Victorian Literature Elizabeth Robins
by
Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, Alexandra Paddock
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0154

Introduction

Elizabeth Robins (b. 1862–d. 1952) was an American actress, novelist, playwright, short story author, suffragist campaigner, journalist, and theatre manager who spent most of her career in Britain. A key champion of Ibsen’s plays in England, she founded her own theatre company along with fellow actress Marion Lea in order to produce some of Ibsen’s plays, premiering roles such as Hedda Gabler and Hilde Wangel. As a dramatist, she is best known for her play Votes for Women! (1907), which played a central role in the suffrage movement. Her anonymously published and performed play Alan’s Wife (1893), coauthored with Lady Florence Bell, explored taboo themes such as infanticide, postpartum depression, and euthanasia. She wrote many works of fiction under the pseudonym C. E. Raimond. Her unpublished works, housed in the New York University Library’s Fales Collection, are extensive and largely unexplored, and include letters, diaries, journals, promptbooks, plays, novels, and other prose works. Robins was born in Kentucky, and spent much of her childhood on Staten Island, New York. Her mother’s mental health in decline (she died in an institution in 1901), Robins developed a close relationship with her youngest brother, Raymond, and also found support in her grandmother. Robins grew interested in drama and at age nineteen embarked on a stage career, first in New York and then in Boston. She married fellow actor George Richmond Parks in 1885. Two years later, he committed suicide by walking into the Charles River wearing a suit of stage armor. Robins then went on a grueling tour across the country with Edwin Booth before making England her home from the mid-1880s onward, though she remained an American citizen. Her lucky break came with the plays of Ibsen, who was then beginning to be staged in Britain. Robins’s last stage appearance was in 1902. For the remainder of her long career, Robins wrote constantly, both nonfiction and fiction, and continued to spearhead the women’s suffrage movement. She helped direct the feminist journal Time and Tide in the 1920s. Although firmly aligned with feminism and a leading New Woman writer, Robins moved in circles whose members have become part of a male-centric canon (James, Shaw, Wilde, Masefield, and many others), and critical reception and interpretation of her work have often been fractured because of this diffused identity across many different areas of work, as well as her own ambivalence about marriage and motherhood (she remained single and childless). Robins has long been studied by theatre historians, feminist studies scholars, and Ibsen specialists and is now receiving attention for her relevance to medical humanities, as her work deals extensively with hereditary disease, euthanasia, women and illness, female alcoholism, biological determinism, and mental disorder. Much scholarship still remains to be done, particularly on her prose fiction and in mining the vast archives of unpublished material in the Fales Collection.

General Overviews and Biographies

There are two major biographies: Gates 1994 and John 1995. These are still the most comprehensive surveys of Robins across the many areas of her life and work. Scholarly attention has focused overwhelmingly on Robins’s work in the 1890s as an actress, Ibsen champion, and playwright, as evidenced by most of the entries in this bibliography, but Park 2003 and Thomas 1993[?] both pay considerable attention to Robins’s other writings, and Gates 1994 gives a good sense of the vast archives of unpublished material produced by Robins that have yet to be fully mined.

  • Chisholm, Hugh, ed. “Robins, Elizabeth.” In Encyclopædia Britannica. 12th ed. London and New York, 1922.

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    Chisholm very briefly characterizes Robins’s professional life, including her training as an actress, significant performances in London from 1889 to 1902, her novels written under pseudonyms and her own name from 1894 to 1920, and her work for female suffrage, including her 1907 play, Votes for Women! This text is available via wikisource.

  • Gates, Joanna E. Elizabeth Robins 1862–1952: Actress, Novelist, Feminist. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1994.

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    Gates draws on unpublished archival sources that she has been instrumental in making public, and she frames each chapter with a miniature dramatic dialogue in which she imagines each phase of Robins’s life as it might be staged. Gates explores Robins’s writing “in the context of her developing feminist aesthetic,” of which Robins’s career as an actress and Ibsen champion forms a part but is not the main focus here.

  • John, Angela V. Elizabeth Robins: Staging a Life 1862–1952. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

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    John’s comprehensive biography examines Robins’s sense of self-presentation, comparing her various modes of self-framing throughout her life. She draws on Robins’s papers, including unpublished drafts of her writing, in order to trace how Robins engaged with life-writing, and also to show how this examination inevitably re-evaluates John’s own scholarly purpose as a biographer. Includes extensive illustrations and appendices on Robins’s theatre appearances, publications, and suffragist writing.

  • John, Angela V. “Robins, Elizabeth.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Rev. ed. Edited by Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    Drawing on her work in Staging a Life, John outlines Robins’s life from birth to death, highlighting her early life in the United States, her acting career in London, and her work with Florence Bell and Henry James. John then parallels Robins’s emerging suffragism with her transition into writing as her main profession, and also details Robins’s late interest in memoir and biography before her death. First published 2004.

  • Kelly, Katherine E. “Elizabeth Robins (1862–1952).” In British Playwrights, 1860–1956: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Edited by William Demastes. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

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    Alphabetically ordered entries in this volume include Robins as a significant British playwright in the period (although she was US-born). Kelly emphasizes Robins’s work as a stage manager, playwright, and polemicist, as well as a leading Ibsen actress, and her increasing turn from theatre to writing at the age of forty, in 1902 (with the exception of her play Votes for Women! in 1907). The entry also includes a list of major works, archival sources, and a bibliography.

  • MacKay, Carol Hanbery. Creative Negativity: Four Victorian Exemplars of the Female Quest. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

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    Robins is grouped with poet-photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, novelist-essayist Anne Thackeray Ritchie, and activist-spiritualist Annie Besant as wielders of “creative negativity,” Mackay’s term for a complex transhistorical feminist tactic that they practice in different ways as part of a “female quest.” This notion sheds light on Robins’s exceptionally diverse career as one long creative interpretation of herself; an attempt at female self-expression in a male-dominated world.

  • Park, Sowon. “Elizabeth Robins.” In Literary Encyclopedia. Edited by Robert Clark. London: Literary Dictionary, 2003.

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    Park provides a brief overview of Robins’s career and links to the full texts of several of her works spanning 1894–1908, including George Mandeville’s Husband, The New Moon, Below the Salt and Other Stories, The Magnetic North, The Convert, and Come and Find Me. This article can be accessed by institutional subscription to The Literary Encyclopedia.

  • Rudolph, Laura C. “Robins, Elizabeth.” In American National Biography. Edited by John Arthur Garraty and Mark Christopher Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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    Comprehensive summary of Robins’s life and career, with particular attention to North American contexts, including authors Robins knew or who reviewed her work.

  • Thomas, Sue. Elizabeth Robins. Victorian Fiction Research Guides 22. 1993[?].

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    This comprehensive guide to Robins’s life and career predates and indeed anticipates the published biographies by Gates and John. Most of Robins’s published works, as well as some of her unpublished ones, are discussed and briefly contextualized. This was originally a print source and readers should be warned that in the process of digitization some typographical errors have crept in, which can be distracting. Consulting the original print version would be preferable to using the online one.

  • Whitebrook, Peter. William Archer: A Biography. London: Methuen, 1993.

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    In exploring the life and career of Ibsen’s main champion and translator, Whitebrook also devotes much space to Robins, whom he presents (with reasonably persuasive evidence) as Archer’s lover. He also gives insight into her influential participation in late Victorian theatre as well as that of other actresses at the time including Bernhardt, Terry, and Duse.

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