1. When she was only seven years old, Mary Darby’s father abandoned his family. How much of her life do you think was shaped by this event?
2. Mary’s parents, particularly her father, were very much against her ambitions for a theatrical career. Do you agree with their decision? How much of what Mary experienced do you think was due to the fact that she became a celebrated actress, and how much was due to other factors? If you think the latter plays a part, what other factors do you think shaped her destiny?
3. Mary’s mother was keen to see her enter a respectable marriage, regardless of Mary’s own desires, marrying her off when she was in her mid-teens, young even for the Georgian era. Given the period in which these women lived, and the maturity level of a relatively sheltered fifteen-year-old girl, was Mrs. Darby right? Was Mary right? What would you have done if you had walked in either of their shoes?
4. In order to become the prince’s mistress, Mary gave up a lucrative career and a financial independence that was very rare for a woman of her day. Do you think she was justified in insisting on an annuity after he ended the relationship?
5. Mary lived at a time and in a society where a member of the gentry and lower classes could not get a divorce. Clearly she endured countless humiliations from her wayward husband, but was bound to him for life. Do you blame her or applaud her for seeking-and finding-love and happiness in the arms of other men? What would you have done if you were in the same situation?
6. Smart women, foolish choices. Or not. Why do you think Mary remained with Tarleton for the better part of fifteen years? What did each of them get from the relationship? Have you ever been there yourself?
7. In a letter written to William Godwin toward the end of her life, Mary referred to Maria as “my secondself.” Maria stuck by her mother for all the days of her life. What do you think of this decision? Why do you think Maria never married? Contrast that to why Jane Austen never married.
8. In the last year of her life, Mary was jailed for debt. By law, a husband was financially responsible for his wife, including paying her debts, whether they resided together or not; yet Mary, who was ill and in pain at the time, chose imprisonment, rather than involving Mr. Robinson (whom she hadn’t seen in years) in her predicament. What do you think of this decision, given Mary’s complicated relationship with her husband and debts?
9. Mary is considered one of the first “celebrities.” She was the subject of extensive gossip among all strata of society. Her every action was noted and written about in the papers, and she had no compunction about getting good press by “puffing” herself. Women wanted to emulate Mary’s fashion sense, yet at the same time she was considered vulgar-not just because of her many (and much-publicized) love affairs, but because self-promotion of any kind was thought to be unfeminine and immodest. If Mary lived today, with whom do you think she’d be sharing the tabloid headlines? What differences might she find between her own society and ours? What similarities might she find?
10. Mary was considered a literary pioneer for using her own life experiences in her writing. As a poetess she experimented with scansion and meter, and Coleridge and Wordsworth openly acknowledged her influence on their own work. In her novels, Mary’s uncanny skill in holding a mirror up to the foibles of contemporary society presages the sly wit of Austen and Thackeray, two authors whose names and novels live on and remain widely read. Mary Robinson was immensely prolific, writing in more genres (poetry, novels, comedies, tragedies, satires, operas, philosophical essays, and journalism) than any other female writer of her time-and yet relatively little of her vast body of work is available today. It isn’t regularly studied in high schools and universities. Discuss why this might be the case. Now that you know about her life, are you interested in reading Mary’s novels and poetry?
11. In Mary’s 1799 novel The Natural Daughter, the publisher Mr. Index counsels the heroine, a budding author, on how to write a surefire bestseller: fictionalize a real-life scandal, give it a provocative title, and the readers will devour it. Has much has changed since then?
12. Had you heard of Mary Robinson before you read this novel? Now that you know something about her, what do you think her legacy is?