MARY ROBINSON (1758–1800)

Actress, dramatist, poet, victim of a debt-ridden husband, mistress (briefly) of the Prince of Wales, among others, and author of numerous, and profitable, novels of sensibility, Mary Robinson was one of those independent ‘viragos’ who upset so many conventional men at the end of the eighteenth century. She was admired by Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Coleridge, and her poems and novels found a wide readership among all classes despite her notoriety. Mathias classified her together with those ‘ingenious ladies’ through whose novels young women were sometimes ‘tainted with democracy’. Her novel Hubert de Sevrac shows a greater political awareness than most, and is set in the present, during the beginning of the reign of Terror in France. Some of her Gothic trappings were borrowed from Radcliffe and Lewis, and were in turn borrowed by Coleridge (for his poem ‘Christabel’). (For Coleridge’s remarks on her, see his letter to her daughter.)

Copyright © 2000, 2012 Rictor Norton

Chapter 1

O how portentous is prosperity!
How, comet-like, it threatens while it shines.

The ancient chateau of Montnoir, situated on the confines of Lombardy, was the melancholy asylum of Hubert de Sevrac and his unfortunate family. Born to an elevated rank in society, and educated amidst the splendours of a court, he shrunk from the approach of poverty, because it was accompanied by the menace of disgrace, and embraced the moment which presented an opportunity for flight, under the dreadful apprehension, that the next might conduct him to a scaffold.
          He commenced his wandering journey, as one, who had relinquished every thing of his original consequence, except an exquisitely feeling heart, and a dignified sense of honour, which could not be subdued by the severity of fortune. Monsieur de Sevrac, previous to an epoch, the most important in the annals of Europe, enjoyed many dignified and lucrative appointments in the political affairs of France, with the hereditary rank of Marquis, and a private fortune, which had been bequeathed to his wife shortly after his marriage.
          Gifted by nature, not only with every exterior grace, but with a mind, generous and benevolent, his popularity had kept pace with his good fortune; and even in the mazes of a court, where the rank weed of envy spreads its most baleful influence, he was beloved by his equals; while those who were placed beneath him revered his virtues, and felt the effects of his munificence.
          But, at that dreadful period, when the tumult of discontent perverted the cause of universal liberty; when vast multitudes were destined to expiate the crimes of individuals, indiscriminate vengeance swept all before it, and like an overwhelming torrent engulphed every object that attempted to resist its force. It was at that momentous crisis, that the wise, the virtuous, and the unoffending, were led forth to the scene of slaughter; while in the glorious effort for the emancipation of millions, justice and humanity were for a time unheard, or unregarded.
          In the summer of 1792, the Marquis, and Madame de Sevrac, with their only daughter, and the venerable Abbé Le Blanc, quitted their habitation in the Place de Vendome, and, disguised as peasants, passed the barrier of Paris: From the heights of Chaillot, they frequently heard the distant sound of the tocsin [alarm bell], while the shouts of the populace filled their minds with augmented agitation.
          It was at that awful hour, that de Sevrac examined the retrospect of his prosperous days. All the phantoms of delight purchased by the sufferings of the people, all the irritated tribes of wretchedness, whose wants had hitherto been unregarded, now conspired to taunt his imagination. He probed his lacerated bosom; and he found, that though no act of oppression, immediately proceeding from himself, had contaminated its feelings, he had been accessory to crimes, and deserved to participate in their punishment. The scene of delusive grandeur was at an end; the splendid pageantry viewed through the medium of reflection, faded into nothing, all of the deceptive had vanished; and the prospect before him and his companions, was cold, desolate, melancholy and forlorn.
          Six hundred louis d’ors, and the jewels of Madame de Sevrac, now composed the whole of their diminished fortune; an old cabriolet, which they purchased on their second day’s route, served to convey them; Madame de Sevrac and Sabina occupied the vehicle, while the Marquis and the Abbé Le Blanc walked by burns, and by turns undertook the arrangement of each day’s journey. The court had been the only sphere in which they had hitherto moved with eclat; driven from their native circle, without a glimpse of hope, friendless, and unknown, all the corners of the earth presented, with an equal portion of attraction, an asylum, where sorrow might repose, but where memory never could be obliterated.
          The first twenty-four hours stole slowly on, marked with that silence which is the effect of deep and melancholy musing. Scarcely accustomed to the disguise which was become necessary for their safety, and fearful of betraying their real situation to those, whom chance might throw in their way, and whose minds had leisure to scrutinize the sorrows of others, they agreed to speak but little; and they were cautious not to utter a syllable more than was absolutely requisite for the convenience of travelling. The Abbé was a native of Languedoc, and perfectly knew the provincial dialect of the country; on him devolved the task of conversing with the inhabitants of the different places through which they were obliged to pass, until they were more at liberty to resume their names, and throw off the disguise that concealed them.
          Sabina, who was the darling of her parents, frequently watched her mother’s eyes, where tears of sympathy often marked the attention she paid to the varying emotions, which agitated the mind of Monsieur de Sevrac. During the third day a tempest overtook them; the thunder rolled in successive peals above their heads, and the vivid flashes of lightning played round their carriage. As they were at some distance from any house, they hastened for shelter to the skirts of a thick wood; where in a few minutes they found a safe retreat from the fury of the elements.
          ‘I remember the time,’ said Madame de Sevrac, ‘when my heart would have shuddered, and my blood have been chilled, at the sight of the dreadfully embattled clouds, that are now bursting over us! Is it thus that calamity makes its worst scenes familiar? thus can the mind become insensible of danger by the repetition of perillous [sic] events? I have often listened to the storms of winter, when I was sheltered in the abode of prosperity; and as often sighed in pity for the poor villager, whose little dwelling was exposed to their destructive fury!’
          ‘And yet,’ said Monsieur de Sevrac, ‘that villager was happier than yourself, cherished in obscurity, the deceptions of a court, and the clamours of an oppressed multitude, were alike unknown to him: as he knew no guile, he dreaded no punishment; secure, amidst those of an equal station, he laboured cheerfully, and lived unenvied.’
          ‘But did the labours of the villager at all times ensure him the comforts of life?’ said Sabina.
          ‘The necessaries of life they did,’ replied Monsieur de Sevrac; ‘nature required no more.’
          ‘Then’ said Sabina, ‘if the nobles had relinquished their superfluous luxuries, and by a more equal participation, afforded the peasantry something, beyond the bare necessaries of life, would not the world have been more at peace?’
          ‘The human mind is never satisfied. It is restless, irritable, and ever awake to misery:’ answered the Marquis.
          ‘Have not the poor, minds, as well as the rich?’ continued Sabina: ‘Surely they have; and as they are less cultivated, they are more liable to all the defects which you have described. Is it not barbarous then to drive that being to despair, who has not acquired the means of guarding against its approaches?’
          ‘I always pitied the unhappy’ said the Marquis. ‘I never oppressed them, Heaven knows!’
          ‘And yet we lived amongst such as never felt for those, whose hard fortune placed them in poverty: all our friends, all our associates, were the enemies of the people,’ cried Sabina.
          ‘Not all I hope,’ answered the Marquis, shuddering at the reflection.
          Madame de Sevrac, endeavoured to change the subject of conversation.
          ‘The storm will soon pass over,’ said she ‘and the journey will be more pleasant after the refreshing torrents have ceased to fall.’
          ‘This,’ replied de Sevrac, ‘is but a transient tempest; when will the storm subside that pours its crimson torrents over my distracted country, that strikes her children to the dust, or scatters them over the earth to beg for mercy? what is to become of her laws? who will afford an asylum to her exiled nobles?’
          ‘Why cannot they live like those happy villagers, whom you described just now?’ cried Sabina. ‘You say, that they labour cheerfully, and dread no punishment: that they have the necessaries of life; and, that Nature requires no more.’
          The simplicity with which Sabina uttered the most penetrating reproofs, silenced Monsieur de Sevrac, the storm passed on, the evening closed, and the remainder of that day was marked by mournful rumination.

[SOURCE: Mary Robinson, Hubert de Sevrac, A Romance of the Eighteenth Century, 3 vols (London: Hookham and Carpenter, 1796), vol. 1, pp. 5–15]

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