Published by Severn House
I shall ever remember the day we arrived in London, the wonder of it, the grandeur of the people in their fine carriages, the excitement that burned in my breast at just ten years of age. But having sold our home and all our possessions I knew that my mother felt bewildered and cast adrift, overawed by the noise, the sights and smells of this great city. Summoned to Papa’s lodgings in fashionable Spring Gardens, and ordered to bring my brother George and me with her, she had donned her best gown, pinched some colour into her cheeks, and set out with hope in her heart that the loneliness of the last few years might be over at last.
My father’s cold reception destroyed all of that.
‘Is this the best you can manage?’ he demanded. ‘This measly sum cannot be all the money you’ve raised!’
‘I did the very best I could, Nicholas.’
‘It is nowhere near enough,’ he snapped.
My father was a man of some spirit and did not suffer fools gladly, but, much as I adored him, I was alarmed and deeply troubled to see him treat Mama so callously, when they had once been the most devoted of couples.
‘What more could I have done?’ Her plea was heart-
She had indeed, including her youngest son, my beloved brother, William, who died of smallpox last year, aged only six. He was the second child Mama had lost to that disease, my sister having perished at just eighteen months some years ago. In view of this grief, the trauma of being abandoned by her husband, and then to be made homeless, had been almost too much to bear.
My mother was no great beauty, but she was slender and vivacious, and as Hester Vanacott, born of a well-
As a prosperous Bristol merchant, Papa had initially provided well for his family: a large house, elegantly furnished in the most expensive and sumptuous style. Wine and fine food had graced our table where he liked to entertain his many guests. My brothers and I enjoyed the best schooling, and every indulgence. Even the bed I slept in bore covers of the richest crimson damask, my dresses of the finest cambric. And during the summer months we would move to Clifton Hill to benefit from the purer air.
Perhaps it was because he was an American that my father possessed such a bold and reckless nature. But to our great misfortune his streak of restlessness and craving for adventure could not be quenched. How I ached for him to find happiness and contentment at home with his family, but innocent and gauche as I then was, I knew it was not to be.
My privileged childhood had ended the day Papa set sail for his native land and embarked upon a wild and perilous adventure to establish a whale fishery on the coast of Labrador, and attempt to civilise the Esquimaux Indians. Mama had been devastated by his departure, refusing to risk her life upon a stormy ocean, or abandon her children. My father thought her cowardly and obstinate but, loving her as I did and not wishing to lose her, I had been secretly relieved. Life without either parent would have been bleak indeed. I believed she showed great bravery by staying at home and attempting to provide a stable life for us under the most difficult circumstances. Money and letters did not always arrive on time, or at all for months on end, as Mama stubbornly reminded him in the argument which was growing louder by the minute.
‘In the three years since you left us, Nicholas, I have done my best to hold the family together, even in the face of learning of your infidelity with . . . with that woman.’
‘Her name is Elinor,’ he coldly responded.
I glanced anxiously up at Mama, hoping she wouldn’t disgrace herself by weeping. Being quite old enough to appreciate the pain she felt in her husband’s betrayal, I rested a comforting hand upon her arm so that she was aware of my support. My disappointment in my father was keen. Had I not adored and worshipped him my entire life? But Papa had found himself a woman willing to live with him in the frozen wastes of America. Rumour had it that this Elinor was one of the Indians he had gone out to help, that there might even be a child, but Mama valiantly stiffened her spine and made no mention of these suspicions. As always, she focused entirely upon us, her adored children, and kindly patted my hand, acknowledging our closeness.
‘Mary has continued to attend the school run by the Misses More, and is already proficient in French as well as reading, writing, arithmetic, and needlework of course, essential for any young lady. George too is doing well, and John settled into his apprenticeship. I dislike this interruption to the children’s lives and education.’
‘Miss Hannah is most complimentary of my ability to recite poems,’ I excitedly put in, longing to make Papa proud of me. ‘I knew Pope’s “Elegy On The Death of an Unfortunate Lady” before I was eight. And the sisters took the entire school to see King Lear at the Theatre Royal, Bristol’s new theatre. It was most thrilling, and not at all sad. In this version Cordelia was saved and Lear survived. Oh, how I should love to be in such a production.’
He ignored my chatter as if I had never spoken, brushing off my childish enthusiasm with scant attention. ‘The children will be educated here in London from now on, and you, Hester, will lodge with a respectable clergyman’s family. I shall return across the Atlantic to launch a new venture.’
Mama stared at him aghast. ‘You are going overseas again? But that is sheer madness! Did the Indians not burn your settlement last time, and murder many of your people? How can you be so foolish as to risk your life again?’
‘Do not exaggerate, Hester. Only three men died, although unfortunately we did lose several thousands of pounds worth of ships and equipment.’
I winced at this, hating the implication that it was almost worse to lose boats than lives.
‘And what of the financial disaster that followed?’ Mama bravely persisted. ‘Are we not now facing ruin?’
‘It was unfortunate that my patrons reneged on their promise to offer protection against any losses, but I have every faith the scheme will fare better next time. I shall employ experienced Canadian fishermen.’
This news was a death knell to Mama’s hopes, but even she could see that her arguments were falling on stony ground, that my father’s thoughts were already far from the needs of his family.
I blamed his mistress, this Elinor who held Papa in such fatal fascination. He was, I believed, the hapless slave of a young and artful woman. Were men always so fickle? My own pain was as deeply felt as Mama’s, and from that moment I believe every event of my life has more or less been marked by the progressive evils of a too acute sensibility.
A beautiful and talented actress, poet and fashion icon, Mary Robinson was one of the most famous women of her time. But Mary was destined always to be betrayed by the men she loved: by her father, a prosperous Bristol merchant who abandoned his family for a life of adventure – and another woman; by her husband, a weak and foolish man who bankrupted the family with his inveterate gambling and humiliated his young wife with his numerous affairs; and by the Prince of Wales, later King George IV. Mary gave up everything for her prince – her career, her husband and her independence – only to be cruelly abandoned when his affections turned elsewhere. And then she met the love of her life. Could she hope this time it would be different?
Against the turbulent background of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, this is the enthralling story of a remarkable woman: a tale of ambition, passion, scandal and heartbreak.