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Elizabeth Robins

Elizabeth Robins

Elizabeth Robins, the first child of Charles Ephraim Robins (1832–1893) and Hannah Maria Crow (1836–1901), was born in Louisville, Kentucky on 6th August, 1862. Elizabeth's mother, an opera singer, was committed to an insane asylum when she was a child. Her father was an insurance broker and banker. He was also a follower of Robert Owen and held progressive political views. Robins sent Elizabeth to Vassar College to study medicine but at eighteen she ran away to become an actress.

In 1885, Elizabeth Robins married the actor, George Richmond Parks. Whereas Elizabeth was in great demand, George struggled to get parts. On 31st May 1887, he wrote Elizabeth a note saying that "I will not stand in your light any longer" and signed it "Yours in death". That night he committed suicide by jumped into the Charles River wearing a suit of theatrical armour.

In 1888 Elizabeth travelled to London where she introduced British audiences to the work of Henrik Ibsen. Elizabeth produced and acted in several plays written by Ibsen including Hedda in Hedda Gabler, Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, Nora in A Doll's House and Hilda Wangel in The Master Builder. These plays were a great success and for the next few years Elizabeth Robins was one of the most popular actresses on the West End stage.

In 1898 Robins joined with her lover, William Archer, to form the New Century Theatre to sponsor non-profit productions of Ibsen. The company produced several plays including John Gabriel Borkman and Peer Gynt. After one production, the actress, Beatrice Patrick Campbell called her performance in "the most intellectually comprehensive piece of work I had seen on the English stage". According to her biographer, Angela V. John: "In the 1890s her incipient feminism had been fuelled by witnessing the exploitation of actresses by actor–managers and by Ibsen's depiction of strong-minded women."

1898 saw the publication of Robins' popular novel The Open Question. In 1900 Elizabeth travelled to Alaska in an attempt to find her brother, Raymond Robins, who had gone missing while on an expedition. Later she wrote about her experiences in Alaska in the novels, Magnetic North (1904) and Come and Find Me (1908).

Raymond returned to the United States and became an important figure in the social reform movement. He was a member of the Hull House settlement in Chicago and served on the national committee of the Progressive Party. In 1905 he married Margaret Dreier, who was later to become president of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL).

Elizabeth was a strong feminist and initially had been a member of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. However, disillusioned by the organisation's lack of success, she joined the Women's Social and Political Union. Soon afterwards Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence commissioned Elizabeth to write a series of articles for her journal Votes for Women. She also asked her to write a play on the subject.

Evelyn Sharp saw Elizabeth Robins make a speech on women's suffrage in Tunbridge Wells in 1906: "The impression she made was profound, even on an audience predisposed to be hostile; and on me it was disastrous. From that moment I was not to know again for twelve years, if indeed ever again, what it meant to cease from mental strife; and I soon came to see with a horrible clarity why I had always hitherto shunned causes."

In 1908 two members of the Women's Social and Political Union, Bessie Hatton and Cicely Hamilton formed the Women Writers Suffrage League. Later that year the women formed the sister organisation, the Actresses' Franchise League. Elizabeth Robins became involved in both organisations. So also did the militant suffragette, Kitty Marion. Other actresses who joined included Winifred Mayo, Sime Seruya, Edith Craig, Inez Bensusan, Ellen Terry, Lillah McCarthy, Sybil Thorndike, Vera Holme, Lena Ashwell, Christabel Marshall, Lily Langtry and Nina Boucicault.

Inez Bensusan oversaw the writing, collection and publication of Actresses' Franchise League plays. Pro-suffragette plays written by members of the Women Writers Suffrage League and performed by the AFL included the play Votes for Women by Elizabeth Robins and was performed by suffragists all over Britain. Robins also used the same story and characters for her novel The Convert. Both of these works of art deal with how men sexually exploit women. The heroine in the story, Vida Levering, a militant suffragette, rejects men because in the past, a lover, Geoffrey Stoner, a Conservative MP, forced her into having an abortion because he feared he would lose his inheritance. The heroine was initially named Christian Levering and was based on Elizabeth's close friend, Christabel Pankhurst. When Emmeline Pankhurst raised fears about what the play might do to Christabel's reputation, Elizabeth agreed to change the name to Vida. Elizabeth Robins, like her heroine in the play and novel, turned down offers of marriage from many men, including the playwright, George Bernard Shaw and the publisher William Heinemann.

In 1907 Elizabeth Robins became a committee member of the WSPU. In July 1909, she met Octavia Wilberforce. Octavia later recalled: "It was a turning point in my life… I had always read omnivorously and longed to write myself, and to meet so distinguished an author in the flesh was a terrific adventure. It was a small family luncheon at Phyllis Buxton's house. Elizabeth Robins was dressed in a blue suit, the colour of speedwell, which matched her beautiful deep-set eyes. I was introduced as Phyllis's friend who lives near Henfield... Elizabeth Robins.... with a charming grace and in an unforgettable voice asked me if I would come to tea one day and she would show me her modest little garden." The two women became lovers.

When the British government introduced the Cat and Mouse Act in 1913, Robins used her 15th century farmhouse at Backsettown, near Henfield, that she shared with Octavia Wilberforce, as a retreat for suffragettes recovering from hunger strike. It was also rumoured that the house was used as a hiding place for suffragettes on the run from the police.

Elizabeth wrote a large number of speeches defending militant suffragettes between 1906 and 1912 (a selection of these can by found her book Way Stations). However, Elizabeth herself never took part in these activities and so never experienced arrest or imprisonment. Emmeline Pankhurst told her it was more important that she remained free so that she could use her skills as a writer to support the suffragettes. It was also pointed out that as Elizabeth was not a British citizen she faced the possibility of being deported if she was arrested. Elizabeth once told a friend that she would "rather die than face prison."

Like many members of the WSPU, Elizabeth Robins objected to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst's dictatorial style of running the organisation. Elizabeth also disapproved of the decision in the summer of 1912 to start the arson campaign. When the Pankhursts refused to reconsider this decision, Robins resigned from the WSPU.

In 1908 Elizabeth became great friends with Octavia Wilberforce, a young woman who had a strong desire to become a doctor. When Octavia's father refused to pay for her studies, Elizabeth arranged to take over the financial responsibility for the course.

After women gained the vote, Robins took a growing interest in women's health care. Robins had been involved in raising funds for the Lady Chichester Hospital for Women & Children in Brighton since 1912. After the First World War Robins joined Louisa Martindale in her campaign for a much more ambitious project, a fifty-bed hospital run by women for women. Elizabeth persuaded many of her wealthy friends to give money and eventually the New Sussex Hospital for Women was opened in Brighton.

Elizabeth Robins also became involved in the campaign to allow women to enter the House of Lords. Elizabeth's friend, Margaret Haig, was the daughter of Lord Rhondda. He was a supporter of women's rights and in his will made arrangements for her to inherit his title. However, when he died in 1918, the Lords refused to allow Viscountess Rhondda to take her seat. Robins wrote numerous articles on the subject, but it was not until 1958, long after Viscountess Haig's death, that women were first admitted to the House of Lords.

Robins remained an active feminist throughout her life. In the 1920s she was a regular contributor to the feminist magazine, Time and Tide. Elizabeth also continued to write books such as Ancilla's Share: An Indictment of Sex Antagonism that explored the issues of sexual inequality.

Elizabeth Robins joined Octavia Wilberforce and Louisa Martindale in their campaign for a new fifty-bed, women's hospital in Brighton. After the New Sussex Hospital for Women in Brighton opened, Octavia became one of the three visiting doctors. Later she was appointed as the hospital's head physician.

In 1927 Octavia Wilberforce helped Elizabeth Robins and Marjorie Hubert set up a convalescent home at Backsettown, for overworked professional women. Wilberforce used the convalescent home as a means of exploring the best way of helping people to become fit and healthy. Patients were instructed not to talk about illness. Octavia believed diet was very important and patients were fed on locally produced fresh food. Whenever possible, patients were encouraged to eat their meals in the garden.

During the Second World War Elizabeth Robins went back to the United States. However, at the age of eighty-eight, she returned to live with Octavia Wilberforce at her home at 24 Montpelier Crescent in Brighton.

One of her regular visitors was Leonard Woolf. He recalled in his autobiography, The Journey Not the Arrival Matters (1969): "Elizabeth was, I think, devoted to Octavia, but she was also devoted to Elizabeth Robins; when we first knew her, she was already a elderly woman and a dedicated egoist, but she was still a fascinating as well as an exasperating egoist. When young she must have been beautiful, very vivacious, a gleam of genius with that indescribably female charm which made her invincible to all men and most women. One felt all this still lingering in her as one sometimes feels the beauty of summer still lingering in an autumn garden. After the war, when she returned from Florida to Brighton, a very old frail woman, she used every so often to ask me to come and see her in bed, surrounded by boxes full of letters, cuttings, memoranda, and snippets of every sort and kind. In stamina I am myself inclined to be invincible, indefatigable, and imperishable, and I was nearly twenty years younger than Elizabeth, but after two or three hours' conversation with her in Montpelier Crescent, I have often staggered out of the house shaky, drained, and debilitated as if I had just recovered from a severe attack on influenza."

Elizabeth Robins died at 24 Montpelier Crescent, Brighton, on 8th May 1952.

I will not stand in your light any longer… Think the best you can of me. I die loving you if possible more than ever - I die to save you pain and sorrow in the future - may your lines be cast in pleasanter places than in the past four years. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. Yours in death, George.

It is ten years ago since I first had the pleasure and privilege of making the acquaintance of Miss Elizabeth Robins. I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was in the summer of 1890. I had just brought out my book on Ober-Ammergau, when a card was brought in to me with the message that its owner wished to see me for a minute. Not having the least idea as to who she was, I told them to send her in, and the next moment found me face to face with Miss Robins. As I do not go to theatres, I apologised for not recognising her as the famous Ibsenite actress, who had virtually created the role of Hedda Gabler on the English stage. The remark diverted her from her original purpose, which had been merely for an introduction to somebody at Ober-Ammergua who would enable her to study the mounting of the Passion Play from the point of view of the stage manager. This however, immediately dropped into the background, and I found myself once more in the presence of a categorical imperative in petticoats. My first experience of the kind was when I met Olive Schreiner fifteen years ago, since which time I had not met as charming a representative of a prophetess with a message. Olive Schreiner's message those who know her can divine. Miss Robins's was of a different nature, but it was delivered with no less decision and earnestness, which was charming to behold. Her theme was the wickedness of boycotting the theatre, upon which she preached so fervent a sermon, so full of personal application and striking illustration, that it almost sent me to the penitent form. I fear that I was but imperfectly converted, for I have not yet paid my maiden visit to the theatre, not even to see Hedda Gabler on the boards; but from that day to this I have been proud to count Miss Elizabeth Robins as one of my best friends.

The children's mother has no legal right to a voice in deciding how they shall be nursed; how or where educated; what trade or profession they shall adopt; in what form of religion they shall be instructed.

If a father wants his child vaccinated, or if he is merely indifferent, and so does not lay an objection before the magistrate, the mother cannot prevent the child being vaccinated. If the father wishes the child to be left unvaccinated, the mother cannot legally have it done.

The late Sir Horace Davy introduced a Bill, which proposed that father and mother should be acknowledged equal guardians of their children. This just and logical reform secured only nineteen votes in the House of Commons.

My own adhesion to the Suffrage Cause was given largely because I saw that only through political equality may we hope to see established a true understanding and a happier relationship between the sexes.

Changes in society… have long been tending towards increasing separation between men and women, in practically all the interests of life save one. In the world of industry, of business, of thought - even in what is called society, the growing tendency has been to divide the world into two separate camps. Men who are "doing things," or want to do things, have less and less time to give to an order of beings having no share and, as it came to seem, no stake in the varies aspects - save one - of the great game of life. The conditions of modern life are more and more separating the sexes. Instead of still further dividing us, Women's Suffrage is in reality the bridge between the chasm.

In the early summer of 1909, when I was twenty-one, I met Elizabeth Robins. It was a turning point in my life… I had always read omnivorously and longed to write myself, and to meet so distinguished an author in the flesh was a terrific adventure. I was introduced as Phyllis's friend who lives near Henfield. 'A neighbour then?' Said Elizabeth Robins, and with a charming grace and in an unforgettable voice asked me if I would come to tea one day and she would show me her modest little garden.

The magnificent platform work being done from various centres must be supplemented and further spread about the world through the medium of the written word. I don't mean by frankly propagandist writing (though I am the last to deny the importance of that) but even more valuable is, I think, the spirit which both men and women writers are able in a thousand ways to illustrate and justify.

My complaint is that not enough has been made of such traces as history preserves of significant lives lived by women.

The Great Adventure is before her (woman). Your Great adventure is to report her faithfully. So that her children's children reading her story shall be lifted up - proud and full of hope. "Of such stuff," they shall say, "our mothers were! Sweethearts and wives - yes, and other things besides: leaders, discovers, militants, fighting every form of wrong."

On June 21st an impressive historical and symbolical pageant, organised by the National Union of Suffrage Societies, marched through crowded, cheering streets from the Embankment to the Albert Hall. Under the chairmanship of the President, Mrs. Fawcett, a mass meeting was held of such size and enthusiasm as men of long political experience declared had seldom being equalled… A week later came the monster demonstration in Hyde Park, under the auspices of the Women' Social and Political Union. The Times said of it: "Its organisers had counted on an audience of 250,000. The expectation was certainly fulfilled, and probably it was doubled, and it would be difficult to contradict anyone who asserted that it was trebled… The Daily Chronicle said: "Never, on the admission of the most experienced observers, has so vast a throng gathered in London to witness an outlay of political force."

Elizabeth Robins was inadvertently responsible for this impetuous action, which altered the whole course of my life. I was sent by the Manchester Guardian, in the autumn of 1906, to Tunbridge Wells, to report the annual conference of the National Union of Women Workers and by a coincidence, the customary session on woman suffrage, usually rather an academic affair unheeded by the Press, fell on the day when my friend Mrs. Cobden-Sanderson and several other women, including Mrs. Pethick Lawrence, appeared in a London police court on charges of obstruction outside the House of Commons, whence they had been ejected for making a protest in the lobby the night before. This sensational news in the morning paper had the effect, that afternoon, of crowding the theatre at Tunbridge Wells, where the conference was meeting. No seat was unoccupied at the Press table, and Mrs. Fawcett rose to the drama of the occasion with a speech in which she reminded her audience that "if you treat women as outlaws, you must not be surprised to find them behaving as outlaws." Discussion was invited, and the first name to be read out was that of Elizabeth Robins.

Elizabeth Robins, then at the height of her fame both as a novelist and an actress, sent a stir through the audience when she stepped on the platform. I, who not only thought (and still think) The Open Question one of the finest of novels, but had also sat in the pit many times and admired her from afar in her Ibsen impersonations, was thrilled at this unexpected sight of her away from her natural background. The thrill was deepened when she, making her first suffrage speech and I know now what it must have cost her to make it -told quite simply in her wonderful voice how she had come straight from the police court to give the conference an eye-witness account of the women whose actions had been grossly travestied in most of the newspapers.

The impression she made was profound, even on an audience predisposed to be hostile; and on me it was disastrous. From that moment I was not to know again for twelve years, if indeed ever again, what it meant to cease from mental strife; and I soon came to see with a horrible clarity why I had always hitherto shunned causes.

The next time I saw Elizabeth Robins was at a stormy meeting in the Fulham Town Hall, a month or two later - I had joined the W.S.P.U. by that time - where I made my own maiden speech. At the end of it she came up from the audience and spoke to me, and from this circumstance dated a friendship of the kind that is readily understood by those who know from experience the sort of relationship, even when it is not an intimate relationship, that grows between people who are comrades in work or a cause. Her praise on this occasion was infinitely welcome, for I did not feel a success at all. The hall was nearly filled with Social Democrats, who were definitely hostile because at that time they thought ours was only a middle-class movement; and Christabel Pankhurst, who opened the proceedings, made no attempt to conciliate them. She won every one of the women who sat mutely on the front benches and had never before seen a woman stand up to a man in public; for, apart from her political insight, that was Christabel's great asset - to put fight into women and make them demand as a right what they were inclined to beg as a favour. But at Fulham her attitude drove the men in the audience, who also had never previously encountered this sort of thing in a woman, to a frenzy, and when I got up to speak I could not get a hearing for some minutes. After that I was more fortunate, probably because I did not look very militant, though it was left to a kind member of my first open-air audience, some weeks later, to silence my interrupters with the appeal: " There ain't much of her, so give 'er a chance!"

They gave me quite a good chance, even in the Fulham Town Hall; but neither then nor in the years to come, during which I addressed every kind of audience, indoor and outdoor, did I ever lose my distaste for the platform or overcome that cold feeling at the pit of the stomach which always proves the true locality of the emotions. I was not afraid of missiles, which varied from live mice to eatables - chestnuts I used to resent most, though they may not have been intended symbolically-for at least you knew what your listeners were feeling when they threw things at you, and open warfare is always preferable to the frozen hostility of the drawing-room crowd.

The State keeps 22,483 children in workhouses. Here is a description of a Government nursery: "Often found under the charge of a person actually certified as of unsound mind, the bottles sour, the babies wet, cold and dirty. The Commission on the Care and Control of the Feebleminded draws attention to an episode in connection with one feeble-minded woman who was set to wash a baby; she did so in boiling water, and it died."

"We were shocked," continues the Report, "to discover that infants in the nursery of the establishments in London and other large towns seldom or never get into the open air. "We found the nursery frequently on the third or fourth story of a gigantic block often without balconies, whence the only means of access even to the workhouse yard was a flight of stone steps down which it was impossible to wheel a baby-carriage of any kind. There was no staff of nurses adequate to carrying fifty or sixty infants out for an airing. In some of these workhouses it was frankly admitted that these babies never left their own quarters (the stench was intolerable) and never got into the open air during the whole period of their residence in the workhouse nursery. In some workhouses 40% of the babies die within the year.

I doubt if there exists in print a better plea for the urgency of Woman's Suffrage that that embodied in this Report of the latest English Poor Law Commission… What it reveals is an incompetence and legalised cruelty in the treatment of the poor… that thousands of innocent children are shut up with tramps and prostitutes; that there are workhouses which have no separate sick ward for children, in spite of the ravages of measles, whooping-cough, etc.

Men have talked about these evils for seventy-five years. We see now that until the portion of the community standing closest to the problems presented by care of the old and broken, the young children and the afflicted, until women have a voice in mending the laws on this subject, the inadequacy of the laws will continue to be merely discussed.

In 1912 Elizabeth Robins was greatly preoccupied with the Women's Suffrage agitation. "Mrs. Pankhurst in the Dock" said the placards and "Vain Search for Christabel". This was enough for the Henfield villagers to be convinced that Christabel Pankhurst was being concealed at Backsettown and Elizabeth Robins' correspondence was watched by the police! The Pankhursts would come to stay and were constantly seeking her advice… Lady Brassey and H. G. Wells also visited her. My family was critical of this visit. They did not know that he had invited himself, that he had stayed up till past midnight arguing with Elizabeth Robins, who disapproved of his affair with the daughter of one of her friends.

Elizabeth Robins was an even more remarkable woman than Octavia Wilberforce. She was born in Kentucky in 1862, a young lady belonging to the old slave-owning American aristocracy of the South. She did in Kentucky what Octavia was to do later on in Sussex; with extraordinary strength of mind and determination she broke the fetters of family and class, the iron laws which prescribe the life and behaviour of young ladies whether they be the Greek Antigone 600 years before Christ in Thebes or 2,500 years later in Kentucky, U.S.A., and Octavia in Lavington.

Octavia's relation to Elizabeth was that of a devoted daughter. If you had searched the earth from Kentucky in the United States to Lavington in Sussex, you would never and nowhere have found two other women more different from each other than they were. Elizabeth was, I think, devoted to Octavia, but she was also devoted to Elizabeth Robins; when we first knew her, she was already a elderly woman and a dedicated egoist, but she was still a fascinating as well as an exasperating egoist. One felt all this still lingering in her as one sometimes feels the beauty of summer still lingering in an autumn garden.

After the war, when she returned from Florida to Brighton, a very old frail woman, she used every so often to ask me to come and see her in bed, surrounded by boxes full of letters, cuttings, memoranda, and snippets of every sort and kind. In stamina I am myself inclined to be invincible, indefatigable, and imperishable, and I was nearly twenty years younger than Elizabeth, but after two or three hours' conversation with her in Montpelier Crescent, I have often staggered out of the house shaky, drained, and debilitated as if I had just recovered from a severe attack on influenza.


Robins, Elizabeth (1862–1952)

American actress, novelist, playwright and author of nonfiction who made her home in Britain, became a suffragist, and promoted women's causes. Name variations: Claire, Clara or C.E. Raimond Mrs. George Parks Bessie Lisa. Pronunciation: RAY-mond. Born Elizabeth Robins on August 6, 1862, in Louisville, Kentucky died in Brighton, Sussex, England, on May 8, 1952 daughter of Charles Ephraim Robins (a banker and metallurgist) and Hannah Maria Crow attended Putnam Female Seminary, Zanesville, Ohio married George Richmond Parks, on January 12, 1885 (committed suicide in 1887) no children.

Left home for the New York stage in her teens, toured in various companies, and worked for the Boston Museum Company where she met her actor husband following his death (1887), toured with Barrett and Booth visited Norway (1888) and settled in England popularized Ibsen on the British stage, playing the first Hedda Gabler in English (1891) and creating the role of Hilde in The Master Builder (1893) managed, produced and wrote plays and co-founded The New Century Theatre retired from the stage (1902) published first of 14 novels pseudonymously (under name C.E. Raimond, 1894), also wrote plays, several volumes of short stories and nonfiction wrote bestselling Klondike tale The Magnetic North (1904) after a trip to Alaska to visit brother Raymond launched suffrage drama in Britain with her play Votes for Women! (1907) sat on the Executive Committee of the suffragist Women's Social and Political Union (1907 to 1912) helped convert Dr. Octavia Wilberforce's Sussex house into a women's convalescent home (1920s).


Elizabeth Robins (1713 -1748)

Elizabeth Robins is a paternal 6th great-grandmother.

Elizabeth Robins was born about May 1713, the daughter of Daniel Robins of Upper Freehold, Monmouth County, New Jersey. (Daniel was born November 11, 1666 in New Haven, New Haven County, Connecticut, his mother’s name was Mary).

Elizabeth’s grandfather was the infamous Daniel “Scotch” Robbins, a Scottish immigrant whose ancestors derive from King Malcolm II (King of Scotland). King Malcolm II was a cousin to the King Macbeth of Shakespearean fame. Elizabeth’s grandfather was taken prisoner by the British during the Battle of Worcester and transported to America aboard the John and Sara H.

“Daniel Robins was born in Scotland to the Robertsons, known in Gaelic as Clan Donnachaid (Children of Duncan). The Robertsons are descendants of King Duncan I through his son, Robert. In 1651, the Scottish people, tired of the tyranny of Oliver Cromwell’s dictatorship, had turned their allegiance to Charles II. Cromwell’s army met the Royalist Army at Worcester. Daniel Robins and a number of other Scottish were taken prisoner and shipped to America. Daniel was taken to Connecticut where he was a servant for a number of years. In 1663 Daniel married Hope Potter and they were the parents of seven sons. Daniel died in 1714 and was buried in new Jersey where he and his family had eventually settled. Descendants live throughout the United States”

The Robins name was changed in America and was originally Roberts.

Elizabeth’s grandmother was Hope Potter, born before 1641, who descended from the Potter family originating in England.

Her great-grandfather, William Potter is referred to in genealogical circles as “the animal lover”, since he was hung from the gallows for the sin of bestiality.

Elizabeth’s great-great-great grandfather was John Potter, born about 1550 in London, England.


Stitches in a Critical Time: Diaries of Elizabeth Robins

PUBLICATION INFORMATION: ISSN 0890-9575 Vol. IV, Number 2 (3-4) (Winter 1988), pages 130-139.

Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates. Please Note: The on-line version is made available with the agreement of the editors of A/B. All citations must credit the printed edition and use the pagination of the print publication. Permission to cite in print or in web-published studies must be obtained from the author and the editorial staff. Students who reference the work for academic credit should verify proper citation style with their instructor or with the author, Joanne Gates, at:&#[email protected] The author appreciates the courtesy of your notification if you establish a link to this document from pages you create.

"I find I have not written in this book since the 24th," Elizabeth Robins jotted in her diary on 2 September 1914. "I will gather up the dropped stitches as well as I  may." [1]

Such infrequent lapses of a few days Robins often compared to dropped stitches, and she usually caught up those missed days and recorded the events of her busy life. More often, she made regular daily entries, and pieced together, one day after another, the curt phrases of a detailed account of her life. An American-born expatriate in London, noted as actress, suffrage writer, and novelist, Robins kept a diary from the summer of her 18th year, in 1880, to the mid 1940s. Although some years are only recorded in tiny engagement books, and though some of the 1890s diaries were destroyed, the sixty years of extant diaries leave a remarkable legacy of a woman greatly influenced by and greatly influencing her time.

My focus in this paper covers the years 1907 to 1924, years important for Robins's involvement with suffrage and women's political issues, and years remarkably free from long lapses in keeping the record of her life. Her dated entries, in uniform volumes designed much like account books, grew for Robins to become the essential fabric of her life. She treats the earlier years of her career in several autobiographical volumes, all closely dependent on her diary accounts. [2]  Except for the impersonal Way Stations (an important anthology of her speeches and articles reprinted with "Time Tables," or commentaries linking the articles with intervening political developments), her letters and diaries are the only source for her politically active years,

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years in which Robins also published six novels, completed almost as many volumes of fiction which remain unpublished, wrote plays, adapted one of her plays as a novel and one of her novels to the stage, and delivered countless speeches. The prose in her diaries, taken as a whole, is not remarkable there are only infrequent extended passages which spill beyond the half-dozen lines allotted for each given dated. This is no Testament of Youth with Vera Brittain's passionate feelings. Nor is it A Writer's Diary in the sense that it compares to Virginia Woolf's pithy commentary. But that is not to say that Robins was not a diarist of great insight. Besides the day-to-day record, she kept a separate volume of year-end reflections and various idea notebooks and travel diaries. Robins's journals are samplers in very plain stitching, not an elaborate tapestry of literary or artistic merit yet the value of the diaries of these years goes much beyond her visible contributions to suffrage history. My aim here is to argue that the diaries are crucial both to identifying her place in history and to revealing how her personality emerges when her private writing fills in the outlines of the historical facts. Taken together, her self-portrait and her historical position locate her in an important gallery of notable American women--women who, like Edith Wharton, the writer, and Nancy Astor, the socialite and politician, found a place for themselves once they had left these shores. Robins kept her diary faithfully from the months she was revising the proofs for publication of The Convert in 1907 to her preparation for publication of the feminist-pacifist essay Ancilla's Share in 1924. These diaries prove to be the essential documents through which we can examine the life of a professional writer transformed by the feminist movement.

One way in which the diaries reveal Elizabeth Robins's important political role is that they show how she was connected to the leadership of the WSPU. When Christabel Pankhurst went underground, for instance, in response to warrants out for her arrest in March, 1912, at the height of the police antagonism against Militant Suffragettes, Robins notes in her diary that the rumors spread through her rural Sussex community just north of Brighton that

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Robins herself was providing sanctuary for Christabel. The rumors were erroneous, founded only on the general observations that Christabel was a sometimes visitor to Backsettown, the centuries-old farmhouse in Henfield which Robins had purchased and restored from the sales of her suffrage novel, The Convert.

Robins was a board member of the WSPU. She presided as president of the Women Writers Suffrage League. Her speeches, letters to editors, articles, fiction, and the play, Votes for Women, established her as a leading spokeswoman for The Cause. But the important place Elizabeth Robins had in suffrage leadership has remained as hidden from history as Christabel's whereabouts did from the police. Although The Convert has been republished with an introduction by Jane Marcus, modern feminists have yet to accord Robins her full role in the English Suffrage movement. Way Stations provides only the barest log of her main activities of the period 1906 to 1913. Her stage play, Votes for Women (upon which The Convert was based), had productions in London, New York, and Chicago. In two revealing letters to her sister-in-law, Margaret Dreier Robins, are preserved the circumstances under which Robins was aroused to support actively the suffrage cause. She explains that at a meeting to address the issue she was brought to her feet to speak out spontaneously against the "gross unfairness of the press in its attitude towards the recent agitation in favor of Women's Suffrage." [3]  Her remarks attracted such attention that she was called upon over and over to speak. She declined the early appeals, reasoning that there were "Heaps of admirable speakers, few or no concerned writers," [4]  and began at once the scenario of Votes for Women. When she no longer could refuse the appeals to speak, the diaries describe how thoroughly she prepared and rehearsed her public appearances. She frequently contributed articles, short stories, and letters to editors, and assisted at many WSPU fund-raising events. Her novel of White Slave Traffic sold widely and helped to revive a Morals and Hygiene Committee. Her defense of militant tactics when such practices were unpopular policy and her later criticism of the Pankhursts' strategies

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show how central her position is to a full understanding of the suffrage movement. She took an active part in Henfield's local Women's Institute, spoke on behalf of Women's Institutes and the Food Ministry throughout England and Ireland, served as chair of the Board of Directors for the New Sussex Hospital, and was on the organizing Board of Time and Tide. Thanks to the preservation of her diaries there is yet a greater chance to demonstrate that Robins had a significant presence--not simply in the visible leadership and organization of the WSPU, but in all ways that women's lives were transformed by the Suffrage Movement. During one of the largest protest actions of the movement, when women refused to comply with the census in 1911, Robins proudly recorded in her diary: "I wrote across the census paper: "The occupier of this house will be ready to give the desired information as soon as the Government recognizes women as responsible citizens" (ER Diary, 3 April 1911).

What emerges from the diaries are the ways in which Robins, as an American very much removed from her native landscape during this period of political turmoil, used her American roots and her family's personal legacy--diaries and letterbooks of mother, father, and grandmother, as well as her own earlier diaries--to explore her heritage and reweave her life records into several remarkable volumes of autobiographical fiction. Though these volumes remain unpublished, they shape Robins's later autobiographical style, marked by her penchant for the telling details of a life at the center of social and artistic change. Robins had tapped her growing up years in the American Midwest and portrayed her homestead and the character of her grandmother in The Open Question, published under a pseudonym in 1898. Most conspicuous among the uses of her diaries as source for fiction is the amount of material she drew from the 1900 diary she kept while traveling to the gold rush on the beaches of Nome, Alaska. But it took the political years to provide Robins with renewed associations with her past. In the early years of the first World War, she returned to her "Diary from Dixie"--recorded ten years earlier when she first visited the Florida

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land she had purchased with her brother--and used it as the basis for Camilla, her novel in which a divorced American woman of means reclaims her Southern roots. Robins turned to her diary of 1914-1915 when she recaptured the first days of the war in her spy novel, The Messenger.

There is little doubt that Robins's link to her past inspired the dutiful keeping of her daily record. Robins carried on what she herself termed a "double life," and recorded the incidents of each in a patchwork of her day's routine. Fiction was her large creative enterprise. Urgent demands of politics were equally important. She is present at the crisis in leadership of the WSPU when the Pankhursts force the resignation of the Pethick-Lawrences. (Her extended entry of 11 October 1912 details the last critical meeting of the Board.) She visits Constance Lytton, still debilitated four years after her forcible feeding, and is so struck afresh at the horrors of the court-approved torture as manifested in Lady Constance's handicaps--"her terrible weakness, the dragging leg, the useless curled up hand, the panting laboured speech"--that she drafts letters to authorities urging that her book, Prisons and Prisoners, be acknowledged as testament of her sacrifice (ER Diary, 29 March, 1914).

Robins stepped in to mediate when Madame Thayer objected to the Lyceum Club's sponsorship of the noted Black American W.E.B. DuBois. Robins quickly dropped her other activities, read The Souls of Black Folk, drafted, and rehearsed the speech of introduction for DuBois. [5]  Each of Robins's speeches, as with this one delivered at the Lyceum Club, took days of preparation. Did she consider these interruptions? On the contrary, they were the rich fabric of her life, even when long stretches of time away from her latest novel forced her, as she often put it, to pick up the thread again as if it were the ravelled pattern of an earlier creator.

In the midst of one of her busiest political periods, in 1910, she began a retrospective study of her own youth. Called at first "Wilhelmina Meister,"

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then "A Study in Egoism," and finally "Theodora: A Pilgrimage," the fictional autobiography traces her early impulses to succeed as an actress on the New York stage of the 1880s. The feminism inspired by Elizabeth Robins's present encouraged the look at her youth. "Horrid girl," she remarks upon looking back at her earlies journal. But the attraction to the project of bringing to life her fiercely independent former self spurred her on. She scanned old volumes of the New York Herald and re-read Clara Morris's Life of a Star.

Robins managed to complete only the first part of a projected trilogy during the political years, but two other nearly complete manuscripts survive, one focusing on her father's gold mining ambitions, the other on "Theodora's" early acting career. Years later, the family history project generated another full-length novel. This ambitious and masterful "Rocky Mountain Journal" (written 1927-1930 and never published) weaves the story of a daughter's stage ambitions against the father's hopes to excite her to the natural splendor of the Colorado Mountains. A background of strong family traditions offsets the large-scale business swindling. Robins's late mastery of her autobiographical sources demonstrates just how strongly her political commitments competed with her large-scale fictional projects during the period in which she had her widest audience.

When she was nearing the completion of her work on the story of a young girl's abduction into White Slavery (published as My Little Sister), Robins attended the Police Court hearings and, in one phenomenal excursion, put on the dress of a Salvation Army Officer and visited the haunts of street men and women. The uniform did not put her at ease in her part. In one of her longest entries in the regular diary, begun in the space for July 25, 1912, and extending over several memoranda pages, Robins described the discomfort of appealing to young girls, some of them hardened, some of them timid, many garishly painted, all of them prostitutes.

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"Will you take one of my cards?" Elizabeth Robins repeated over and over to women who responded with only indifference, suspicion, or mockery. When Robins finally succeeded in making contact with one young girl, she presented herself not as the Salvation Army worker but as someone "not used to this, & I shan't be here again. I live in the country. Just once in all my life I am here and able to speak to you." Robins experienced the girl's tirade against Christianity and its service agencies, but she persuaded the young girl to come to her flat the next day. With her London housemate, Robins shared plans to receive and save the girl. The hours of pacing the floors--expecting, hoping for her arrival--left Robins as emotionally torn as her desperate excursion of the night before. Days later, she was still disturbed by the nighttime visions: "I find my self haunted still by that 11/2 hours--bruised mentally by the sights and sounds of Coventry Street at 12:30 to 2:00 a. m. I keep thinking what is it that is so horrible and painful? Then I remember. I practically knew it all before so I don't know why at my age the scene should eat into my consciousness like an acid."

Though Robins often had to refuse appeals to speak or take up her pen, she brought a stature to the cause and a prestige to the many smaller women's movements. When the press declared a boycott on the news of the Coronation Suffrage Pageant of June, 1911, it was Elizabeth Robins who called editors, got an article placed, and overnight, drafted, edited, and read the proofs of her account. Her short story "Under His Roof," a Poe-like nightmare in which guilty conscience eats away at the foundations of a beautiful home (similar in structure to Robins's own house), had a conspicuously feminist message, and because of that, was refused by several editors. When Robins realized "No one wants it," she had it privately printed, and sold signed copies to benefit the Women Writers Suffrage League.

Robins risked estrangement from her oldest and best friend, Lady Florence Bell, on the issue of suffrage militancy. But even at its most strained, the relationship with Lady Bell included a sharing of their creative work. Bell

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opened her house in Northallerton, Yorkshire, to Elizabeth Robins, and Robins found it a necessary retreat for her writing. Several times the two collaborated on writing projects at the least, each was always the other's closest audience. During the War, Lady Bell coordinated volunteer efforts at her local hospital and helped relocate Belgian refugees. Robins was equally active during the War years. She drove herself to exhaustion in the first year of work in a London hospital (the Endell St. Hospital, organized by Dr. Flora Murray and run entirely by women to aid servicemen), and afterwards continued to schedule speaking engagements, hospital visits, and fundraising benefits.

Henry James resigned his U. S. citizenship in protest of America's hesitation to disassociate itself from Germany. Elizabeth Robins's response was more than symbolic. Her contribution to the War effort was a continuation of her suffrage activism. She continued to write timely and insightful articles which brought the contributions of women to the light. Although her early position sought to validate women's efforts to win the war, her evolving feminist stance led, eventually but inevitably, to her indictment of militarism in a 1924 political tract, Ancilla's Share.

In an extended retrospective entry on her 57th birthday in August, 1919, Elizabeth Robins acknowledged the burdens of her "double duty." She wonders whether she ought to give up fiction (as she had turned away from the stage 25 years earlier) and devote herself to the "Realities, to writing about women's affairs and trying all I know to make the better counsels prevail." To do both at once she admitted, made for conflict. Fiction required health, solitude, and long weeks without interruptions. The political work, the requests to serve on committees and write on behalf of appeals, could easily have become at this time the exclusive calling. Personal reasons compel her to perform still the double duty. She resolved, while health still endured, not to give up fiction, for she needed its income to help establish her younger companion Octavia Wilberforce in her endeavor to become a

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doctor. (In doing so, Robins unconsciously inherited what had been her father's hope for his daughter, for he had wanted to send Elizabeth to college to study medicine.) It became clear that this resolution, worked out in her diary, prompted the next novel. Political writing grew no less urgent, either, for her participation in the directorship of the women's paper, Time and Tide, expanded into the ambitious theoretical treatise, Ancilla's Share, subtitled "An Indictment of Sex Antagonism." "I am torn," she commented near the end of the 1919 diary entry. "Very well. It is proof of the continued richness of life that I may still choose (or have the illusion of choosing). It must yet awhile be a double duty, fiction and what I can't escape of my share in graver business."

Two birthdays later, when she turned 59, Robins again confronted her tendencies to throw herself into a calling and wear herself down. She reflected: "My birthday. As I wind my Mother's watch I wonder who wound it if wound it was 59 years ago. How little changed that piece of time, while I . . . "

At that point in her life, Robins was still fully embarked on the double life of fiction and politics. The birthday renews her waylaid fiction, and she takes fresh hold of her latest plot, the story of affection and collaborative partnership between an elderly widower and a middle-aged widow. Time is Whispering, published to popular success with several successive printings in 1923, blends romance and political vision. It is the culmination of Robins's years of double life, entered in the diaries as patchwork notes, filled out in the creative work as perfect weave of art and politics. While her diaries do not in themselves elevate Robins's literary achievement to superlative status nor her political contributions to those which are unmistakably influential, they do go far to explain how someone with major achievements in both fields presents complex issues for her biographer.

Jacksonville State University

Gates: Stitches in a Critical Time , page 139

Acknowledgments

Permission to quote from Elizabeth Robins manuscripts is granted by Mabel Smith.

Funding for research for this and other Robins projects has been assisted by: University of Massachusetts Dissertation Fellowships, American Society for Theatre Research, and New England Modern Language Association.

1. Unless otherwise noted, manuscript citations are from the Elizabeth Robins Collection, Fales Library, NYU. A complete bibliography of published and unpublished works by Robins appears in my dissertation, "'Sometimes Suppressed and Sometimes Embroidered': The Life and Writing of Elizabeth Robins, 1862-1952," University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1987. Back to text

2. Theatre and Friendship, Raymond and I, Both Sides of the Curtain, and the unpublished "Whither and How?" Back to text

3. ER to MDR, 6 November 1906, in the Margaret Dreier Robins Papers of the Women's Trade Union League, Reel 20, frame 227. Back to text

4. ER to MDR, MDR Papers, Reel 20, frame 303. Back to text


General Overviews and Biographies

There are two major biographies: Gates 1994 and John 1995. These are still the most comprehensive surveys of Robins across the many areas of her life and work. Scholarly attention has focused overwhelmingly on Robins’s work in the 1890s as an actress, Ibsen champion, and playwright, as evidenced by most of the entries in this bibliography, but Park 2003 and Thomas 1993[?] both pay considerable attention to Robins’s other writings, and Gates 1994 gives a good sense of the vast archives of unpublished material produced by Robins that have yet to be fully mined.

Chisholm, Hugh, ed. “Robins, Elizabeth.” In Encyclopædia Britannica. 12th ed. London and New York, 1922.

Chisholm very briefly characterizes Robins’s professional life, including her training as an actress, significant performances in London from 1889 to 1902, her novels written under pseudonyms and her own name from 1894 to 1920, and her work for female suffrage, including her 1907 play, Votes for Women! This text is available via wikisource.

Gates, Joanna E. Elizabeth Robins 1862–1952: Actress, Novelist, Feminist. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1994.

Gates draws on unpublished archival sources that she has been instrumental in making public, and she frames each chapter with a miniature dramatic dialogue in which she imagines each phase of Robins’s life as it might be staged. Gates explores Robins’s writing “in the context of her developing feminist aesthetic,” of which Robins’s career as an actress and Ibsen champion forms a part but is not the main focus here.

John, Angela V. Elizabeth Robins: Staging a Life 1862–1952. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

John’s comprehensive biography examines Robins’s sense of self-presentation, comparing her various modes of self-framing throughout her life. She draws on Robins’s papers, including unpublished drafts of her writing, in order to trace how Robins engaged with life-writing, and also to show how this examination inevitably re-evaluates John’s own scholarly purpose as a biographer. Includes extensive illustrations and appendices on Robins’s theatre appearances, publications, and suffragist writing.

John, Angela V. “Robins, Elizabeth.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Rev. ed. Edited by Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Drawing on her work in Staging a Life, John outlines Robins’s life from birth to death, highlighting her early life in the United States, her acting career in London, and her work with Florence Bell and Henry James. John then parallels Robins’s emerging suffragism with her transition into writing as her main profession, and also details Robins’s late interest in memoir and biography before her death. First published 2004.

Kelly, Katherine E. “Elizabeth Robins (1862–1952).” In British Playwrights, 1860–1956: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Edited by William Demastes. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Alphabetically ordered entries in this volume include Robins as a significant British playwright in the period (although she was US-born). Kelly emphasizes Robins’s work as a stage manager, playwright, and polemicist, as well as a leading Ibsen actress, and her increasing turn from theatre to writing at the age of forty, in 1902 (with the exception of her play Votes for Women! in 1907). The entry also includes a list of major works, archival sources, and a bibliography.

MacKay, Carol Hanbery. Creative Negativity: Four Victorian Exemplars of the Female Quest. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Robins is grouped with poet-photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, novelist-essayist Anne Thackeray Ritchie, and activist-spiritualist Annie Besant as wielders of “creative negativity,” Mackay’s term for a complex transhistorical feminist tactic that they practice in different ways as part of a “female quest.” This notion sheds light on Robins’s exceptionally diverse career as one long creative interpretation of herself an attempt at female self-expression in a male-dominated world.

Park, Sowon. “Elizabeth Robins.” In Literary Encyclopedia. Edited by Robert Clark. London: Literary Dictionary, 2003.

Park provides a brief overview of Robins’s career and links to the full texts of several of her works spanning 1894–1908, including George Mandeville’s Husband, The New Moon, Below the Salt and Other Stories, The Magnetic North, The Convert, and Come and Find Me. This article can be accessed by institutional subscription to The Literary Encyclopedia.

Rudolph, Laura C. “Robins, Elizabeth.” In American National Biography. Edited by John Arthur Garraty and Mark Christopher Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Comprehensive summary of Robins’s life and career, with particular attention to North American contexts, including authors Robins knew or who reviewed her work.

Thomas, Sue. Elizabeth Robins. Victorian Fiction Research Guides 22. 1993[?].

This comprehensive guide to Robins’s life and career predates and indeed anticipates the published biographies by Gates and John. Most of Robins’s published works, as well as some of her unpublished ones, are discussed and briefly contextualized. This was originally a print source and readers should be warned that in the process of digitization some typographical errors have crept in, which can be distracting. Consulting the original print version would be preferable to using the online one.

Whitebrook, Peter. William Archer: A Biography. London: Methuen, 1993.

In exploring the life and career of Ibsen’s main champion and translator, Whitebrook also devotes much space to Robins, whom he presents (with reasonably persuasive evidence) as Archer’s lover. He also gives insight into her influential participation in late Victorian theatre as well as that of other actresses at the time including Bernhardt, Terry, and Duse.

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Elizabeth Robins, 1862-1952: Actress, Novelist, Feminist

From Childhood, Elizabeth Robins dreamed of a successful career on the stage. Her first impulse to visit England, in 1888, stemmed from her desire to secure better opportunities as an actress, and she soon gained celebrity playing Ibsen’s heroines. While buoyed by this success, she began writing fiction that treated the feminist issues of her time: organized prostitution, women’s positions in war-torn England, and the dangers of rearmament. In her acting, writing, and political activism, she consistently challenged existing roles for women. Robin’s work is marked by a number of true-life components, and this first biography to use the vast collection of her private papers demonstrates how thought Robins transformed her own life into literary and dramatic capital.

Robins published several novels under the pseudonym C.E. Raimond, culminating in the sensational male-female bildungsroman, The Open Question: A Tale of Two Temperaments, which was set in her native Zanesville, Ohio, and publication of which finally disclosed her identity.

Her fiction is compared to that of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather. Many of her heroines share the characteristics of exhibiting force or willed silence, and Gates' analysis of this trait has implications for feminist theorists in a number of fields.

Robins’ writing on behalf of woman suffrage and other women’s rights issue in the first quarter of the 20th century represents an important contribution to feminist politics.


Guide to the Elizabeth Robins Papers 1851-1942Cage 8

[Item Description]. Cage 8, Guide to the Elizabeth Robins Papers. Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, Washington State University Libraries, Pullman, WA.

Biography/History

Robins, Elizabeth. (married name: Mrs. George Richmond Parks pseud. C.E. Raimond) ca. 1865-1952. American actress and author. Played principally in Ibsen.

Wrote: Below the salt (1896) The open question (1898) The magnetic north (1904) A dark lantern (1905) Come and find me (1908) The mills of the Gods (1908) and others. Also suffragist works. [New Century Cyclopedia of Names]

Scope and Content

Correspondence with John Galsworthy, Somerset Maugham, William Archer, Charles P. Trevelyan, Isabelle Smith, George Macaulay Trevelyan, and others. Principally regarding Portrait of a lady, after 1940.

Administrative Information

Publication Information

Washington State University Libraries Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections © 2012

Restrictions on Access

This collection is open for research use.

Names and Subjects

Occupation(s)

  • Actors--England--Correspondence
  • Authors--England--Correspondence
  • Translators--England--Correspondence

Personal Name(s)

Creator(s) :
Subject(s) :
  • Smith, Isabelle
  • Archer, William, 1856-1924
  • Galsworthy, John, 1867-1933
  • Maugham, W. Somerset (William Somerset), 1874-1965
  • Trevelyan, Charles Philips, Sir, 1870-1958
  • Trevelyan, George Macaulay, 1876-1962

Subject(s)

Detailed Description of Collection

The following section contains a detailed listing of the materials in the collection.

Reveille, devoted to the disabled sailor and soldier, no. 1. London. John Galsworthy, editor. August, 1918 1 item.

Enclosed: John Galsworthy, letter, Devon, to Elizabeth Robins, asking her to write a contribution. August 19, 1918 1 l. holograph signed.

Enclosed: Photograph of Elizabeth Robins. undated 1 item.

Undated Papers

Sybil and B., letter, Sunday, Tithe Farm, Stoke Poges, Bucks, no addressee. undated 1 l. holograph signed.

Note: 'Gertrude Bell,' vol. 11, p. 512, 615. undated 1 l. ms.

Maugham, W.S., letter, New York, to Miss Robins. undated 2 l. holograph signed.

[Olhim?], Dorothy, letter, Brighton, to Dr. Wilberforce. undated 1 l. holograph signed.

Gordon, Laura, letter, [Hempstead?], to Octavia December 5, n.y. 2 l. holograph signed.

Carter, Alice, letter, Nassau, to Miss Robins January 27, n.y. 2 l. holograph signed.

Archer, William, letter, Monday, London, to Miss Robins [1893] 2 l. holograph signed.

Dated Papers

Bowen, M., letter, Zanesville, [Ohio], to Sallie E. Robins, n.p. April 2, [18]51 2 l. holograph signed, with envelope.

[Bull, Sara C.], letter, Cambridge, Mass., to Elizabeth Robins, Milwaukee, Wis. September 25, [1818] 1 l. holograph signed.

Dupont, Aime. Photograph of Francis Wilson, holograph inscription, to Elizabeth Robins. 1900 1 item.

[Milner, Edith?], letter, York, to Elizabeth Robins September 9, 1905 2 l. holograph signed.

Trevelyan, Charles, letter, Westminster, to Lisa, [Bath] March 24, 1921 1 l. holograph signed.

Note: part of a letter. December, 1926 1 l. typescript & ms.

Note and telegraph envelope. September 10, 1927 2 items.

Wood, Fred F., letter, Sussex, to Dr. Wilberforce April 28, 1933 1 l. folded, holograph signed.

Moore, Tom Sturge, letter, The Shiffolds, to Dear Ladies March 12, 1940 1 l. holograph signed.

Note, on letterhead: Valour House, Fernand's Point, Southwest Harbor, Maine enclosing clipping: 'The Yates-Thompson Sale,' Times Literary Supplement, April 10, 1941. 3 l.

Smith, Isabelle, letter, Ching, to Octavia. July 15, [1941]? 1 l. holograph signed.

Chancellor, Elsie, letter, Henley-on-Thames, to Elizabeth Robins, Valour House, Southwest Harbor, Maine July 22, [1941] 2 l.holograph signed, with envelope.

Smith, Isabelle, letter, [London], to Miss Robins, n.p. July 27, 1941 1 l. holograph signed.

Letter, [date on envelope], London, to Miss Robins, New York. [Signature illegible] May 5, 1941 2 l. holograph signed, with envelope.

Smith, Isabelle, letter, London, to Octavia. August 12, 1941 1 l. holograph signed.

Trevelyan, G(eorge] M[acaulay], letter, Trinity College, Cambridge, to Miss Robins, n.p. August 15, 1941 1 l. holograph signed.

Jones, Thomas, letter, Harlech, to Miss Robins, Somesville, Maine. August 20, 1941 1 l. holograph signed.

Letter, Surrey, to "My Dear", initialed, in envelope addressed to Elizabeth Robins, Mount Desert, Maine, post-marked September 11,1941. April 27, 1941 2 l. holograph

Draper, Martha, letter, New York, to Miss Robins, n.p., signed, with pencilled draft of reply. October 8, 1941 1 l. typescript

Envelope, torn, postmarked. April 2, 1942. 1 item.

Translating vocabulary for Ibsen plays, Norwegian-English. August, 1892 1 volume

Loose notes and papers re: translation 1895-1896 34 l.

Letters found in Elizabeth Robins' books:

L.A. Maidstone, letter, Herstmonceux Place, Hailsham, to Miss Robins. June 30, n.y. 2 l. holograph signed.

L.A. Maidstone, letter, Herstmonceux Place, Hailsham, to Miss Robins. In: Aeschylus, The house of Atreus. Trans. by E.D.A. Morshead. London, Simpkin & Marshall Winchester, Warren & Son, n.d. July 5, n.y. 4 l. holograph signed.

[Lucy Lane Clifford], letter, [London], to Lisa, signed: L. In: Mrs. W.K. [Lucy Lane] Clifford, Sir George's objection. London, Thomas Nelson, 1901. November 11, n.y. 1 l. holograph.

Mary A. Ward, letter, [London], to Miss Robins. In: Mary A. Ward, Eleanor: a play in four acts. London, Smith Elder, 1901. October 10, 1902 1 l. holograph signed.

[Florence Bell], letter, Redcar, to [Elizabeth Robins?] In: William Shakespeare, The Tempest. London, J.M. Dent, 1903. [Inscribed: To Elizabeth Robins from F.B.] September 28, 1904 2 l. typescript.

Bond, telegram, Hempstead C[ourt], to Miss Robins, Kensington. In: Elizabeth Robins [C.E. Raimond], A dark Lantern. London and New York, Macmillan, 1905. June 5, 1905 1 l. with envelope.

Robert W. Chambers, letter, [New York], to Miss Robbins. In: Elizabeth Robins [C.E. Raimond], Come and find me. London, William Heinemann. 1908. March 18, 1908 1 l. holograph signed.

Maggie Ponsonby, letter, [London], to Miss Robins, In: Magdalen Ponsonby, Idle women - a study in futility. London, Arthur L. Humphreys, 1914. [1914?] 1 l. holograph signed.

Emily M. Ritchie, letter, Sussex, to Miss Robins. In: Emily Marion Ritchie, Edith Sichel: Letters, verses, and other writings. Printed for private circulation, 1918. August 22, [1918?] 1 l. holograph signed.

[Frank von Kitlitz?], letter, Wehrkirch Land, Germany, to Octavia. In: Thomas de Quincy, Confessions of an English opium eater. London, George Routledge, 1886. November 20, 1937 2 l. holograph signed.

Article found in Reveille:

Mortimer, Raymond, "Published at Last: An Adventure of 1900." A critique of Elizabeth Robins book Raymond and I. undated 1 item.


Selected writings:

Life of Mary Wollstonecraft (1884) (with Joseph Pennell) A Canterbury Pilgrimage (1885) (with J. Pennell) Our Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1888) (with J. Pennell) The Stream of Pleasure (1891) (with J. Pennell) To Gipsyland (1893) Feasts of Autolycus, the Diary of a Greedy Woman (1896) Delights of Delicate Eating (1900) (with J. Pennell) The Life of James McNeill Whistler (1908) Our House and London Out of Our Windows (1912) The Lovers (1917) A Guide for the Greedy (1923) Our Philadelphia (1914) Life and Letters of Joseph Pennell (1929).

Elizabeth Robins Pennell was born in Philadelphia on February 21, 1855, the daughter of Edward Robins, a bank president, and Margaret Holmes Robins , who died while Pennell was quite young. Elizabeth was raised Catholic and attended Sacred Heart convents, primarily Eden Hall in Torresdale, Pennsylvania, although she spent a year at the convent in Conflans, near Paris, when she was six. She and her sister also spent many of their school breaks and holidays at the convent in Torresdale. Not an especially good student and sometimes troublesome, Pennell nevertheless graduated from school in 1872 and then returned to Philadelphia to live with her father and new stepmother. She made her debut into Philadelphia society, but afterwards found the life of a young society woman unsatisfying.

Thus when Pennell's uncle Charles Godfrey Leland, a prominent essayist and humorist, returned from a trip abroad in 1880 and engaged her as his assistant, she welcomed the chance to do something different. Leland was working on a project to integrate the arts into the public school curriculum, and he had hoped to use Pennell's artistic talent, but found that she had very little. Instead, he encouraged her to begin writing, and in 1881 her first article, "Mischief in the Middle Ages," was published in the Atlantic Monthly. Pennell continued to write for the magazine, mostly articles on history and mythology, and, with the help of Leland's influence, also published in Philadelphia newspapers and a weekly magazine, the American. When Leland was asked in 1881 by the editor of Scribner's Magazine to write text to accompany eight etchings by a young Philadelphia artist named Joseph Pennell, he instead proposed Elizabeth for the job. The March 1882 publication of "A Ramble in Old Philadelphia" marked the first collaboration in what would prove to be a long series between Elizabeth and Joseph, who were married in June 1884. In the same year, she published her first book, Life ofMary Wollstonecraft . By then she had also become an art critic for the Philadelphia Press and the American.

After their marriage, the Pennells sailed for Europe, where Joseph created the illustrations for William Dean Howells' Tuscan Cities. The newlyweds took a summer bicycling trip through England, which resulted in their first book together, A Canterbury Pilgrimage (1885). For the next 33 years, they worked in London during the winters and toured Europe, by cycle or sometimes by foot, during the summers. Their tales of these trips were published in many American and English magazines between 1884 and 1898, and also resulted in nine books written by Elizabeth and illustrated by her husband. These included An Italian Pilgrimage (1886), Our Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1888), Our Journey to the Hebrides (1889), The Stream of Pleasure (1891), To Gipsyland (1893), and Over the Alps on a Bicycle (1898). Their friend Edward Tinker later wrote, "She with her books and he with his drawings have done more than any other two people I know to spread in America a popular knowledge of the art of the old world, of the everyday life of its people, of the beauty of its countryside, and of the architectural loveliness of its cities."

During this time Pennell also filled in for her husband as art critic for the London Star on a regular basis, and eventually took over the column herself. As her prominence as an art critic grew, she was published in other newspapers and journals as well, including the London Chronicle and the New York Nation. For five years, she also wrote a column on cooking for the Pall Mall Gazette. These columns were published in three collections, Feasts of Autolycus, the Diary of a Greedy Woman (1896), Delights of Delicate Eating (1900) and A Guide for the Greedy (1923).

The Pennells had a wide circle of friends in the artistic world, including George Bernard Shaw, Aubrey Beardsley, and Phil May. In 1892, they also began a friendship with James McNeill Whistler and in 1900 agreed to write his biography. Published in 1908, The Life of James McNeill Whistler proved very successful, running to three printings the texts of the fifth and sixth editions (published in 1911 and 1919, respectively) were completely revised by the Pennells.

In 1906, Elizabeth published a biography of her mentor and uncle, Charles Godfrey Leland, after which she and her husband made a trip to northern France and subsequently collaborated on French Cathedrals, Monasteries, and Abbeys, and Sacred Sites of France (1909). Other writings by Pennell during the early years of the century included Our House and the People In It (1910), Our House and London Out of Our Windows (1912), Our Philadelphia (1914), and Nights: Rome, Venice in the Aesthetic Eighties London, Paris in the Fighting Nineties (1916). She also wrote a novel, The Lovers (1917). That same year, the outbreak of World War I caused the Pennells to move back to the United States. They lived initially in Philadelphia before settling in Brooklyn, New York, in June 1921. Joseph died in 1926, after which Elizabeth collected his pictures of New York and Philadelphia and oversaw the creation of descriptive lists of his work. She also wrote the two-volume Life and Letters of Joseph Pennell (1929) before her death from chronic myocarditis on February 7, 1936, in New York City.


Elizabeth Robins

As a child growing up in Zanesville, Ohio Elizabeth Robins kept scrapbooks about the successes of American actresses in England and Europe. During the 1890s she herself would join this select company, earning a place in theatrical history through legendary performances as Hedda Tesman in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Hilda Wangel in Ibsen’s The Master Builder, and through her efforts (shared at first with Marion Lea) to bring Ibsen to London theatres and provide demanding and exciting roles for actresses by working outside the actor-manager system. Performances in limited runs of controversial Ibsen plays and directing success as an actress-manager were not lucrative, and did not endear ner to mainstream managers. She turned to writing fiction and translating to supplement her income, retiring from the stage in 1902. Her acting and association with the so-called ‘Ibsen campaign secured her in particular the key friendships of playwright and author Florence Bell, William Heinemann, William Archer, and Henry James, and the often presumptuously familiar interest of George Bernard Shaw. Heinemann proposed marriage on several occasions, both he and Shaw being warned off by Robins with guns. Robins and Archer were almost certainly lovers for a significant part of the 1890s. Bell and Archer were until their deaths in 1930 and 1924 respectively Robins’s loyal literary mentors, in spite of political differences over her militant women’s suffragism and aesthetic differences over the role of propaganda in fiction and drama. Shaw gave crucial advice about Robins s 1907 play Votes for Women and encouraged her autobiographical and biographical writing during the 1930s. Heinemann published most of her pre-First World War fiction in Britain, negotiated early American publication, and offered her translation work.

In her day Robins was best known as interpreter of Ibsen, feminist activist, and popular author of The Open Question (1898), The Magnetic North (1904), Votes for Women, and ‘Where Are You Going To …?’, published as My Little Sister in the U.S. (1913). Critics praised in particular her finely detailed character studies, her studies of child life in George Mandevilie’s Husband (1894) and The Open Question, and her insight into masculine experience of Alaskan frontier life in The Magnetic North, comparing it more than favourably with the work of Jack London. She was the leading writer of suffragette fiction and drama, her books and pamphlets often being marketed in Britain through suffragette and feminist bookselling arrangements. The aesthetic value of the documentary realism and explicit feminism in her writing divided critical opinion, with prolixity, flawed construction and sensationalism as the most common complaints. Aspects of Alan’s Wife (1893), coauthored with Florence Bell, The Open Question and A Dark Lantern (1905) challenged the aesthetic moralities of many reviewers.

‘A Rescue Society should be formed without delay for the purpose of reclaiming Miss Elizabeth Robins from the slimy clutches of those who find pleasure in pictures of the charnel house, the dissecting room, or the hospital ward,’ wrote W.M. in a review of Alan’s Wife, Robins’s and Bell’s anonymous adaptation of ‘Befriad,’ a story by Swedish writer Elin Ameen. What W.M. is proposing is the rescue of Robins, the talented actress who played Jean Creyke, from the ‘perverted,’ ‘prurient’ and ‘morbid’ proponents of Ibsenism, J.T. Grein and the unknown author. 1 The aesthetic battleground between the author Robins and her detractors during the 1890s would centre on the propriety and the plausibility of her treatments of ‘modern’ social ‘problems.’ Her plots yoke together disparate genres allude to Gothic elements in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and romantic ones in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, and often draw on melodramatic conventions to bring about changes of fortune or resolution.

The material of Alan’s Wife—a working-class woman’s act of infanticide and defence of it—was predictably controversial. Robins’s performance earned high praise, even from reviewers who judged the play too morbid (more so than Ibsen’s Ghosts) or furiously placed it beyond the pale of art. Her interpretation of the leading role was described as ‘sincere, unaffected, and observant,’ showing an ‘amazing power of pourtraying [sic] the various phases of feminine hysteria and insanity,’ and a scrupulous sense of realistic detail (a slight shoulder stoop to register manual labour). A.B. Walkley worried about the propriety of the ‘accent of truth’ she brought to the part: ‘Has a woman the right to lay bare the inmost fibres of her being in this way before a gaping playhouse crowd?’ In the small venue the atmosphere was so intense that one critic’s ‘nerves were all unstrung by it’ 2 the audience was confronted with a series of abject spectacles—Alan Creyke’s mangled body brought home to his pregnant wife on a covered bier after an industrial accident, Jean’s subsequent indifference to the disabled child of the marriage, her baptism and rationalized (or rational) murder of her son, and her refusal to claim the legal defence of pueiperal mania which would save her own life. In general critics used one of two strategies to manage the confrontation with such disturbing material.One line of response was to pronounce tendentiously upon the ‘natural’ behaviour of mothers of children with disabilities,‘the natural mother looks into the cradle with eyes that are blind to deformities, while her heart is filled with an unreasoning hope for merciful compensations in the future’ 3 being fairly typical. The second line of response was to diagnose the infanticide, variously described as unnatural, unhealthy or insane, as being a product of puerperal mania or ‘nervous homicidal mania.’ (Shaw claimed Robins’s acting ambiguously left this possibility open.) 4 Those critics who interpreted the infanticide as an act of euthanasia, although this term was not used, called Jean Creyke a monster. They did not place the act in the context of Jean’s sexualized joy of life and vitality and ingrained contempt for the physically frail (apparent in the history of her childhood relationship with the sickly James Warren, now a platitudinous minister), or her concern that the child’s disabilities will make him so dependent on her that he will not be able to survive long her own death.

The actress, and not the author, was praised for a fine character study the sensationalism of the material dominated critical assessment of the author(s) and the moral value of the play. Robins’s ‘talent for sensationalism,’ against which Shaw would warn her, 5 would often divert critical attention from the finer and more subtle aspects of her writing. None of the critical commentary on Alan’s Wife acknowledged the more innovative technical aspects of the playwriting. The excessive and unrealistic verbalization of motive in melodrama was adapted to detail minutely the response of Jean to her son’s disabilities, a response which will justify in her mind a mercy killing, and the authors adapted the dumb show of French melodrama to dramatize Jean’s inability to communicate her feelings in prison within the sanctioned discourses about infanticide and mothering. She is to gesture such abstract propositions as ‘I don’t want mercy’ and ‘I shall not die unforgiven.’ 6 She speaks again most dramatically to dispute allegations that her act was a crime, and cowardly. The anonymity of Robins and Bell protected them from personal controversy and notoriety. Robins sought the cover of a pseudonym, C.E. Raimond, for her early fiction and was angry when it was revealed. Gates sums up her reasons: ‘She did not want her fiction to be labelled “Ibsenish” she feared that her reputation as actress might diminish she still considered her writing as an apprenticeship.’ 7 Her insistence on anonymity frustrated efforts to publish the anti-militarist ‘The Book of Revelations’ and led to initially very slow notice and poor sales of Ancilla’s Share: An Indictment of Sex Antagonism (1924) before her authorship was revealed.

The formation and effects of domestic alliances—a theme handled ably and often by Robins—are central to the child life of Rosina, the aspect of George Mandeville’s Husband which earned enduring praise, especially for its restrained pathos. ‘George Mandeville’ is the pseudonym of Lois Wilbraham, a mediocre and pretentious New Woman novelist, who fashionably holds aloft in her fiction ‘the cause of Progress … the banner of Women’s Emancipation,’ but is ironically uninterested in her ‘exceptionally puny and ailing’ daughter who shows no signs of ‘precocious intelligence.’ 8 George Mandeville’s husband, Ralph Wilbraham, is a painter of ‘sentimental commonplaces’ (2) who desires in a wife a delicate muse, and despises above all female artists and writers. The morbid effects of the tensions within the household are apparent in the sickliness of all three. Rosina goes into an eventually fatal decline after the shock of her modem mother telling her some facts of life. George Mandeville’s absorption in her writing study, her salon and later a theatre—the rooms in which she is driven to take her measure as a writer—produces an ambiguously sustaining yet destructive alliance between Ralph and Rosina. If George Mandeville makes everything ‘so ugly’ for Rosina (97), Ralph’s old-fashioned sentimental visions of middle-class womanhood make her too delicate and unworldly to survive. Like Ibsen, Robins uses symbolic detail very well in her representation of the alliance of Ralph and Rosina against George Mandeville and its impact. Patterns of intimacy within the household, for instance, are suggested by symbolic business involving rooms the destructiveness of Ralph’s views on women is summed up in Rosina’s desperate deathbed suggestion that she could earn a living by her only clevernesses, plain sewing and jail-window darning.

Archer proclaimed George Mandeville’s Husband to be ‘vehemently, almost violently, reactionary in tendency. It should be balm to the soul of Mrs Lynn Linton.’ 9 The cultural work performed by the novel is by no means this simple. Robins’s satire on George Mandeville, was generally felt to be excessive—and indeed George Mandeville mighl be read as Robins’s dark double. Arnold Bennett, writing under the pseudonym Barbara, described George Mandeville as ‘much-mauled.’ 10 Many critics, in fact, chivalrously defended Robins’s female monster in small ways. George Mandeville s Husband had very limited influence, being mentioned in the press in relation to Rita’s A Husband of No Importance and C.E. Francis’s Every Day’s News. By December 1900 2,140 copies had been sold, no sales having been recorded after I February 1895. 11 The Woman’s Signal used the publicity surrounding George Mandeville’s Husband to dub Ralph Wilbraham the ‘New Man’: ‘a gentleman who cut the sorriest possible figure in life, who earned not a penny, did scarcely anything except when his wife compelled him … and was the least possible m the way of a living being. The only spirit which he possessed was the spirit of condemnation, and that he had in large measure.’ The editorial proceeded to criticize his hoary double standards about genius, prescriptive attitudes to women and his construction of George Eliot as ‘three parts man,’ and to plead the case for women to be ‘permitted to do what they can in the way of honest, self-respecting, blameless work.’ Robins’s ferocious satirical animus against George Mandeville provides the sensational interest in the novel (even today for feminist critics prescriptively demanding positive role models for women writers). Some reviewers found the dominated Ralph unmanly and implausible others shared his sentimentality so absolutely they missed Robins’s ambivalent and subtle ironization of it. 12

By far Robins’s most ambitious and substantial literary achievement of the 1890s, The Open Question: A Tale of Two Temperaments provoked extraordinary praise and condemnation, and inevitable curiosity about the identity of C.E. Raimond. The individual portraits of displaced Southern matriarch Sarah Gano in all her snobbery, prejudice, conservatism, sense of dignity and stoicism and her ebullient granddaughter Val’s childhood were very widely acclaimed. Yet in spite of these strengths W.L. Courtney thought the novel a ‘nightmare begotten on a reading of Nietzsche’s philosophy.’ After Robins’s identity as author was revealed the parentage of the novel was denounced in such formulations as ‘Miss Zarathustra Gabler,’ ‘Ibsen and Anarchism,’ and ‘George Eliot and Ibsen, with the Popular Science Monthly as godfather.’ 13

What the New Age reviewer called the book’s ‘problem-devil’ 14 mixes questions of consanguinous marriage, hereditary disease (tuberculosis), responsibility for reproduction, and the ethics of suicide. The double suicide by drowning of Val and Ethan Gano, first cousins, closes the novel Val is pregnant. Their decision is explained implicitly as art inevitable product of their characters, developed through the pressures of heredity, family values, experience, and the particularities of smalltown American life. Like George Eliot in The Mill on the Floss and Sarah Grand in The Heavenly Twins, Robins produces a double and gendered Bildungsroman of male and female family members. The problem-devil’ was of very immediate concern to Robins, not simply a facile endorsement of a fin-de-siecle cult of suicide. Consanguineous marriages and tuberculosis ran in her family lines. Even her parents, Charles Ephraim Robins and Hannah Maria Crow, were first cousins. Two of Robins s siblings died in infancy, a sickly sister died at twenty, Robins herself suffered severe bronchial ailments, and Raymond Robins, her beloved brother, whom she had ‘mothered’ when he was very young, experienced childhood epilepsy. Hannah’s mental health from 1873 until her death in 1901 was poor, warranting, according to the standards of the day, her institutionalization in 1885. Her symptoms suggest schizophrenia. (It was Hannah, however, who borrowed the money from her doctor to pay for acting lessons for Elizabeth. She herself had been an opera singer. Charles, a banker, later prospector and farmer, had lost his wife’s and then his own fortune.) From the age of ten Robins was raised by her paternal grandmother Jane Hussey Robins, on whom she modelled Sarah Gano and to whom she (at first privately) dedicated The Open Question. In C.E. Raimond’s The New Moon (1895) Dorothy Lance, whose mother died insane, reads Mercier, Maudsley, Ribot, Bastian and Wundt on nerves and heredity, weighing up the responsibilities associated with marriage. There were apparently no descendants of any of the four Robins children who survived to adulthood. Robins married actor George Richmond Parks in 1885 (1884 according to one annotation by Robins) 15 he committed suicide by drowning himself in a suit of stage armour in 1887. It is unclear whether the wearing of stage armour was a grandiloquent gesture or a means of weighting the body or had some deeper significance in the relationship. Robins was in her mid-twenties at the time, and while living to 1952, never remarried. In the process of coming to terms with Parks’ action and playing Hedda Tesman Robins read Schopenhauer on suicide and debated its ethics with Archer. Olive Anderson argues that ‘proponents of “the new morality’” in the 1890s ‘liked to depict suicide as sometimes the final proof of unselfish love or the way to keep a dream secure.’ In the Daily Chronicle Robins defends the double suicide as ‘altruism, not egoism,’ no matter how ‘morbid,’ ‘cowardly’ or ‘reprehensible’ the action Val’s decision is motivated in large part by a desire to secure a dream of ‘overmastering’ love. 16

‘House property’ 17 —the Fort in New Plymouth—figures prominently in The Open Question, and is central to the development of themes of inheritance, dispossession, resistance to democratizing historical change, decay, and the frustration of daughterly ambitions beyond Sarah Gano’s bounds of womanly propriety. Mrs Gano disparages the writing of daughter Valeria and granddaughter Val. In a letter to W.T. Stead solicited for Review of Reviews Robins characterized Val as an optimist, Ethan (an imitative poet) as a pessimist, embodiments of light and dark respectively. 18 Ethan, burdened by his experiences of decadent Paris, first perceives Val as a muse of Liberty (replete with lamp). The energy Val invests in artistic ambition becomes turned inwards within the family to a romance with Ethan the writing which epitomizes her desire shifts from ballads she would sing as a diva in Europe to letters to Ethan which dramatize the minutiae of her daily life as household manager. Her willed movement beyond the moral and social boundaries and hierarchies of the Fort involves a clandestine meeting with Ethan and a discreetly sexualized boating outing with him, which implicitly invites contrast willi Maggie Tulliver and Stephen Guest’s river journey.

Robins gained recognition as an aesthetic innovator in the Edwardian period for a range of novels and a play: The Magnetic North, A Dark Lantern, Votes for Women, The Convert (1907) and ‘Come and Find Me!’ (1908).These texts have a documentary realist generic layer for which Robins drew on diaries, notes of her own experiences, and for Votes for Women and The Convert on Mary Higgs’s ‘Three Nights in Women’s Lodging Houses’ (1905) and her own research on militanl women’s suffrage rallies for a play commissioned by Gertrude Kingston which effected ner conversion to the cause. These documentary realist generic layers were often contested by critics on aesthetic and political grounds. Robins also gathered material on the white slave traffic and on race relations in the U.S.A. in this period—on this latter issue Joanne Gates even argues that her meeting with W.E.B. DuBois was also a conversion experience—but her use of this material fictionally and polemically is problematic, as I argue later.

In 1900 Robins left England on a rescue mission. Raymond Robins was obsessed with securing power and prestige through wealth, fantasizing that a large enough fortune would induce ‘Sister Bessie’ to return to the U.S. to live with him. There is a conventual ring to the ‘Sister,’ for the pact he proposed entailed that neither of them would marry and that they would dedicate themselves to the high cause of careers. In a state of anger at Elizabeth’s refusal to join him in San Francisco and dejection at what he saw as the years of poverty facing the using lawyer, he left for the Klondyke gold rush in 1897. Alarmed by what she read as the danger of his conversion to Catholicism (the family was Episcopalian) and the deterioration of their epistolary contact, and having been commissioned by W.T. Stead to write articles about her trip, Robins set out for Nome, Alaska in 1900. In Alaska she contracted typhoid fever rest cures were prescribed in England as part of her convalescence.

The Magnetic North (1904) was based on the Alaska diaries of Raymond Robins and his partner Albert Schulte, thinly fictionalized as the Boy (Morris Burnet) and Colonel George Warren, and talks with Raymond. Raymond did not care for the book. Robins later returned to Alaskan material in ‘Come and Find Me!’, which drew more on her experience of the journey to Nome and awkwardly blended masculine and feminine romances of the North, the unpublished ‘Go To Sleep Stories,’ and the autobiographical Raymond and I (1956), written during the 1930s. Raymond refused to authorize publication of Raymond and I in his lifetime. He was by then a leading social reformer and well-known political figure, trying to rehabilitate his public image after a much publicized disappearance and police search. Robins shaped The Magnetic North as a story of male bonding through common adversity—the unfamiliar and gruelling Alaskan elements and disillusionment with the romance of easy gold. Reviewers marvelled at a woman writing with such emotional verisimilitude of a largely masculinized territory and of part of men’s lives, ‘their mutual relations, which is generally hidden from womanhood.’ A couple even adapted Samuel Johnson’s infamous comment about woman’s preaching, and one remarked ‘If only women would make it their business to write such books, what a relief it would be …’ 19 The repeated and generally favourable comparisons with the work of Jack London, Bret Harte and Mark Twain are indicative of the ease with which the novel could be assimilated into a genre of ‘male’ writing, although critics still looked for signs of femininity. Collier’s thought her picture of the Klondyke ‘softer’ tnan London’s, praising her for knowing how to humanize it without crossing the boundary line between sympathy and sentimentality’ the Saturday Review thought she crossed the line in ‘sentimental concessions’ like the ‘Esquimaux baby in the Winter Camp, and Maudie in Minook.’ For W.L. Courtney the novel was admirably ‘conceived in the masculine spirit’ yet the ‘general course of the narrative’ did not ‘show many traces of the controlling hand.’ 20 The documentary realism worried quite a few critics, who felt it blurred generic boundaries between fiction and such ‘factual’ prose forms as the guide-book and the ‘transcript from experience.’ 21 The same anxiety is apparent in the reception of ‘Come and Find Me!’ The Saturday Review, for instance, dubbed Robins’s account of Hildegarde Mar’s journey to Nome ‘animated joumalism.’ 22

The reader of A Dark Lantern for Macmillan in the U.S. immediately matched a name to the methods of the doctor supervising Katherine Dereham’s rest cure. Like Robins, she had been treated by Dr Vaughn Harley. His rest cure comprised the usual elements of isolation, rest, massage and over-feeding, but his bedside manner, it would seem on the strength of A Dark Lantern, was characterized by a misogyny inflected by class contempt. In representing the misogyny Robins draws on an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British tradition of orientalizing it, especially in symbolic business involving Garth Vincent’s trained dog, Young Turk. Garth Vincent’s professional manners were compared with the manners of Petruchio by Courtney and Stead other reviewers placed Vincent in the Rochester or the outwardly-severe-but-secretly-tender doctor mould familiar from women’s romance writing or the Beauty and the Beast tradition of fairy tale. 23 Virginia Stephen (later Woolf), who had also been treated with a rest cure, reviewed the novel anonymously, finding Robins brutal. Robins draws out in the minute account of Katherine’s rest cure the covert sexual dynamic informing the doctor-patient and the doctor-nurse relationships and the class dimensions of the sexual dynamic. She blends the documentation of the rest cure with two cross-class romance plots involving aristocratic Katherine. Self-made ‘black-magic’ man 24 Garth Vincent and his property become the agents and muses of Katherine’s poetic and sexual awakening, although class tensions and anxieties complicate their de facto and then legalized marriage. (Katherine has earlier refused a proposal of morganatic marriage from Prince Anton of Breitenlohe-Waldenstein.) Seeking to provide a motive for Vincent’s class-inflected misogyny, Robins mystifies its origins in a barely particularized witness of, perhaps participation, in the debaucheries of a decadent underworld. Her glimpses of such underworlds here and in The Open Question and ‘Where Are You Going To …?’ are hackneyed and unconvincing in their melodramatic playing out of Manichean stereotypes. The class dimension of Katherim and Vincent’s relationship goes unremarked, even in recent critical commentary on the novel.

Many contemporary reviewers were outraged by the aestheticized morality of the de facto marriage, both Katherine’s proposing ‘her own degradation, without a shred of encouragement’ and Vincent’s ‘wilful shaming of her by accepting it. 25 Mona Caird, Courtney and Stead condemned what they read as Robins’s reactionary sexual politics bin using a discourse of evolution Edward Gamett championed Katherine’s defiance of convention to pursue the ‘best and strongest’ mate. In the hackneyed melodramatic language of seduction Stead worried about the treacherous and cheapening model Katherine’s behaviour offered women, yet moved quickly to separate Robins’s personal morality from her heroine’s. Courtney and Caird found the book antithetical to the women’s movement, Caird suggesting that Robins’s moral was that a wife ‘has no personal rights where her husband is concerned.’ She cited in particular two incidents symbolic of Vincent’s ‘dishonourable violation’ of Katherine’s right to privacy and personal protection, interestingly, given the class backgrounds of the two, comparing his invasion of her privacy with the behaviour of an untrustworthy housemaid. 26 For all their protestations Caird, Courtney and Stead do not criticize the rest cure per se, a medical practice read by later feminist critics as a site of reactionary imposition of a stereotypical womanly ideal. Robins’s final scene alludes to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), bringing into sharp focus the different outcomes of the rest cure. She, like Gilman, seems to have been unaware of Cyril Bennett’s earlier critiques of aspects of the sexual politics of the rest cure. 27

In writing to Robins of the suffragette material in the play which would become Votes for Women Florence Bell used a language of discovery, and suggested it was bound to cause a stir. For Robins the play was the ‘first thing … written under the pressure of a strong moral conviction.’ 28 What began for Robins as an exercise of the flaneuse in documenting the historically momentous emergence of the militant suffrage campaign—then firmly allied with labour politics—became the conversion experience in which the emergence of suffragette literature was grounded.

Looking back on her suffragette activism in Way Stations (1913), Robins represented her conversion in 1906 and her pamphlets, speeches, articles and letters to newspapers as a travelling on ‘the road to enlightenment.’ She was converted by the Women’s Social and Political Union’s wielding of the ‘Power of the Word,’ ‘the most effectual weapon in all man’s armoury,’ and the exposure of the sham of masculine chivalry effected by the sex-antagonism provoked by militant suffragette expression of political opinion. In a 1906 letter to the Times she characterized herself before her conversion as an ignorant beneficiary of upper-middle-class feminine privilege, feeling ‘at liberty to condemn the less fortunate—or less self-centred?’ 29 Robins helped organize the Women Writers’ Suffrage League and the Actresses’ Franchise League and was a member of the board of the W.S.P.U. from 1907 to 1912. The split between the W.S.P.U. and the Pethick-Lawrences in 1912 threw into sharp relief her anxieties about Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst’s style of leadership of the W.S.P.U. In 1919 (limited women’s suffrage having been granted in 1918) Robins anticipated becoming a feminist influence in British journalism. After the First World War she also worked for the Six Point Group, the Association for Social and Moral Hygiene, and the Women’s Institute movement, and lobbied on health and medical issues affecting women and children. Health problems and her utter abhorrence of Rebecca West curtailed her membership of the board of the independent journal Time and Tide. In 1927 she converted Backsettown, the Sussex property she had acquired in 1908, into the Backsettown Home of Rest for over-fatigued professional and activist women and mothers. After Robins’s death the intermittent sale of parcels of manuscript material helped fund the Home.

Robins prefaced her personalized chronology of the militant campaign with ‘Woman’s Secret,’ originally published as a W.S.P.U. pamphlet. The ‘secret’ is woman’s point of view suppressed in public by the dominant idealization of the ‘silent woman,’ men s scorn of women’s airing of grievances, and the author writing her stories as she ‘fashioned her gowns and formed her manners’—to be ‘the man’s woman’ in method and point of view. 30 In Votes for Women and The Convert Robins stages the power of the militant suffragette word in 1906, and its freeing of Vida Levering’s woman’s point of view, as she connects her personal suffering to the economic and political subordination of British women. An important aspect of Robins’s subsequent fiction, too, is her revisioning of scenarios from her earlier work. In Come and Find Me!’ she rewrote the ‘essentially male quest story’ and redefined ‘the Alaskan adventure as one of female faith, perseverance and women’s bonding.’ 31 In The Florentine Frame she reworked George Mandeville’s usurpations of her husband’s studios. American playwright Chester Keith takes over Isabella Roscoe’s study, reducing her from being an aspiring writer to being his patron, muse and romantic interest. Time Is Whispering (1923) restaged a match between a misogynist and an aesthetically sensitive woman, although the reconciliation was effected not by a sexual dynamic but through mutual dedication to a more benevolent management of empire and loving management of the English countryside. Common dedication to the countryside also reconciles generations.

The Trafalgar Square women’s suffrage rally which comprised the second act of Votes for Women fascinated the London audience. ‘[S]ome half-hour or so of the most brilliantly forcible, lively, shrewd, and humorous platform oratory on the suffrage question—yards of glorious irrelevance,’ wrote the Daily Chronicle reviewer, implicitly gendering a perceived structural defect in the play. 32 Its documentary realism, sometimes characterized as racy, was widely attributed to brilliant stage management rather than Robins. Shaw had offered the insistent advice about including the interjections and the banter between speakers and audience. The play’s narrative draws its patterns of intelligibility from drawing-room melodrama, given an allusive register through the naming of characters. Vida Levering is the wronged woman with a past who confronts her seducer, Geoffrey Stonor, now a rising Conservative politician and engaged to ingenue Beatrice (Jean in the published text) Dunbarton. In Vida’s youth Stonor had, it is implied, taken advantage ol her destitution after she left home because of the sexual irregularities of her father. Because Stonor would not risk his patrimony when Vida became pregnant, he pressured her to have an abortion, an experience which destroyed her love for him. Through allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy, which Vida is reading, Robins suggests that her conversion to the women’s suffrage cause and social activism for homeless women offers a personal redemption from wandering ‘homeless on the skirts ol limbo among the abortions and offscourings of Creation’ like the Vigliacchi who ‘stood aloof from strife … never felt the pangs of partizanship.’ 33 In The Convert Robins gives more depth to Vida’s story by showing her family relations, the inertia and misogynistic humour of her class milieu characterized as both medieval and oriental in its outlook, and the process of a conversion through interested witness of several rallies which liberates her to speech, sexual political insights, and feminist social agency.

The critical reaction to the play and the novel was characterized by widespread anxiety about their perceived blurring of the boundaries between what were constructed as ideally separate spheres: the propagandist^ tract and art and a ‘private’ affair and the public issue of votes for women. This reception is inextricably linked with broader anxieties about pro-suffrage challenges to a dominant ideology of separate social spheres for men and women. Much of the critical language is ripe for feminist deconstruction. ‘To be conscious of a grievance is a bad soil from which the artistic flower is to bloom, because when one is profoundly interested, the stress is apt to be laid on the wrong points, and the artist should, above all, have a disengaged and neutral mind,’ wrote W.L. Courtney. A few reviewers punned on the punning name of Robins’s suffragette leader Ernestine Blunt. The Evening Standard and St James’s Gazette, for example, suggested that Robins ‘[sank] the artist in the earnest.’ Critical efforts to police the separation of aesthetic and political spheres often made explicit usually unstated aesthetic assumptions. P.C. in the Manchester Guardian, for instance, argued: ‘Judged by the Aristotelian definition of character illustrated by circumstance, the play contained little enough of drama, for the characters never became individually interesting, and the circumstances were chosen rather as presenting successive facets of the suffragist cause than as eloquent in their revelation of personality.’ Arnold Bennett complained that the ‘sexual matter’ confused the political issue, because the play could not deal with ‘principles in the abstract.’ Several critics challenged the representativeness of Vida’s experience, or attributed to her a revenge motive in proclaiming the cause. William Archer thought the ‘muscular tissue’ of Acts One and Three ‘a trifle flabby,’ and, explicitly eschewing the aesthetic criticism Robins would deprecate, argued that the play was marred by the failure to present even ‘one sincere and competent opponent of Woman’s Suffrage and an ‘over-valuation of democracy as an instrument.’ 34

The moral crusade of the W.S.P.U. was characterized in its day and is still being represented by historians as part of a ‘campaign of sedulously cultivated sexual hysterics’ generated in large part by the moral agitation and publicity surrounding the passage through Parliament of the 1912 Criminal Law Amendment (White Slavery) Bill. 35 The key texts of the crusade were Robins’s novel ‘Where Are You Going To …?’ and Christabel Pankhurst’s tract The Great Scourge and How to End It, published within months of each other in 1913. Today the place of Where Are You Going To …?’ in the W.S.P.U.’s moral crusade is almost entirely forgotten. In 1913 Dean Wilberforce used the book in sermons at St John’s, Westminster and Westminster Abbey. The novel, frequently dubbed the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of white slavery, was extraordinarily widely and sensationally reviewed by a deeply divided critical audience. In 1913, too, ex-suffragette Teresa Billington-Greig denounced the White Slavery panic as a ‘campaign of terrible tales’ of forcible trapping of young girls ‘offered second or third hand,’ and the suffragette ‘Mothers of the New Church’ who threatened ‘the future by the whitewashing of women and the doctrine of the uncleanness of men.’ 36 Robins’s unpublished response to vilification of Pankhurst and herself and to Billington-Greig’s widely reported ‘The Truth about White Slavery’, ‘Christabel Pankhurst and White Slavery or the Girl with the Lamp, is among her papers in the Fales Library, New York University. Robins and Cicely Hamilton’s stage adaptation of ‘Where Are You Going To …?’ was refused a licence in 1914 (see p. 25).

Robins’s narrative of the abduction of two sheltered middle-class girls at Victoria Station was developed from a story told to her by Maud Pember Reeves. Reeves claimed in 1907 that she remembered it to have happened at least fifteen years before. The documentary value of the narrative became an important issue in the reception of the novel. The Herald (New York) reviewer, for instance, said that ‘as a picture of actual conditions it is beneath contempt’ and Clement Shorter declared it ‘absolutely unproved gossip of people anxious to further their cause by any fiction.’ Robins responded by claiming the veracity of her case, the artistic licence and tact of her embellishment of it, and the typicality of her picture of police complacency and lack of power to suppress the traffic. She insisted that had she dealt with a far more representative case involving working-class girls her novel would not have had her desired effect in appealing sentimentally to the consciences of readers to redeem Bettina’s entrapment by agitation for further reform. 37 The sickly widowed mother’s unworldliness—troped as fear of contamination, especially from the working class—is partly excused by her having been attacked in her former Indian home by a male intruder (of no fixed racial identity, but white in the stage adaptation). It is, too, her desire to secure a conservative femininity in her daughters which induces her to send them to an estranged aunt for a London season. Outrage at the abduction, at the venality of madam and her clients, and at the police investigation works to deflect and overwhelm earlier implied criticism of the mother’s values.

As in the work of most writers of her day racial and ethnic stereotypes abound, and it is not my intention to labour the instances. In Robins’s introduction to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1909) she suggested that in Louisville, Kentucky (her birthplace) white people subscribed to a model of benevolent overlordship in a racial hierarchy. 38 Ultimately this was a model, secured by entrenched racial and class privilege (rather than slavery), Robins was never able to move beyond. In 1905 she projected writing a novel on miscegenation. Her views on the topic are apparent in notes among her papers:

Men notoriously do not shrink from miscegenation. The normal white woman lives without discomfort with yellow or black men all about her. She has always used them as servants without the smallest objection—she has often liked them very sincerely—and missed them sadly when they or she has been removed. She does not shrink from Kaffir or chinaman except in one relation.

The shrinking from that relation, she writes, will keep the races sound and pure’ 39 The anti-militarist introduction to Ancilla’s Share shows a familiarity with the writing of Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois, but her argument is that white supremacy, ideally maintained by ‘divine right of a high order of intelligence applied through good-will,’ 40 is threatened by black militancy abetted by militarist cultures and the military training of black U.S. and European colonial troops in the First World War. In The Secret That Was Kept (1926) Robins shows how the rape myth of the American South generates panic which results in summary and unjust lynching, and is used to circumscribe white upper-middle-class women’s movement beyond the home and induce dependence on male protection. (Fear of and disgust at rape of innocent victims informed the White Slave Traffic campaigns. Disappointingly Robins could not conceptualize polemically or fictionally the way the White Slave Traffic panic reinforced conservative models of femininity for women of many classes.) The Secret That Was Kept needs to be read in the historical context of the conservative and racist circulation of the rape myth in U.S. debates and campaigns surrounding the proposed Dyer anti-lynching Bill in the early 1920s. 41 Robins’s position on the rape myth in this context is both liberal and feminist. In lurid business involving a black convict killing a huge black snake which threatens the temporarily unchaperoned June Purdey, Robins implies that the black man derives satisfaction from the white overseer’s fear of the snake. The violence to white characters in the Florida setting comes melodramatically from the jealous embezzler husband who fakes his own death and returns to confront his unwittingly bigamist wife, and his illegitimate, blackmailing son by a white domestic servant. Amicable interracial relations on the Florida estate are guaranteed, it is implied, by June Purdey and Terence Byrne following Cousin Augusta’s practices in managing idle and pilfering black employees, and by June Purdey’s power of sexual refusal to redeem Terence from a tawdry sexual past (with white women). His familiarity with black employees is figured as erasure of class distinction and soiling. The discontinuities between realistic and melodramatic registers, the inheritance plot, and the racial stereotypes compromise the racial liberalism of the novel. Robins’s explanation of interracial tension is ultimately sexual the structural and epistemic violence of racism is not figured as such.

By 1919 Robins had become ominously aware of a changing aesthetic mood in Britain. The emergence of Dorothy Richardson was, she wrote to Florence Bell, a ‘portent.’ Modernist writing she found ‘queer,’ ‘clever,’ ‘sordid,’ although she would, with reservations, come to admire Richardson’s and Virginia Woolf’s fiction. 42 The narrative weight of Time Is Whispering endorses Mrs Lathom’s sentiments about male modernist poets. ‘They were,’ she thinks, “‘out for” cleaning the stables by scattering the dung abroad,’ providing a ‘spectacle of sickness’ which ought to be forbidden by public hygiene. What ‘shows them up’ is that ‘their most disgusting thoughts are about women. All their foulest similes, images.’ 43 Robins’s language uncannily echoes that of reviewers offended by her own violations of their aesthetic moralities. Modernism and its crucial role in forming the aesthetic tastes which have structured twentieth-century academic canon-formation have obscured the literary achievements of Robins. Reviews of Robins’s The Mills of the Gods and Other Stories (1920) by Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield are prophetic of the eclipse of her reputation. In 1908 Mansfield had found Robins’s ‘Come and Find Me!’ inspirational, writing in her journal: ‘it creates in me such a sense of power. I feel that I do now realise, dimly, what women in the future will be capable of.’ In 1920 she damned m Robins’s old-fashioned stories the ‘hollowness beneath the surface,’ the ‘false situations which are not even novel.’ Woolf’s anonymous review rehearsed arguments and tropological characterizations of pre-war writing which she would later develop in her modernist manifesto ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.’ Robins is arguably the missing woman in Woolf’s famous company of Edwardian writers—Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells and John Galsworthy—but Woolf felt that her commendable ‘bare brevity’ of style was manly. 44

A sharp decline in Robins’s literary reputation can, in fact, be dated from 1918. Excited by serialization fees offered by U.S. magazines, Robins seemed to pitch more of her fiction towards a popular American market. In Britain firstly war-time paper shortages and then changing editorial policies brought about a dramatic decline in the extent of newspaper book review space. Camilla (1918), a transatlantic novel about divorce and recommitment which failed to earn the advance on American royalties, The Messenger (1919), a sensational transatlantic spy novel, described in the Daily Chronicle as ‘Wasted Talent’ and in Truth as ‘a very dead horse indeed,’ 45 and The Secret That Was Kept could not sustain the interest of more highbrow literary journals in her work. From 1898 to 1913 Robins’s fiction was often featured as a Book of the Month in Review of Reviews (London). Her most ambitious and carefully developed post-war novel, Time Is Whispering, was frequently given brief, even cursory notice—a sentence or two—Robins being repeatedly characterized as an older writer, and sometimes nostalgically praised for old-fashioned literary virtue, particularly leisureliness.

Largely through the work of feminist critics and drama historians during the last twenty years, Robins’s theatrical career is becoming better known in academic circles. Her literary reputation today rests on Votes for Women, The Convert, and a certain notoriety as the author of George Mandevilie’s Husband. Her fiction is often read glibly and anachronistically in relation to its historical context, the cultural work it performed, and its reception. Lack of an adequate bibliography of primary and secondary sources has been part of the problem. In 1994 two biographies, one by literary critic Joanne Gates, the other by historian Angela John, are scheduled for publication. Gates’s doctoral thesis is distinguished by useful discussion of Robins’s unpublished plays, stoiil and novels, and a careful effort to situate her as an American writer All recent Robins scholars acknowledge the pioneering biographical work of Jane Marcus in her 1973 doctoral dissertation.

This work on Robins developed out of a larger and continuing project on the iconography of British women’s relationship to the state, 1905-1918, which him been awarded generous financial support: a Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission Special Research Grant grants by the School of Humanities, I n Trobe University outside studies programme travel grants by La Trobl University and a Visiting Scholarship at the Humanities Research Centro, Australian National University. Research assistants Lorraine Bullock and Steve McIntyre collated bibliographical information on Robins from standard sources During the course of the project I have had the pleasure of working with amazing librarians: Frank Walker and Maxime La Fantasie at the Fales Library. New York University and David Doughan at the Fawcett Library, London Guildhall University. Special thanks, too, to library staff at the Borchardi Library, La Trobe University, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, the New York Public Library, the British Library and the many, many archivists and manuscript librarians who answered enquiries concerning Robins manuscripts. The Athenaeum Indexing Project at the City University, London graciously allowed access to its marked file of the Athenaeum Charles Seaton, the librarian at the Spectator office, checked the marked file of the Spectator promptly and courteously. I appreciated the conversation, hospitality, and generosity of Angela John, and the encouragement and enthusiasm of the Hon. Mrs Mabel Smith, Peter Edwards and Barbara Garlick. I and the publisher wish to thank Mabel Smith for the Backsettown Trust, the Fales Library, the Fawcett Library, and the Rare Book and Special Collections Library, University of Illinois for permission to quote from manuscript sources.

ABBREVIATIONS

ERP Elizabeth Robins Papers, Fales Library, New York University. The Papers are divided into series and subseries, boxes and folders. I give enough information to identify the location of materials. A notation like Series 11A refers to Series 11, Subseries A.

CRIBRHJ Combined Retrospective Index to Book Reviews in Humanities Journals, 1802-1974.

CRIBRSJ Combined Retrospective Index to Book Reviews inScholarly Journals, 1886-1974.


Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, Two


Elizabeth Robins playing Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1891)

I must interrupt my series of blogs on the ASECS conference to recommend an excellent novel that I read this week: Elizabeth Robins’s The Convert (1907), developed out of her popular play, Votes for Women! When I was told it was a suffragette novel, I expected an overtly didactic text whose central character would be a politically active suffragette, preferably lower middle class instead I found myself in a subtle realistic novel whose central character is an enigmatic upper middle class woman, Vida Levering, much of whose life (and the action of the novel until its last quarter) takes place in Oscar Wilde like luxurious residences, elite parties, and dinners featuring witty and complex characters. We begin with her visit to a pair of wealthy children, in a lavish nursery whom Vida is visiting and move on to her servant problem: her lady’s maid, gaunt and middle-aged, wants to quit in order to leap at a chance of marriage with a widower, a market gardener she’s never met (who has children for her to care for too). The cover of the first Feminist Press edition conjures up an appropriate image for the heroine:


The image is a reproduction of Cecilia Beaux’s After the Meeting

After a few minutes this did make sense: the leaders of the suffragette movement were often women with connections, money they had some control of, and enough sense of self, of esteem, of their own rights to demand power. If nothing else, who else could find the time to proselytize, organize, work for the vote. Would a poorer woman see the importance of the vote?

We begin seemingly in the world of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, but as we listen on (the text is strongly dramatically imagined) we discover it’s more George Bernard Shaw whom Elizabeth knew fairly well at one point in her life. Interwoven with the upstairs nursery (and very snobbish stern nursery governess) and Vida’s private bedroom, we find ourselves in a political dinner party, on the surface an infinitely more intelligent, nuanced, detailed depiction of the world of Downton Abbey at a dinner, complete with (so much is missing from DA one does not know where to begin) connected politicians and semi-unacceptable people. Little is overtly explained so our curiosity is aroused. As they talk a subtle feminist and even egalitarian slant emerges. While Vida makes the point to the leading politician, Haycroft (probably intended to stand for a Tory prime minister) that the women at this function are enacting a Geisha form of life, amusing the men, there is also much in the scene that most women would want to be and to do: beautifully dressed, well-educated (Wollstonecraft would say they are mis-educated), admired, conversing, moneyed. Robins begins by bringing out the deep difficulty of reforming any society. These privileged women could not begin to see that anything but wealth and position matters, and if that is threatened in any way, it would be difficult to persuade them of the need for feminism — outside the sexual, there you might get them privately to admit to much misery. Every type of woman is gradually put before us in these first chapters. From hostess to guest, widow to a woman seeking a husband, to women trying to marry off daughters, to women seeking position in social pecking orders.

It’s the morning after and we see the home-life of Vida’s sister, Mrs Fox-Moore who was snubbed at the dinner party ad socially pathetic (acceptable only because she had made this good marriage), whom Vida is living with. They are at breakfast and the husband comes downstairs: he is a corrosive quiet tyrant over his wife and makes her life miserable. The point of the chapter is to dramatize how if someone is given full power over someone else he or she will usually use it and in unkind ways. Mrs F-M has a sickly daughter Doris whom the father dotes on — like last night’s company he despises his wife because she does not know how to manipulate others, and is overtly weak before him. We hear ofMrs F-M’s satisfaction from charity work which Vida objects to as what these poor people want is not sermons or entertainment uplifting or not, but real help: solid money to make their life different and opportunities for decent employment. That’s not said but it’s implied. Quite a difference from Dickens’s mockery of Lady Bountfiuls as bullies.

A visit to a Brideshead kind of house: Uland house and its mistress, Lady John — a full description of one of these rich houses and the people in them — some the same individuals we met at the dinner party. I could quite see Diana Quick as Lady Julia as one of these characters (from the 1981 film), as well as Jane Asher, the actress who played the upper class woman Charles Ryder marries, and Jeremy Sinden who played her brother though he is a caricature as Charles Keating, Rex, Julia’s philistine politician husband is not (and could be a characer in The Convert). Robins’s feminism continues by showing us Hermione Heriot who hides the least conventional thought, Lady Sophia who reminds me of Trollope’s Miss Dunstable but not a caricature, there’s a dog Joey, a Lord Borrodaile and Paul Filey presented as unusual and perhaps interesting. When all gather over tea we see Filey is absurd, flattering himself he is not conventional, he has written a useless book defending aesthetics as the basis of life. could this be Robins on Wilde? Filey does not seem Wilde like and is likened to Shelley. What happens is there erupts a discussion of the suffragettes which grates on Vida. Suffragettes are mocked as absurd lunatic disgusting and so on. Vida’s resistant reaction brings out a side of her publicly she had not before: she tells of a scene she saw of unemployed people protesting and a working man who was dragging a rich child on a toy horse on a string he was the horse for the child. She escapes before she says any more to a garden and then hearing her cousin, Mary, very dull, is not well, hurries off on this excuse to get out of this luxurious set of self-indulgent people who conversation is deliberately mindless. The tone inimitable rich, ironic, it reminds me of Henry James (whom Robins also knew). Robins has one of her characters mention Rhoda Broughton whose I’ve not read but know Trollope recommended and others have. This is the kind of Victorian novel that academic critics sometimes try to turn earlier Victorian women’s novels into.

Well by the center of the novel our two heroines have shown they have social consciences, and their curiosity aroused, they attend a suffragette meeting. Mrs Fox-Moore does not return a second time, but allured and fascinated despite misgivings, Vida does — with her new lady’s maid. Apparently women of the upper or middling classes did not walk alone in the streets if they were conventional. The lead-in to the first meeting showed the police becoming belligerent, derisory, obstructionist to our heroines — who never experienced anything like this before.

The meetings seemed to me to function two ways. Directly the words the suffragettes speak are ways of speaking to the audience of the book. They make the suffragette argument: how miserable are most women’s lives (working long hours, for little pay, endless children) with no power to alter this, while they have to listen to absurd rhetoric about being on pedestals and the like. There are a strong socialist admixture: the speakers all bring out the poverty and abysmal conditions of the working and lower middle class and make the analogy with chartism and men’s movements to gain the vote, and say these were efficacious. There’s now a labor party. The strongest speaker is probably intended to be a mirror of a real women: Emmeline Blunt she’s called.

We are also to experience how hostile crowds were. Most of the time I’ve gone to any political rally the people attending were people for the party. The last time I went to rally with hostile people about were demonstrations against Vietnam. Robins does justice to the kind of withering and abusive rhetoric women were subjected to, how they were mortified by a complete lack of respect. We see how odd their dress: one woman speaking is a widow with four children. She points out when a set of children lose their father they are left with the mother to try to care for them, usually in desperate circumstances and the children have no opportunities. When they lose their mother, they are unless taken in by a family, put to workhouses. Men don’t take their responsibility, will not mother. Most effective is how the women strain, what an emotional strain it is to talk above and against such a crowd. That the women get some respect, are listened to some of the time is remarkable. You see that ridicule was tried against the suffragettes, but the cause, the misery and needs of half the population (and their children suffering with them) was too important so it didn’t work

The first part of the novel was a perspective which showed her ironic realization of the circumstances and realities of her powerless life against men’s desires, wants, needs, demands children are just fitted in as what men want too. She is now being converted. Amusingly she shows the little daily routines that kept upper class family members in their place. I noticed in Downton Abbey that everyone obeyed the dinner gong. You had to give up so many hours a day to eat and dress for it too. The servants had to cook and serve the meal. The gong in emerges as a technique for repressing and controlling the behavior of the whole household.


A photo of a suffragette demonstration (ca. 1910)

The emphasis in this central and to near the end of the novel is on demonstrations — of course such scenes make for drama but you could have scenes of suffragettes talking together. There is one between a Miss Claxton and Vida Levering, but when it comes time for the woman to tell the story of her life, Robins punts. We get very few details about the misery of ordinary working women’s lives what she does tell is how when in prison women were somehow treated in a sexually disgraceful, humiliating or mortifying manner. Probably made to endure public overt harassment — it does not sound like rape. They were kicked and heads banged — that’s mentioned. Women did not get the vote until after WW1 in 1918 and in 1828 universal suffrage included women. I know there was no other way to show and try to make your desire felt. Mass demonstrations of men in Ireland and again in London and around England indirectly led to the extension of the franchise — women can’t threaten implicitly in the same way. It’s indirect: men hated to be bothered by women demonstrating, being violent, starving themselves and/or felt embarrassed by the exposure of their own power? But it was not enough: the whole experience of WW1, the breakdown of so many conventions, the death of so many men, had to intervene.

Slowly Vera begins to helping Blunt at demonstrations coming in with her carriage and helping Blunt or others to flee. She’s followed about by Lord Borrodaile who appears to worry for her physical safety. These scenes are used to make it an astute politically aware novel. The depictions of the speeches include dialogues between Vida and Ernestine Blunt where you see how Robins understood what makes people respond to a political figure and what brings out an effective active response and what people just don’t care about, or refuse to recognize can be changed. Especially good is the mockery of the men — what they say, how what they care about women is their looks and little else. One woman who presents a real intelligent case of how women workers suffer from lethal conditions fails to get any attention as she’s hitting emotions of indifference another intuitively seeks political power in her speeches and appeals more a third in ordinary life is fine but up on a bench and she’s perceived intuitively as a weak target and humiliated.

She begins to accompanied by younger upper class women who are idealistic (reminding me of Lady Sybil Crawley): one, Jean, comes with her protective suitor who she is eager not to offend by her behavior, but wants there as a protector as well as for moral support.

As Vida leaves her upper class life, people become willing to talk about her, and fissures open up so the enigmatic feel of the character is explained. It seems that as a young woman Vida “left her father’s house” (the language so reminiscent of Richardson’s Clarissa): was it an attempt at incest? did her father take a mistress openly? it matters. We are not told. A male friend who knew the family and had been kind, seduces and then takes her to live with him. The novel uses coincidence: it was Stonor himself. It seems he pushed her into having an abortion, and it is made plain that she didn’t want the abortion, she regrets it even now. I was surprised to discover that in the turn of the century a woman would talk about a fetus as a baby. I thought that was the result of recent anti-abortion rhetoric, Catholic beliefs that life and a soul start at conception from the few mentions (but real enough) I have come across in the Renaissance (Veronica Gambara’s letters where she had miscarriages) and later 17th through 18th century, until quickening the pregnancy (not called that) was not thought to be a baby after quickening few aborted, very dangerous. As I said, these 1890s novels bring out thoughts one never heard at the time (and often do not now). Vida think had she had a child, she’d have more to live for today.

In Daphne Phillips’s Women’s Fiction, 1945-2005 she describes a 1960s type of women’s novel as the single mother novel. These are books where the heroine becomes pregnant outside marriage in just about all the heroine chooses to have the child and the novel is about the burden and complications and rewards that ensue. Philips says an American survey in 1959 of documentable (middle-class) women who got pregnant outside marriage showed only 2% chose to carry the pregnancy through to birth. Novels described include Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (filmed 1962), Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone (filmed 1969 as A Touch of Love), Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (filmed 1967 as Poor Cow).

Well the crown or denouement of the book has Vida getting on the bench herself and speaking publicly. She holds her own. Not that she achieves much that we can see — but it’s an addition, however small she is a lady getting up there. But its climax, final scene reverses the emphasis back to private life. The last chapter shows the novel’s origin in a play. It reads like some final confrontation in an Ibsen play or Shaw — Vida and Stonor engaged in ahn impassioned debate over their shared past. He feels guilty about what happened, but to him she has become an unacceptable woman he wants the young woman, Jean, whom he is engaged to be as sheltered as possible and we see while at the demonstration, how she is by training and disposition heeding all he says and will obey him. Unlike Trollope, Stonor does not go on about purity and the “beauty of innocence” that is the underlying demand, but the overt thing he wants is a dependent woman who does not know how to cope with hard realities alone. We have been told by some of the other upper class women how Vida’s sister made a good marriage we have seen how she is bullied so the future before Jean may not be any different. Here is our Shavian happy ending. A remarkable book,


George Moore’s Esther Waters edited by David Skilton

I’ve read only few novels from this era about or by “new women” (emancipated in some way, women who worked for money outside the home) or presenting the realities of the time in new reformist ways: George Moore’s very great Esther Waters (and novella, Albert Nobbs) Anna Lombard by Victoria Cross, a pseudonym used by Anna Sophie Cory, sister to “Laurence Hope,” aka Adela Cory who married and lived in India (where she and Vivian and another sister were born) and wrote popular poetry depicting female sexuality, sensual desire through pseudo-Indian imagery. As I recall in Anna Lombard the heroine pressured into either having an abortion or giving up the baby to caretakers knowing that the baby may be let die — by the husband or man who deigns to marry her the book seems to endorse the idea that a man is right to refuse to be father to another man’s child and it is somehow unmanly for him to have been involved with her while she was pregnant by another man. What is shameful is he thinks of her as owned by him and orders her to kill a child. Esther Waters in Moore’s novel saves her baby from this at great sacrifice to herself the pressure is economic and socially she is regarded as a social outcast. These are books that should be better known. Hence this blog.

These “new woman” novels bring out into the discussably open for the first time realities not discussed even today — or skewed when discussed. So the first time out you can see attitudes blurted out which the person has not learned to hide.


The cover photo for Suffragette Sally (ca. 1910 photo)

Elizabeth Robins’s book is a cross-over between novels which focus on the private sexual lives of women and novels retelling the public world and activities of the suffragettes. A good Broadview edition (with an introduction about the suffragette movement, explaining why they had to resort to violence), Gertrude Colmore’s Suffragette Sally, edited by Alison Lee. One that sounded interesting is “by Lillie Devereux Blake, an American suffragist who wrote a novel, Fettered for life or Lord and Master. Blake wrote this to educate– [as in Mary Wollstonecraft] the emphasis on education — women in how greatly the law was stacked against them in marriage. Blake worried that young women were woefully uninformed about the lack of rights of married women, even in the 1870s. Blake worried that young women were woefully uninformed about the lack of rights of married women, even in the 1870s. Domestic abuse was exerted economically and legally. Blake wanted to show women that they were in great danger from husbands because the law worked from the premise that a husband would protect a wife — therefore, whatever a husband did, even hurting her physically, was seen through the lens of protecting her, keeping her line. Laws protected abuse, so there was no real justice. Also, men could easily circumvent laws as women didn’t know the law and lack finances to sue. To the 19th century suffragist movement, the vote equalled protection from domestic violence and hence from death’ (quoted from a posting by Diane Reynolds to WWTTA).

I’ve sent away (bought through Bookfinder.com) Blake’s novel. To be honest, I am more drawn to the novel of the era which focuses on women’s sexual exploitation.


From the cover of Harman’s Feminine Political Novel: upper class women caged upstairs watching Parliament: Trollope’s Madame Max refuses to go because she is locked out and in

One good book by a single author that studies women’s political novels as such, The Feminine Political Novel in Victorian England by Barbara Leah Harman includes Gaskell’s North and South, Robins’s The Convert as well as Bronte’s Shirley. It bothers me that Harman choses to cover Gissing’s The Year of the Jubilee and Meredith’s Diana of the Crossroads — were there no other women’s political novels in the 19th century? What about Henrietta Stanndard’s A Blameless Woman (about a women tricked into bigamy)? Harman with Susan Meyer has edited a collection called The New Nineteenth-Century: Feminist Reading of Underread Victorian Novels: this has good essays on Bronte’s Agnes Grey (a wonderfully bitter book), Geraldine Jewsbury’s The Half-Sister, Oliphant’s Miss Majoribanks, Eliza Lynn Lynton’s The Rebel of the Family, Sarah Grand’s Heavenly Twins, Mary (Mrs Humphry) Ward’s Marcella (about a home-visiting nurse) and Sir George Tressady, and Flora Anne Steele’s On The face of the Waters (Anglo-Indian, about rape). There is another essay on Elizabeth Robins’s fiction (she wrote 14 novels altogether, as well as plays), Angela John’s “Radical Reflections: Elizabeth Robins’s “The Making of Suffragette History and the Representation of working Class Women,” and on “Henrietta Stanndard and the Emancipation of Women, 190-1910” by Owen Ashton in The Duty of Discontent: Essays for Dorothy Thompson (wife of E.J., she wrote The Outsiders), Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts. The volume includes “Who wrote The Northern Star?, essays on the experience of the workplace by women, on lunatic asylums (what class person was put in there?), rural resistence, poverty and the poor law, chartism (all suffragette topics).


A familiar photo of Robins at the height of her career and beauty

There are two biographies of Elizabeth Robins: one, Angela V. John, Elizabeth Robins: Staging a Life, takes her long life into her later obscure years.


Elizabeth Robins in later life

The other by Joanne E. Gates, Elizabeth Robins, 1862-1852 which appears to center on her central active years as socialite, actress and woman of letters and the theater (her pseudonym was Claire Raymond), suffragette. See comments for Nina Auerbach’s review.

We are on Women Writers through the [email protected] Yahoo (WWTTA) embarked on reading Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women. These are Wollstonecraft’s great-great-granddaughters.