The Fleet at Marshalsea, named after the malodorous river that ran beside it, housed as many as three hundred prisoners, many accompanied by their families. Those who were unable to pay would beg for aid through a grille installed in the prison wall on Farringdon Street specifically for that purpose.
It was to this prison that Thomas Robinson was conducted, having failed to settle his debts. As her memoirs declare, Mary went with him, if out of loyalty rather than love.
Extract from the Memoirs of Mary Robinson
‘Now came my hour of trial. He was conveyed to the house of a sheriff’s officer, and in a few days detainers were lodged against him to the amount of twelve hundred pounds, chiefly the arrears of annuities and other demands from Jew creditors… after waiting three weeks in the custody of a sheriff’s officer (during which time I had never left him for a single hour, day or night) obliged to submit to the necessity of becoming a captive…
…For myself I cared but little; all my anxiety was for Mr Robinson’s repose and the health of my child…The apartment which we obtained was in the upper part of the building, overlooking a racket ground. Mr Robinson was expert in all exercises of strength or activity, and he found that amusement daily which I could not partake of. I had other occupations of a more interesting nature – the care of a beloved and still helpless daughter.’
Yet her courage remained strong throughout her ordeal. They were allotted two rooms high on the third floor, or gallery as it was more commonly known. A gallery consisted of a dank, ill-lit passage that ran the length of the prison, with rooms on either side. Their rooms were each about fourteen feet by nine, with the rare benefit of a fireplace and an even more rare tiny barred window overlooking the racquet court. A tattered curtain, in lieu of a door, hung between the two rooms.
She diligently cleaned their rooms on a daily basis, and the stairs leading from them, also transcribed documents to earn money but considered their situation utterly shaming and humiliating! In Lady of Passion I try to show how she felt about this dreadful situation in which she now found herself.
Extract from Lady of Passion:
Here we enjoyed some degree of privacy, if not silence, as there was the constant banging of doors to jangle our nerves; the steady tread of feet shuffling along the passages, sobs and cries echoing in the dark of night beneath the vaulted roof.
I confess to being shocked at the first sight of our quarters.
‘Are we expected to sleep in this filthy, flea-infested bed?’ I asked my husband.
The stink of urine and squalor of our surroundings made me retch, and I was thankful that I’d thought to bring our own bed linen, and basic crockery for our needs.
‘Must we sit on these broken chairs each day gazing upon those vulgar words scrawled by previous occupants on the dirty walls?’
Tommy made no answer. My husband had sunk into a state of depression from the moment of his arrest, which was why I considered it my duty, as a faithful wife, to be with him in his hour of need.
‘He is not worthy of such a sacrifice,’ Mama had cried, outraged that I’d spent much of every day with him at the bailiff’s office, let alone intended to incarcerate myself with him in the prison.
‘He is my husband, and I have a duty as his wife!’
‘Yet you say you have never loved him.’
‘I feel great sympathy for him.’
‘Many people die of fever in prison. Duty and pity will not save him.’
‘Do not be too harsh, Mama. Poor Tommy surely deserves some comfort and affection?’
‘Why should he, when he has let you down so badly?’
‘Because it is not his fault that Squire Harris refuses to properly acknowledge him as his son, or that he is being difficult over Tommy having taken me for wife. And I did help spend some of the money, so should share the punishment. My only concern is for his health, and that of our child.’
‘But how will you cope?’ she asked, wringing her hands in anguish.
‘I will cope because I must. Left to deal alone with the rakes pursuing me in town without my husband’s protection does not greatly appeal either.’
Next to the damp and disease, boredom was the killer in the Fleet. Mary filled her spare time with writing poetry. This is an excerpt from one of the most famous one from that period.
There’s many a breast which Virtue only sways,
In sad Captivity hath pass’d its days…
Each new-born day each flatt’ring hope annoys,
For what is life, depriv’d of Freedom’s joys?…
The greedy Creditor, whose flinty breast
The iron hand of Avarice hath press’d,
Who never own’d Humanity’s soft claim,
Self-interest and Revenge his only aim,...
And when her earlier poems were shown to the Duchess of Devonshire and Georgiana offered to act as patron, Mary could at last begin to hope for a better future.
Extract from Lady of Passion:
My fourteen-year-old brother must have charmed the famous Georgiana, for the result of this inspired idea was an invitation to meet her in person.
‘I can hardly believe it,’ I said, excitedly showing Tommy the note. ‘The Duchess of Devonshire apparently asked George for every particular about me, read my poems and expressed a wish to meet the author. I am to go to her residence in Piccadilly. What think you of that?’
He kissed me most tenderly on the cheek. ‘I have always known that your cleverness would one day bring you notice.’
I smiled, knowing how difficult it was for him to admit he possessed a bluestocking for a wife. ‘But would it be right for me to go? I have never set foot outside of the prison gate.’
‘But you are perfectly at liberty to do so,’ Tommy reminded me. ‘And since you are so obsessed with poetry, talking about it with another woman might do you good.’
‘That is not the object of my visit. I am hoping the duchess may be able to help get us out of this hellhole.’ I could see by his expression that he was sceptical.
‘I very much doubt she can. Rumour has it she is beset with debts of her own, from her passion for gambling.’
I refused to believe this, determined to at least try. ‘Oh, but what can I wear?’
Now he was laughing as he sauntered away, back to his friends and his games.
Fortunately, I had brought with me a plain brown satin gown, so when the day arrived, I washed myself thoroughly to take away any taint and stink of prison, and dressed with care. Then leaving my darling Maria in the care of her nursemaid, I set forth to visit the Duchess of Devonshire.
On the 3 August, 1776, after fifteen months incarceration, Tommy was finally discharged from the Fleet. He quickly seemed to shrug off the horror of it, but the effect upon Mary Robinson was to be long-lasting.
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, who fell in love with Mary when he saw her playing Perdita in A Winter’s Tale. 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.