Sorrowful spaces: Mary Robinson and the material culture of emotions

This post combines two of my favourite things: cathedrals, spaces that have beguiled me since childhood, and are profoudly emotional, even for athiests like me, and my massive girl-crush, Mary Robinson, the eighteenth-century author and actress. The two come together in my interest in material culture, memory, and emotions, which began when I was working on the emotions of parenting, and wove its way into a blog post on the house as an object and a space that materialises emotions, another on nostalgia for the childhood home and its environs, and finally into a keynote in 2019, which developed into an article and, eventually, my part of an AHRC funded Research Network. Lots of this work is on domestic buildings and spaces, but this post shows how public and communal buildings and spaces can also generate or encapsulate meaningful emotions in individuals, which go beyond the religious or civic and are linked to family and life events.

One such is the cathedral. As a sacred space it has religious meaning, its function to evoke awe, and generate a range of emotions linked with spirituality, such as joy or grief, depending upon the life-cycle service or ceremony conducted there. Yet it seems to me that such a communally-used building and space can also symbolise moods and feelings that do not only originate in faith.

My example is Mary Robinson, born in Bristol around 1756/8, a woman who became a celebrity thanks to her beauty and acting talent, who reinvented herself as a lady of letters before her tragically early death in 1800. Indeed, she is now known as a major literary figure of the Romantic period. She began her memoirs a couple of years before her death; a successful attempt to rebut sexual scandal and reconstruct her public identity. It has to be said that she certainly made me fall in love with her personality and her mind with this memoir.

Perdita, portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782. Wikimedia Commons.
This is my favourite portrait of Mary. I visit Waddesdon Manor annually so I can commune with it. Her side-eye is quite spectacular.

Robinson’s voice reverberates with finely-tuned feeling – the cultural language of her time. Her memoir deploys sensibility to display her capacity to feel deeply, often conveyed through her sadness and melancholy. As such, Robinson uses her birth place and the environs of her early childhood to create a melancholic, Gothic self-identity as persuasive as that of the best graveyard poets.

Her memoir begins with a description of her birth place: the Minster House, its back supported by ‘the antient cloisters of St Augustine’s monastery’, faced by a small garden, the gates of which opened to the Minster-Green [or College-Green], its west side bounded by Bristol Cathedral. As she declares,

A spot more calculated to inspire the soul with mournful medication can scarcely be found amidst the monuments of antiquity.

Robinson thus linked the house and its environs with her personality. Sharon Setzer has explored this in ‘The Gothic Structure of Mary Robinson’s Memoirs’ (Eugene Stelzig (ed) Romantic Autobiography in England), showing how Robinson evoked the Gothic cathedral in order to construct her identity as contemplative (not dissipated).

N.E. portion of the Cloisters of the Cathedral, and back of Minster House” drawn and engraved by J.Skelton. Copper engraved antique print published in Skelton’s Etchings of the Antiquities of Bristol, about 1825.

Robinson conjured St Augustine’s Cathedral three times in her Memoir: at her birth in 1756(?), and two visits in 1773 and 1777. Setzer argues that Robinson specifically used these descriptions to harness the cultural associations of the Gothic with the sublime and shape her identity. For example, Robinson says that her infancy was spent in a nursery that was ‘so near the great aisle of the minster’ that she could hear the deep tones of the organ and the singing of the choristers, which made a ‘sublime impression’ upon her feelings.

In her childhood, Robinson’s family moved away from Minster House to a large convenient one stocked with the luxuries of silk furniture, plate, and foreign wines. However, when she was nine years old her father left home to establish a whale fishery on the coast of Labrador. The result was his family’s downfall, since he separated from his wife and then failed in business. Robinson’s memoir located this as the cause of the chain of events which resulted in her agreeing as a [very young!] teenager in 1773 to marry a duplicitous lawyer.

Once wed, the couple travelled to Wales to meet his father. They visited Bristol and Robinson revisited ‘The house in which I first opened my eyes to this world of sorrow’ and the cathedral with a ‘sweet melancholy interest’.  She uses the nostalgic visit to weave together her melancholic personality:

I hastened to the cloisters. The nursery windows were dim, and shattered; the house sinking to decay. The mouldering walk was gloomy, and my spirits were depressed beyond description: – I stood alone, rapt in meditation: “Here,” said I, “did my infant feet pace to and fro’; here did I climb the long stone bench, and swiftly measure it, at the peril of my safety. On those dark and winding steps, did I sit and listen to the full-toned organ, the loud anthem, and the bell, which called the parishioners to prayer.”  … Ah! How little has the misjudging world known of what passed in my mind, even in the apparently gayest moments of my existence!

Setzer observes that Robinson’s final return to the cathedral in 1777 followed her becoming an actress that year. For Setzer, ‘The sequence as a whole demonstrates Robinson’s artistic endeavour to identify a meaningful pattern in her life and to define an essential, coherent self, dating back to “earliest infancy.” (34)

There is no doubt that literary self-identification was a crucial aspect of Robinson’s memories of Bristol Cathedral and Minster House. Yet I think that these buildings were not solely a vehicle for a literary reputation. These physically connected buildings (of home and early childhood) were also vessels for Robinson’s emotions. In the first place, both nostalgia and melancholy are historically-specific moods and feelings. Both can be historicised, so it is likely that over time emotional objects differ in which feelings they trigger.

Sorrow was the emotion that Robinson most notably associated with these buildings and their spaces. For instance, as soon as she describes her gloomy birth place and time, she quotes her mother:

I have often heard my mother say that a more stormy hour she never remembered… Through life the tempest has followed my footsteps; and I have in vain looked for a short interval of repose from the perseverance of sorrow.

I don’t for a moment suggest that her sorrow was simply a motif of her melancholic persona. It was also a response to events which marred her life. Thus the accounts of Bristol Cathedral were placed alongside or following descriptions of powerful relationships and crisis moments in Robinson’s life.

The cathedral space was linked to her mother whom she adored and often lived with during her adult life. Thus the first account establishes the hugely significant role of her mother in her life-choices and their resulting sorrows. Her birthplace and the cathedral also seem to have been places she visited in response to sorrow and which thus were imbued with this feeling.

The 1773 visit occurred at the time of her disastrous marriage. Robinson recounted the events of her life in her attempt to rebut scandal, and she made this unsuitable union the cause of the sexual scandals that followed. In some ways she blamed her decision on her mother persuading her to wed Mr Robinson in order to safeguard her reputation, which was threatened by her extreme beauty and lack of paternal protection. She was, after all, only sixteen (perhaps even fourteen) years old and as she says, laid aside her dolls to marry. Thus when she recalled the mouldering decay of the house in which she was born, and sat in the cathedral to listen again to the organ, she seems to materialise the loss of her childhood through form and space.

Robinson had an adored child, Maria, from this marriage, who aided her in her final illness and published her memoir. She also had a second infant: Sophia, in 1777, who died all too soon.

At the end of six weeks I lost my infant. She expired in my arms in convulsions, and my distress was undescribable.

Thus Robinson’s return to Bristol in 1777 followed the death of her second child. As she observed, Sophia’s death affected her spirits so much that she couldn’t appear again on stage that season. Thus she went to Bath to recover; from Bath:

I went to Bristol – to Bristol! Why does my pen seem suddenly arrested while I write the word? I know not way, but an undefinable melancholy always follows the idea of my native birth-place. I instantly beheld the Gothic structure, the lonely cloisters, the lofty aisles, of the antique minster: – for, within a few short paces of its walls, this breast, which has never known one year of happiness, first palpitated on inhaling the air of this bad world!

By this time, perhaps, and with hindsight in 1798 when she told her life story, the buildings of her childhood did not only generate fashionable eighteenth-century feelings of nostalgia and melancholy, or offer a means to adopt a romantic literary persona, they were literally symbolic of sorrow in a life that never knew ‘one year of happiness’.

In the end, what fascinates me about the intersection of material culture, memory, and emotions is how amorphous it can be. Not only is it necessary to historicise the feelings attached to material culture, scholars must try to individualise them – particularly when they encompass public, collective objects, buildings or spaces. For Mary Bristol’s Minster House and Cathedral were vessels of pain and sorrow, due to her life-story. Of course, for other people these buildings might materialise entirely different emotions. All, nonetheless, share historically- and culturally-specific understandings of space, buildings, material culture, and the emotions associated with them.

Memoirs of the late Mrs Robinson, written by herself, with some posthumous pieces, in four volumes, London, 1801.

This post was originally written in 2015 and updated in 2019.

The many faces of mothers in Georgian England

One of the things I’ve found interesting on joining social media is how many people’s profiles include ‘mother’ and ‘father’ as part of their personal identity, alongside their occupation, their political stance, and their hobbies. Being a parent has long been part of people’s sense of self, but perhaps what struck me most in my research on parenting in the later Georgian period was how parents could draw on lots of different types of parental identity to construct their own. Probably it was the variety open to mothers that is most striking, for I think there is an assumption that maternity was a very fixed ideal and identity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially for elite women. Having talked a lot about fathers on my blog so far, here are some of my findings about the mothers I researched.[1]


Mary Robinson, by Gainsborough, 1781. Wikimedia Commons.

One way in which women defined themselves through mothering was to use the language of ‘sensibility,’ that fashionable mode of being that influenced the period. For example, in her memoir, written at the end of her too short life, the marvellous Mary Robinson [1758-1800] described herself as a ‘parent whose heart is ennobled by sensibility’. She used the language of feeling to describe her new sense of self at the birth of her daughter. It awoke:

‘a new and tender interest in my bosom, which presented to my fondly beating heart my child, – my Maria. I cannot describe the sensations of my soul at the moment when I pressed the little darling to my bosom, my maternal bosom.’

Mary was not alone in this and like others was using a familiar cultural ideal of the ‘tender mother’. Tender was the adjective most often applied to mothers (and fathers) in the period. It conveyed depth of love, compassion, and care and other characteristics of ideal motherhood which were more abstract than material. These were feelings that were part of the culture of sensibility, including the shedding of tears, shuddering, extreme sensitivity, and movement of hearts. Crucially, Mary was able to use maternity in her memoirs as part of her construction of a more palatable public self-image at the end of her life as a female author formed by the culture of sensibility. This was obviously intended to offer a different public identity to her earlier one as high-class courtesan which centred on her scandalous relationships with a series of high-profile men. [2]

Using the language of the culture of sensibility was not restricted to the educated elite. For example women from a range of social groups used a related style of motherhood regularly depicted in fiction and genre art: the ‘distressed mother’. It emerged out of the emphasis in the culture of sensibility upon the importance of a benevolent society that acted charitably to others. Many of these women may have had no choice in using this form of identity for it was often those who were trying to secure aid, or to justify their position. For example, when her husband, a former merchant, was unable to contribute to his family’s support, one woman placed an advert in The Times, 1795, describing herself as:

‘an almost broken-hearted Mother. God knows this is not any fiction; and not any thing on earth but the dreadful misery that must attend my children, could ever have so far conquered the delicate feelings of sensibility as to lead me to make this appeal to the Public.’

It was an expression that was instrumentally deployed in pauper correspondence in the first three decades of the 19th century. The pauper Frances Soundy said she was ‘a poor disstreesed mother’ in one letter requesting relief written February 1829. Interestingly, though, it was not only women in financial need who described themselves thus. So did women who experienced what they considered setbacks in their lives as mothers.[3]

It would be a mistake to think that this fashionable and dominating image of maternity was the only one that women deployed. Mothering could be experienced as part of women’s personal identity in more pragmatic, material ways that were related to married women’s sense of self as provisioners of their families and households. For all that men are usually described as the breadwinners of the family in the past, women were just as essential in this role, and they knew it and gained a sense of pride and identity from it. The women who used this style of presentation were usually those who in their writings emphasised their labours in order to feed, clothe, and educate their children. When Hannah Robertson [1724-1800] wrote her life in 1791 she set out the main components of her personal identity: daughter of the illegitimate son of Charles II, mother, melancholic (in many ways, what we would today call depressed), and family saviour through her ability to earn a living in a range of activities, from tavern-keeping to teaching and making the visual ‘arts’. The role of motherhood in Hannah’s sense of self was multi-faceted and as much informed by hard labour and provision, and obligation to her family, as by cultural idealisations.[4]

While this was a social and economic role, there was a cultural category which also informed these women’s sense of selves. This was the ‘prudent’ mother. She was good at running the household and domestic economy and bringing up her daughters in the same way. One striking aspect of this form of maternity, both in fiction and in life-writing, is how the provisioning mother was often contrasted with the ineffectual father/husband; men who were in prison for debt, or were bankrupt, or had deserted their families. Women may therefore have called upon prudent, provisioning motherhood when presenting themselves because it was an image of agency, conveying independence, courage, and fortitude.

There was even a category of maternal self-identity which many women have today: the working mother. For some women, ideals of motherhood brought tensions as they sought to reconcile their maternal, domestic roles with other roles in their lives. This is clearly expressed by the Quaker minister Mary Dudley [1750-1823]. In her correspondence and journals, collected by her daughter to construct her life narrative, she presented herself as spiritually compelled to travel as a preacher. However, as the mother of eight children, this compulsion conflicted with mothering. Her journal entries from her travels frequently record her anxieties about her absences from her children and the comfort she received from communications that they were well. She recorded on Sunday 14 April 1786 that she,

‘felt a stop in my mind to proceeding this day to Knockballymaher … some uneasiness respecting home had been hovering about me for several days’.

She ignored her anxiety and went about her business, but on returning to her lodgings she got a message that the woman who cared for her children had taken measles and was removed from the house. She said:

‘I sensibly felt this intelligence, and the struggle was not small to endeavour after, and attain, a degree of quietude, sufficient to discover the right path. I went distressed to bed, I think honestly resigned, either to go forward or return home, as truth opened’.

Since her thoughts kept turning to Knockballymaher, however, she took that as a divine message and went there the following day. She and returned home on the 16th to find her husband and children in health. Problematically she interpreted her anxieties about leaving her children as undermining her call and demonstrating her failure to place her trust in God and submit to Him. This internal conflict attacked her sense of self. In June 1792, hearing the call to visit Quaker Friends in France, Guernsey, and the north of Britain, she confessed,

‘how much has it cost my nature, yea, almost its destruction, to be in the degree I am, loosened from my precious domestic ties’.[5]

Motherhood has never been an easy role!

[1] For more on the mothers discussed here and parental self-identity in general have a look at my book Parenting in England.

[2] Robinson, Mary Elizabeth (ed.), Memoirs of the late Mrs Robinson, Written by herself, 4 vols. (London 1801). Mellor, A., ‘Making an Exhibition of Her Self: Mary “Perdita” Robinson and Nineteenth-Century Scripts of Female Sexuality’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 22 (2000), 271-304

[4] She became melancholic after she lost her ‘darling child,’ in infancy. Her melancholic nature resurfaced and the bereavement caused her to lose her reason for two years. In this time her husband left ‘his other concerns, devoted his time, his fortune, and all his cares to me alone’. Thus his business was given over to his incompetent partner and bankruptcy ensued. Robertson, Hannah, The life of Mrs Robertson, grand-daughter of Charles II. Written by Herself (Derby 1791).

[5] Dudley E., (ed.), The Life of Mary Dudley, including an account of her religious engagements and extracts from her letters, with an appendix containing some account of the illness and death of her daughter Hannah Dudley (London, 1825).