Fay, "Framing Romantic Dress: Mary Robinson, Princess Caroline and the Sex/Text"
Historicizing Romantic Sexuality
Framing Romantic Dress: Mary Robinson, Princess Caroline and the Sex/Text
Elizabeth Fay, University of Massachusetts Boston
Costuming the female body creates a permeable space for identity play. During the Romantic Period women who were accustomed to public appearances used the semiotic play provided by deliberate dress choices to create public interpretions of their legible bodies. Mary Robinson and Princess Caroline provide two models for how productive such performative practices might be. This essay appears in _Historicizing Romantic Sexuality_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.
This essay examines the ways in which two women whose social careers frame the Romantic period used dress in the assumption that costuming the sexual body could purposefully define social and political identity. Neither Mary Robinson nor Princess Caroline aimed for sexual liberation so much as for less restraint on their gendered social destiny and participation in the public sphere. In an age not yet regulated by the fashion industry, but characterized by a rapidity in shifting trends and fashion experimentation, it was possible for women to costume as a means of continually renewed attempts at self-definition. I argue that the extent to which these two particular women succeeded or failed in achieving the identities they toyed with was, if undermined by the predetermined gendering of media interpretation and presentation of both women for visual consumption, nevertheless productive for both women of unusual freedom from self-regulating social checks for brief periods—Mary Robinson during her heyday as the Prince's mistress, and Princess Caroline while living in "exile" both at Blackheath and in Europe. Granted, both women's attempt to use femininity rather than subvert it—to manipulate flirtatious play to attract the male gaze—backfired dramatically when they tried to control the gaze's interpretive direction. Unlike male contemporaries such as Beau Brummell and Lord Byron, who more successfully played dress off a defined sexual identity by staging views that guided the interpretive process—so successfully that each man found their fashioned role inescapable—Robinson and Princess Caroline were unable to completely manage or confine their media image. Rather than redefine identity as style as Brummell and Byron did, Robinson and Caroline employed gendered expectations of indecorous feminine behavior to straddle the divide between woman as décor and woman as actant by toying with the doubling nature of revealing fabrics, suggestive accoutrements, or outlandish getups. Although these women's attempt to use materiality to translate visual expression into a more powerful discourse was more innovative in its ends than the dandy's, the means was too aligned with femininity and consumption to be truly freeing. Rather than establishing a new behavioral style identified with dress as did Brummell, or a poetic style equally identified with dress as did Byron, Robinson and Caroline played into rather than off of interpretive norms that associated loose dress with loose politics, and both with lax morals that had no place in the public eye. Yet their exploits periodically provided Robinson and Caroline with freedom from the unrelenting self-constraints endured by other women playing queenly roles, such as Queen Charlotte and Sarah Siddons, who submitted to such rigor in order not to be negatively stereotyped as ambitious or unlicensed women. Although Tory cartoonists used these same stereotypes to indict Robinson and Caroline, and even liberal Whigs perceived both women through such models, each woman was also able to influence public perception of herself so as to destabilize such constraints.
A flirtatious relation to the dress code, aided by the availability of the newer, body-revealing imported fabrics such as thin silks, lawns and muslins , and of rapidly shifting trends that made immediate use of imported materials and motifs for decorative touches and accessories, was as I see it a redressing of ancien régime fashion play, considered by this time a corrupt use of costume, and associated with masquerade and disguise. Yet by flirting with sentimental conceptions of female character, both Robinson and Caroline found themselves falling out of romance fantasy (Prince's mistress, Prince's bride) into the "realism" of the sentimental domestic novel (tightly drawn sexual identity). This was a bourgeois realism, but also a social one, and if George could practice aristocratic privilege and escape intact through fashionable dalliance and excess, the women related to him could not. His sisters were kept under tight rein by their royal parents, his mother practiced strict surveillance of social codes, and his mistresses from Maria Fitzherbert on heeded the proprieties as appropriate. If Robinson and Caroline gained periods of fantasy-fueled freedom from class and gender constraints, their more frequent falls into the penalizing realities of sentimentalism, realities determined increasingly by bourgeois conceptions of female sexual obedience, were necessitated by their refusal to stop playing the coquette in public.
Furthermore, these two women's potential to be undone was strengthened by their understanding of themselves, and their self-expressions in their autobiographical writings, as textual bodies as well as linguistic agents. They both used self-expression to create more flexibility in the tension between the roles they were expected to inhabit and their practice of identity, yet their reliance on genre markers created sexual pitfalls as much as their flirtation with social codes provided liberation. Both Robinson and Caroline interpreted themselves as sentimental heroines whose romances were deliberately unraveled, like the threads of one's dress, by the animosity that inhabits the corridors of sentimental realist fiction, thus exposing the female personage as a vulnerable body. Such fantasies at once exploited feelings of victimization, and liberated both women from reality checks, as they interpolated textual selves into public space. This self-narrativizing—staging the self through dress as much as through public or highly publicized bodily acts—captured the popular imagination in ways that extended both women's public presence beyond expectation. Both women materially armored themselves by costuming for public consumption, while defending their honor to the public and in their memoirs through various textual strategies that revised their self-liberating social transgressions. The various scandals each woman experienced through her association with the Prince of Wales had lasting social ramifications, causing emotional distress exacerbated by associated financial insecurity, an increasingly oppositional politics, and debilitating bodily symptoms. Indeed, both Robinson's paralysis and Caroline's intestinal disorders are readable as excessive responses to gender codes that could not be refashioned.
I. The Sentimental Heroine
Mary Robinson begins her Memoirs as a gothic novel: "At the period when the ancient city of Bristol was besieged by Fairfax's army . . . a great part of the venerable minster was destroyed by the cannonading before Prince Rupert surrendered to the enemy; and the beautiful Gothic structure, which at this moment fills the contemplative mind with melancholy awe, was reduced to . . . [half ruin;] a monastery . . . which fell before the attacks of the enemy, and became a part of the ruin, which never was repaired or re-raised to its former Gothic splendours." It was here that the house, "partly of simple, and partly of modern architecture" was built:
A spot more calculated to inspire the soul with mournful meditation can scarcely be found amidst the monuments of antiquity. In this venerable mansion there was one chamber whose dismal and singular construction left no doubt of its having been a part of the original monastery. It was supported by the mouldering arches of the cloisters, dark, Gothic, and opening on the minster sanctuary, not only by casement windows that shed a dim mid-day gloom, but by a narrow winding staircase, at the foot of which an iron-spiked door led to the long gloomy path of cloistered solitude. . . .In this awe-inspiring habitation, which I shall henceforth denominate the Minster House, during a tempestuous night, on the 27th of November, 1758, I first opened my eyes to this world of duplicity and sorrow. (1-2)
It is perhaps no accident Robinson sees herself destined to be a gothic heroine. Gothic heroines wear demur dress stuffs with well-wrapped bosoms and necks, but as every reader knows the villain or ghost prefers bedchambers at midnight when the nightgown and other forms of undress are the rule, and when a heroine fleeing barefoot through crypts will be most titillating for the sense-heightened voyeur. As Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto revealed, the underside of the sentimental realist novel was its gothic attributes. Indeed, Clarissa Harlowe is imprisoned for her desirability as a possessible body (she uses a vigilant full dress for her only real defense), and as such she represents the over-determined value of things in a bourgeois materialism that counts unmarried bodies for their exchange value. Women's mastery of fashion and the material intertext of dress and body signaled the extent and extension of that value. Plumage could stand in for coinage, a social fact Robinson would exploit to the hilt. Female bodies in particular are metonymically read through their accessories as a full package that can be "taken." Walpole's prince, Manfred, will take Isabella, his son's betrothed, in order to reproduce his line and thus keep his estate. Isabella will be imprisoned, raped, married, and otherwise bodily trapped to ensure the generation of a body-estate thing—an heir. The story of this possessibility provides fodder for both domestic novels and the sentimental underpinnings of gothic narratives; it is also the stuff of real life. Mary Robinson was married for reasons similar to Manfred's incestuous logic—safeguarding property or getting it into the family line. Thomas Robinson, a non-heir because illegitimate and thus outside the body-estate reproductive scheme, married Mary Darby in the hopes that her beauty, middle-class status, and the respectability that marriage represents, would persuade his disowning father to reposition him in the family heritage. Mary and her mother agreed to the marriage because Mary had learned, through shifting cultural expectations as well as her boarding school education, to view marriage sentimentally as a companionate arrangement between two affectionate partners rather than a business arrangement (as the Darbys' marriage perhaps was, her father deserting the family to conduct business and love elsewhere). In Mary's most formative school experience with the extraordinary but disappointed and alcoholic Mrs. Lorrington, Mary read studiously, and "it was my lot to be her particular favourite. She always, out of school, called me her little friend, and made no scruple of conversing with me (sometimes half the night, for I slept in her chamber), on domestic and confidential affairs." The somewhat lesbian  overtones of this situation are associated with strong female role-modeling, reaching beyond educative norms, and composing verses: Mrs. Lorrington "frequently read to me after school hours, and I to her; I sometimes indulged my fancy in writing verses. . .love was the theme of my poetical phantasies" (Memoirs 22-24). It is an associative complex that returns in Robinson's late autobiographical sonnet-cycle, Sappho and Phaon (1796), in which the expression of female sentiment fuels the fantasy of desiring textual bodies beyond the margins of propriety. Sappho, of course, wears the body-draping Grecian shifts and tunics self-consciously present in the poem's sonnets as markers of her sexuality, availability, and desire. The scene of women writing poetry was associated with nighttime journal confessions and night dress/undress; Sappho's robes correspond to the young Mary's fanciful verses and female companionship "after school hours," as a kind of imaginative dishabille, a relaxing of proper norms. And the contemporary reader would have recalled Robinson's public appearances in muslins and silks as a sex goddess, a woman of infinite desire and desirability, in the staging of Sappho's love. Yet, as much as Robinson's preface to Sappho and Phaon attempts to redefine Grecian female sexuality to overwrite "lesbian" into acceptable female friendship, the scandalous punning on "finger twirlers" associated with Marie Antionette and ancien régime decadence could not be forestalled, nor might Robinson entirely want to lose that titillating aspect of her textual marketability.
When Thomas Robinson's familial scheme failed, he readjusted the male audience for what was publicly thought of as pimping Mary, or at least a lucrative idea of her as his wife, from his father to another kind of potential "purchaser," his rakish London friends. (While attempting to "sell" Mary first to Lord Lyttelton, and then the more interesting George "Fighting" Fitzgerald, he simultaneously entertained his own paramour.) Mary is thus available when George, Prince of Wales, falls in love with her in an act of imaginative seeing, while watching her perform the demur ingénue role of Perdita in a 1779 command performance of The Winter's Tale. He "becomes" Florizel and takes the slightly older Robinson as his mistress for a single year, a year that would determine her career for the rest of her life. Robinson is in a single vision cast as both a scripted body, whose fancy dress and role become her persona for the prince, and a textualist who learns to write her own life and public character, and reproduce this body-text enactment on various public stages whether social or textual. Through the prince's desirous sighting, Mary's body-estate value has been transformed into a body-text one, and she will ever after have a slippery relation to financial security, for his desire has taken her out of the circulatory schema of female propriety and property transferal. She will also have a slippery relation to self-constructing identities that attempt to redirect desire.
Caroline of Brunswick can likewise be seen to fall victim to sentimental realism while fantasizing her heroine identity. Unlike Mary Robinson, she did not marry young and resisted parental pressure to wed a number of eligible European candidates, giving so little reason for her refusals that her parents put them down to a waywardness of character and stubbornness of mind. Both qualities are ones Mary Robinson either veiled (at least early on) or used to particular effect, as when she heroically (by her account) resisted her husband's friends' propositions and stubbornly clung to her wifely chastity. Caroline finally agreed, enthusiastically, to wed her cousin George, the right man, the man destined for her through lineage and property: her prince had come. Her expectations, expressively revealed in her lack of preparations for her move to England, show a young woman who had already fallen in love through her fiancé's portrait and who expected to be loved by this ideal man for the ideal heroine she was. George, hoping to re-install himself in his father's and Parliament's favor, both of which were to lead to a substantially increased annual allowance that he desperately needed to pay his increasing debts for purchased goods, agreed to the marriage in the self-blinding belief that the Caroline portrayed in her miniature would be beautiful enough to make him forget his beloved, Maria Fitzherbert, or his current mistress, Lady Jersey. Caroline should have been forewarned, however; her own sister Augusta was victim to a gothically brutal marriage, from which she gained sanctuary with Catherine of Russia but lost her children in doing so. The gothic shoe (or in Walpole's version, the giant helmet which becomes a useful prison) descends on Caroline at her first meeting with George, who on embracing her said, "Harris, I am not well; pray get me a glass of brandy," and drowned his disgust so well he was drunk throughout their wedding ceremony. According to Caroline, he"passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate, where he fell" (qtd. in Fraser 54, 62). He cohabited with Caroline long enough to get her pregnant while insisting that his mistress, the ambitious Lady Frances Jersey, be Caroline's head lady in waiting, which allowed her to participate in the "Carlton House system" (along with, as Caroline later told Lord Minto, George's "blackguard companions. . . [who] were constantly drunk and filthy, sleeping and snoring in boots on the sofa" [qtd. in Fraser 166]). Then in true gothic style he essentially kicked Caroline of his house. Like Mary Robinson, George's desirous sighting—this time, however, based on her property-estate value as an heir-producer—also creates for Caroline, like Robinson, a financially insecure future that rescripts her from sentimental beloved to gothically disowned wife. She acquires the need to revalue her body in public for the enlargement of her social bonds. This is nevertheless textually valuable, a role to flirt with. Like Hippolita, the wife Manfred hopes to divorce in order to ensure that Otranto remains his, Caroline is in George's eye expensive and expendable. Pursued by his agents for the rest of her life to determine her as unfit mother and wife, he wished to establish her as an unnecessary expense on the privy purse (in her last years her annual allowance was to have been £50,000, raised from £35,000), to be cloistered outside the royal habitus and rendered invisible (the destiny of Hippolita and all unwanted women). She used his manipulations to gain her own residence, determine her own ladies in waiting, and compose her own social circles. Playing on her victimhood, she believed that the nightly dinners and parties she hosted created the liberating space in which to shift from the naïve to the sexual and back to the chaste wife, and despite disgusting her guests and cycling through acquaintances as a result, she successfully conducted numerous affairs without being caught. When George and Maria Fitzherbert sought custody of a young ward, Caroline pretended to be pregnant in order to gain her own "child," in fact the legally adopted Willy Austin (it was his legitimacy that was at stake in George's "Delicate Investigation" into Caroline's misdemeanors). And when Caroline insisted on being seen both at her own residence and in public independent of him, George was outraged. His undesiring sighting of her body achieved the same effect for her as his desirous vision of Robinson: Caroline is disarticulated from the body/property scheme so necessary to the realism of sentimental narratives (to which the prince was himself addicted, believing Maria Fitzherbert to be his soulmate from whose bosom he had been torn by parental pressure to marry against his nature). Thenceforth, Caroline is free, like Robinson, to rescript herself, and so she does through a constant redressing of her public body. When she wanted to be freed from George's vision entirely, she decamped to the Continent, where she lived out various fantasies from holy pilgrim and liberal chatelaine to marital bliss with her Italian lover Bartolomeo Pergami, dressing accordingly. Although her wily political supporters like Henry Brougham and Spencer Perceval attempted to use her for their purposes, writing letters for her and publishing her documents, she continually frustrated them by her unruliness—if she was not to rule by her husband's side, neither would she be ruled by these men. Rather, she toyed with them, letting their schemes play into her fleeting, only half-serious scripts. Less politically informed than the young liberal, then radical Robinson, Caroline's politics were self-serving and related to her fantasy identity as a sentimental heroine. She wanted the money and the freedom to play at royalty, especially when this allowed her to show her largesse to the poor in another bit part (she supported poor children at Blackheath and whole villages in Italy). Politicians and pressmen were like lovers, to be wooed and used to portray temporary identities of chastity, liberality, and maternalism to gain particular ends: Whig loyalty, the king's support, the mob's love.
II. Mary Robinson's Self-performance
Robinson played her brief tenure as the Prince of Wales's mistress to the hilt by riding in a carriage with a faked version of George's coronet. If she did this earlier, when as London's foremost actress she rode in a carriage with a coronet-like emblem, while she was George's mistress she rode in as many different carriages as she could; it was a fashion begun by Marie Antoinette that, through the fantasy associations of movement with identity, swept the imagination. And it persisted as a fashion statement: Caroline later also used carriages while traveling the continent to role play, indulging in fantasy and masquerade, and finally also riding in a carriage with a faked royal coronet in a semiotic attempt to claim her crown after George III's death. For Robinson, riding in carriages, dressing in the most recent fashions or costuming à la Marie Antoinette's playful milkmaid , allowed her to use various vehicles for self-portrayal, especially the semiotic code of fabrics, to portray herself as a variety of sexual characters that all had queenly associations. Her society portraits and her own descriptions of dresses used for stage performances and significant events evince a careful attendance to bodily messages: from sheer lawns to heavy silks and velvets, she played the role of fashion leader while using the purity of white cottons and the pinks of luxury fabrics to enhance her own coloring, all the time playing the edges of a chaste vulnerability. These semiotic messages were not always under her full control, however, and her attempts to queen it over the fashionable set, if not to pretend to herself and George that she was a version of the fashionable French queen, was to prove her downfall. The press, in particular, disliked such audacious pretensions from the middling ranks and contemptuously read her playful dressing as indelicate availability, whereas all of Caroline's attempts to act the queen-to-be and finally to claim her right to be recognized as the queen she was at George's succession received widespread support from the press.
Marie Antoinette was for Robinson, if not for the German Caroline (who would identify with the deposed Napoleon instead), the performative model par excellence. In "Embodying Marie Antoinette: The Theatricalized Female Subject," Judith Pascoe dwells on Sarah Siddons's loss of a four-yard length of Marie Antoinette's lace in the 1809 Covent Garden fire, an article of dress that "covered me all over from head to foot," which she reserved for Hermione's trial in The Winter's Tale (95). Pascoe traces the connections between maternity, treason, and trial through this shared female article: "In invoking Marie Antoinette through the use of her veil as a prop, Siddons appropriated the performative power of an actual queen to play a fictitious one" (96). Making much of the cultural power of the mis-tried French Queen's story to update that of the equally unjustly tried Hermione, both accused on the basis of improper maternal behavior, Pascoe plays with the edge between factual and fictional heroines and the actress's exploitation of this edge in order to dis-play and displace queenship onto herself as an embodying agent. While this appropriative act corresponds in fascinating ways with Mary Robinson's blurring of the fictional/factual interplay in her various stage and "real life" roles and the blurring, semi-transparent quality of lace, Marie Antoinette's theatricality is crucial for connecting her sartorial reign to the "sexualized body" of the pamphleteers' "paper queen" that Pascoe unveils. Yet the anecdotal material signifies: Siddons's lost lace was important to her not only because it brought Marie Antoinette to life, at least on stage, but also because it was lace—a textile that veils in the same way as the fictional/factual binary. Lace, especially of such enormous quantity ("more than a yard wide" Siddons remembers [qtd in Pascoe 95]) that it functions as a dress, has a quality that hovers between opacity and the translucence of a fine lawn. It teases with its openings and closures, its peepholes and distracting surface figurings: it both reveals and hides what may or may not be there. In period plays such as Hannah Cowley's 1783 A Bold Stroke for a Husband, female characters wear veils in order to assume false identities to confuse and manipulate their suitors and stage-manage the plots of their own stories; Siddons's Hermione, however, is veiled in order to produce identity: "By wrapping herself in the vestige of one persecuted queen in order to play another," the actress could better "project that imagined self for an audience" (Pascoe 97).
Robinson describes herself in her Memoirs in the third person as appearing before Marie Antoinette in 1783 dressed in "A pale green lustring train and body, with a tiffany petticoat, festooned with bunches of the most delicate lilac. . .while a plume of white feathers adorned her head; the native roses of her cheeks, glowing with health and youth, were stained, in conformity to the fashion of the French Court, with the deepest rouge" (Memoirs 2:93, qtd. in Pascoe 120). This attention to dress—the fine glossy silk of lustring fabric creating a delicate verdure that, in combination with dainty lilacs and a petticoat of lustrous tiffany all creating a "natural" lady, herself a pink bloom heightened through coloring—is signal because the ability of women's costuming to similarly aid in projecting identity and manage their own social plots was one Robinson, like Siddons and other public women, was intimately familiar with, and one that such women ignored to their cost. Princess Caroline of Brunswick alternately ignored and exploited the potential of female dress to manipulate perception, usually to her disadvantage. Yet once she became Queen of England, estranged from her husband but bent on sharing his throne, Caroline quickly refashioned herself for the occasion, appearing in appropriate costumes for public appearances. Like Marie Antoinette, Caroline was the subject of malicious judgments by her public and private detractors on her dress and her sexual activity, the two combining to project an unruly and thus unqueenly stature for both women. Mary Robinson, too, was the subject of public attacks on her choice of costume and her adulterous relationships, most particularly because of what gossips and caricaturists considered a misappropriation of power for public display. As Adriana Craciun notes, Charlotte Corday and Marie Antoinette were interpreted in contradictory fashions in the 1790s, representing female empowerment for radicals or fatal sexual excess for conservatives. Women daring the public sphere should instead exhibit a "masculine command of their passions," according to The Anti-Jacobin (qtd. in Craciun, 79); Robinson placed Marie Antoinette even higher, as an exemplar of "transcendent genius," a natural gift that enabled transport across strictly gendered boundaries so that women could enter the public sphere "on distinctly feminine (and fleshly) terms" (Craciun 17). But Siddons represented herself as non-ambitious, as not-quite publicly available, through a properly maternal versioning of Marie Antoinette. The actress evoked maternity not just in roles like Hermione that reflected the French Queen's maternal defense at her trial, but in defensively "trotting her three children out on stage to explain her professional decision to move to London" (Pascoe 97). If Robinson trots out her daughter in her Memoirs as both a prop for her maternal role and veil for her adulterous ones, it is as much an apologia for her radical past as it is a restitution of Marie Antoinette's fleshly motherhood, her right to be publicly productive, and her representation as the cosmopolitan woman.
However, both professional portraitists and print cartoonists delved beneath Robinson's careful costuming. When word first leaked out that she was the Prince of Wales's paramour, the press was scandalized. The Morning Post reported "A certain young actress who leads the ton appeared in the side-box at the Haymarket Theatre a few evenings since, with all the grace and splendour of a Duchess, to the no small mortification of the female world, and the astonishment of every spectator!" and George's biographer would later recount that "Mrs. Robinson now appeared in indecent splendour, rendered still more scandalous by the vile participation of her husband" (both quoted in Bass 135). Robinson's self-stagings were interpreted as her audacity, not George's (though it was he who publicly gave her two rosebuds to wear before the secret liaison was outed in the press). Her careful costuming was interpreted as social-climbing statements, a duchess and then a queen want-to-be, but always as politically naive. James Gillray's depiction of her as a tavern whirligig to signal the prince's flipflop politics reads Robinson as a political sex object offering herself to the prevailing winds, even as her signage is meant to indicate the prince's opportunism (his political shifts occurring to win Parliamentary leverage over his father or Parliamentary support of an increased annual allowance, depending on what would provide most gain for his increasing debts).  Gillray's depiction of Robinson as a political pawn—a reading later refuted by her strongly Whig and radical publications—translate her costumed self-portrayals as a chaste naïf or fashionable lady into slutty ignorance, a body to be turned to account in a fascinating replay of Thomas Robinson's usage of Mary's marital body. Interestingly, in Thomas and Mary's very first meeting (she was 15) she had worn a dress of pale blue lustring with matching ribbons for her chip hat (Memoirs 39), foreshadowing her fabulous appearance later at the French court. But here too she was not the innocent girl that 15 suggests: she was already engaged to debut as Cordelia at Drury Lane, and understood the codes of texture and color, lustring proving to be a favorite dress fabric. Prevented by illness she married instead, and when Thomas insisted on a secretive wedding ceremony at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, she dressed as a Quaker (of dull brown, but of lustring nonetheless). She would pose in this dress, coyly positioned as if self-absorbed and innocently looking out at the viewer to see who he or she is, while discreetly sheathed and bonneted and her hands hidden by a small muff in a 1781 portrait by George Romney.
If not so aggressive in his semiotic strategy as Gillray, Thomas Gainsborough also used the opportunity in painting Robinson's portrait Mrs. Mary Robinson ("Perdita"), (also1781) to wrest semiotic control from her, depicting her as a demi-rep, sexually available and artfully self-posing. Gainsborough idiosyncratically painted his "sitters" by candlelight standing with six-foot handled brushes. "Sitter" is a misleading term for society portraits, however, and Gainsborough was no different than Romney or Reynolds in posing his clients for full-length portraits standing, or in the case of his double portrait, Mr. and Mrs. William Hallett (The Morning Walk, c. 1785), strolling. Mary Robinson's seated position in Gainsborough's 1781 society portrait is not only unusual, but she reclines, her body cutting diagonally across the composition, rather than sits upright (as in Reynolds's 1783-4 half-length, more intimate painting of her, in which in a melancholy but upright seated pose she faces away from the viewer with the sea behind her). Although portrait painters generally had to please their clients while satisfying their own standards for fine detail and expression, and although portraits have "no unproblematic referent," Gainsborough "enjoyed a degree of autonomy unusual for the period, employ[ing] his wit and sharp intelligence in impressive displays of polite but unyielding verbal skirmish," and was quite capable of "convey[ing] a daring degree of disdain for his patrons," but Gainsborough was also capable of persuading his clients to his point of view (Pointon 48-49). Gainsborough's portrait, commissioned by George, Prince of Wales, emphasizes her beauty and sexuality, and gives her the same odalisque pose that he also does for a society portrait of another woman associated in the popular imagination with the theatre, Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan (c. 1785-87). Certainly Gainsborough's choice for posing Robinson, unlike any other portrait of her of the period, makes a clear opposition to portraits of other women of George's family and circle. In the portrait of Robinson, she sits holding the Prince's miniature, of which she later wrote "I received, through the hands of Lord Malden, the Prince's portrait in miniature, painted by the late Mr. Meyer. This picture is now in my possession. Within the case was a small heart cut in paper, which I also have; on one side was written, Je ne change qu'en mourant. On the other, Unalterable to my Perdita through life," (Memoirs, 163).
Although an apparently flattering portrait of her, Gainsborough's composition accentuates the miniature of the Prince of Wales in Robinson's hand and her nearly exposed bosom as her two fetishized bodily aspects. The Prince is here seen to be her portable object, a fixed identity whose movement depends on her bodily acts, giving a suggestive nod to the media anxiety concerning her control of the Prince. In addition, her languid posture suggests the odalisque pose used by artists for depicting nudes while, to indicate her moral character, Gainsborough poses her in a chemise gown of sheer, gauzy lawn such as he favored in his The Mall in St. James's Park (c. 1783), rather than using the hard lines of a heavy silk dress such as Robinson wears when posed between the Prince as her lover and her husband in Rowlandson's Vauxhall Gardens of just a year later. Robinson's visible body beneath the fine layers, and the focus on her bosom, is as unlike as possible his 1785 portrait of the Halletts, in which Mrs. Hallett is similarly dressed in sheer cotton and lace layers, but lace politely sheathes her bosom while her figure appears properly confined and her arms encased in the three-layer "weeping ruffle" of the sleeves. One ruffled hand is linked through her husband's arm, confirming her controlled presentation and a quite different message from Robinson's hand which actively holds/controls the prince's "body." George's lack of control was flamboyant—he had sent the diamond-circled miniature (by the renown miniaturist Jeremiah Meyer), as well as a lock of hair—to Robinson along with innumerable love letters while she resisted his advances, some of which were made in public. His lack of decorum contrasted sharply with the public perception of Robinson's utter control, indeed manipulation, of the prince's mind and emotions.
Gainsborough seemed to know he was depicting a woman at the height of her social and political career, for in the fall of that same year she would go as the belle Angloise to visit the new mother, Marie Antoinette, at Versailles, where the queen specifically asked to see and then borrow the prince's miniature, returning it along with a purse she had netted herself. The net purse, like the queen's lace that Siddons's later obtains, provides a visual metaphor for Marie Antoinette's and Robinson's identity play, its metaphoric texture one that Gainsborough exploits as fully as Robinson herself. In contrast to Mrs. Hallet's dress, Gainsborough gives the filmy layers of Robinson's costume the suggestively loose boundaries of netting, implying flexibility rather than constancy, and the demi-rep rather than the artist. And she confirmed his interpretation, in 1782 taking up residence with the dashing war hero, Banastre Tarleton, who would become her long-term lover, and subject of her later Sappho and Phaon (1796). In that sonnet sequence, of course, Tarleton's eventual disloyalty in love echoes George's rather than Thomas Robinson's desertion of her. But for Robinson, Sappho's dress—carefully described chitons that can reveal the body through their draping silhouettes and exposed shoulders or bared arms—shows her artistry. Sappho is neither sexually loose, as Gainsborough's chemise suggests, nor sexually innocent. As she reveals a character who knows her own mind, her account of a love relation gone wrong provides a vindication of female sensibility that is radically like Mary Wollstonecraft's declaration of the passions as a female right. Her preface to the poem cites Wollstonecraft, but more importantly, gives her own intentions for using Sappho as her heroine: "because it was impossible for her [Sappho] to love otherwise . . . she expressed her tenderness in all the violence of passion: your surprize at this will cease, when you are acquainted with the extreme sensibility of the Greeks; and discover, that amongst them the most innocent connections often borrow the impassioned language of love" (154). This is Robinson's vindication for loving as she has done as well, and her reproof to those who portrayed her against her own self-stagings.
III. Caroline's "Character"
Princess Caroline's biographer remarks that "all her life, [she] took a childish delight in flouting convention, even if this meant exposing her decidedly lustful nature"; this rebellious streak, accompanied by her "outlandish ways and bizarre dress sense" combined to give Caroline an eccentricity not becoming in a female member of the British court, let alone its royal family (Fraser 28, 227). Refusing to accommodate her self-stagings to others' interpretations of her character, Caroline continually sought borders to cross, refusing to abide by the strict parameters allowed women. She longed for adventure and thirsted to travel, entertaining and lionizing distinguished travelers such as Richard Payne Knight whenever possible. She also would do anything to get a rise out of others, she enjoyed hearing of sexual misadventures as much as engaging in her own real and imagined ones, and loved teasing others about her own real and invented improprieties. Her political allegiances varied according to who befriended her and what would most rankle her husband. Likewise, she formed friendships with both the staid and the scandalous, but was most intrigued by those who transgressed as much as she would have liked to do. For instance, Fraser notes that "Of the females who formed part of the Princess's court [in 1810, once she was committed to the Opposition], Jane Harley, Lady Oxford, whose love of Radical men was as great as her love of radical causes. . . was a regular visitor. Her children were by so many different fathers that they were known as the 'Harleian Miscellany'. . . ." (217). Caroline would emulate the miscellany through her own adoption and fostercare of nurslings when she realized Charlotte was to be her only legitimate child, but she did so in such a way as to raise scandalous gossip as to the children's parentage, and to convince the Prince that he had a right to continue spying on her activities. In the "Delicate Investigation," Caroline's servants were summoned for testimony and, as was later fictionalized for the Book Itself! narrating her story, they denied all charges against her of pregnancy or adultery, charges that if substantiated constituted treason against the crown. Caroline's and George's was the "most undignified royal marriage in English history" (Fraser 167, 320). In general, Caroline kept acquaintances and members of her court who were either level-headed (regardless of class, such as her daughter's sub-governess, Frances Garth) or as disregarding of boundaries as she, like Lady Oxford—later she would combine both improprieties in the love of her life, Pergami. The princess was also so considerate, even affectionate, with her ladies-in-waiting and other female members of her ever-changing circle of intimates that suspicion was sometimes aroused by her indecorous behavior that hinted at a sexual desire not always finding satisfaction in the opposite sex. Here the Sapphic potential was not a literary (as for Robinson) but a libidinous freeing of self-expression. Although there has been no hard evidence to support such gossip, like the gossip-mongering press surrounding Marie Antoinette, the scandal-mongerers surrounding Caroline found any hint of sexual faux-pas to be a threatening expression of self-will and uncontained sexual appetites. If her Brunswick background had ill-prepared Caroline for the proprieties of the British court—at least those expected of its female members, whose sexual dalliance could seriously threaten the monarchy's succession—she was also high spirited and self-dramatizing, liking nothing such much as an audience for trying on different roles for herself. Aggravating this propensity was the fact that she rarely thought anything through for herself, reacting to events and others with an adolescent disregard for how others perceived her, or for the political consequences of her flights of fancy. Similarly, she dressed herself in her own style and taste regardless of expense, propriety, or others' reaction to her appearance. If she was herself easily persuaded, she was also highly enthusiastic, wearing others out with her eagerness for entertainment and conversation, costuming with abandon when it suited her, and attempting (albeit on a necessarily lesser scale) to match the prince in expensive outlays for clothing, house renovations, and redecorating schemes. Like him, she found herself constantly in debt, often due to his laxity in paying even her annual allowance.
Once she had removed to her own establishment at Blackheath outside London, she was often seen by neighbors improperly walking alone or unescorted except by her ladies. She enjoyed teasing visitors when considering adopting Willy Austin that she was indeed pregnant by emphasizing her stomach with pillows at her back to push her midsection forward, just as she gained great pleasure in flirting with and actively pursuing handsome adventurers who attended her dinner parties. Some of these guests were certainly playmates if not actual lovers, although she never again became pregnant after delivering Princess Charlotte. In August of 1811 Caroline vacationed at Tunbridge Wells, keeping company with the Berry family. Mr Berry became her escort and the Berry sisters (Mary Berry was one of Caroline's inner circle) attended balls and entertainments with her, but by then out of political favor with the Whigs who had themselves lost considerable power, the princess was already being ridiculed for her behavior and outlandish dress. On first meeting her in 1808, Mary Berry had described the princess as "Such an over-dressed, bare-bosomed, painted eye-browed figure one never saw" (quoted in Fraser 209-10). Now ridicule was more open, encouraged by the prince.
By the time Caroline had reached Italy in her voyage abroad after the opening of Continent, and through the ministry's relief to see her "safely" out of sight, she had put on considerable weight, assumed a black wig she purchased in Geneva, drawn in black eyebrows and coarsened her skin to make it ruddy. Later, in 1819 she would be described by Lord Essex as very dirty and wearing liquid rouge (Fraser 337). Her attempts to look non-British and yet theatrically royal only made her look more eccentric than usual. One former acquaintance on seeing her again wrote that her expression was "alternately of studied dignity and of an insouciant nonchalance," presumably her interpretation of her two main roles: courtly lady and society hostess. He added that "her toilette is rich but bizarre, and recalls the dress of Guercini's sibyls" with their loosely fitting, shoulder-baring costumes, again reminiscent of Sappho and the Grecian-draped Emma Hamilton (qtd. in Fraser, 258). She gave a masquerade ball for the King and Queen of Naples at their own court, dressing as Fame and decorating one room as a Temple of Glory with a bust of the King crowned with laurel. Her political enthusiasms were matched by her sexual ones: during the Neopolitan Carnival she costumed as a devil and as an "immodest Sultana," her dress often improper and extravagant, evidence of her peccadilloes later gathered by George's agents to use against her (268). Meantime she devised beautiful uniforms for Pergami as she promoted him from one position to another. At Genoa, Caroline drove through the streets in a phaeton with a child dressed as a cupid leading two tiny horses who pulled the shell-shaped carriage. Caroline was dressed in a body-revealing pink gauze bodice, short white skirt and pink-feathered headdress, with Willy Austin (whom everyone believed to be her natural son) beside her, and Pergami dressed as the Neopolitan King riding behind. This procession "mark[ed] the high point of her—not unsuccessful—attempt to make England a laughing-stock abroad" (Fraser, 273). And when Caroline attempted to raise money through the Grand Duke of Baden to resolve some of her financial difficulties, he was as astonished by her request as he was by her insistence on wearing half a pumpkin on her head to keep cool. Finally, on leaving Italy for her Parliamentary divorce hearing, Caroline took her clothes, jewelry, plate and china in order to create the appropriately royal appearance in England: "Leaving her more gauzy items at Pesaro, Queen Caroline commissioned several new dresses from Alderman Wood in London on the day she set out, sending him the patterns for some silks. 'Them which are in gold [possibly those she bought in Constantinople] should be made in all sort of collers [colors],' she wrote. She recommended that Mrs. Webbe, her former mantua-maker opposite Pall Mall, send her a white silk gown and hat, 'made exactly of the English fashion. . . as the present franche [French] mode do not please me much'" (Fraser 254). Heavy and stiff materials would replace gauze, body hiding would supplant body teasing as she exchanged the role of the flirt for that of queen.
Caroline's real and self-dramatizing character(s) with their coquettish and outlandish behavior were undoubtedly responses to her constant awareness that she was out-landish, that is, not English. Her German court manners were never up to English royal expectations, and the London court was one where mistresses could outclass her at every turn. To rebalance the equation, she emphasized both her alienation and her feminine dependency, rather than her royalty. According her friend, the courtier Sir William Gell, she was "sincere to nobody. . .mak[ing] false or half confidences" that exposed her "to a thousand misfortunes" (Fraser 258). This behavior continued that of the giddy girl she had early fashioned herself into and never outgrown; as a young woman it had won her supporters but now it had increasingly disastrous results. And in general Caroline was a poor judge of others' character. Herself of a forgiving temperament, she could neither understand George's and the Queen's abiding dislike and distrust of her, nor their inflexible reactions to her behavior and initiatives. Having been raised in the utmost strictness verging on neglect, and having held out against her mother's attempts to arrange a marriage for her until her prince literally came along, she imagined a fairytale princess existence for herself in which she was either victimized by wicked relatives or able to live out any fantasy without paying attention to budgets, annual allowances, or tradesmen's bills. She liked people who exemplified the transgressions or adventures that she herself, kept partially in check by her royal status, longed to accomplish. Once she was permitted to escape to Europe she felt herself uninhibited by the behavioral constrains on British female royalty, and indulged her fantastic imagination as much as possible. When on sea journeys she preferred to sleep on deck under a tent as would an Egyptian princess; she undertook adventures that she thought might get her romantically captured as a harem slave; she made aristocracy out of nobodies (buying Pergami an estate and title) and became the charitable lady of the manor to an Italian region; she visited European courts for their entertainments and left quickly if bored; and she ignored the rumors and gossip surrounding her notably improper intimacy with members of her traveling court. "The Princess's lust for independence was astonishing" (Fraser 269), and she was finally, at least in her own imagination, truly free, but it was an independence for which she would have to pay.
IV. The End of an Era: Caroline's Sex/Text Politics
In the Whig-Tory tug of war over the Prince of Wales's party affinity, Princess Caroline's gothic marital experience achieved widespread press. Like the anti-royalist Whigs, radical pressmen such as William Mason, William Hone, and William Benbow used the "Delicate Investigation" (1806-07) and the Queen Caroline Affair in 1820 (George's attempt to divorce Caroline) to rally popular opposition to George through pro-Caroline propaganda that depicted George as "Old Corruption." Iain McCalman claims that "the loyalist-populist mythology of Queen Caroline" did not arise spontaneously, but was the creation of radical pressmen as much as of the opposition (162). Thus when Caroline returned from her Continental travels, she landed as a wronged woman, "already the heroine of a gothic-romantic fantasy" (163) through press coverage of George's sexual peccadilloes. This popular fantasy, fed on the opposition's propaganda and the currency of street mob symbols relating to "petticoat government" and other images of an emasculated and decadent monarchy. The radical press 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 sexual relations with Pergami. But McCalman attributes Caroline's mythic public character to a creation of politicians and pressmen that sentimentalizes her for popular consumption without asking what Caroline's own contribution to that persona might be. He reads the various publications surrounding the "Book" (the report from the "Delicate Investigation" that exonerated Caroline of producing an illegitimate son), including all the scurrilous and fantastic spinoffs of that publication which contributed to the fictionalizing of her life, as solely the product of Grub Street hacks. These sensational pamphlets, many semi-pornographic, stemmed from Thomas Ashe's 1811 confessional "autobiography," The Spirit of "The Book", purported to be the Princess' private version of "The Book." Although its subtitle indicated its literary status ("A Political and Amatory Romance"), The Spirit was read by most as deliciously true.
It seems to me important that while McCalman discusses The Spirit's portrayal of a Princess who is already in love prior to her marriage while the Prince is not, and of a marriage forced on Caroline rather than one forced on the Prince, as pertinent to the pro-Caroline mythology, he makes nothing of these factual marital inaccuracies. In considering Caroline's contribution to and influence on her public image, it is worth looking at least at one pro-Caroline pamphlet that does not follow The Spirit's essential plot (as McCalman claims all the spinoffs do), The Book Itself! Private Memoirs, interspersed with Curious Anecdotes of several Distinguished Characters, being a complete answer to the Spirit of the Book (n.d.). In this short version, the story turns Ashe's romance into allegory, different names and different minor characters appear (the Prince of Cumeria for Ashe's Prince Albion; no prior lover of the Princess, and so forth), and there are significant plot differences (the King arranges the marriage to reform his son, as in actual fact). It is important not to conflate these publications as all part of the same campaign; in attributing spinoffs of Ashe's Spirit—especially The Book Itself, or Secret Memoirs of an Illustrious Princess—to radical hacks, McCalman does not examine the differences between texts that represent different ideologies. .
In The Book Itself!, Caroline's marriage is depicted in the Walpolean terms that Caroline herself viewed her marital relations with George. "One day, sending for the prince into his closet, the venerable monarch opened his design to him": that he should give up his bachelor life and marry to produce heirs. The king adds that, "as you have often represented to me the insufficiency of your income to the liquidation of your numerous debts, I promist you, in case of your compliance with my wishes, that your most sanguine expectations on this head shall be fully satisfied. I will shew you the miniature of one well calculated to give you happiness" (5). After the princess arrives,
The nuptial ceremony was performed, and the people were loud in their acclamations of joy, which was universally hailed as the dawn of reformation in the moral character of the prince, who paid every attention to the princess.
So great a change alarmed the prince's old companion's, and they soon felt it their interest, by mysterious allusions, to alarm the jealousy of the prince. In this they succeeded but too well, and with the assistance of Doctor Scapegibbet, artfully insinatued [sic] that Scarecrow had been seen near the Princess'es [sic] chamber. (6-7)
"Scarecrow" will be scapegoated as the Princess's lover (not a real lover, the Irish lord Algernon of Ashe's story, but a creation of the Prince's friends) and the true father of her baby girl. Trouble begins when the faithful attendant tells the Princess that "I have seen the prince talking very much with the female domestics lately, and as he was never used to do so," and "I could see the prince shake his head in a furious manner, when the servant whom he was questioning answered in a trembling voice—"Indeed, your royal highness, I never saw Mr. Scarecrow in the house, and I do not believe that her royal highness knows any thing at all about him!"(7). Trouble continues until the Princess is avenged, as Caroline herself was in the "Delicate Investigation", and the old king, albeit not the disgraced prince, receives her again. The story reflects Caroline's own penchant for literary fantasy and revisionary self-portrayals.
As Caroline's most recent biographer notes, Caroline liked to read with her ladies or be read to for hours, and to surround herself with literati, especially if they revealed an bold, adventurous streak: "A no less colourful element among the Princess's favourites were the writers like Mr Thomas Moore, Mr Matthew 'Monk' Lewis and Mr Samuel Rogers. Caroline read omnivorously, Lewis remarked, and she enjoyed the excitement of publication. When Lady Oxford forsook Lord Archibald for Lord Byron and brought the stormy one to Kensington, the Princess was in ecstasy, though Byron had savaged many of the other writers at her table in his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers" (Fraser 217). While The Book Itself! seems to reflect more directly Caroline's literary imagination, McCalman's analysis of Grub Street politics and the gutter press's fueling of the opposition is also crucial to understanding how Caroline could feel popularly supported, and necessary to seeing how she could continue to weave fantasies about her privileges and freedom despite continued constraints laid on her by her husband's family and himself. But it is also important to extend his analysis to the contribution Caroline herself makes to her public persona, such as her self-dramatizations as a gypsy, when she visited Lady Douglas dressed in long red cloak, silk scarf covering her hair, and worn slippers, or when she played gothic victim by parading in front of her house in a lugubrious velvet cloak, Spanish style, and huge muff that made her seem at once emotionally distraught and pregnant (by whom, she left it to the viewer to guess) (Fraser 159, 162). Laura Engel has argued for the symbolic status of the muff in daily promenades and society portraits, its importance as a luxury accessory vying with the sexual innuendos its furry, hand-warming interior invited. The larger the muff, the trendier and dearer, but also the more suggestive of an inelegant double-entendre. This sexual suggestiveness is also present in Mary Robinson's seemingly demure portrait by George Romney (1781, discussed above), where her small muff is centered below her sheathed bosom and her modestly hidden hands suggest another story. Equally important are Caroline's literary self-representations, such as her own fictionalizing and sentimentalizing in her private account of royal affronts, which she proudly crowed about to others as her literary revenge. In asserting that shorter spinoffs of Ashe's book were gutter-press chapbooks targeting working-class families, to which he would presumably say The Book Itself! belongs despite its subtitle claim to be a "complete answer to the Spirit of the Book," McCalman avoids discussing how such a narrative could so closely mirror Caroline's own self-representations as girlishly innocent and fascinating, and as dramatically misrepresented and maltreated by intriguing others. Furthermore, his focus on the melodramatic emphasis in the chapbooks on Caroline's being estranged from her daughter Charlotte does not account for The Book Itself!'s use of allegory rather than fairy tale, or its emphasis on the gothic-style wronged maiden aspect of her story. Instead, this story does not proceed past the child's infancy (ending with Caroline's request for reconciliation to George III), and unlike Ashe's narrative, focuses on the Prince's accusation that the baby is not his (conflating Charlotte and Willy Austin into the same maligned child) through a conspiracy plot rather than, as for Ashe, a chance spotting of Caroline's supposed lover.
The Book Itself!'s pro-Caroline narrative is eerily like a textual act of self-defense and vindication, enacting a self-pity that determinedly sentimentalizes the story's gothic frame. Echoing the way that Caroline sentimentalized her life in her own imagination creates a circulatory nexus between this publicizing story and how she was able to live out publicly the story/stories she told to herself. It assuages the conflict Robinson experienced between public and published versions of herself, allowing Caroline freer play. If she did not feel constrained by sentimental images of herself—which paradoxically seemed to liberate her from social restrictions—her public persona, so loved by the mob, was already sentimentalized before Whigs like Henry Brougham and radical pressmen published documents purportedly by her, in order to set her popularity against the prince's faction. This conflation works to rob the "memoir" of its factual basis, re-contextualizing it as part of the pamphlet wars concerning her status and possible delinquency, and so emphasizing its fictional nature over its biographical base. Yet it was made believable by Caroline's playful dress and public personae as she acted out her heroine roles.
In Robinson's literary re-imaginings of her life story, she similarly depicts herself as the heroine of her own sentimentalized gothic romance not only in her Memoirs but also in her other autobiographically influenced works, like the Letter to the Women of England (1799), that explore the gothic consequences of a culture predicated on patriarchal right. That her verse narrative Sappho and Phaon was autobiographical her readers did not doubt, and they read it and her posthumously published Memoirs for their "tell-all" promise of Robinson's sexual exploits with the young Prince of Wales and then with the famed Colonel Banastre Tartleton. Sappho and Phaon evinces a certain self-pity, but it strongly defends the rights of a woman artist to feel and pursue passion, and is more an attempt to flesh out the irrational bases of the sentimental domestic novel wherein heroines are rewarded for waiting until the right man comes along. Here the gothic does not intrude, so much as the negative consequences of a realistic "sentimental realism" are followed to their logical consequences: stepping out of conventional boundaries of feeling and self-expression spells desertion by the lover and the suicide of the heroine. Nevertheless, the heroine's female strength—reminiscent of Robinson's lessons at Mrs. Lorrington's knees, but publicly enacted à la Marie Antoinette rather than privately absorbed—creates a freeing space for her art and her voice. Similarly, the Memoirs were not just a spirited defense, and like Caroline's The Book Itself! a fictionalized self-narrative, but also a gothically influenced recounting of sufferings at the hands of husband, lovers, society, and others jealous of her power over the prince and her social prominence. Significantly her story pays exceptional attention to her public costumings, especially when luxury fabrics and accessories were worn. Robinson recalls that under her husband's dealings, his friend "Fighting" Fitzgerald attempted to abduct her at the entrance to Vauxhall: "A servant opened a chaise door, there were four horses harnessed to it," indicating a fast and lengthy trip out of London. She also noticed a pistol in the door pocket just as "Mr. Fitzgerald placed his arm around my waist, and endeavored to lift me up the step of the chaise" (Memoirs 85). Mary heroically resisted, but she was notably dressed for a night at Vauxhall. Perhaps her
allure overwhelmed Fitzgerald, a man dangerous enough that he was later hanged for having killed a total of 18 men. In any case, the adventure confirmed her as a gothic heroine, a role she would take up when fleeing creditors with her husband, and again when hysterically chasing after Tarleton late at night with borrowed funds as he fled creditors. Later in her Letter to the Women of England, she will recount the story of Anne Broderick, who similarly escaped sexual violence but who, in defending herself against her attacker could not defend her act except through a plea of insanity (Cracuin 52). Surely Robinson had her own misadventure in mind when arguing not just for this woman's right to self-defense physically and under the law, but for those of all women threatened by legally empowered men. If Sappho and Phaon does not so easily mix the gothic with the sentimental as Caroline does or as Robinson herself will do in her memoirs, it may be because the liberatory space of Sapphic verse functions for Robinson as circulating sentimentality does for Caroline. Both narrative phenomena loosen the contours of sexual identities and possessible bodies.
V. Conclusion: Disciplined Women
Mary Robinson and Princess Caroline both considered themselves to be experts at the social games women were expected to play and to be easily trapped by. Both considered themselves alternately trapped and victorious, and both were surprised that their victories never provided social or financial stability. Robinson's hard-headed wrangling over the prince's bond revealed its necessity and economic acuity in her literary career as she assiduously catered to public taste even while exploring her wide-ranging talents and political beliefs through her works. A case in point, Sappho and Phaon delivers a radical message about female self-determination in the prefatory materials, but the poem itself tantalizes with a subject promising insights into Robinson's love affairs, possibly through the lens of Sappho's lesbian practice. Princess Caroline, on the other hand, was alternately convinced of her gaming acumen and military strategy, and was always shocked when it went awry, as it inevitably did given her lesser intellect, court intrigue, George's inordinate hostility toward her, and her own implacable belief that in her personal affairs nothing could be held against her. Particularly in her dealings with the royal family, Caroline drew on her own family heritage of military heroism and Caroline herself used military language to her advisors in preparing for various conflicts with George, and particularly for the Parliamentary hearing that was effectively her divorce trial.
Yet Robinson's practicality and Caroline's equally impractical approach to her difficulties were both born of a sentimental understanding of playing the heroine. Their revisionary self-histories—Caroline's red-leather bound notebook in which she delightedly noted enemies' misdeeds (admitting outright her accounts were less than truthful) and her letters, Robinson's Sappho and Phaon and her Memoirs—each perform a sentimental interpretation of events in the same way as the women's real-life enactments did. Robinson's sentimentality (retaining George's miniature and becoming friends with him later when, paralyzed from the waist down, she entertained him at her house while reclining on her day-sofa) contrasted sharply with her negotiations over his promised love-bond of £20,000, payment for the return of his letters, and her strategic display of his miniature. Her ambivalent feelings were not the desired conduct-book response of good-girl obedience to an arbitrary patriarchy (such as Matilda initially displays in Castle of Otranto), but the sentimental heroine's response to gothic events and structures (which Matilda displays when discovering herself to be jealous of Theodore's attentions to Isabella). These feelings were compounded when, in echoes of her father's desertion and husband's rakish interpretation of marital license, George arbitrarily lost interest in Robinson (having spotted the widowed Grace Dalrymple Elliott) and let her know by letter that she was dismissed for a fabricated rudeness (a strategy he would replicate with his wife). Robinson was publicly humiliated after the affair's end was finalized through a compromise payment on her promised bond of a £500 annuity; a financial downgrade foreshadowing those George would repeatedly inflict on Caroline, who often chose to exceed her means in order to live out queenly fantasies, even though she could manage a limited income. And Robinson was publicly shut out of St. James's Palace on the night of the Queen's Birthday Ball just as Caroline would later be shut out of Westminster Hall for George IV's coronation.
Sitting in a carriage as guests arrived for Queen Charlotte's party, Robinson watched the society from which she was now excluded, her beautiful dress noticed by no one, her articulate body uninterpreted. Caroline would face years of similar exclusions as first George and then Queen Charlotte took immediate dislike to her; as she dressed to impress and only provoked dismay; as she had to negotiate with the king, her uncle, for admission to the family circle; and as George and Charlotte colluded to deprive her of her daughter. Echoing Marie Antoinette's maternal symbolism, Robinson and Caroline each understood their motherhood as a public role as well as a private consolation; both played this role against roles of sexual availability and queenly status through careful costume choices and bodily displays. Robinson's fashionable dress and Caroline's sloppily eccentric interpretations of haute couture aimed at the same end: to craft a way to get their needs and desires met despite the gothic overtones—half residual aristocratic decadence and half reactionary middlebrow conservativism—of a libidinous radical culture for Robinson, and Regency culture for Caroline. Neither could, in the end, control their destinies which were already determined by each woman's sentimental rather than pragmatic expectations for their careers as wives and mothers of stature, meshed as these were with George's extravagantly sentimental and yet tyrannical behavior.
The press, echoing the mob's long-time love of Caroline and dislike of George, generally supported Caroline's attempts to be recognized as queen, but were less receptive to her desire to have her Parliamentary victory blessed at St. Paul's, and were puzzled by her indecorous behavior in trying to gain access to George's coronation in order to be crowned herself. In this they repeated the "fan" response to Robinson when as George's mistress she was followed everywhere, watched from the street as she shopped, and worshipped as a media star. Caroline was adored for different reasons; her public persona had always been carefully presented by herself and her Parliamentary supporters (most especially Henry Brougham) as loving and lovable, a proper princess gothically mistreated by her mob-hated, arrogant husband. By the time George needed a wife, the public was sated with the scandals of royal mistresses and ready for matrimonial scandal instead.
Caroline, of course, was determined to prevent any increase of George's prerogatives, since his sexual arrangements had always been flexible, while hers were supposed to be non-existent after he refused to cohabit with her. She pursued or pretended to pursue lovers in retaliation, or for her own desire; and she considered her final lover, Pergami, to be her husband, acting this fantasy out in a number of ways that included using a plate service at their Italian villa with his newly purchased arms. George, whose affairs were legion, had been shockingly cruel to her, letting her hear of her daughter's death by hearsay, setting spies on her and setting up secret commissions to gather testimonials and witnesses to her real or supposed affairs. But when she learned of George III's death and that she was by law now Queen of England yet George still intended a formal separation and possibly a divorce, she was outraged and determined to fight back, sure she could win the Parliamentary hearing. Nevertheless, being Caroline, she was less in control of her appearance than she thought she was. For the first day of her hearing Caroline appeared in the tall hat plumes that were her trademark; when she removed this inside, she wound white veiling around her head and over the bodice of her "'richly twilled black sarsenet dress,'" giving the intended dignified costume a bizarre effect. Her appearance and demeanor were not regal; indeed, her clumsy deportment and jerky movements made one MP liken her to a "Fanny Royds" (a weighted Dutch doll with red cheeks that jumps up to standing position) (Fraser 417-9). Caroline wanted a thanksgiving service at St. Paul's to celebrate her victory when the exhausting hearing was over, but the Dean, shocked, refused all but an ordinary morning service. She appeared in white to symbolize innocence: "a silk pelisse extravagantly trimmed with white fur and 'a close turban covered with a white veil'" (Fraser 449). Finally, for the Coronation she dressed as befitted a Queen: while George was ordering new jewels and crown and fussing over his Coronation dress, Carolyn had her mantua-maker attend both herself and Lady Hood and Lady Anne Hamilton several times to outfit them for the occasion should she be allowed to participate. But she was resoundingly shut out of this ceremony, just as Robinson had been from Queen Charlotte's Birthday Ball. Caroline's exclusion was more humiliating than Robinson's, of course, for so much more was at stake for George. Robinson had been "cut" just as Beau Brummell would be, effaced in public by George not "seeing" her—his visual strategy of erasure now the reverse of his initial desiring and scripting gaze. So too would Caroline be erased from his life (indeed, she would shortly die of a painful intestinal disorder), but more resoundingly.
As Caroline exited her carriage at Westminster, she scurried from one entrance to another as each was shut in her face as she attempted to crash George's party and claim her crown at his side. Gothic heroines are dignified in their suffering while sentimental heroines achieve their desires through moral victories. Neither Robinson nor Caroline could countenance the discipline involved in earning such outcomes for they were each passionate women, convinced of their right to emotional well-being; both suffering humiliatingly at men's hands, with one prince's hands strongly influencing how they interpreted their subsequent destinies. But both women also felt empowered by the radicalism or laxity of their times to tease the borders of expected roles and rules engendering sexual expression, cunningly or foolishly dressing these roles up to fabricate lives that might match their dreams.
Bass, Robert D. The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson. New York: Henry Holt, 1957.
The Book Itself! Private Memoirs, 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.
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1 I am building here on the arguments of Christopher Breward in The Culture of Fashion: A New History of Fashionable Dress.
2 Muslin is a medium-weight balanced plainweave (no design is woven into the cloth), as is calico, gingham and chambray; lawn is a lightweight loosely woven plainweave; voile, organza and organdy are sheer or transparent plainweave fabrics. These textiles, most fashionably of cotton and silk, as well as lace and netting, could be fashioned to the wearer's body more easily than patterned fabrics that leant more easily to fashion statements and fancy dress. The new fabrics were startlingly different from 18th-century brocades, damasks, and other stiff and figured materials. By 1801 the Jacquard attachment was invented, increasing the range and affordability of figured weaves, and fashions began moving back to the body-hiding dress styles of earlier and later periods. The Romantic period is an age in which new imports and manufactures made possible for a brief time the body-revealing costuming exploited by women attempting to carve out larger public roles for themselves.
3 Terry Castle analyzes this reaction to eighteenth-century elite fashion practice in Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth Century English Culture and Fiction.
4 Although I am using "actant" in the sense postulated by Greimas, it would be interesting to perform a semiotic analysis of these women's performances in terms of Barthes's narrative theory, in which a "function" only gains meaning through narrative and only when within an actant's field of action, so that meaning-making is guided by the staged or framed experience. Both Brummell and Byron excelled at framing themselves and framing off their private lives, while Robinson and Caroline were unable to control the boundaries of their stagings.
5 Robert D. Bass notes of Mr. Darby's desertion that it was born of a restlessness and "a love for the sea in his blood," but that after he mortgaged all his property to start a whaling factory in Labrador, Mrs. Darby discovered that a young woman named Elenor sailed with him (24). Darby later returned to formally separate from his wife in a scenario eerily like George's attempts to legally separate from, and then divorce Caroline.
6 By "lesbian" I am not asserting a relation defined by female-to-female sexual activity, but rather (following precepts of early feminist theory) implying that the authoritative and affective relations between partners are defined by the women involved for their own empowerment rather than by patriarchal terms. It is in this sense of affective and intellectual empowerment and self-authorizing that Mary Robinson will align herself with Sappho in her prefatory essay for Sappho and Phaon. This sense of "lesbian" certainly defined Princess Caroline's relation with her ladies-in-waiting, particularly if they were chosen by her rather than George, and with her female servants and attendants. However, Caroline was more prone to cross the line of allowable sexual behavior than Robinson, and was capable of acts easily misconstrued by others. Marie Antoinette either behaved in similarly loose fashion with the ladies of her court, or did indeed, as the radical French press asserted in a massive campaign against her, engage in open lesbian practice with her favorites. However, it is not in the sense of actual sexual practice that I use the term "lesbian," but rather its empowerment—like flirtation and dress fashions—for Robinson and Caroline, and its accompanying detrimental social effects.
7 Sapphism's association with Marie Antoinette's supposedly lascivious inner circle of court women provided a strong marketing ploy, while shoring up Robinson's own queenly associations through her affair with George. See Joan DeJean's thorough study of this aspect of the French press attacks on the Queen's sexuality and its supposed effect on Louis XVI's ability to rule, and Craciun, p. 84.
8 By her own account Caroline turned down proposals from the Dutch heir apparent and Queen Charlotte's brother Prince Charles of Mecklenburg-Strelitz; she refused the matches her mother attempted with the margrave of Baden's son (with 60,000 florins a year), the future Prince of Prussia, the future Duke of York (Prince Frederick), Prince George of Hesse-Darmstadt, and others. See Fraser, The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline, 19-28.
9 Marie Antoinette's peasant gaming with her court ladies, part of the late eighteenth-century interest in the picturesque and rural life as a recuperation of "natural" sentiment is well-known. Robinson enjoyed riding about or parading in London parks and pleasure gardens dressed in peasant costumes that enhanced her beauty and figure. Judith Pascoe finds that "Robinson's stylistic identification with Marie Antoinette extended beyond clothing fashions to her vehicle of conveyance. Her propensity for riding about in extravagant carriages . . . followed a standard set by the French queen" (121).
10 For a thorough history of the importation and importance of luxury and fashionable fabrics and textiles, see Ginsburg, esp. ch. 2, "The Dawn of the Modern Era 1550-1780," by Andreas Petzold, (pp. 35-53), and ch. 3, "The Industrial Revolution 1780-1880" by Rhiannon Williams (pp. 55-71); the short chapter on lace by Patricia Frost is also very helpful (161-71). Jane C. Nylander's Fabrics for Historic Buildings is also helpful for period-specific information, while Nora Waugh's The Cut of Women's Clothes, 1600-1930 provides an overview of fashion shifts and their influences. Anne Hollander's Fabric of Vision offers a fascinating if controversial textual reading of the dressed body in paintings, fashion plates, and photographs over a range of centuries.
11 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," 271-304.
12 To view this portrait in the Wallace Collection, see:
13 To view this portrait in the Wallace Collection, see:
14 To view this portrait in the Wallace Collection, see:
15 As Pointon notes, artists' studios were often "public performance" sites in which the artist would display his genius while friends of the sitter watched him paint (41). In such a socialized space, prominent artists such as Gainsborough and Reynolds would have had ample opportunity to work on their clients' taste as much as their preferences.
17 Even Cosway's portrait of Maria Fitzherbert, in which she is also seated, portrays her in upright position, a book in her hand, and the Prince's miniature over her heart and her hands positioned quite far from it, rather than actively holding it as Robinson does.
19 McCalman characterizes The Spirit not as a confessional autobiography, as does Flora Fraser (234) but as an epistolary gothic romance (McCalman 163-64). This difference may result from the anonymity and frequent lack of publication dates for many of these texts. However, McCalman ignores the negative portrayal of Caroline in The Spirit as well as Ashe's later claim that he was paid to write The Spirit by Carlton House (Fraser 234). While Ashe hardly seems a reliable witness (he both wrote attacks on Spencer Perceval and for the opposition), McCalman puts Ashe in the same camp as Perceval (who secretly arranged for The Book to be published) despite the negativity of The Spirit, and its targeting by subsequent pamphlets that countered its ideology. Notably, McCalman bases his discussion of their working relation on inconclusive evidence for payment by Perceval to Ashe.
20 Caroline's interest for European and American readers was indicated by the avidity with which European court circles had already read Ashe's Spirit of the Book, and by its being reprinted in the U.S. just one year later by Moses Thomas in Philadelphia.
21 This influential version was brought out by the radical printer E. Thomas.
22 Under Fox's advocacy, George was to receive an increased allowance at age 25 of £100,000 to allow him to establish his own residence, but Parliament could not match his debts; a marital allowance was to significantly increase his income although this never matched his spending binges.
23 Anna Clark, in Scandal, argues that the Regency's royal mistresses and their publicized scandals had discernible effects on the constitution. Clark pays particular attention to Caroline's role in constitutional revision through her divorce scandal, which re-energized the reform activism; see Ch. 8, 177-207. However, George's uncles had already had such an effect when his father reacted to his brothers' outrageous affairs by creating the Royal Marriage Act of 1772, the very bill that had forced George to propose marriage to Caroline of Brunswick by denying any royal child the right to marry without the monarch's consent. While Clark does not investigate Robinson's brief tenure, certainly the worry over both Robinson and Caroline's influence on the prince dramatically heated Parliamentary wrangles. Robinson's Whig leanings were insubstantial compared to Fox's influence, but Caroline's strong Whiggism as determined counter to Queen Charlotte's fanatical Toryism may have moved him further to the right, and certainly her person had constitutional impact in moving George to instigate the "Delicate Investigation" which would lead to the Parliamentary hearing for the Bill of Pains and Penalties that he hoped would provide the grounds for more constitutional flexibility of marital arrangements.
24 Caroline was careless of who saw her when she sought her own pleasure. Her first biographer, Robert Huish attempted through his two volume account to recast her character as spotless if spirited. For instance, for one of the most damning pieces of testimony for the divorce hearing he gives this interpretation: At Escala Nuova, from where she wanted to visit the ruins of Ephesus, "she had her traveling bed set up in a vestibule which fronted a church shaded by tress. It was here that another circumstance took place respecting her royal highness and Pergami, on which a charge of an adulterous intercourse was founded; but it was so similar to all the rest in its deficiency of the most important ingredient in the fabrication of every story, namely truth, that it would be perfectly ridiculous in this place to enlarge upon it," (632-33).