For a fellow who had earned the nickname “Bloody Ban”, Banastre Tarleton was quite the ladies’ man. Although not a large man, his compelling physical presence belied his short stature. He was strong and athletic with reddish hair and dark eyes. It was his arrogant charm, however, that tantalized the ladies as much as (if not more than) his handsome features and his heroism.
Mary Robinson as Perdita, John Hoppner, 1782
One of the most desirable women in England at the time, the actress Mary Robinson, better known as Perdita, met him through the Prince Regent. Upon his return to England, Tarleton was hailed as a hero, an honor which granted him membership into Prinny’s exclusive set. Mary Robinson had been one of Prinny’s many mistresses and had lately found a new protector in Lord Malden. Much like Tarleton, Malden was convinced of his sexual prowess. He bet that Mary would remain faithful to him even if Tarleton attempted to woo her away from him. An account of the bet in the salacious Memoirs of Perdita claimed Tarleton “would not only win her from Malden, but also jilt her.”
Ever the gambling man, Tarleton’s wager was well placed. Several weeks after the planned seduction, Mary was in Tarleton’s bed and Lord Malden was astonished. Up until this point, the three had been a mischievous trio, amusing themselves by playing tricks on Mary’s admirers and would-be suitors. Now they had a fracture.
Ban in his green coat uniform
Mary was furious when she discovered herself the victim of their scheme. As his hubris had made him a grand fool, Lord Malden relinquished his role as Mary’s protector, though he did settle upon her an annuity and also a house in Berkley Square. Tarleton, never truly ruffled by anything, weathered the storm. He was at Mary’s side in June when she suffered a traffic accident in Hyde Park and this dilligence in attending to her awarded him her forgiveness.
Although their passionate affair evolved into one of increasing strife and reconciliation, Tarleton remained Mary’s lover for 15 years. They were the celebrity couple of their time. Wherever they went—to balls, operas, political gatherings—people whispered.
Considered the most fashionably dressed in any room, the young couple made a beautiful pair and the papers loved them for it. The war hero and actress were fodder for the insatiable public, appearing in the papers with as much frequency as celebrities in today’s supermarket newsrags. James Gillray, a fledgling cartoonist at the time, published his scathing cartoon, “The Thunderer” (subtitled “Vide; Every Man in his Humour, alter’d from Ben Johnson”) in 1792.
The featherhead is none other than the Prince Regent (the triple feather was his father’s emblem). Tarleton (with a noticeably large package in his breeches) is regaling Prinny with tales of war. Mary is the whirligig above the door with a sign reading “A la mode beef, hot every night.” Every man, we are to assume, gets to have a go at her. The dialogue reads as follows:
Throughout his relationship with Mary, Tarleton was criticized for keeping around a loose woman who was nothing but a hindrance to him. His family keenly disapproved, in part because while around Mary, he could not seem to live within his means. From the previous post, we know this problem predates Mary, but perhaps they thought Mary a bad egg, worsening Tarleton’s profligacy through influence. They would not be the first family to do so.
Tarleton’s lavish lifestyle with Mary eventually caught up with. In 1783 his family offered to pay his most pressing debts, a total of £5,000, if he would leave for the continent without his lover. In desperation, Mary borrowed to prevent this eventuality and chased after him. She suffered a miscarriage on her journey and, as her biographer Paula Byrne has speculated, experienced partial paralysis of her lower limbs, possibly at the hands of a malpracticing midwife. Tarleton was greatly aggrieved to hear the news and the couple swiftly reunited in France.
Mrs Mary Robinson – Perdita by Thomas Gainsborough, 1781
Mary’s condition seems to be of no impediment to their relationship. Although they were on occassion known to be unfaithful, they lived together for many years after her health problems commenced and became known as “the wandering couple”, a reference to their travels while under pressure of debts.
Regarding one affair of signifcance, Tarleton simply shrugged off Mary’s liason with Charles James Fox, saying, “I shall ever applaud the Perdita for being the most generous woman on earth.” Mary was not so equanimous when Tarleton diddled with another lady. From the late 1780s, she was known to write poetry and novels portraying Tarleton as a villain and whatnot.
The details of their eventual breakup are not known, but we do know that Tarleton had political ambitions. He first ran for parliament in 1784, but he didn’t win a seat until 1790.
Over the years, Mary, plagued by her condition, evolved into an independent woman of letters. Her peers called her “The English Sappho”. She wrote prolifically, producing numerous poems, six novels, two plays, and a feminist treaty a la A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Wollstonecraft. She was also working on her unfinished memoirs.
Her liberal, feminist leanings did no favors for Tarleton’s political career. Compared to his Tory brother (whom he actually ran against once), Tarleton did vote for parliamentary opposition as a Whig, but he was also well known for his support of the slave trade. One can see how this would not go over well with Mary.
Contemplation, Mrs. Mary Robinson by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1783-1784 (Wallace Collection)
The couple eventually parted ways in 1797. Mary was left with thousands of pounds of debt, presumably shared, but her relationship with Tarleton had been costly. When he first ran for MP in 1784, creditors found the couple, living again in England, and took possession of a large majority of Mary’s property.
Tarleton, although a war hero and the author of the successful History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, had very little to live on, essentially half military pay of £341. Mary also earned income off her novels, but the numbers were dismal. Over her writing career, she earned approxiately £460. Given her and Tarleton’s financial disappointments, perhaps the same woman who published the poem Sappho and Phaon in 1796, a markedly different poem than her “Ode to Valour“, had reason to be bitter.
A year after their final breakup, Tarleton married Susan Priscilla Bertie, the illegitimate daughter of the 4th and last Duke of Ancaster. They were married for 35 years, but had no children.
After years of poor health, Mary died in 1800, but in an interesting twist of fates, Susan Tarleton befriended Mary’s only daughter, Mary Elizabeth Robinson. When Mary Elizabeth, a novelist herself, published the anthology The Wild Wreath in 1804, the engravings were based on drawings of “Mrs. B. Tarleton”. Their friendship is not entirely surpising given that Mary Elizabeth was raised around Tarleton. Since she likely had an enduring connection to the man who was father to her for over 15 years, it was even to be expected.
For more about Mary Robinson and Banastre Tarleton:
My previous post: Handsome Devil’s and their Deeds: Banastre Tarleton
The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide: Tart of the Week: Mary “Perdita” Robinson
Perdita, a biography by Paula Byrne
Mary Robinson’s bio and links to her works from the University of Pennsylvania’s Celebration of Women Writers
Mary Robinson: A Life Lived Extraordinarily (Jane Austen Centre)
A short article on Sappho and Phaon from The Guardian
The First Actresses Exhibition: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons
All for Love: The Scandalous Life and Times of Royal Mistress Mary Robinson by Amanda Elyot (a novel)
The Prince’s Mistress: Perdita, a life of Mary Robinson by Hester Davenport
For the numbers on Ban and Mary’s pay scale see, Mary Robinson: Select Poems, edited By Judith Pascoe