Feminist Paratext in Mary Robinson’s ‘A Letter to the Women of England’ (1799)

by Anne-Claire Michoux (University of Zurich)

Detail of portrait of Mary Robinson in costume as Perdita, cropped to an oval (miniature-style). Background of flowing crimson red curtain. Robinson has a clear complexion, and a huge black hat perched at a coquettish angle upon her fluffed out grey hair. A voluminous feather adorns the hat, and some jewels on the turned up flap, facing the viewer. Her gown is low cut, revealing ample creamy white decollege. Foamy white lace decorates the edge, and the dress is a deep blue colour, with some red buttons just becoming visible near the base of the cropped image.
Mary Robinson as ‘Perdita’, attributed to John Hoppner (1758-1810), Chawton House Library.

A celebrity in her lifetime, Mary Robinson (1757-1800) was an acclaimed actress, immortalised as ‘Perdita’ for her star role in The Winter’s Tale, as well as a prolific and increasingly radical poet, dramatist, novelist, and author of several feminist essays. Notorious for being the first public mistress of the Prince of Wales, Robinson was also known as ‘the English Sappho’, a writer whose work, as Ashley Cross has recently argued, shaped Romantic writing.[1] As a result of her association with revolutionary ideas, she was included in Richard Polwhele’s infamous misogynistic poem The Unsex’d Females (1798), which was an attack on the feminist principles developed by Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). As a follower of Wollstonecraft, Robinson was in good company, placed alongside Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Mary Hays, and Helen Maria Williams, among others.[2] In March 1799, Robinson published the feminist pamphlet A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Insubordination, under the pseudonym Anne Frances Randall.[3] Both a critique of female disempowerment and an intervention in women’s literary history, the Letter follows Wollstonecraft’s defence of women as ‘rational creatures’ and campaigns for their access to the traditionally male ‘liberal education’, arguing for ‘a system of mental equality’.[4] Robinson debunks the myth of the woman writer as an ‘unsexed female’, promoting the figure of the ‘masculine woman’ as a ‘woman of enlightened understanding’.[5]

The paratextual material of the Letter advances the pamphlet’s feminist argument, directly addressing the condition of women at the end of the eighteenth century. The footnotes constantly point to the time in which Robinson is writing and the subjection and silencing of the ‘modern wife’.[6] A direct attack on ‘the contracted and trivial educations which stigmatize the present era’, the paratext arguably also functions as an affirmation of women’s history, and of women’s literary history in particular.[7] The title page, which includes an epigraph from Nicholas Rowe’s enduringly popular she-tragedy The Fair Penitent (1703), mirrors the Letter’s defiant tone. Taken from the rebellious heroine’s proto-feminist speech in act 3, scene 1, the lines stress women’s strong abilities and their right to defend themselves, rather than rehearse the speech’s conventional critique of women’s enslaved condition:

                                                             Wherefore are we
        Born with high Souls, but to assert our selves? [8]

The rhetorical question is sharpened by the use of italics, issued as a challenge, which introduces the Letter’s bold and unapologetic feminist project. Rowe’s tragedies remained extremely successful throughout the eighteenth century, with leading tragediennes such as Sarah Siddons, Mary Ann Yates, and Mary Robinson taking on star roles, contributing to the enduring popularity of the genre. Robinson frequently included references to Rowe’s plays in her fiction. In her novel The Natural Daughter (1799), published the same year as A Letter to the Women of England, Rowe’s similarly popular The Tragedy of Jane Shore (1714) is performed in Bath for the benefit of a mysterious woman, the mother of the eponymous natural daughter, whose plight will lead Robinson’s heroine Martha Morley into a ‘labyrinth of adventures’ including a short career as a travelling actress.[9] Rowe’s heroines are outspoken and impassioned, an obvious choice for Robinson’s own defiant work.

Detail of portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, cropped to an oval (miniature-style). Her fluffy grey hair is encircled with a broad white sash of fabric as she gazes intently at the viewer in a side profile. She wears a jacket or dress of blue and black vertical stripes, with a white kerchief tucked in around her chest. One hand is upon a sheaf of papers, or it might be a book propped upon an angled desk, as if disturbed from reading/writing. A quill rests on the ledge of the desk just above.
Mary Wollstonecraft (c. 1790-91), by John Opie (1761-1807), Tate Britain.

This confident and embattled tone is carried over in the footnotes, which provide piercing commentaries on the damaging effects of the persistent ‘illiberal neglect of female genius’ and prove that this neglect is incompatible with England’s position as an enlightened country.[10] The first footnote comments on the text’s reference to Wollstonecraft as an unnamed ‘illustrious British female, (whose death has not been sufficiently lamented, but to whose genius posterity will render justice) [who] has already written volumes in vindication of “The Rights of Woman”’.[11] While outlining the distinctiveness of the pamphlet’s project the main text refers to but does not name her. It is only in the footnote, which again alludes to Vindication and repeats the text’s opening alliance with Wollstonecraft via the author’s claim to belong to the ‘same school’, that the author is identified. A call to all English women to intervene in the debate on ‘The Rights of Woman’, this first footnote explains that ‘it requires a legion of Wollstonecrafts to undermine the poisons of prejudice and malevolence’.[12] The italics once again reinforce female agency, the military language also emphasising the idea of active female engagement. The inclusion of Wollstonecraft’s name in the paratext but not the main body of the Letter suggests that the footnotes offer a personal commentary on the text and an even clearer association with radical politics.

One of the Letter’s strategies is to adopt the catalogue of illustrious literary women, including the Dutch scholar Gerardus Joannes Vossius’ lengthy list of eminent women in De Philologia (1650), on which Robinson comments extensively.[13] The footnotes contrast this historical proof of women’s successes in polite literature with the side-lining of English women writers. The footnotes specifically take to task English ‘men of modern education’. Following the text’s suggestion that Vossius’ list might have been significantly ‘enlarged’ since its publication, a footnote wryly observes that ‘It was reserved for modern English men to question their capability’.[14] To Joanna of Castile’s proficiency in Latin a footnote adds: ‘Read this, ye English fathers and husbands, and retract your erroneous opinions, respecting female education’.[15] An aside then addresses the fate women of learning meet:

A Cassandra in the universities of England, at the present period, would be considered as one of those literary bugbears, a female philosopher, and would consequently be treated with ridicule and contempt.[16]

Scorn awaits the thinking woman.

While the main text offers a general discussion of the lack of recognition of British women’s achievements, the paratext presents individual women, thereby reversing their contemporary neglect. The paratext also carries Robinson’s radical politics: the Letter’s indictment of a lack of official recognition of female talent as a factor in the emigration of distinguished women is accompanied by a footnote that singles out Emma Hamilton, born in a modest family and by then a leading member of Neapolitan society as the wife of Sir William Hamilton, and Helen Maria Williams, known for her revolutionary sympathies. A final ‘List of British Female Literary Characters Living in the Eighteenth Century’ is added to the pamphlet, supporting the Letter’s claim that ‘The press will be the monuments from which the genius of British women will rise to immortal celebrity’.[17] This catalogue provides the enlargement Robinson regretted her male contemporaries had failed to carry out. Arranged alphabetically, the list reaches a total of 39 names and includes the bluestockings Elizabeth Carter, Elizabeth Montagu, Catherine Macaulay, and Hester Thrale Piozzi, as well as Frances Burney (Mrs D’Arblay) and Hannah More, alongside Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Ann Yearsley, Mary Hays, and Robinson herself. Mary Wollstonecraft and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman feature prominently in this catalogue, reflecting Robinson’s allegiance to a woman whose reputation had been severely damaged by the release of the Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) a year before. By including Wollstonecraft in her list, Robinson transforms a literary bugbear into a literary exemplar, reasserting her allegiance to the most notorious ‘unsex’d female’.

A final paratextual feature of the Letter can be found in the copy belonging to the British Library, a fascinating illustration of the social life of books. The title page bears the name ‘E. Rose of Kilravock Castle 1799’, the seat of the Rose family in Nairnshire, Scotland. While there is nothing unusual in this practice, Rose made substantial additions to Robinson’s list of female writers which reflect a shared understanding of the value of a female literary history. Some of the notes suggest that Rose returned to Robinson’s volume years after purchasing it, as she introduced Mary Hays’ Female Biography (1803) and Charlotte Smith’s History of England (1806) to these writers’ works, and added, among others, Amelia Opie’s novels, which she began to publish in 1801, Elizabeth Smith’s Translations of Klopstock (1811). Rose also inserted the contribution of ‘Randall—Letter to Women’, proof that the author of the pamphlet did indeed ‘rise to immortal celebrity’.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Anne-Claire Michoux is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich. Her research has explored the construction of British national identity in women’s writing of the Romantic period, and she is currently a collaborator on the project ‘The Feminist Enlightenment across Eighteenth-Century Europe’.  

[1] Ashley Cross, Mary Robinson and the Genesis of Romanticism: Literary Dialogues and Debts, 1784–1821 (London; New York: Routledge, 2017).

[2] Richard Polwhele, The Unsex’d Females: A Poem, Addressed to the Author of The Pursuits of Literature (London: Cadell and Davies, 1798).

[3] Robinson adopted many different pseudonyms, releasing her work under the names Laura Maria, Sappho, Julia, Lesbia, Portia, Bridget, the Sylphid, as well as Oberon, Titania and TB or Tabitha Bramble. See Stuart Curran, ‘Mary Robinson’s Lyrical Tales in Context’, in Re-visioning Romanticism, ed. Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), pp. 17-35, 34, and Judith Pascoe, Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. 172.

[4] Mary Robinson, A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Insubordination (London: Longman and Rees, 1799), p. 92.

[5] Ibid., p. 72.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid., p. 34.

[8] Nicholas Rowe, The Fair Penitent (1703), in The Plays and Poems of Nicholas Rowe, gen. ed. Stephen Bernard, 5 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2016), I, p. 275.

[9] Mary Robinson, The Natural Daughter (1799), in The Works of Mary Robinson, gen. ed. William Brewer (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2010), VII, p. 33.

[10] Robinson, Letter, p. 34.

[11] In 1798, William Godwin had published Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which included details of her affair with Gilbert Imlay and her suicide attempts, and accidentally contributed to the increased vilification of Wollstonecraft after her death.

[12] Ibid., p. 2. Italics in the original.

[13] William D. Brewer and Sharon M. Setzer note that the translation of Vossius’ treatise in The London Magazine in 1745 was likely Robinson’s immediate source. The Works of Mary Robinson, gen. ed. William Brewer (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2010), VIII, p. 286.

[14] Letter, p. 30.

[15] Ibid., p. 41.

[16] Ibid., p. 40.

[17] Ibid., 91.

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