Partner Florence Bell, Octavia Wilberforce
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Elizabeth Robins (August 6, 1862 – May 8, 1952) was an actress, playwright, novelist, and suffragette. She also wrote as C. E. Raimond. Elizabeth Robins lived with Octavia Wilberforce from 1908 until she returned to the US in 1940. Elizabeth Robins was a close friend of Helen Archdale, Mary Agnes Hamilton, Cicely Hamilton and Margaret Rhondda. She had a rivalry with Rebecca West.
The American actor and writer Elizabeth Robins, and a member of the British landed classes, had a relationship with the author and social investigator, Lady Florence Bell. Robins is best known for introducing Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and The master builder to Britain (she learnt Norwegian in order to do this), and as the author of many ‘suffrage’ novels. Florence Bell’s name crops up most often as the author of a 30-year-long social investigation called At the works, about the lives and work of more than 1,000 families in Middlesbrough, the site of her husband’s ironworking factory. At the works was dedicated to Charles Booth, but it rejected an approach dominated by statistics, relying chiefly on the observations of ‘female visitors’, including Bell herself, who engaged the families in ‘friendly and continuous intercourse’. Bell was a prolific writer of drama, fiction and biography and she was also an accomplished multilingual translator. She and Robins were poles apart in age, wealth, social standing, life-style and political attitudes, but they loved each other, confided in each other and worked intensively together, producing plays and translations that helped to secure Robins’ reputation as an actor; introduce Ibsen’s drama to British audiences; make up for the deficit of good female parts; and place on the stage some of the big social issues of the day. Their first joint enterprise, performed in 1893, was a play called Alan’s wife, a short tragedy in three scenes about a woman whose husband dies and who gives birth to and then smothers a handicapped child. It was a play about the dangers of industrial work (the husband is mangled by a factory machine) and the collision between idealized family life and the harsh economic and social conditions other reformers made the subject of their research. It was a play about motherhood, about female sexuality, about the New Woman and about female independence, and it puzzled and disturbed its audiences. Alan’s wife was based on a Swedish short story, but Bell and Robins relocated it to the north of England, where Lady Bell lived in a rambling arts and crafts house near the sea in the Yorkshire resort of Redcar with her husband and children; she had her family, and Robins a long-standing liaison with Dr Octavia Wilberforce, whom Robins helped to put through medical school when Wilberforce’s father disinherited her (the convolutions of these relationships are impressive). Bell and Robins published Alan’s wife anonymously, Robins not wanting to confuse her acting and writing reputations, and Bell mindful that her husband would rather she didn’t engage in such exploits. It took them 30 years to acknowledge their authorship. They revelled in the intimacy of their long professional and personal association, much of which was kept from the public eye: ‘I love you all the hours of the day’ confessed Robins to Bell, who admitted to ‘a wild longing’ for Robins. They wrote letters to each other several times a week for the best part of 40 years.
Seated at the far left is Alice Paul conferring. Left to Right – Seated – Alice Paul, Elizabeth Robins, Viscountess Rhondda, Dr. Louisa Martindale, Mrs. Virginia Crawford, Dorothy Evans – Standing – Mrs. Pethick-Lawrence, Alison Neilans, Florence Underwood, Miss Barry.
Elizabeth Robins, the first child of Charles Robins and Hannah Crow, was born in Louisville, Kentucky. After financial difficulties, her father left for Colorado, leaving the children in the care of Hannah. When Hannah was committed to an insane asylum, Elizabeth and the other children were sent to live with her grandmother in Zanesville, Ohio, where she was educated. It would be her grandmother who armed her with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and her unconditional support on her endeavor to act in New York City. Her father was a follower of Robert Owen and held progressive political views. Though her father was an insurance broker, he traveled a lot during her childhood and in the summer of 1880, Robins accompanied him to mining camps and was able to attend theatre in New York and Washington along the way. Because of her intelligence, Elizabeth was one of her father's favorites. He wanted her to attend Vassar College and study medicine. At the age of fourteen, Robins saw her first professional play (Hamlet) which ignited her desire to pursue an acting career. From 1880 to 1888, she would have an acting career in America.
After arriving in New York, Robins soon met James O'Neill, who helped her join Edwin Booth's theatre and by 1882, she was touring. She soon grew bored and irritated playing "wretched, small character parts" and in 1883 joined the Boston Museum stock company. It would be here that she met her future husband, George Parks, who was also a member of the company. In 1885 Robins married Parks. Although her husband struggled to get acting parts, she was soon in great demand and would be on tour throughout their marriage. Her refusal to leave the stage may have caused Parks to kill himself in 1887 by jumping off a bridge into the Charles River, stating in his suicide note, "I will not stand in your light any longer." On September 3, 1888, Robins moved to London. "Her move to London represented a rebirth after personal tragedy in America." Except for extended visits to the U.S. to visit family, she remained in England for the rest of her life.
At a social gathering during her first week in England, she met Oscar Wilde. Throughout her career, he would come see her act and give her critiques, such as in one of her roles in Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1889. Wilde's comment was "you have definitely asserted your position as an actress of the first order. Your future on our stage is assured."
Early in her time in London, she became enamoured of Ibsen's plays. In 1891 a London matinee revival of A Doll's House put Robins in contact with Marion Lea. Together they would form a joint management, making this the "first step toward the theatre that Robins had dreamed of… a theatre of independent management and artistic standards." Finding work in "'women's plays' written by men like Ibsen," Robins and Lea brought strong female characters to the stage. George Bernard Shaw noted "what is called the Woman Question has begun to agitate the stage." Together Elizabeth Robins and Marion Lea brought Ibsen's Hedda Gabler to the stage, for the first time ever in England. A Doll's House "marked an important step in the representation of women by dramatists" and Hedda marked an important step for Elizabeth Robins, becoming her defining role. "Sarah Bernhardt could not have done it better," wrote William Archer in a publication of The World.. From then on, Hedda became synonymous with Robins on the English stage. Robins and Lea would go on to produce a handful of Ibsen's other 'New Woman' plays. "The experience of acting and producing Ibsen's plays and the reactions to her work helped transform Elizabeth over time into a committed supporter of women's rights." In 1898, she joined forces with William Archer, an influential critic, and together they produced non-profit Ibsen plays. She became known in Britain as "Ibsen's High Priestess."
In 1902, she was Lucrezia in Stephen Phillips's Paolo and Francesca at the St. James's Theatre, London. Ending her acting career at the age of forty, Robins had made her mark on the English stage as not only an actress but an actress-manageress.
Robins realised her income from acting was not stable enough to carry her. While Robins was busy being a successful actress, she had to leave England to look for her brother in Alaska, who had gone missing. Her experiences searching for her brother led her to write her novels, Magnetic North (written in 1904) and Come and Find Me (1908). Before this, she had written novels such as George Mandeville's Husband (1894), The New Moon (1895), Below the Salt and Other Stories (1896) and several others under the name of C. E. Raimond. She explained her use of a pseudonym as a means of keeping her acting and writing careers separate but gave it up when the media reported that Robins and Raimond were the same. She enjoyed a long career as a fiction and nonfiction writer.
In 1905 Margaret Dreier heard Raymond Robins deliver a lecture on the social gospel in a Brooklyn church. Robins was the brother of Elizabeth Robins. Margaret married Robins and for a while they lived at the Hull House settlement in Chicago. Margaret and her husband were involved in providing free lectures to the local population on a wide variety of different topics.
In her biography of Elizabeth Robins, Staging a Life, Angela John says, "It is possible to trace in Elizabeth's writing from 1890s onwards an emerging feminist critique, clearly, but only partly, influenced by the psychological realism of Ibsen, which would find most confident expression in 1907 in her justly celebrated novel The Convert". Robins' main character, Vida, speaks to "male politicians and social acquaintances", something very different from what the women of Robins' time did – something very reminiscent of one of Ibsen's 'new women.' The novel is an adaptation of Robins's most successful play, Votes for Women! The first play to bring the "street politics of women's suffrage to the stage", Votes for Women! led to a surge of suffrage theatre. Elizabeth Robins first attended "open-air meetings of the suffrage union" when the Women's Social and Political Union moved its headquarters from Manchester to London in 1906. It was then that she "abandoned" the current play she was writing and worked to complete the very first suffrage drama. "The more Robins became immersed in the work, the more she became converted to the cause".
She became a member of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, as well as the Women's Social and Political Union, although she broke with the WSPU over its increasing use of violent militancy. She remained a strong advocate of women's rights, however, and used her gifts as a public speaker and writer on behalf of the cause. In 1907 her book The Convert was published. It was later turned into a play that became synonymous with the suffrage movement. Robins remained an active feminist throughout her life. In the 1920s she was a regular contributor to the feminist magazine, Time and Tide. She also continued to write books such as Ancilla's Share: An Indictment of Sex Antagonism, which explored the issues of sexual inequality. She collected and edited speeches, lectures, and articles dealing with the women's movement, some of which had never previously appeared in print (Way Stations, published by Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, 1913).
Robins was involved in the campaign to allow women to enter the House of Lords. Her friend, Margaret Haig Thomas, 2nd Viscountess Rhondda, was the daughter of Viscount Rhondda. He was a supporter of women's rights and in his will made arrangements for Margaret to inherit his title. This was considered radical, as women did not normally inherit peerage titles. When Rhondda died in 1918 the House of Lords refused to allow Margaret, now the Viscountess Rhondda, to take her seat. Robins wrote numerous articles on the subject, but the House of Lords refused to change its decision. It was not until 1958 that women were first admitted to the House.
Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, 1st Baron Pethick-Lawrence credited Robins with explaining to him the difference between a suffragette and a suffragist.
A beautiful woman, Robins was pursued by many men. She admitted to a deep attraction to her close friend, the highly respected literary critic and fellow Ibsen scholar, William Archer. As a married man Archer was unavailable, however. Except for her brief marriage to George Parks, she remained a fiercely independent single woman. Highly intelligent, she was welcomed into the cream of London's literary and artistic circles, enjoying friendships with George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James, as well as a tempestuous romantic (but probably non-physical) relationship with the much younger future poet laureate John Masefield.
In 1900 she traveled alone to the gold rush camps of Alaska in search of her favorite brother Raymond Robins whom she feared was lost in the Yukon. After a long and arduous journey, she located Raymond in Nome. She shared his life in wild and lawless Alaska throughout the summer of 1900. Her adventures were not without cost – the typhoid fever she contracted at that time compromised her health for the rest of her life. Robins's tales about Alaska provided material for a number of articles she sent on to London for publication. Her best selling book, The Magnetic North, is an account of her experiences, as is The Alaska-Klondike Diary of Elizabeth Robins.
Although she rejected her father's plans for her to be educated as a doctor, she retained a strong interest in medicine. In 1909 she met Octavia Wilberforce, a young woman whose fervent desire to study medicine was thwarted by a family that felt intellectualism and professional careers were 'unsexing' for women. When Wilberforce's father not only refused to pay for her studies, but disinherited her for pursuing them, Robins and other friends provided financial and moral support until she became a physician. While some have conjectured that Robins and Wilberforce were romantically involved, such insinuation has never been supported by the considerable scholarly material available about both women, nor is it born out in their own copious written material. All evidence points to Robins and Wilberforce enjoying a relationship much like that of mother and daughter. In her declining years she developed a friendship with Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Dr Wilberforce, the great-granddaughter of William Wilberforce, the British emancipator of slaves, looked after Robins until her death in 1952, just months shy of her 90th birthday.
There was no law in Britain governing adoption until 1926. Well-known single women adopted babies, including Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst and Elizabeth Robins. Elizabeth Blackwell and Frances Power Cobbe are examples among earlier feminists.
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