mind when she wrote, with appropriate pseudo-legalese, her Letter to the Women of England.
What is interesting about the configuration of honor, publicity, and criminal conversation is how mutable the boundaries between these are for men. Crim con trial narratives focus on witnesses, most frequently domestic servants (the most resorted to sources of information in the Prince of Wales' various attempts to spy on his wife). Servants' reports of affectionate conversation in non-public rooms and hands in the wrong private places provide "facts," verifiable or not, to be pirated for public consumption. When dueling was no longer the legally sanctioned ritual for disputes of honor, men turned to monetary compensation as a civilized alternative for those quarrels involving cuckoldry. The public dishonor transferred to the husband from his wife's defaced body is translated into a symbolic coinage of public repute. While she remains disreputable, the husband has reduced his enemy's pockets, symbolically draining the adulterer's seed to restore his own pockets. When crim con suits are revealed to be cons for husbands who, having pimped their wives, now want to fleece the johns, they also reveal how the legal circulation of women's bodies, honor, and currency in adultery trials is the same as that of marriages. Thomas Robinson's attempt to pimp his new wife for gambling loans is merely a variant on the hypocrisy of the marriage contract's double standard. The substitution of property damages for dishonor does not negate the fact that the honorable currency between two men is still metonymically a duel, and that the tainted woman remains silenced and defaced. Now a property of no value, she may be publicly ridiculed, her private affairs bared to prurient eyes as her revealing portrait fronts the narrative of the affair in question. As the editor of Trials for Adultery notes, "It requires little or no apology for the publication of these trials. It may, perhaps ... deter the wavering wanton from the completion of her wishes" but "When a woman (especially of the superior class) has lost that inestimable jewel, virtue; alas! How is she fallen! ... she is indeed become the object of the scorn, pity, and derision of her relations, her former associates, and the public" (iv).
An adulterous woman engages the public eye in ways similar to that of the stage actress, men of honor haunting the green room just as they purchased crim con narratives and political cartoons, for women's sexual bodies were up for sale. The sexual discourse of theatricality was echoed in the semi-pornography of the hugely popular political caricatures. In one of James Gillray's political cartoons during the Prince's infatuation with Robinson, she is depicted as a tavern whirligig. (23) Staked through the cervix, woman's other "mouth" or sex-text orifice, Gillray uses Robinson iconically to illustrate the Prince's party flipflops as breezy revolutions or mere words. Caricaturists' and journalists' fears that Robinson had undue influence on the Prince would recur for each of his mistresses, and in the cases of Maria Fitzherbert and the ambitious Lady Jersey these fears were realized. But Robinson was singled out for singularly vicious attacks in the press, her Whig and feminist leanings not yet in full bloom but her political body already a magnet for public scrutiny and judgment.
The attacks on Robinson's reputation may have been merely generic in nature; after all, political cartoons of Princess Caroline several decades later similarly depicted her as sexually voracious, politically meddlesome, and with her hand in other people's pockets or national treasuries despite her lack of access to the Prince's ear. Robinson could not fail to have noticed a generic assault on female reputation similar to the political caricature: the frontispiece or accompanying illustrations to crim con trial narratives. The frontispiece for the Wyndham Trial for example is set as an oval portrait of "Mrs. Hodges" in revolutionary-style dress (kerchief over chest, short jacket with collar and lapels open wide, button on cuffs at wrist, bustle and overskirt with skirt revealed in front, adaptation of man's top hat on head, frizzed wig). But her kerchief is opened to expose her left breast and nipple as she poses her head away from the viewer but looks out of the left corners of her eyes (orienting her pupils with her exposed breast) so that she flirts with the viewer. The courtesan that Robinson became as the Prince's Perdita was merely a version of a more common type.
Such types were boundary usurpers, women who used sex to translate the private into public, conversation into destructive acts, and to undo the natural order. Trials concerning sexuality played on these transgressions while balancing them with the observance that man's legal power in the private sphere could easily turn to tyrannical abuse. Thus many crim con narratives begin with prefatory comment on tyranny, not as a politicized reference but as a kind of popular historiography. As the prosecution declares in the Audley Trial, "the prisoner is hon[ora]ble the crymes diplor[a]ble of which he is inditd, which if they fall out to be true and which is to be Left to traill [trial] I dare be bould to say never poet ffaigned [feigned] nor Histriographers writt of any soe fowle [foul] though Suetonius hath curiously set forth the vices of some of the Emperours, whoe had absolute power and all manner of Liberty thus might make them carelesse of all manner of punishment" (ms 4). This reference to Suetonius is echoed in Romantic-era crim con trials as a set-piece commentary on despotic abuses that can occur in the domestic sphere. (24) Robinson, following Wollstonecraft's lead, takes the tyranny argument as a given in her Letter to the Women of England, citing "the tyranny of man" as part and parcel of "the tyranny of custom," condensing Suetonius' history into a single fact: "the yoke of sexual tyranny." (25) This is not a strong link to the trial narratives, but the use in her Letter of an allusively legalized discourse to promote her view of women's present subjugation is: "Let WOMAN once assert her proper sphere, unshackled by prejudice, and unsophisticated by vanity; and pride, (the noblest species of pride,) will establish her claims to the participation of power, both mentally and corporeally" (2). Referring to "philosophical sensualists" like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1), Robinson builds her case that women's real debility in society is not their mental inferiority to men, but their inability to defend themselves under the current sexual economy. Arguing on the grounds of natural law that the sexual double standard is indefensible, Robinson defends herself and her fellow women through a strategic male metonymy: the duel. Literally and figuratively dueling was still the most effective riposte to assaults on a man's honor, and to refuse to challenge one's abuser was unnatural. But neither a woman's reputation, if attacked by vicious rumor and scandal-mongering or even a man's false word, nor a woman's rights under the legal code, could be repudiated or upheld by the defenses available to men. As Robinson points out, when women attempt to defend their honor they are viewed as aberrant aggressors. Robinson's appropriation of the male strategy of dueling for rhetorical purposes rebalances the double standard; using a defense lawyer's argumentation, she indicates that being on trial is woman's condition and that speaking out--an illicit act in courts of law, and by extension in the public sphere--is her natural recourse. In the court of public opinion she fights for the respect she deserves.
The barbarity of custom's law in this enlightened country, has long been exercised to the prejudice of woman:--and even the laws of honour have been perverted to oppress her. If a man receive an insuit, he is justified in seeking retribution; and his courage rises in estimation, in proportion as it exemplifies his revenge. But were a WOMAN to attempt such an expedient, however strong her sense of injury, however invincible her fortitude, or important the preservation of character, she would be deemed a murdress. Thus, custom says, you must be free from error; you must possess an unsullied fame: yet, if a slanderer, or a libertine, even by the most unpardonable falshoods [sic], deprive you of either reputation or repose, you have no remedy. He is received in the most fastidious societies, in the cabinets of nobles, at the toilettes of coquets and prudes, while you must bear your load of obloquy, and sink beneath the uniting efforts of calumny, ridicule, and malevolence. (4-6)
Her point about what is "denominated the defenceless sex" is clearly argued, but it also seems clearly oriented toward the slanderous discourse of the crim con pamphlets. The "nature" in natural rights becomes disarticulated in the female case: a natural daughter, as one of Robinson's novel titles clarifies, is an illicit being produced by criminal conversation. (26) Legally de-typed, she can have no proper voice and thus becomes the most egregious case of woman's condition. A husband may accuse his wife of adultery, of illicit conversation, but she is undefended: the plaintiff's lawyer argues the husband's case, the defending lawyer argues the lover's, and she, one of the principals, is relegated to the status of innuendo as servants and other gossips of the publicly private home gain ascendancy over their mistress by publishing their suspicions abroad in court.
Moreover, if crim con trials were the attempts by cuckolded husbands to recover damages to their property, that is, their wife's bodily and emotional company--her conversation--and the crim con pamphlets were an attempt to sell this conversation for profit, Robinson discovered that after publishing her Letter under a pseudonym she would have to recover her property or, like the lascivious body, it would belong to someone else. In her advertisement to the second edition, retitled Thoughts on the Condition of Women, and on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799), she is unequivocal: "Finding that a Work on a subject similar to the following, has lately been published at Paris, Mrs. Robinson is induced to avow herself the Author of this Pamphlet." Self-assertion or avowal becomes synonymous with swordplay as the woman writer fends off claimants to her textual body.
Finally, Robinson's revisionist Memoirs, which purchasers supposed would be a titillating revelation of her affair with the Prince of Wales, but which was instead an effort to bleach all stain from the fabric of her life, supported her contentions in the Letter to the Women of England by sharing her own account of her relations with libertines, slanderers, and deserting fathers, husbands and lovers. Repeatedly she emphasizes her attempts to keep a family home together and to care for her mother and her daughter, the Memoirs serving to reknit the interstices of a family undermined by masculine resorts to social and political power. As she declaims in her Letter,
Man is able to bear the temptations of human existence better than woman, because he is more liberally educated, and more universally acquainted with society. Yet, if he has the temerity to annihilate the bonds of moral and domestic life, he is acquitted; and his enormities are placed to the account of human frailty. Such partial discriminations seem to violate all laws, divine and human! If WOMAN be the weaker creature, her frailty should be the more readily forgiven. She is exposed by her personal attractions, to more perils, and yet she is not permitted to bear that shield, which man assumes; she is not allowed the exercise of courage to repulse the enemies of her fame and happiness; though, if she is wounded,--she is lost for ever! (6-7)
Being lost forever was a fate Robinson very much feared, both in social reputation and in literary fame. But her authorial behavior replicated her at times audacious dance with propriety in public spaces. In this she much resembled a higher placed and more public figure who also had much to do with the Prince of Wales, his demi-monde lifestyle, and the problem of wounded reputation and its legal redress: the Princess of Wales. Like Robinson, Princess Caroline played with and exploited the boundaries between mistress and wife, criminal and proper conversation, propriety and rebellious display, and like Robinson she suffered under legal codes drawn by men.
5. Courtly Publicity
Princess Caroline's divorce hearing before Parliament in 1820, two decades after Robinson's demise, allows us to see how Robinson's fears about women's publicly sexual status could play out on a political stage. As a self-dramatizing woman who manipulated the fine line between the proper and the improper as assiduously as had Robinson, but who was also extremely careless at times about its implications for her public face, Princess Caroline offers a good example of what even the most privileged woman might expect in Robinson's world. And although she is best contrasted to the Prince's natural wife Maria Fitzherbert, Caroline is best compared to Robinson as the Prince's mistress, for the Prince fell for both Robinson and Caroline visually, in staged images (Robinson as Perdita, Caroline as a portrait miniature) of an ideal woman: proper, silent, and still. Clearly neither Wollstonecraft's arguments nor Robinson's works had been efficacious in changing the rules of the game by the time Caroline needed them. Anything but an ideal public persona for female royals was not permitted; moreover, Caroline's body was the property disputed between Whig and Tory politicians. In her divorce "trial," the private sphere would be not only made public, but turned into political warfare, a dueling match become a royal battlefield. (27)
However, like Robinson, Caroline attempted to assert her person and her voice. The Prince's determination to divorce his wife led to the initial "Delicate Investigation" (George's attempt to have Caroline's adopted son proven to be her own), and continual spying on her interactions with others. She retaliated by keeping a diary that exaggerated discordant family events, mentioning her entries to others to consciously exploit scandal. Intended to harm the Prince and Queen Charlotte, and to avenge herself on any who had crossed her (including the Prince's mistresses) "the red book" was, as Caroline hinted numerous times, somewhat fanciful. Eventually her version of George's politicizing of family relations, events drawn from her yearly diaries, and uncomplimentary character sketches of the royal family became public enough within her own and radical circles that at least one variation on the published ripostes to the "Delicate Investigation" reflected her own perspective rather than that of Whig politicians using her marital difficulties to gain sway with the public. But if Caroline's textual play between fact and fiction resembled Robinson's use of autobiography to flesh out positions for verbal dueling matches, in intention it differed greatly, for its indiscretions were scandalous, and it aimed to wound rather than defend.
The Book of the Princess, containing the proceedings of the "Delicate Investigation," was printed in 1807 by her Whig supporters, but its copies were burnt when political winds shifted. However, one or more copies survived in addition to her manuscript diary (to which she continued to add new revelations), and Spencer Perceval serialized and then republished the entire account as The Book! in 1813 (28) to reveal the already unpopular Prince's role in instigating the affair, thus embarrassing both him and the Tory party, and to attack the unsupportive and vengeful Queen. (29) This was to counter Thomas Ashe's 1811 Spirit of the Book, a confessional supposedly by Caroline and possibly at the commission of Carlton House, intended to counter Caroline's threatened and actual publication of various letters to and from the Prince and of her diary. (30) Grub Street had a field day publishing variants of Ashe's Spirit of the Book and Perceval's The Book!, but when one such publication The Book Itself! Private Memoirs ... being a complete answer to the Spirit of the Book (31) appeared (probably ghostwritten using Caroline's freely spread intimations on the royal family), it had been revised into an allegory differing from that of Ashe's gothic romance, its overt fiction calling into question the truth value of Ashe's fabrication. The Book Itself! gives voice to Caroline's perspective in a way oddly aligned with her "red book." The Prince of Cumaria, encouraged to marry by his father, King of the Albs, in order to discharge his debts, gives up "the charms of the fat, yet beauteous and fascinating, Fitzhar, known by the surname of 'the fat witch'" (Maria Fitzherbert) in order to marry Augusta Princess of Born--burck. The Prince is subsequently tricked by courtiers into believing his newborn baby is the product of the Princess' affair with "Scarecrow" in their own house, "Coralton Hall." Reading like a cross between a sentimental novel and a gothic, the Private Memoirs not only depicts the Princess as the ideal woman and victimized heroine, but reveals a familiarity with adultery trial narratives, their use of (not always reliable) servants as witnesses, and their reliance on the dramatic questioning of witnesses to gain information (unlike the letters, documents and depositions that crowd the pages of Perceval's Book!). Like Robinson, Caroline also used trial discourse in her letters and self-narratives to plot her feints and counters against all-powerful men who threatened to undo her. Epistolary dueling, whether the publication of Caroline's letters to the Prince and King that she provided for Perceval's edition of The Book!, or the belles lettres of her "red book" (uncannily resurfacing in The Book Itself! with its pro-Caroline view of her marital mistreatment), could--as in Robinson's Letter to the Women of England--form an effective strategy for self-assertion. But Caroline's motives were much more personal than Robinson's--she was fighting for property rights over her annual income and her daughter--rather than for women's legal and civil rights, or for textual rights. Nevertheless, the crossover between autobiography and imaginative literature, correspondence and belles lettres, provides an interesting comparison between the princess and the mistress as they battled the man who each had romantically idealized to their detriment.
Robinson's texts may have been more rigorously truthful, more assertively voiced, and more defensively aimed than were Caroline's, but they achieved the same blurring of biographical verity. Not only was Ashe's Spirit of the Book only somewhat factual, Caroline's damning diary somewhat fictional and the Private Memoirs of The Book Itself! almost entirely so (indeed, this was the titillating tell-all concerning Royal misbehavior the public was waiting for rather than Robinson's Memoirs), but the public read them all as versions of one another, just as they read Robinson's texts through the lens of scandalous gossip. In both cases, the woman only aided the dis-reputation caused by the kind of untruths Robinson complains of in her Letter. When first Henry Brougham and then Samuel Whitbread wrote letters for Caroline to send to the Prince in her own name to use as leverage against his restrictions on her, their ghostwriting was just one more version of Ashe's Spirit of the Book, itself simply another in the genre of verbal satiric cartoons of public women like those also penned against Robinson. (32) Claiming one's own voice as a woman could be difficult whether the male impersonator was attempting to help or hinder public reputation. One of these letters, which the Prince repeatedly refused to read, was published in the Morning Chronicle, probably without Caroline's aid, and became known as "The Regent's Valentine" (Fraser 231). It did create more public support for her, and in fact she was continually threatening such public outings, but generally Caroline's belief in the inherent privacy of (her own) letters created more trouble for her than her publicizing of letters could remedy. (33) While the final effect of these quasi-documents was the culminating divorce trial of Caroline, their intermediate effect was sensation. The populace almost consistently supported the genial Caroline over her spendthrift and moody husband, and when she left to roam the Continent during Napoleon's captivity she was greeted everywhere by courts where her story was known, and "her" book--actually Ashe's--was being avidly read. Despite the gossip mongering, and unlike Robinson, Caroline was nearly always considered the victim of an abusive and neglectful husband by the public even when newspapers reported daily on the three-month Parliamentary debate over George's divorce bill (with witnesses and cross-examinations, this was effectively her divorce trial). (34)
In this, her story considerably resembles that of Mary Robinson, even down to the legal argumentation of Brougham's letters that he wrote for her to the Prince. But Brougham ups the ante staked by Robinson, noting that a "guiltless woman," such as the Princess claimed to be, has no choice but to engage the enemy: "If her honour is invaded, the defence of her reputation is no longer a matter of choice ... these ought to be the feelings of every woman in England" (quoted in Fraser 232). Brougham seems to have Robinson's Letter to the Women of England in front of him as well as Wollstonecraft's Vindication, using the fencing motif Robinson deploys to take the man's strategic posture of aggression through self-assertion. Yet these are Brougham's words, not Caroline's; she herself would defeat Brougham's and Robinson's stratagem by playing the coquette, and embodying the masculinist view of women as the flirter with propriety so detested by Wollstonecraft. Even if her Book Itself/takes a legal stab when the heroine's letter to her Prince begins, "condemned without knowing my accuser or my crime ..." (16), in her actual letter-duels with her husband Princess Caroline resorted to male intervention either through the King or through courtiers and politicians such as Brougham, and her battles were considered even by her supporters to be aggressive and unfeminine. This is apparent from the feints and counterfeints involved in telling her own story--from her diary to Ashe's Spirit of the Book, from Spirit of the Spirit (a pirated abridgement) to Perceval's The Book and the Caroline-influenced The Book Itself!, from the publication of the "King's Case" and her trial minutes to Robert Huish's sympathetic, flowery and enormous two-volume Memoirs of Caroline published the year of her death to capitalize on public interest. (35) As men attacked, exploited and defended her, Caroline herself publicly played both sides of the gender game. In this she abused social proprieties even though common opinion supported her throughout, and--shut out of George's coronation, even having a door slammed in her face as she tried to enter Westminster (a superlative metaphor of her marital experience)--she finally left her public nowhere to place her and, literalizing Sappho's solution, died soon after.
In attempting to defend herself to her public, Robinson was constantly aware of--and in contrast to Caroline, far more observant of--the fine line between feminine and masculine behavior. Sappho's self--silencing leap of suicide at the end of her tale is determined by the female artist's strategic maneuvering between masculinist self-assertion and self-defense, and feminine subservience. But in creating multiple ways to portray herself as being on trial, Robinson has pushed the borders for understanding the cultural definitions of women's roles: mistresses or courtesans versus wives, public women versus private women, criminal conversation versus women's proper discourse. "What," Robinson's most aggressively defining texts seem to ask, "may a woman say for herself?" Caroline's divorce hearing seems to suggest that nothing at all is best. In the end, her "trial" came down not to textual offenses--the sending of improper letters, a deed she was much given to and which constituted one of the mainstays of crim con trials--but bodily defenses. Her case was decided on the same improprieties that were often decisive factors in adultery cases: whether or not others, especially domestic servants, witnessed her placing her hands in the wrong man's pockets. Signally, this was never the charge brought against Robinson in political caricatures. If Caroline's story meant improper penning (indeed, her penmanship and spelling were always suspect for she was badly educated), Robinson's hands accomplished a rather different task in using discursive proprieties as cultural weapons. In inhabiting bodily rather than discursive positions in such public ways, however, Caroline re-normalized the gender divisions Robinson (like Wollstonecraft) had so manfully striven against.
In effect, there have been four ways of being on trial organizing this essay: criminal conversation cases, Robinson's verse defense of her emotional "marriage" to Tarleton, Robinson's legal arguments which position women as perpetual trial defendants in her Letter to the Women of England, and Princess Caroline's divorce hearing. All of these ways of being tried are extremely public ones in which the domestic and private spheres women supposedly inhabit are transformed into publicity venues. In each, whether it is an actual court of law or a published document, women are unable to defend attacks on their honor and reputation either through legal recourse with its masculinist prerogatives or through the private act of dueling. In each case others' words are weapons used against women, whether it is the domestic servant testifying (reliably or capriciously) in court about spied activities, or a lover's desertion that silences the woman's words. Each of these break apart the home even as they dispute the woman's bodily intention, and in destroying her social place they wreck the woman's public face. Legally speaking, not to caricature Robinson's physical disability but to verify it, the woman is left without a leg to stand on.
University of Massachusetts Boston
(1.) Trials for Adultery: or, the History of Divorces ... 2 vols. London: Printed for S. Bladon, No. 13, Pater-noster Row; 1779 (vol 1), 1780 (vol 2.).
(2.) I want to thank Margaret Hunt for her perceptive reading of a short version of this essay. Scholarship on Robinson that informs this essay includes Ashley Cross, "From Lyrical Ballads to Lyrical Tales: Mary Robinson's Reputation and the Problem of Literary Debt" SiR 40.4 (2001): 571-605; Judith Pascoe's "Mary Robinson and the Literary Marketplace," Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices, ed. Paula R. Feldman and Theresa M. Kelley (Hanover: UP of New England, 1995), 252-315; Pascoe's Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry and Spectatorship (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997); Sharon M. Setzer, "Romancing the Reign of Terror: Sexual Politics in Mary Robinson's The Natural Daughter," Criticism 39 (1997): 531-55; and Eleanor Ty, Empowering the Feminine: The Narratives of Mary Robinson, Jane West, and Amelia Opie, 1796-1812 (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1998).
(3.) For scholarship on political caricature, see Diana Donald's The Age of Caricature: Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III (New Haven: Yale UP, 1996); Katharine Kittredge, ed., Lewd and Notorious: Female Transgression in the Eighteenth Century (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2003); M. Dorothy George, Hogarth to Cruikshank: Social Change in Graphic Satire (London: Penguin, 1957); and Kevin Gilmartin, Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996).
(4.) The claim in crim con trials was for property damages against the wife's body and the husband's loss of her companionship. However, here companionship is defined in terms of wife's duties (caretaking) rather than affection as in a companionate marriage. See Susan Staves, "Money for Honor: Damages for Criminal Conversation," Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture II (1982): 279-98. Laura Hanft Korobkin's Criminal Conversations: Sentimentality and Nineteenth-Century Legal Stories of Adultery (NY: Columbia UP, 1998) usefully fleshes out the relation between crim con narratives and sentimental fiction, but focuses on American 19th-century law and literature. See also Elaine Jordan, "Criminal Conversation: Mary Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman," Women's Writing 4.2 (1997): 221-34.
(5.) In the mid-17th century, with the collapse of ecclesiastical authority, common law courts began to try adultery cases as civil rather than criminal offenses. Lawrence Stone notes that adultery trials increased dramatically between 1740 and the 1790s (The Road to Divorce [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990] 247).
(6.) Studies in English Literature 36.3 (Summer, 1996): 561-78. Loftis, however, is more interested in the public's familiarity with published criminal trials available in what is now referred to as the Old Bailey Sessions Papers, whereas I am concerned with the much less available and much more scurrilous published accounts of crim con trials.
(7.) Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herself (London: Printed by Wilkes and Taylor, 1801).
(8.) The Robinsons marry in April 1773 and visit Mr. Hams at his estate where Mary is disabused of her husband's falsehoods concerning his family; their first daughter is born 18 months later. The following year Mary's first volume of poems appears and the family spends Thomas' prison term at Fleet Prison (3 May to 3 August, 1776). Mary debuts at Drury Lane under Sheridan's direction on 10 December 1776. Three years later nearly to the day she wins the heart of the Prince of Wales as Perdita in The Winter's Tale.
(9.) Lawrence Stone discerns three models of family organization: the early Open Lineage Family, the Restricted Patriarchal Nuclear Family (dominant in the upper classes from the Renaissance to 1700), and the Closed Domesticated Nuclear Family (rising with Enlightenment culture), in The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (NY: Harper Colophon, 1979 ). Rosemary O'Day's history of the family in England, France and New England helpfully argues against these restrictive definitions, showing that actual families deviated from these models according to temporal and regional pressures and needs. Her work helps us see that families depicted in women's novels may have been typical rather than idiosyncratic representations: The Family and Family Relationships, 1500-1900: England, France, and the United States of America (New York: St. Martin's P, 1994). Josef Ehmer shows that historians' attempts to establish historical, regional or class distinctions between types of families in Britain and Europe, and between the relative affection in or outside of marriage between partners cannot be done categorically: "Marriage," in Family Life in the Long Nineteenth Century 1789-1913, ed. by David I. Kertzer and Marzio Barbagli (New Haven: Yale UP, 2002) 282-321. Thus women's attempts to reconfigure the family either imaginatively or literally were enabled by knowledge of other models for the family unit available elsewhere in Britain or in Europe.
(10.) Nancy Armstrong has most carefully worked out the politics of domestic fiction for historical argumentation in Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (NY: Oxford UP, 1987).
(11.) Stone defines companionate marriages as the affectionate alternative to the traditional arranged marriage, arising in the late 17th century and increasing in the 18th century. See "The Companionate Marriage" in The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 217-53. Rosemary O'Day cites evidence from this period in New England to show loss of marital affection as an increasing reason for divorce petitions (155).
(12.) See O'Day 156. In addition, my survey of crim con trial narratives shows that they often contain comments to the jury by judge or barrister concerning the expectation of the wife's conversation. Divorce trials, by contrast, are argued on grounds of undue cruelty reflecting the basic tenets of bed, board and clothing rather than disaffection.
(13.) Unlike the triangulation of desire analyzed by Eve Sedgwick, in which a homosocial bond between two men is articulated as mutual desire for a woman, here the two men's desires for a woman spell out their opposition to each other. Nevertheless, it is again the woman who loses, for the husband's goal is to gain damages from the lover while divesting himself of his wife, while the lover's goal is to prove that either the wife has had lovers previous to himself or that the husband has purposely set him up or "pimped" his wife. However the court decides, her character is lost. For Sedgwick's essential account, see Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (NY: Columbia UP, 1985) 1-5, 18-20.
(14.) Editor's Preface to Trials for Adultery: or, the History of Divorces, Vol I: IV.
(15.) I am grateful for this information to David Ferris, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Harvard Law School Library.
(16.) London: printed for Couch and Lakin, Curzon-street, Mary-Fair; and sold at no. 55, Fleet-street; and at the Royal Exchange.
(17.) See Robert D. Bass, The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson (NY: Holt, 1957).
(18.) Mary Robinson: Selected Poems, ed. Judith Pascoe (Peterborough: Broadview, 2000) 145.
(19.) "Gendemen, it will be enough for you, if I can prove to you, that other persons than her husband had access to her, with the knowledge of her husband; and although I do not stand up to state to you, that there was any express consent on the part of Mr. Hodges that Mr. Waltier should enjoy his wife, yet, if I prove, that long previous to that time, there were others, several others, I might say many others, yet, Gentlemen, I shall satisfy you with regard to this, that it was perfectly well known to Mr. Hodges, (he never complained); there was that fort of silence and acquiescence which amounted to consent: This was the case of Mrs. Hodges and the Flemish banker. This was the case of another person, whose name I shall endeavour to conceal: the circumstances of this case I must shortly state, because they are so very striking.
This lady had lodgings in Pall-Mall; she was perfectly easy of access, and her husband was so little desirous of barring the door, that I shall prove to you, an application was made when Mr. Hodges was in bed with his wife; that he came out of that bed--opened the door, went out of the house, and permitted the gentleman, who rapped at the door, to go into the room. I shall prove to you, that the person to whom I allude, walked into the house; asked whether Mr. Hodges was at home; was told that he was, but had gone to bed. 'Bed,! Bed!--it does not signify, I'll go up stairs.' He accordingly went up stairs to the door, rapped at it, and thus addressed Mr. Hodges.
'My dear Hodges--do get up; there is a debate in the House of Commons going forward, and I am desirous to know the result--get up, and give me an account of that debate--I'll stay here, and do you come and give me the result of it.'
Mr. Hodges immediately put on his cloaths, and went to the House of Commons; and no doubt his friend did not remain until his return, for people can debate longer than they can--Mr. Hodges came back at his leisure. I shall prove this simple fact, which I have stated to you: I shall forbear staring some other parts of the case, respecting Mrs. Hodges character, which is not necessary to the cause. It is with compunction that I stand up to call this kind of evidence: I have too much of it. If I can prove this, shall I not be intitled to a verdict?" (Trial of the Hon. Charles Wyndham 11-12).
(20.) The Audley Trial, 1631, Harvard Law Library MS 1241: "The Arraignm't of Mervyn Lord Audley, Earle of Castlehaven at Westminster hall the 25th day of Aprill 1631 for Carosing [sic] and Ravishm't to his wife and comittings of sodomy as it was tried before Thomas Lord Coventry, Lord Keeper of the great seale of England and Lord high steward for that day with the Judges and 26 of the Nobility--" (hereafter cited by ms page number).
(21.) That is, the Audley trial would provide the historical precedent for reasoning by analogy. If Lady Castlehaven's husband could force her to commit adultery (she claimed he arranged and abetted her rape), which was the verdict of his peers, then other husbands could behave as egregiously; or if a husband simply encouraged or consented to adultery, again he shouldn't be able to collect damages from the lover. My thanks to Margaret Hunt for clarifying this point. In A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999), Cynthia B. Herrup argues that although the charge against Audley was rape and sodomy, the real crime committed by Audley in a sexually unregulated age, and for which he was beheaded, was his "failure as a head of household which affected the image of every male head of household; his failure to be honorable spoke more specifically to his fellow peers" (77), this dishonor including encouraging cross-class sexual liaisons, which threatened to drain the aristocracy through potentially polluted lineage, a fear exacerbated by his gifts of land and money to favored servants that deprived his legitimate son of a full inheritance. See esp. 77-88.
(22.) ms 8. Skipwith also testified that "The Lord made him lye with him at Fountayne and at Salisbury and once in the bed and spent his seede but did not penetrate his body, and that he heard he did not soe with others; that Skypwith lay with the yong Lady often, and that the Lord desyred a boy by him" (ms 9). The sexual relations were convoluted in this household: Skipwith claimed "that the Earle used his body as a woman, but never peirced it, only spent his seede betweene his thighs," and that Audley had "stood by and incouraged him to get hir with child" (ms 10); Lady Audley also slept with several servants with or without Audley's orders, and her daughter was prostituted to Audley's lovers as well. However, despite equivocations on spousal testimony, rape of a defamed woman (that is, Lady Audley after she had consorted with Skipwith), and the definition of buggery, the court found Audley's religious philandering more egregious in the end (he was accused of being a papist in the morning, an Anglican in the afternoon, and an atheist at night), and the women's participation in this nightmare scenario comprehensible in light of the husband's despotism.
(23.) See Anne K. Mellor's discussion of portraits and print representations of Robinson in "Making an Exhibition of Her Self." Mary 'Perdita' Robinson and Nineteenth-Century Scripts of Female Sexuality" Nineteenth-Century Contexts 22 (2000): 271-304. For Gillray's style, see Fashionable Contrasts: Caricatures by James Gillray, intro, and annotations by Draper Hill (London: Phaidon, 1966), and Thomas Wright and R. H. Evans, Historical and Descriptive Account of the Caricatures of James Gillray (NY: B. Blom, 1968).
(24.) The advertisement to The Trial of Mr. William Atkinson offers the following: "There were several modes of punishing Adultery among the Grecians, among that of putting out the eyes. And the Locrians observed this custom in latter ages, being compelled to the observance of it by Zaleucus, their law-giver, whose rigour in executing this law is very remarkable; for having caught his son in Adultery, he resolved to deprive him of his sight, and remained a long time inexorable ..." (v).
(25.) First Edition (London: Printed for T. N. Longman, and O. Rees, No. 39, Patemoster Row, 1799) 55, 84, 60.
(26.) The Natural Daughter (1799). Another tide, Walsingham; or, The Pupil of Nature. A Domestic Story (1797) similarly hints at entanglements of a domestic schema gone awry.
(27.) Flora Fraser gives a strong sense of this in her biography, referring to the Regent's "campaign" against Caroline, likening Caroline's response to a "general on the move," and the hearing itself as a "royal battle" complete with its "challenge" and "champion." The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline (London: Macmillan, 1996) 321, 355, 361.
(28.) Edwards' Genuine Edition. "The Book!" or, The Proceedings and Correspondence upon the Subject of The Inquiry into the Conduct of her Royal Highness The Princess of Wales, under a commission appointed by the King, in the year 1806. Faithfully copied from Authentic Documents. To which is prefixed A Narrative of the Recent Events, That have led to the publication of the Original Documents: with a Statement of Facts relative to The Child, Now under the Protection of Her Royal Highness [by Spencer Perceval] (London: Printed by and for Richard Edwards, 1813/New York: Re-printed for Eastburn, Kirk, and Co, No 86 Broadway).
(29.) Radical pressmen such as William Mason, William Hone, and William Benbow also promoted Caroline's cause through both fictional and iconic interpretive codes, producing a barrage of pamphlets and caricatures to counter the viciously anti-Caroline literature and caricatures of the loyalist press concerning her extra-marital sexual relations, particularly with Bartolomeo Pergami while she was in self-exile on the Continent. See Iain McCalman's study of this street warfare in Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries, and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988).
(30.) McCalman claims that Perceval himself hired Grub Street hacker Ashe to write Spirit of the Book, although if so, its Tory tone and negative portrayal of Caroline is difficult to understand, especially when Perceval republished the investigation documents two years later in The Book!
(31.) The Book Itself! Private Memoirs [of Queen Caroline--added in pencil], interspersed with Curious Anecdotes of several Distinguished Characters, being a complete answer to the Spirit of the Book (London: printed for, and published by J. Bushnell, No. 7, Hatton-Wall, Hatton-Garden). Price Six-Pence. This book, cheaply printed with a poorly done color plate illustrating a young woman begging on bended knee to a gentleman, while another gentleman tries to restrain her, reveals all the hallmarks of Caroline's imagination. The many spelling errors for more sophisticated words are likewise indicative of her writing style, although the frequent typos are the result of a cheap and hurried edition. Undated, it must have been written between 1806-7 and George III's final collapse in December of 1810, since it ends with the conclusion to the "Delicate Investigation" (1806-7) and the King of Cumaria's apology to the heroine for the Prince's behavior, a letter whose assertions reveal that the King is still in control and the Regency has not yet begun.
(32.) Such as the pornographic Memoirs of Perdita, portraying her supposed affair with Lord Malden (London: G. Lister, 1784), cited in Judith Pascoe, Introduction, Mary Robinson: Selected Poems 29.
(33.) Both she and the Prince published letters by or to members of the royal family, including her own letters in The Book! and the Prince's publication of his father's letters regarding Caroline, the latter act greatly distressing the King. Lord Eldon, Lord Chancellor at the time of their publication, believed, and it was publicly rumored, that it was the Prince's disloyal act of publishing his father's letters that led to the second lengthy recurrence of his illness (Fraser 141).
(34.) In "Cobbett, Coleridge and the Queen Caroline Affair," Tim Fulford shows how entangled Caroline's adultery was in national affairs; public sympathy was swayed not only by political and Grub Street hacks, but by well known literary participants in the public sphere such as Cobbett and Coleridge (SiR 37.4 [Winter 1998]: 523-44).
(35.) Spirit of the Spirit, abridgement of Spirit of the Book, comprising particulars of delicate enquiry and memoir of life of that most virtuous and illustrious princess (London, 1812); King's Case Stated; appeal to House of Parliament on proceedings pending against the Queen, by J. Webster Wedderburn (London, 1820); Minutes of evidence on second reading of bill intituled [sic] "Act to deprive Her Majesty Queen Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of title, prerogatives, rights, privileges, and exemptions of Queen Consort of this realm, and to dissolve marriage between His Majesty and said Caroline Amelia Elizabeth" (N.P., 1820); Robert Huish, Memoirs of Caroline, Queen of Great Britain, with letters and other documents, 2 vols. (London, 1821). At over 600 pages per volume, Huish (who also authored biographies of George III and Princess Charlotte prior to that of Caroline) makes the most capital out of Caroline's extraordinary life: not only did this biography come out in the year of her death, but it is highly stylized, written as if to be excerpted in large chunks for the literary reviews.
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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