One wild night in November, in the year 1758, in a wonderful old house adjoining Bristol Cathedral, when " the wind whistled round the dark pinnacles of the minster tower, and the rain beat in torrents against the casements of the chamber," a little girl was born who was destined for a singularly romantic career.
"Perdita" is the name which has clung to her, not only because of the fame she achieved as the heroine of "A Winter's Tale" at Drury Lane, but because it is the name especially connected with the one real romance of her life. The correspondence that passed between Florizel and Perdita, the Prince of Wales and the beautiful Mrs. Robinson, holds a famous place in the love passages of our famous beauties.
But the nature of the fame Mary Darby was to achieve, as a brilliant and beautiful actress at Drury Lane, was the last one would have prophesied for her in her childhood, though she early showed signs of possessing the gift for writing poetry which earned her the titles of " Pensive songstress " and " The English Sappho " in later years.
She was of Irish descent, the original name of her father's family being Mcdermott, afterwards changed to Darby. Her father was the captain of a Bristol whaler, and during Mary's early years his enterprises were invariably successful. He was a generous, hospitable man, and at that time devoted to his wife and family. The home must have been a very happy one. Mrs. Darby, whose maiden name was Seys, and who could claim descent from Locke, was a charming woman, passionately fond of her children; and Mary in her turn adored the mother whose only fault, she has put it on record, was too unlimited indulgence, too tender care, where her children were concerned .
Mary's nursery was near the great aisle of the minster, and she could hear the cathedral organ well. The solemn music fascinated her, and it was one of her greatest delights to sit on the winding steps which led from the aisle to the ancient cloisters of St. Augustine's monastery, which supported the back of the Darbys' house, listening to the services held in the cathedral. The house was very old. The narrow, winding staircase which Mary loved led from a room in the house which was part of the original monastery, and which opened on the minster sanctuary by dim casement windows. Mary herself says of this old minster house that "a spot more calculated to inspire the soul with mournful meditation could scarcely be found."
The house and its cathedral associations undoubtedly had a great effect on her mind, and perhaps on the expression of her face, which was grave and even melancholy, lighted by a pair of very large eyes. She early showed a love of poetry, particularly elegiac, and sang very charmingly and pathetically-for the melodies that pleased her most were of a mournful kind.
When she was nine years old her father went to America to carry out a scheme to establish a whale fishery on the coast of Labrador. Mrs. Darby moved to a larger house in Bristol, and surrounded Mary and her brothers with every luxury.
Then came the turn of the tide. The letters from America became fewer and fewer, until
The beautiful actress, Mrs. Robinson, who as "Perdita" (the role in which she attained fame) enchained for a while the fickle affections of the Prince of Wales, afterwards George IV. The Prince assumed the name of Florizel in the correspondence with her
From the painting by Romney in the Wallace Collection at last Mrs. Darby heard that her husband had transferred his affections to someone who was more willing to brave the rough life out in America than Mrs. Darby had been. His scheme, moreover, failed, and his fortune was lost. To add to Mrs. Darby's misery, her six-year-old son died. Mary was at an age to share her mother's grief, and was a comfort to her at this time.
After his desertion of his wife, Captain Darby arranged for the family to live in London, and for Mary to go to school in Chelsea. The first school to which she went was kept by a Mrs. Lorrington, a most able woman, but erratic and much addicted to drunkenness. Mary speaks of her with great gratitude and admiration. It was Mrs. Lorrington who encouraged her in writing verses, and many written at this time-she was not yet thirteen years of age-were published later. She naively remarks that as love was their theme she never showed them to her mother till they were about to be published.
It was about this time, when she was not quite thirteen, that she had a proposal of marriage from a captain in the Royal Navy. He was much upset to find that she was three years younger than he had supposed, but expressed the hope that when he returned in two years' time he would find her still disengaged. His ship foundered at sea a few months afterwards, and he was drowned.
Financial difficulties now led Mrs. Darby to open a school at Chelsea, where Mary did much to help her. She took charge of the English language department, superintended the wardrobes of the pupils, and read to them "sacred and moral lessons on saints' days and Sunday evenings." This new life was proving very happy, when it was suddenly ended by the return of Mr. Darby. His pride was much hurt by the fact that his wife had been bravely earning a livelihood for herself and children, and the school had to be closed, Mary being sent to a " finishing school " in Marylebone. But, although Mr. Darby objected to his wife's attempting to support herself, he continued to make but scanty provision for his family, while his visits were very few. Before long he went back to America.
The school at Marylebone was the means of turning Mary's thoughts towards the stage. Through the dancing-master there, who was also ballet-master at Covent Garden Theatre, Mary was introduced to David Garrick, who was much struck by her appearance, and paid her much attention. Mary writes of him: " Garrick was delighted with everything I did. He would sometimes dance a minuet with me, sometimes request me to sing the favourite ballads of the day; but the circumstance which most pleased him was my tone of voice, which he frequently told me closely resembled that of his favourite Cibber. . . . Never shall I forget the enchanting hours which I passed in Mr. Garrick's society." Pressure was brought to bear on Mrs. Darby to let her daughter prepare for the stage, and at last she reluctantly consented. During the period of training Mary often attended the theatre, at Gar-rick's request, and the attentions she received caused her mother great alarm. Mary behaved very properly, however. "A dignified air," she says, "which from a child I had acquired, effectually sheltered me from the attacks of impertinence or curiosity." Her actual appearance on the stage was deferred until after her marriage.
She was married in 1774 to an articled clerk named Thomas Robinson, who had beguiled Mrs. Darby into thinking he would make a much better husband to her beloved daughter than he did. Mary did not love him, though at the time of her marriage she esteemed him highly. She was too young even to take the ceremony very seriously, for even while pronouncing the marriage vow she found her fancy wandering to the stage. Robinson did not long remain faithful to his wife. Until imprisoned for debt, they led a gay, fashionable life, and Mary was flattered as much as any woman could wish. Her husband neglected her thoroughly, leaving her to her many admirers.
After the ten months' imprisonment had come to an end, Mary decided to go on to the stage, and she scored a marked success immediately. She was most popular. Scarcely any other actress experienced such public admiration. Her acting was characterised by much grace and charm, while she dressed in good taste, and knew well what costumes most enhanced her beauty. This was the most brilliant period of her life. Her great success was as Perdita. In 1778 Garrick's adaptation of "A Winter's Tale" was acted by Royal command, and Mrs. Robinson made such a superbly beautiful Perdita that one of the actors remarked that she would be sure to captivate the heart of the Prince of Wales.
That she had made one conquest that night soon. became evident. Amorous notes began to reach her from an unknown lover, who signed himself, in delicate compliment to her presentation of the character of Perdita, "Florizel," and who chose a noble lord as his go-between. Among other love tokens she received a heart bearing the legends, "Je ne change qu'en mourant" and "Unalterable to my Perdita through life." Mrs. Robinson was much flattered, and not a little curious as to who this unknown lover might be. A meeting was at last arranged, and Perdita met Florizel in a boat moored off. Kew. She found herself confronted by no less a person than the Prince of Wales. Then a second meeting by moonlight began a series of romantic encounters in the gardens. It was not long before all London knew that "the beautiful Mrs. Robinson" had brought the Prince to her feet.
To be continued.