Editorial Notes

El. Rose: Elizabeth Rose (1747-1815) was the 19th Clan Chief of the powerful Clan Rose. The Clan Rose inhabited Kilravock Castle in Nairnshire, Scotland, from the fifteenth century when it was built to the present day (when once again, and for only the second time, the Clan Chief is a woman). Rose married her cousin Hugh Rose (1746-1780) in June 1779 but retained her status as Clan Chief until she died. A son, also named Hugh Rose, was born February 8, 1780, and became the 20th Clan Chief. In her personal copy of Robinson's Letter, Elizabeth Rose made significant additions to Robinson's List of British Female Literary Characters at the end of this Letter, indicated in coral-colored text in this hypertext edition. Our thanks to George Rose for information on Elizabeth Rose's genealogy. Anne Frances Randall: This is one of numerous pseudonyms under which Robinson wrote. She tended to use different names to suit different voices or personas in her writing; other pseudonyms include Perdita, Laura, Laura Maria, M.R., Oberon, Tabitha Bramble, Portia, Sappho, the Sylphid, and Titania (Curran 34). In her acting career, Robinson also used a number of stage names.

"wherefore are we...": This passage is part of Calista’s proto-feminist speech in Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent. A Tragedy, published in London in 1703, which along with his Tragedy of Jane Shore, was one of the most popular tragedies, after Shakespeare, performed throughout the eighteenth century. Both plays are particularly notable for their rebellious and outspoken (and ultimately defeated) female protagonists: see note on Jane Shore. Calista's speech reads:

"How hard is the condition of our sex,
Thro' ev'ry state of life the slaves of man!
In all the dear delightful days of youth
A rigid father dictates to our wills,
And deals out pleasure with a scanty hand.
To his, the tyrant husband's reign succeeds;
Proud with opinion of superior reason,
He holds domestick bus'ness and devotion
All we are capable to know, and shuts us,
Like cloyster'd ideots, from the world's acquaintance,
And all the joys of freedom. Wherefore are we
Born with high souls, but to assert our selves,
Shake off this vile obedience they exact,
And claim an equal empire o'er the world?" (The Fair Penitent (1791 edition) III.i.40-53)

page 1

philosophical sensualists: Probably a reference to Jean Jacques Rousseau, who argued in Emile and other influential works that women and men were essentially different, and specifically that women were intellectually inferior to men. As Robinson notes in this sentence, Rousseau was one of Wollstonecraft’s chief targets in Rights of Woman, where she consistently characterized him as a philosopher led more by "his voluptuous reveries" than his reason (133). Catharine Macaulay similarly described Rousseau, "[a]mong the most strenuous asserters of a sexual difference in character" (205), as a sensualist and "licentious pedant": "it is not reason, it is not wit; it is pride and sensuality that speak in Rousseau, and, in this instance, has lowered the man of genius to the licentious pedant" (Letters on Education, Part I, Letter XXII ("No characteristic Difference in Sex"), 206).

Page 2,

  illustrious British female,: Probably the best-known and most influential feminist of the eighteenth century, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was a contemporary of Robinson’s. The two women were acquainted through Wollstonecraft's husband, William Godwin. Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), a feminist manifesto arguing in favor of equality between the sexes and women’s cultivation of reason through education, deeply influenced Robinson (link to Vindication). Robinson obviously intends her Letter to speak to the same issues as Wollstonecraft's Vindications, though from a different angle. Robinson may have also intended this publication to help vindicate her friend's reputation and ideas when, after her death in 1797, Wollstonecraft's reputation declined due to the publication of Memoirs (written by Godwin) which provided the "scandalous" details of her affair with Gilbert Imlay and her suicide attempts.


page 5

honour: Eighteenth-century notions of honor were very much linked to one’s reputation and rank. It is interesting that Dr. Johnson defines honor as both "high rank" and "publick mark of respect." As it related to women, the notion of honor specifically referred to chastity.

page 6

"Ruin ensues": Spoken by Jane Shore in Nicholas Rowe’s The Tragedy of Jane Shore, published in London in 1714; Robinson played Alicia, the royal mistress gone mad who betrays the heroine (herself a mistress of royalty), in The Tragedy of Jane Shore on 27 January 1783 at Covent Garden, and again in Edinburgh in 1787. Beyond its theme of a strong and outspoken woman seduced and victimized by powerful men, this play holds particular significance for Robinson because it was her recitation from it that first drew the actor Thomas Hull’s attention to her as a potential actress, when she was 15. Sarah Siddons and Mary Ann Yates, two of the most highly regarded tragic actresses of the eighteenth century, were renowned for their portrayal of Jane Shore, who was a historical figure seduced by King Edward IV, and carried off as his mistress; she then became Hastings’ mistress, and was a pawn in the power struggles of Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Richard III), which after a series of betrayals resulted in her death: see note to Rowe’s The Fair Penitent. Jane Shore’s speech in full reads:

"Mark by what partial Justice we are judg'd;
Such is the Fate unhappy Women find,
And such the Curse intail'd upon our kind,
That Man, the lawless Libertine may rove,
Free and unquestion'd through the Wilds of Love;
While Woman, Sense and Nature's easy Fool,
If poor weak Woman swerve from Virtue's Rule,
If strongly charm'd, she leave the thorny way,
And in the softer Paths of Pleasure stray;
Ruin ensues, Reproach and endless Shame,
And one false Step entirely damns her Fame.
In vain with Tears the Loss she may deplore,
In vain look back to what she was before,
She sets, like Stars that fall, to rise no more." (I.ii).

page 10

sentiment: Robinson is implying that men act on carnal desires, while women act on intellect, thought, and reason. The answer to her rhetorical question is implicit in this observation.

page 11

to love, where she abhors: This condemnation of the sexual inequalities of marriage laws echoes Maria's letter to the judge in Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria. A Fragment (1798). Maria, who has suffered cruelly at the hands of her husband, complains about the "dogs of law" and pleads for a divorce:

"'Married when scarcely able to distinguish the nature of the engagement, I yet submitted to the rigid laws which enslave women, and obeyed the man whom I could no longer love. . .I exclaim against the laws which throw the whole weight of the yoke on the weaker shoulders, and force women, when they claim protectorship as mothers, to sign a contract, which renders them dependent on the caprice of a tyrant, whom choice or necessity has appointed to reign over them" (194, 195).

women, like princes: Robinson's complaint here is similar to Wollstonecraft's comparison of women, soldiers, and aristocratic men in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: all possess a superficial education that neglects the cultivation of their Reason:

"As a proof that education gives this appearience of weakness to females, we may instance the example of military men, who are, like them, sent into the world before their minds have been stored with knowledge or fortified by principles. . .soldiers, as well as women, practise the minor virtues with punctilious politeness. Where is the the sexual difference, when the education has been the same? All the difference that I can discern, arises from the superior advantage of liiberty, which enables the former to see more of life" (131).
"In short, women, in general, as well as the rich of both sexes, have acquired all the follies and vices of civilization, and missed the useful fruit" (177).

page 12

Catherine Macaulay (1731-1791) was a notable eighteenth-century historian whose most famous work was her eight-volume History of England from the Accession of James I, published between 1763 and 1783. Thomas Gray called it "the most sensible, unaffected and best history of England that we have had yet" (DNB). Macaulay was also an early critic of Burke’s Reflections with her Observations on the Reflections. Unfortunately, her marriage at age 47 to a man 26 years her junior caused a scandal which resulted in much public criticism and the loss of many close friends. Macaulay’s Letters on Education (1790) deeply influenced Wollstonecraft, who described her as "the woman of the greatest abilities, undoubtedly, that this country has ever produced " in A Vindication on the Rights of Woman (231).

Stephano: Alonso’s drunken and conspiratorialbutler in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Robinson compares the position of women with that of a domestic servant who fantasizes about ruling over his master.

page 13

Zantippe: Xantippe was the wife of Socrates. She was known for her peevish disposition and ill humor. According to Lempriere, "some suggest that the philosopher was acquainted with her moroseness and insolence before he married her, and that he took her for his wife to try his patience, and inure himself to the malevolent reflections of mankind" (LCD).

page 14

"smoothing the rugged path of care": The exact source of this quote is unknown, although Robinson may be adapting the lines "Lest Philomel will daign a Song/ In her sweetest, saddest plight,/ Smoothing the rugged brow of night" from Milton’s Il Penseroso (56-58). This may also be an adaptation of lines from James Beattie’s poem "The Minstrel" (1776), in which the poet praises pastoral bards: "Your voice each rugged path of life can smooth;/ For well I know, where-ever ye reside,/ There harmony, and peace, and innocence abide" (Book I, 376-78).

page 15

mental aristocracy: This concept of an "Aristocracy of Genius," as she calls it in her Monody on the Death of the Late Queen of France, is found throughout Robinson’s works. In the preface to Sappho and Phaon, Robinson writes at length on how women should "ennoble themselves by the unperishable lustre of MENTAL PRE-EMINENCE!"

immortality of the soul: Women's spiritual equality to men remained a touchstone of feminism in the eighteenth century and earlier, found in Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Priscilla Wakefield's Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex (1798), and Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (pages 112, 131, 154-5, 176): see note on women, like princes.

page 17

corporeal strength: The nature of man’s domination over women was often seen by eighteenth century feminists such as Priscilla Wakefield, Catherine Macaulay, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Robinson as derived from men’s superior physical strength. Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Woman discusses at length the nature of corporeal and mental strength, and the connection between them, and declares that "I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both in mind and in body" (VRW 111); see in particular chapters 2 and 3. These feminist thinkers advocated increased physical exercise for girls and women: see note on sports.

page 18

effeminacy: Robinson is using a strategy similar to Wollstonecraft’s in Rights of Woman and Rights of Men, where Wollstonecraft urged both men and women to aspire to "a manly spirit of independence" (Rights of Men 46); see also Robinson’s note to page 36. Both Robinson and Wollstonecraft in effect sever sex from gender, and desire that women have access to types of virtue, strength, and honor that were typically gendered masculine. For an excellent discussion of Wollstonecraft, gender, and effeminacy, see Claudia Johnson, Equivocal Beings, chapters 1-3.

modern Hannibals: Hannibal was a celebrated Carthaginian general who posed a long-time threat to Rome in the second century B.C., fighting in battles ranging from Spain to Italy to Africa. Robinson characterizes him negatively here, though he was considered one of the most meritorious and virtuous generals of his age. (LCD)

page 19

my travels: The high point of Robinson’s travels abroad occurred when she visited France in 1781. The Prince of Wales had deserted her earlier that year, and she went to Paris to "amuse her mind and beguile her thoughts from the recollection of past scenes" (Perdita: The Memoirs of Mary Robinson, p. 121). While in Paris she was "fêted by Parisian aristocracy" (Memoirs, p. xii). Her conquests included the profligate D’uc D’Orléans, Louis XVI’s cousin, as well as Marie Antoinette: see note on Marie Antoinette. Unfortunately, her subsequent trips to the Continent during the next decade were decidedly less glamorous: Plagued by a series of severe misfortunes which included financial problems, partial paralysis and a possible miscarriage, Robinson followed her then lover Colonel Banstre Tarleton into "Continental exile" for four years in 1784. Her last trip to France was in 1792 when she decided to take her mother and daughter on another Continental tour. However, when she arrived in Calais the war in France prevented them from proceeding any further, and she returned to England a few months later.

page 20

A foreign lady of great distinction: Robinson’s "true story" here, in which a continental woman responds to her seducer by claiming the right to a duel, hence to a "heroic act," and dies in a convent, serves as a contrast to the very different fate of "Miss [Ann] Broderick" in Britain, whose heroism condemned her to spend "the remainder of her days as a confirmed maniac." Broderick shot her lover in 1794, and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge instructed the jury that while passion or jealousy were not sufficient grounds for declaring her insane, the fact that she laughed aloud after shooting him, "was a striking, and almost infallible symptom of insanity" (The Trial of Miss Broderick, for the Wilful Murder of George Errington, Esq. (Edinburgh: J. Robertson, 1795) 13).

page 26

subtle and unrelenting enemy: This allusion to the "subtle serpent" in Milton’s Paradise Lost is yet another pointed reminder from Robinson that Satan is not the only cause of women’s misfortunes -- that men as well must take the blame for the persecution and suffering of women.

page 27

when they ascended the scaffold: Helen Maria Williams’s influential Letters from France served as a monument to women’s bravery when facing the guillotine, particularly Madame Roland and Charlotte Corday. Williams gives a lengthy and positive description of Corday as an "extraordinary woman" (129), and adds that "it is difficult to conceive the kind of heroism which she displayed in the way to execution" (133); Robinson echoes Williams’ statement that "She [Corday] ascended the scaffold with undaunted firmness, and, knowing that she had only to die, was resolved to die with dignity " (Williams, Letters Containing a Sketch of the Politics of France (1795) 134-135).

Marie Antoinette: Marie Antoinette (1755-93) was Louis XVI's Austrian-born queen. She was at first popular in France, but was later vilified for her rash expenditures, ostentatiosness, and public flirtations. Robinson herself met Marie Antoinette and was extremely impressed by her, as she shows in this passage from her Memoirs:

"A small space divided the Queen from Mrs. Robinson, whom the constant observation and loudly whispered encomiums of her Majesty most oppressively flattered. She appeared to survey, with peculiar attention, a miniature of the Prince of Wales, which Mrs. Robinson wore on her bosom, and of which, on the ensuing day, she commissioned the Duke of Orleans to request the loan. Perceiving Mrs. Robinson gaze with admiration on her white and polished arms, as she drew on her gloves, the Queen again uncovered them, and leaned for a few moments on her hand. The Duke, on returning the picture, gave to the fair owner a purse, netted by the hand of Antoinette, and which she had commissioned him to present, from her, to la belle Angloise"(123).

Like Robinson, Marie Antoinette was the subject of pornographic satires. Robinson, who was associated with republican politics in the eyes of her contemporaries, also wrote several poems lamenting the fate of Marie Antoinette: A Monody on the Death of the Late Queen of France (1793), "Marie Antoinette’s Lamentation..": see note on Louis the Sixteenth.

page 28

CORDAY: One of Robinson's many examples of women's public, often physical, heroism. Charlotte Corday, a Girondin republican from Normandy, assassinated the Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat on July 13, 1793 by stabbing him to death in his bath. Corday was put on trial and guillotined a few days later; both events received wide coverage in the British press and were the subjects of popular prints. Helen Maria Williams's influential Letters from France celebrated Corday's action as heroic and inspired. Corday's assassination of Marat was instrumental in precipitating the violent reaction of the Jacobin government against women, including Jacobin women. The guillotining of Marie Antoinette, Olympe de Gouges (a monarchist and a feminist) and Madame Roland (a Girondin) followed in the next few months, and the Jacobins also banned all women's political associations, such as the well-known Society of Revolutionary Republican Women.

page 29

VOSSIUS: Gerardus Joannes Vossius (1577-1649), German scholar and theologian, was one of the first scholars to use an historical perspective in his treatment of theological dogmas, including the religions of antiquity. Vossius’s work was known through out western Europe, and he sojourned at several foreign universities, including a stint at Oxford as LL.D from 1629-1632. In Chapter Two of De Philologia, which we have been able to find only in Latin editions, Vossius includes a lengthy numbered list of eminent women, which Robinson here includes almost entirely. In her Memoirs, Robinson does mention that she was schooled by Meribah Lorrington in Latin, but because she does not again allude to her ability to read Latin, her fluency in that language is open to some speculation.

page 42-43

"the two Le Fevres": Anne Lefevre (1654-1720), wife of editor Andre Dacier, was known as "the greatest French woman Hellenist" of her era. She translated and edited well-known versions of the Iliad (1711) and the Odyssey (1716) in addition to other classics including works by Sappho and Aristophanes (Oxford). The other "Le Fevre" to whom Robinson refers is unidentified, though she was likely the wife of Jean Leclerc, a political activist in post-revolutionary France who succeeded Marat after his assasination by Charlotte Corday.

Katherine Phillips (1632-64), or "Orinda," as she calls herself in her poems, was best known for writing poems in which she exalts Platonic friendships between women. The poetic figures "Rosania" and "Lucasia" both represent Phillips’s close friends in real life. Phillips represented a refined and sensitive femininity which was in opposition to the perceived coarseness of Aphra Behn (Greer).

Susannah Centlivre (1667?-1723) was a successful actress and playwright in the early eighteenth century. Known for her " sprightly" comedies, Centlivre published a total of 19 plays in her lifetime, including The Busy Body (1709) and The Platonic Lady (1707). In about 1706 she married Joseph Centlivre, principal cook to Queen Anne and George I. Due to the numerous plays which she presented and performed at court, Centlivre became quite beloved in royal and aristocratic circles. (DNB)

Aphra Behn: Very little is known about the life of Aphra Behn (1640-1689), poet, novelist, and playwright. Her novel Ooronoko is based on her experiences in the West Indies, where she lived for a time during her youth. She briefly worked as a spy for Charles II, then married, but was soon left penniless by her husband. According to the DNB, Behn was the first female writer to "live by the pen, " but other accounts suggest a long history of debt and borrowing (Greer 242). Behn also endured much public criticism due to her support of the Stuart cause as well as to her friendships with numerous men. Nevertheless, she enjoyed fame as a writer and has been commended as "the George Sand of the Restoration," receiving the commendations of and befriending contemporary writers such as Dryden, Otway, and Southerne (DNB).

Elizabeth Singer Rowe (1674-1737) enjoyed widespread admiration as a writer of great piety and virtue; she was considered by Dr. Johnson the first English writer to successfully employ "the ornaments of romance in the decoration of religion" (DNB). Singer is best known for her volume of poetry, Poems on Several Occasions by Philomela (1696), as well as her devotional prose. Her elegy to her husband was Pope’s inspiration for "Eloisa and Abelard" (1720) and is printed as an appendix to that poem (Greer).

page 43

Sappho: Sappho (c.610-c.580 B.C.), the most famous female poet of classical times, was greatly admired by Mary Robinson. Born on the island of Lesbos, Sappho was famous for her beauty, her lyrical poems, and her passions for both men and women. Although it was rumored that her unrequited love for the youth Phaon made her commit suicide by leaping into the sea from Mount Leucas, there is no evidence to support this theory. Robinson writes of the ill-fated romance in Sappho and Phaon, casting Sappho as the supreme example of the heightened sensibility that is born with poetic genius, and attributing her amoral reputation to the envy of little minds. Jerome McGann notes how Robinson conflates her troubled life and poetic genius with that of Sappho: "Throughout Sappho and Phaon Robinson builds a shrewd retort to the facile slanders regularly directed at herself. Robinson’s and Sappho’s histories come to reflect each other because (and as) their poetries are made reflective through Sappho and Phaon. It is the poetic sensibility that exposes these relations, according to Robinson, and the poetry of sensibility that puts them into most effective (social) action." McGann goes on to suggest that not only does Robinson become the "avatar" of Sappho, but she also makes the point in Sappho and Phaon that it is poets like themselves, and not polemicists like Wollstonecraft, who have "the power to wed the longest kind of philosophical view . . . with full, intense and immediate awareness." (The Poetics of Sensibility, p.116) See Robinson's Sappho and Phaon

Mrs Robinson’s legitimate sonnets: In Sappho and Phaon, Robinson’s fervent discourse on the nature of the "legitimate sonnet" is the cornerstone of her discussion of the poetics of sensibility, and helps to establish her claim for Sappho as the exemplar of strong poetic feeling. According to Robinson, the difference between the sonnets of her day (known as English or Shakespearean sonnets) and sonnets in the "legitimate" or Petrarchan mode, is that the modern sonnet is a self-contained unit which "confines the poet’s fancy," and the legitimate sonnet is one link in a chain of poems that tells a story. Robinson’s "little wreath" of sonnets is patterned on the legitimate sonnet, a form that she believes only Milton of all the British poets has used with any success. In The Poetics of Sensibility, Jerome McGann points out that her alignment with Milton is deliberate: "Her claim here establishes the importance of ‘major form,’ a poetic vehicle capable of dealing with matters that transcend the merely personal"(105). By appropriating a form that was typically gendered masculine, Robinson elevates the poetry of sensibility to a place normally reserved for the work of the major poets. See Robinson's Sappho and Phaon for more of her ideas concerning legitimate sonnets.


pages 43-44

We have known WOMEN: Soldier heroines were a very popular phenomenon in the second half of the eighteenth century when Britain experienced a wave of patriotism primarily during its wars with America and France. Popular ballads and musical revues featured the motif of the Woman Warrior, and Hannah Snell (1723-1792) captured the public’s imagination as a real-life Woman Warrior. At age 20, she married a Dutch sailor who disappeared seven months after their marriage. Determined to find her husband, Snell borrowed the name and a suit of her brother-in-law, and enlisted as a foot soldier in the army. Still disguised as a man, she became a sailor, sailing to the East Indies as the assistant steward and cook for the officers. She was involved in several skirmishes, and was wounded in the groin. Not wanting her sex to be discovered by the army doctors, Snell found a black woman who was willing to extract the bullet and keep her secret. She spent seven years in the service until she heard that her husband had been executed in Genoa. At age 27, she abandoned her disguise and became an instant celebrity. Her story was published as "The Female Soldier: or the Surprising Adventures of Hannah Snell " by R. Walker in 1750. She appeared on stage in uniform. Because of the wound she had received in the line of duty, she received an annuity. She also supplemented her income by purchasing a tavern, and calling it the "Female Warrior." By the end of her colorful life, she had married three times, and died insane at the age of 69. See Diane Dugaw’s Warrior Women and Popular Balladry.

page 45

Lady Harriet Ackland: The account of Lady Harriet Ackland’s adventures is a true one. Lady Harriet (1750-1815) did indeed follow her husband to Canada in 1776. According to the Gentleman’s Magazine (1815, pt. ii. p. 186), the episode where she stood in the boat pleading with the sentinel to give her permission to join her husband who had been taken prisoner was the subject of a famous painting exhibited at the Royal Academy.

page 46

a two-wheeled tumbrel: According to the OED, a tumbrel is a cart constructed so that the body tilts backwards to empty out the load, such as a dung-cart.

Page 54

Charles Fox or William Pitt: Charles Fox (1749-1806) and William Pitt (1708-1778) were both brilliant orators and statesmen. Pitt was prime minister from 1783-1801 and 1804-1806, and Fox was the leader of the Opposition. Robinson probably had an affair in 1782 with Fox, who had helped arrange her settlement with the Prince of Wales, but she despised the politics of Pitt, especially his endorsement of the long and arduous war with France.

pugilist: According to the OED, a pugilist is one who practices the art of boxing -- a boxeror a fighter.

page 55

Sir Andrew Ague-cheek: Sir Andrew Ague-cheek was the cowardly and simple drinking companion of Sir Toby in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. When Sir Toby suggests him as a potential suitor of Olivia to her maid Maria, he defends his friend’s suit by claiming that "He’s as tall a man as any’s in Illyria." Although Sir Toby used the word "tall" to mean brave, Maria takes him literally when she asks, "What’s that to the purpose? " (Twelfth Night, 1.3) Like Maria, it appears that Robinson took Sir Toby literally as well.

unsex a woman: Robinson was named as one of the "unsexed" women writer's in Richard Polwhele's The Unsex'd Females (1798), along with Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, Helen Maria Williams, Anna Barbauld, and others. Polwhele thus described Robinson:

"Robinson to Gaul her Fancy gave,
And trac'd the picture of a Deist's grave."

The Deist referred to may be a character in her novel Walzingham, which had been attacked by conservatives for its support of the French Revolution.

In a note, Polwhele praises Robinson's poetry, but criticizes her novels, philosophy, and lifestyle:

"Would that, for the sake of herself and her beautiful daughter. . .would that for the sake of public morality, Mrs. Robinson were persuaded to dismiss the gloomy phantom of annihilation; to think seriously of a future rebribution; and to communicate to the world a recantation of errors that originated in levity, and have been nursed by pleasure."

page 57

witchcraft: Robinson argues that the persecution of women as witches stemmed from the bigotry and fear of men as women attempted to leave their allotted sphere through books and learning. Although the last trial in England for witchcraft was in 1712, trials and executions of witches did not finally cease until the end of the eighteenth-century. The total number of women who were persecuted and tried as witches has been estimated from 100,000 to as much as several million.

page 58

some excellent lines, from the pen of a British woman: Although Mary Robinson claims that this poem is written by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), it is not found in her extant works. Montagu did wage a very acrimonious battle of words with Alexander Pope, including her infamous response to Pope in 1733 titled VERSES Addressed to the IMITATOR of the FIRST SATIRE of the Second Book of Horace. Although he began as a potential suitor, the relationship between Pope and Montagu ended abruptly in 1722. It was rumored that this took place when Pope finally confessed his love to Lady Montagu, and she laughed at him. Pope retaliated by referring to her in a couplet in his satire of Horace:

"From furious Sappho scarce a milder Fate (than poison or hanging),
P-x’d her Love, or libell’d by her Hate."
In her response, VERSES Addressed to the IMITATOR, Lady Montagu showed herself to be more than equal to the task of ridiculing her former suitor. As Carol Barash points out in her article on Lady Montague in the Dictionary of Literary Biography(DLB 95, 145-55), she turned his deformity (Pope was a hunchback) into a symbol of what she viewed as his own twisted humanity:

"Thine is just such and Image of (Horace's) Pen,
As thou thy self art of the Sons of Men:
Where our own Species in Burlesque we trace,
A Sign-Post Likeness of the noble Race;
That is at once Resemblance and Disgrace."
[See Lady Montague's Essays and Poems, p. 265-270.]

page 60

daring: Robinson's text reads darling, probably a printer's error.

Madame de Sévigné (1626- 1696)carried on a correspondence with her daughter that lasted twenty-five years, and her letters were known for their colorful and lively descriptions of court life.

Anne Dacier (1654-1720) translated several classical texts including a French edition of Sappho in which she argues for Sappho’s heterosexuality despite Sappho’s reputation for bisexuality. In Passions Between Women, Emma Donoghue discusses the similarities between Dacier and Robinson’s sanitized versions of Sappho’s sexuality, pointing out that Robinson’s conservative treatment of Sappho’s attachments to women echoes that of Dacier’s (see note on Sappho). Donoghue argues that it was easier for men to discuss Sappho’s possible bisexuality in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but that "a literary woman could not be seen to defend something that could damage her own status" (Passions Between Women, p. 250).

Marie-Jeanne Philipon Roland de la Platière (1754-1793)was a writer and an important political figure in the French Revolution. A fervent admirer of the works of Rousseau, she was executed in 1793.

Félicité de Genlis (1746-1830)wrote poetry and prose, and was extremely influential in Britain as an educator. According to her pupil Louis-Philippe, the one-time mistress and tutor for many years of the children of the Duc D’Orleans was the first woman to use a man’s desk to write at instead of the "secrétaires" that other literary women used.

Madame de Maintenon: Using the example of Madame de Maintenon, Robinson again underscores her point that women are made the scapegoats of men’s own degenerate natures. Madame de Maintenon (1635-1719) was the secret wife of Louis XIV. Although a very pious and private woman, she was accused of having both the king and France completely under her control. This rumor was somewhat exaggerated: Although it was true that the ministers discussed all their state business with her before they met with the king, he did not consult her on the most important issues. Robinson has an extended passage praising Madame de Maintenon in Ainsi va le Monde.

freezing restraint: The "other nations" which Robinson suggests impeded intellectual progress through this freezing restraint implicitly refers to Great Britain. Robinson made a similar point regarding Britain’s "freezing restraint" compared to the greater tolerance in continental Europe for women’s intellectual and sensual expression in Sappho and Phaon.

page 61

The influence they obtained: Robinson here counters the widespread British characterization of ancien regime French culture and politics as dominated by a corrupt "reign of beauty," or a "mistress system, " in which women ruled men, and by extension the nation, through the sexual power they held over them. Robinson’s portrayal of these women’s influence as civilizing and enlightening is very different from Wollstonecraft’s portrayal of the French court in her An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (1794), where she described Marie Antoinette as "absolute mistress" ruling "the court of the passive Louis" and holding "messalinian feasts" at the Trianon (Political Writings, 314, 315).

page 62

Louis the Sixteenth: Robinson’s meeting with Louis XVI did not excite her imagination as much as her introduction to his wife, Marie Antoinette. In her memoirs, Robinson does mention his appetite at the "grand couvert" where "the King acquitted himself with more alacrity than grace" (Memoirs, p. 123) These words might describe his political career as well. Louis XVI (1754-1793) became king at age 20. At first, his reign appeared to be successful. His minister Turgot, the great statesman, attempted to solve France’s severe financial problems by a series of reforms. However, these measures made Turgot very unpopular, and eventually led to his dismissal. His successor, Necker, tried to continue his reforms but he too was dismissed in 1781. The country’s financial crisis began at this point, when Louis XVI’s wife, Marie Antoinette, began to assert her influence over her husband. Throughout his life, Louis XVI was reported to be a weak-minded man. His diary shows that he cared little for the business of running a country: The entry in his diary on July 14, 1789 was "nothing." He was executed on January 21, 1793.

a Bastille: The Bastille was the fortress-prison in Paris, seized by a crowd on July 14, 1789, the date that marks the beginning of the French Revolution. Since the reign of Louis XIV, it had become a state prison where the king could incarcerate any of his subjects with a lettre de cachet, without a trial or jury, for as long as he chose. In 1789, the Bastille contained only seven prisoners, but it had become the symbol for royal repression and despotism.

Wollstonecraft famously linked the Bastille with women's imprisonment--political, economic, and intellectual--in The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria, where Maria declares, "marriage had bastilled me for life" (154-5). Helen Maria Williams also wrote an important poem on the subject in her 1790 novel Julia: "The Bastille: A Vision," and Robinson’s 1790 poem &quotAinsi va le Monde," dedicated to her fellow Della Cruscan Robert Merry, celebrated the French Revolution as well, with a lengthy passage on the Bastille.


page 62

‘a strange alacrity at sinking’: As Robinson notes, this quote is from Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III, Scene V. The full quote reads:

"The rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have drowned a blind bitch’s puppies, fifteen I’ the litter! And you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking; if the bottom were as deep as hell, I should down." (Note: to "down" is to sink).

page 64

The Areopagites: The similarity between the methods of the Areopagites and those of the Spanish Inquisitors would be obvious to the readers of Robinson’s Letter who were schooled in the atrocities of the Inquisition through Gothic novels such as Radcliffe’s The Italian.

The Areopagites were an Athenian assembly of judges who were responsible for punishing people who blasphemed against the gods, murdered, or transgressed any of the laws of their city. These judges conducted their enquiries against individuals in the open air because murderers and their accusers were not at that time permitted to be under the same roof. Furthermore, all trials and hearings took place at night so that the judges would not be swayed by seeing either the accused or the accuser. This determination not to take sides was taken so seriously that it was a law that each side of the case must be stated in plain and simple language so that the judges could not be swayed by persuasive rhetoric. As one can imagine, their authority and power were so absolute that the assembly easily lent itself to corruption.

page 64

"il ne s'agit point": Source unknown. Roughly translates as "it is therefore not a matter of condemning a crime, but of a moral judgement, in a republic founded on morality."


page 66

to share the sorrows of adversity, imprisonment: It was Robinson’s misfortune to have had just such an "adverse destiny." Before their marriage, Robinson’s husband had contracted a large debt, and when they set up their household as a wedded couple he continued his extravagant spending habits which eventually landed him, his wife, and baby daughter in debtor’s prison where they lived for nine months. During their interment, her husband continued to amuse himself -- with racquet-ball and other women -- while Mary tended to her little girl and wrote poetry.

Robinson’s account of those months is exceedingly poignant: "What I suffered during this tedious captivity!--My little volume of Poems sold but indifferently: my health was considerably impaired; and the trifling income which Mr. Robinson received from his father was scarcely sufficient to support him. I will not enter into a tedious detail of vulgar sorrows, of vulgar scenes; I seldom quitted my apartment, and never till the evening, when for air and exercise I walked on the racquet-ground with my husband" (Memoirs, p. 79).

page 67

Laura of Petrarch: The sixteenth century saw a revival of the sonnet form fathered by Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch; by the eighteenth century, the form was again revived and revised, this time serving as "the ground on which male and female Romantic poets met" (Daniel Robinson 99). Women poets like Anna Seward, Charlotte Smith, and Helen Maria Williams "deliberately claimed [the sonnet form] in order to legitimize themselves as poets" (99). However, whereas these women tended to hide their gender by taking on male names like Petrarch and Werther, Mary Robinson" apparently sees no reason to hide her gender from the Renaissance tradition; so, instead of writing as Petrarch, she reaches back farther to an even more golden age of literature to adopt the persona of Sappho, the Lesbian Muser, while maintaining her own modern voice" (117). In keeping with this deliberate revision of the traditionally male-voiced sonnet, Robinson writes several poems from the perspective of Laura, the subject of Petrarch’s most famous series of sonnets.

page 69

Cataline: Catalina L. Sergius was a Roman officer under Claudius. After being refused the consulship of Rome Cataline orchestrated a conspiracy to break up the senate, plunder the treasury, and set the city on fire. Among his other infamous deeds are the rape of a vestal virgin, the murder of his own brother, and the drinking of human blood previous to his attack on Rome. He was killed in battle with Roman soldiers in 63 B.C. (LCD).

page 70

to command and WOMAN to obey!: This is a reference to the punishment Eve receives from God in Paradise Lost after she and Adam eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil:

". . . and to thy husband's will
Thine shall submit, he over thee shall rule."
(Book X.195-196)


page 72

a masculine woman: This was a commom charge (like that of being "unsexed") leveled against women, such as Robinson, who challenged notions of proper middle-class femininity, especially by advocating women’s equal access to education, and even physical exercise. Cf. Wollstonecraft: "from every quarter I have heard exclamations against masculine women; but where are they to be found? If by this appellation men mean to inveigh against their ardour in hunting, shooting, and gaming, I shall most cordially join in the cry; but if it be against the imitation of manly virtues, or, more properly speaking, the attainment of those talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character, and which raise females in the scale of animal being, when they are comprehensively termed mankind;-- all those who view them with a philosophic eye must, I should think, wish with me, that they may every day grow more and more masculine" (Rights of Woman, 110); see also her comments on "male spirits" in female bodies, p. 145. See also Mary Hays: "If therefore we are to understand by a masculine woman, one who emulates those virtues and accomplishments, which as common to human nature, are common to both sexes; the attempt is natural, amiable, and highly honorable to that woman, under whatever name her conduct may be disguised or censured" (Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (1798) 173-174; see also p 179-181).


page 73

the power of SELF-DEFENCE: In this passage, Robinson applies Wollstonecraft's ideas about self-preservation in A Vindication of the Rights of Men to women:

"self-preservation is, literally speaking, the first law of nature; and that the care necessary to support and guard the body is the first step to unfold the mind, and inspire a manly spirit of independence" (46).

page 77

neglect, infidelity, and scorn: The neglet and infidelities of her husband were the source of much of Robinson’s unhappiness. Her portrait of him in her memoirs is that of a dissolute and unfeeling man who flaunted his mistresses, and only returned her affection when it was in his best interest to do so. Although there is a thread of sadness and melancholy that runs throughout her memoirs, Robinson avoids blaming her husband directly except in the most trying of times when she cannot help but mourn her fate:

"Alas! I never knew the sweet soothing solace of wedded sympathy; I never was beloved by him whom destiny allotted to be the legal ruler of my actions. I do not condemn Mr. Robinson; I but too well know that we cannot command our affections. I only lament that he did not observe some decency in his infidelities; and that, while he gratified his own caprice, he forgot how much he exposed his wife to the most degrading mortifications" (Memoirs, p. 91)

Robinson’s poem, "Lines to Him Who Will Understand Them," also addresses her unhappy marriage.

page 84

"A little learning is a dangerous thing.": This quote is from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (1711):

"A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pieran spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again" (2.15)


page 87

the GRACES: Robinson’s allusion here is to the three goddesses in Greek mythology who personified grace and charm, both in nature and moral action. The Charites were named Aglaia (brightness), Euphrosyne (joyfulness), and Thalia (bloom). Daughters of Zeus and Hera, they are depicted in art as beautiful, usually nude, maidens with their arms gracefully intertwined. Their attributes are myrtle, the rose and musical instruments.

page 88

minor sports: Wollstonecraft suggested, "Let us then, by being allowed to take the same exercise as boys, not only during infancy, but youth, arrive at perfection of body, that we may know how far the natural superiority of man extends" (Rights of Woman 208). Cf. Priscilla Wakefield: "There is no reason for maintaining any sexual distinctions in the bodily exercises of children; if it is right to give both sexes all the corporeal advantages, which nature has formed them to enjoy, let them both partake of the same rational means of obtaining a flow of health and animal spirits, to enable them to perform the stations of life. Let girls be no longer confined to sedentary employments in a nursery, or at best permitted to take a gentle walk in the garden, as an apology for more vigorous exertions" (Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex (1798): 20-21). See also note on corporeal strength.

masculine sports: When Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays praised women who were labeled "masculine women", because of their intellectual and political aspirations, they specifically did not want women to take on what they considered the vices of masculinity, including physical aggression and violence, as expressed both in hunting and war. Cf. Hays: "if on the other hand we mean by a masculine woman, one who apes the exercises, the attributes, the unrestrained passions, and the numberless improprieties, which men fondly chuse [sic] to think suitable enough for their own sex-- [...] I must say that knowldege has no tendency whatever to produce such awkward imitations; and I must confess, that such are masculine in the worst sense of the word, and as we should imagine consequently disagreeable" " (Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (1798) 179-180). Hays, like Wollstonecraft and Macaulay, singles out women hunting (as opposed to women merely riding horses for exercise) as an undesirable effect of women taking up such "masculine" vices: "be it man or woman who indulges in it [hunting], [it] can only be regarded as the sport of savages, who have scarcely reflection enough to consider, that the inferior animals have perhaps sensations of pain, and the desire of self-preservation.... Let women then leave to the other sex, such barbarous amusements, as that of hunting poor innnocent creatures to death!" (Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (1798) 181). On the connections between sensibility and opposition to hunting, see Barker- Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility, 97-98, 231-247.

page 89

women excluded from the auditory part of the British senate: Women were excluded from listening to debates in the House of Commons in 1778, and the 1832 Reform Bill officially excluded women from the vote for the first time, even as it increased male suffrage. Women gained the right to vote in Britain in 1918.

page 92

an ARRIA or a PORTIA: Arria was the wife of Paetus Caecina, one of the participants in the Cataline conspiracy to ruin Rome. On the way to her husband’s trial, Arria stabbed herself to show Paetus that it did not hurt; Paetus followed her example and killed himself before going to trial (LCD). Portia, the wife of Brutus, was another Roman woman with a high tolerance for pain. She gave herself a severe wound in the thigh in order to display her bravery, thus proving herself worthy of being included in Brutus’s conspiracy against Julius Caesar. Not wishing to live on after Brutus’s death, she swallowed burning coals and died in about 42 B.C. (LCD).

UNIVERSITY FOR WOMEN: In addition to Wollstonecraft, numerous women writers in this era argued in favor of education for women. Most notable is Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), in which Astell suggests the establishment of a female community where "celibate women could lead fulfilling lives and girls could be educated until they were ready for marriage" (Rogers 72). Astell emphasizes the need for close friendships between women and based her arguments for education "more on self-development than on their usefulness to others" (Rogers 74). The most extended vision of an such an educational female utopia is Sarah Robinson Scott’s Millennium Hall (1762). Other women who published on the issue of education include Elizabeth Dormer Cellier, Hannah Wooley Chalinor, Mary Hays, Bathusa Pell Makin, Hannah More, and Mary Ann Radcliffe.

page 93

petrifying torpedo: In Johnson’s Dictionary, a torpedo is "a fish which while alive, if touched even with a long stick, benumbs the hand that so touches it."

page 94

rational creatures: The idea of promoting women as rational creatures was popular among eighteenth-century feminists. Wollstonecraft attributes the debased position of women to "men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers" (VRW 109). Wollstonecraft feels that women are intentionally given superficial educations. She gives more credit to her fellow women:

"My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists--I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body" (VRW 111).

Emma, protagonist of Hays's Memoirs of Emma Courtney, subscribes to Mr. Francis's (a Godwin figure) notion that women, like men, should be educated rationally:

"Our duties, then, are obvious--If selfish and violent passions have been generated by the inequalities of society, we must labour to counteract them, by endeavouring to combat prejudice, to expand the mind, to give comprehensive views, to teach mankind their true interest, and to lead them to habits of goodness and greatness" (51).

page 95

Smollet, Richardson, and Fielding: Tobias Smollet (1721-1771), Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), and Henry Fielding (1707-1754) were celebrated as three of the most influential novelists of the eighteenth century. Smollet is chiefly remembered for his novels The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) and The Adventures of Humphry Clinker (1771); Richardson is best known for Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748-9), novels of sensibility; and Fielding is honored for his comic novels Shamela (1741), Joseph Andrews (1742), and Tom Jones (1749).

Mrs. Dobson: Susannah Dobson (d. 1795) is chiefly known for her Life of Petrarch (1775), translated from de Sade's French, which reached six editions. She also translated Sainte-Palaye's Literary History of the Troubadours (1779) and Memoirs of Ancient Chivalry (1784), and Petrarch's View of Human Life (1791).

Mrs. Inchbald: Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821) was a novelist, dramatist, and actress who left her parents' home to seek her fortune at eighteen. After her husband's death, she successfully earned her living as a playwright, composing original material and translating from French. Among her adaptations are The Widow's Vow (1786) from Patrat's L'heureuse Erreur and The Married Man (1789) from Destouches's Le Philosophe Marié.

Robinson also champions Inchbald as an original playwright (page 96 of the Letter). Inchbald was a prolific actress and dramatist: her major successes as an author include The Mogul Tale, or the Descent of the Balloon (1784) and I'll Tell You What (1785). Other dramas include Appearance is Against Them (1787) and her translations. She is also known for her novel A Simple Story (1791), which is said to have inspired Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

Miss Plumptree: Anne Plumptre (1760-1818) is credited with introducing German plays in London. Her French and German translations include many works by Kotzebue, histories (such as Historical Relation of the Plague of Marseilles in 1720 from Bertrand (1805)), and travels (like Travels in Southern Africa from H. Lichtenstein in 1812). She is also known for her novels, primarily Something New, which questions the assumption that literary heroines must be beautiful.

Mrs. Carter: Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806), a prominent Bluestocking and close friend of Samuel Johnson, Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More, and Samuel Richardson, knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Arabic. Although she wrote for the Gentleman's Magazine and published Poems on several Occasions (1762), she is chiefly known for her translation of Epicetus, which was published by subscription in 1758 and earned her the fortune of one thousand pounds.

page 96

Mrs. Thomas: Possibly Ann Thomas (dates unknown) or Elizabeth Thomas (1675-1731), although neither woman is reputed as a great classics scholar. Ann Thomas published Poems on Various Subjects (1784) and Adolphus de Biron, A Novel. Founded on the French Revolution (1795) with the help of naval and aristocratic subscribers. Few other details of her life have survived. More is known about Elizabeth Thomas, close friend of John Dryden, who praised her poetry and suggested she adopt the pen name "Corinna." She never married (though she was rumored to be Henry Cromwell's mistress), and was sent to debtor's prison near the end of her life. She published Miscellany Poems (1722), Codrus, or, The Dunciad Dissected (1727), and The Metamorphosis of the Town: Or, a View of the Present Fashions (1730).

Mrs. Francis: Anne Francis (1738-1800) was educated by her father in the classics and Hebrew. Her publications include "A Poetical Translation of the Song of Solomon" from Hebrew and Miscellaneous Poems (1790).

Mrs. Damer: Anne Seymour Damer (1749-1828) was a classical sculptress learned in Latin and Greek and a publicly acknowledged lesbian. After her husband's suicide, she devoted herself to sculpture (mainly busts), continued her friendship with Horace Walpole, and met Josephine, who invited her to Paris to meet Napoleon, to whom she presented a sculpture. Damer, who enjoyed wearing men's clothing and had a long relationship with Mary Berry, is mocked in the anonymous A Sapphic Epistle (1782).

Mrs. Cowley: Hannah Cowley (1743-1809) began her successful career as a playwright on a dare, after her husband doubted she could write as well as other popular dramatists. Her plays The Runaway (1776), Who's the Dupe? (1779), The School for Eloquence (1780), and many more, were extremely popular; Mary Robinson played Victoria in Cowley's comedy, A Bold Stroke for a Husband in 1783. Cowley's anxiety about the originality of her plays prompted her to accuse Hannah More of plagiarism in a "newspaper war." Cowley was also known for her Della Cruscan poetry, which she wrote under the name of "Anna Matilda". Robinson was also closely associated with the Della Cruscan circle of Robert Merry.

Miss Lee: Sophia Lee (1750-1824) combatted her family's poverty by devoting the profits of her successful opera The Chapter of Accidents (1780) to the foundation of a school for young ladies at Belvidere House, Bath, where she and her sisters could teach. She also published an important Gothic novel, The Recess, or a Tale of other Times (1785), and other less successful plays.

Miss Hannah More: Hannah More (1745-1833) is chiefly known for her moral and religious writings. She worked with her sisters at a boarding school they established in Trinity Street, Bristol (which Robinson attended for a short period), and where More learned Italian, Spanish, and Latin. Her plays include The Search for Happiness (1762), which she intended as a piece of enough moral worth for schoolchildren to memorize, Percy (1777), the play which aroused Hannah Cowley's accusal of plagiarism, and The Fatal Falsehood (1779). A fierce abolitionist and anti-Jacobin, More also published political pieces, educational tracts (including Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, with a View of the Principles and Conduct prevalent among Women of Rank and Fortune in 1799), and poems. She was a close friend of Samuel Johnson, and was the patron of the poet Anne Yearsley.

Mrs. Dobson: Robinson probably mentions Dobson's talents as a biographer in reference to her successful Life of Petrarch.

Mrs. Thickness: Ann Thickness (1737-1824), was an accomplished author and musician. As a young woman, she left home in defiance of her father's command that she not sing in public; she went on to hold several lucrative subscription concerts. After her husband's death, she was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror while visiting France. She is best known for Sketches of the Lives and Writings of the Ladies of France (1778-81) and The School for Fashion (1800).

Mrs. Piozzi: Hester Lynch Piozzi (1741-1821), close friend of Samuel Johnson, was learned in Latin and modern languages. She had a rich and varied romantic life: after the death of her first husband, Henry Thrale, whom she married to please her family, she married the Italian musician Gabriel Piozzi in 1784, in spite of her daughters' disapproval; when an eighty-year-old widow, she took a fancy to the young actor William Conway. Her major publications include Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson (1788), and Observations and Reflections made in the course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany (1789).

Mrs. Montagu: Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800) founded an intellectual and social group that conducted regular meetings and events, later called the "blue-stockings"; its members included Elizabeth Carter, Hester Thrale, Hannah More, Fanny Burney, and others. Montagu's publications include her pieces in George Lyttleton's Dialogues of the Dead (1760) and her famous "Essay on the Writing and Genius of Shakespeare compared with the Greek and French Dramatic Poets, with some Remarks upon the Misrepresentations of Monsieur de Voltaire" (1761). Her letters were published after her death. Also see note on Mary Wortley Montagu.

Miss Helen Williams: Helen Maria Williams (1762-1827), staunch republican and friend to Madame Roland, was imprisoned by Robespierre and was one of the few Britons to continue to support the French Revolution after the Terror. She was one of the most influential chroniclers of the French Revolution in her series of Letters from France. Moreover, her loyalty to France and her cohabitation with John Hurford Stone aroused the contempt of many of her compatriots, though her salon in Paris was visited by many leading British writers, as well as the leading political figures of France. Other publications include Poems (1786) and Julia, a Novel (1790).


Editorial Notes to Robinson’s Notes:

page 2

legion of Wollstonecrafts: see note on Mary Wollstonecraft, page 2 of Robinson's letter.


page 13

Mahometans: Robinson's misconception--that, in Islam, women do not have souls--was a common one. Wollstonecraft also made reference to this stereotype:

"Thus Milton describes our first frail mother; though when he tells us that women are formed for softness and sweet attractive grace, I cannot comprehend his meaning, unless, in the true Mahometan strain, he meant to deprive us of souls, and insinuate that we were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience" (Rights of Woman 126).

page 28

The Demoiselles Fernig: These two sisters from Montagne served as aides-de-camp to General Dumourier in 1792 and 1793, accompanying him on the field of battle.

page 35

female genius: Here and in many other works Robinson vigorously defends woman’s right to genius: see her preface to Sappho and Phaon.

page 36

gothic eccentricities: Gothic suggested barbaric, ancient, passé; throughout A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft denigrates Edmund Burke's evocation of tradition as "Gothic" trappings:

"Even in France, Sir, before the revolution, literary celebrity procured a man the treatment of a gentleman; but you are going back for your credentials of politeness to more distant times. --Gothic affability is the mode you think proper to adopt, the condescension of a Baron, not the civility of a liberal man" (47). (See also 38, 70, 71, 83, and 84).

effeminate foibles: See editors' note on effeminacy.

page 40

female philosopher: Although Wollstonecraft has become the best-known feminist of this era, the latter eighteenth century saw the development of a feminist movement based on numerous feminist tracts. Mary Hays’s An Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (1798) is a strong argument encouraging ambition rather than passiveness in women. Other contributions to this movement include Woman Not Inferior to Man and Woman’s Superior Excellence Over Man (1740) by "Sophia"; Priscilla Bell Wakefield’s Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex System of Female Education (1799).
In Mary Hays's The Memoirs of Emma Courtney,Emma, who prides herself on her rational thinking, learning, and frankness, sighs,

"I am neither a philosopher, nor a heroine--but a woman, to whom education has given a sexual character" (117).

page 43

Pringle: Sophia Pringle, a young working class woman, was convicted of forgery in 1789, refused to name her lover/accomplice, and was executed. Thanks to Donna Andrew for her help with this source.

page 45

General Burgoyne: Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne (d.1792) was a successful playwright (author of The Heiress, A Comedy) and one of Robinson’s admirers; his tributory poem to Robinson was included by her daughter in the 1806 Poetical Works.

page 54

an ARRIA or a PORTIA: Arria was the wife of Paetus Caecina, one of the participants in the Cataline conspiracy to ruin Rome. On the way to her husband’s trial, Arria stabbed herself to show Paetus that it did not hurt; Paetus followed her example and killed himself before going to trial (LCD). Portia, the wife of Brutus, was another Roman woman with a high tolerance for pain. She gave herself a severe wound in the thigh in order to display her bravery, thus proving herself worthy of being included in Brutus’s conspiracy against Julius Caesar. Not wishing to live on after Brutus’s death, she swallowed burning coals and died in about 42 B.C. (LCD).

page 58

Lady Mary Wortley Montague: Not only was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) known for her published letters and poems, but she was responsible for bringing the practice of inoculation to England. When her husband was made ambassador to Turkey in 1716, she accompanied him to Constaninople where she observed the success of inoculation on the inhabitants of that country. Lady Montagu, like so many others in the eighteenth-century had suffered the ravages of that disease, and it had killed her brother as well. After she returned to England, during a smallpox epidemic in 1721, she had her own daughter inoculated. Despite the presence of four doctors, this radical treatment was widely condemned: "The faculty all rose in arms to a man, foretelling failure and the most disastrous consequences; the clergy descanted from their pulpits on the impiety of thus seeking to take events out of the hand of Providence; the common people were taught to hoot at her as an unnatural mother, who had risked the lives of her own children" (Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Essays and Poems, pp. 35-35). However, she did have a few supporters such as Princess Caroline who had her own children inoculated, and despite the controversy, the practice of inoculation became widespread.

Robinson, who had lost her sister Elizabeth to small pox when she was very young, was a strong supporter of the practice of inoculation, and had her own daughter inoculated. Robinson wrote a poem about her daughter’s recovery from inoculation, "Invocation to Oberon." In her poem, inoculation is performed by Oberon who gathers all kinds of magical ingredients to ease her daughter Maria’s recovery.

page 63

Salmon: Thomas Salmon (1679-1767) was an historical and geographical writer who wrote a very popular book, Modern History, or the Present State of all Nations (1739), which detailed the cultures and customs of people throughout the world in the eighteenth century.

page 65

Lady Hamilton, and Helen Maria Williams: As Robinson indicates, both women were better appreciated in Europe than in Britain; their revolutionary sympathies and their emigration to France rendered them unpopular after the French Revolution became unpopular among most British. Lady Mary Hamilton (1739-1816) was born in Edinburgh, married twice, and settled with her second husband in France before the Revolution. She is best remembered for her novel Munster Village (1798), an all-female utopia.

page 69

sposos, Italian cecisbeos: " Sposos" is Italian for "husbands," or "bridegrooms"; a "cicisbeo" is the recognized gallant of a married woman. It is probable that Robinson was recalling the lines in her friend Richard Sheridan’s play, The School for Scandal, in which Joseph Surface proposes himself as "a mere Platonic cicisbeo" to Lady Teazle (1777, II, iii).

page 71

Madame D’Eon: The French Chevalier D’Eon (1728-1810) came to England in 1752 and began to dress as a woman in the 1760s, which generated widespread popular interest in his "true" sex, with newspapers such as The Morning Post even offering money for the "truth." A Court case in 1777 which attempted to decide D’Eon’s true sex, for the sake of the many gambling bets at stake, ruled that he was female. In the 1790s D’Eon fenced, in women’s clothing, before large crowds in England. A medical exam after D’Eon’s death in 1810 declared that he was male. Wollstonecraft includes D'Eon in her Rights of Woman as one of the exceptional women, along with the likes of Sappho and Macaulay, who transcend the limitations of their gender and therefore do not serve as models for what she terms women closest to "nature," in her mind middle-class women (Rights of Woman 197). These "exceptional women" are preciely the kind of woman with which Robinson’s Letter is concerned. See Gary Kates, "D'Eon Returns to France: Gender and Power in 1777," Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, eds. Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub (New York and London: Routledge, 1991).

page 85

power of guardianship: Robinson is likely referring to the practice of couverture, which severely restricted women’s legal rights. According to Davidoff’s and Hall’s Family Fortunes, "a married woman only existed under her husband’s protection, within his personality. She could not sign Bills of Exchange, make contracts, sue or be sued, collect debts or stand surety and therefore she could not act as a partner, since for all practical purposes, on marriage a woman died a kind of civil death" (200).

page 89

The ancient Britons: The convention of the "free Britons" was well established by Robinson’s time and commonly used to contrast Britain’s tradition of constitutional monarchy to French absolute monarchy and then republicanism; here Robinson uses the concept of the "ancient Britons" to support feminist reform, as anti-abolitionists used the concept from the 1780s onward to oppose Britain’s involvement in the slave trade, and Chartists used it later for their program of political reform (see Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837).

Link to top of this page