Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Egalitarianism in Mary Robinson's Metropolis

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Egalitarianism in Mary Robinson's Metropolis

Article excerpt

In 1800, the politically liberal Monthly Magazine published an essay entitled Present State of the Manners, Society, &c. of the Metropolis of England in four installments. (1) This exploration of London culture was composed by the impoverished writer and former royal courtesan Mary "Perdita" Robinson, who died in December of that year. Disabled in 1783 by acute rheumatic fever (Byrne 213-214), Robinson observed urban life from her carriage rather than as a pedestrian, and she had to be carried by servants from her conveyance to theatres, art exhibitions, operas, and other public places. Despite her limited mobility, during her final two years she became an important commentator on late 18th century London society and culture, writing not only the Metropolis essay but also The Sylphid (1799-1800), a series of satirical editorials published in the Morning Post and Gazetteer. The Metropolis essay celebrates London as the vibrant commercial, cultural, and social center of a progressive nation in which "the poorest peasant is ... enabled to trace the language of truth, in pages calculated by the plainest doctrines and the most rational reasoning" (108). Robinson's presentation of urban culture is, however, far from uncritical; she condemns upper-class gambling, "the frequency of public executions" (116), and the dangerous and unhealthy "practice of driving and killing cattle ... in a great and populous city" (112). While she endorses the emerging egalitarianism in London and "the expansion of mind" made possible by the monthly and diurnal press, "which daily evinces itself among all classes of the people" (118), she deplores the unwillingness of aristocrats, plutocrats, and statesmen to support and befriend authors and artists. According to her, "Men as well as women of talents are shut out from the abodes of the highborn, and rather avoided than courted by the powerfully wealthy" (115). Increased egalitarianism has not appreciably benefited "the aristocracy of genius" (115).

Recent scholarship on Present State of ... the Metropolis of England makes the essay appear less contradictory than it is. Judith Pascoe's upbeat appraisal of Robinson's "celebration of urban spectacle and female performance" (139) downplays the essay's grim spectacles of gibbets on public roads, coffins carelessly "interred at the end of a nursery-ground," and "the sons and daughters of genius and of labour ... starving in the obscure abodes of industry and sorrow" (Metropolis 112). Adriana Craciun's assertion that the Metropolis essay is "Resolutely ... democratic" ("Mary Robinson ... and the Free Press" 28) disregards Robinson's insistence that accomplished writers like herself should consort with the highborn and wealthy rather than "mingle with the vulgar" (115). Instead of calling for the abolition of the aristocracy, Robinson wants the nobility to socialize with and patronize authors so "women of letters" (115) no longer have to associate with commoners, who, in spite of their education by the press, apparently remain incapable of appreciating literary talent. In his analysis of the Metropolis essay, Jon Klancher emphasizes its condemnation of "London's patrician class" that refuses to support or recognize "the metropolitan cultural producers" ("Discriminations" 69-70). But while Robinson bitterly attacks the negligent and anti-intellectual aristocracy, she also notes that some members of" the nobility imitate rather than disdain purveyors of culture. She lists several "NOBLE AUTHORS" who have penned literary works that "are the offspring of honourable emulation" (115). Robinson concedes, moreover, that although "the lot of the sons and daughters of the Muses has been too often marked by neglect" (109) their achievements have nevertheless been astonishing. Her admission that "the tree of knowledge has flourished spontaneously [even though] patronage has been frigid" (108-109) undercuts her chum that aristocratic sponsorship of the arts and sciences is desperately needed. …

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