Elizabeth Robins

Elizabeth Robins

Elizabeth Robins, the first child of Charles Ephraim Robins (1832–1893) and Hannah Maria Crow (1836–1901), was born in Louisville, Kentucky on 6th August, 1862. Elizabeth's mother, an opera singer, was committed to an insane asylum when she was a child. Her father was an insurance broker and banker. He was also a follower of Robert Owen and held progressive political views. Robins sent Elizabeth to Vassar College to study medicine but at eighteen she ran away to become an actress.

In 1885, Elizabeth Robins married the actor, George Richmond Parks. Whereas Elizabeth was in great demand, George struggled to get parts. On 31st May 1887, he wrote Elizabeth a note saying that "I will not stand in your light any longer" and signed it "Yours in death". That night he committed suicide by jumped into the Charles River wearing a suit of theatrical armour.

In 1888 Elizabeth travelled to London where she introduced British audiences to the work of Henrik Ibsen. Elizabeth produced and acted in several plays written by Ibsen including Hedda in Hedda Gabler, Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, Nora in A Doll's House and Hilda Wangel in The Master Builder. These plays were a great success and for the next few years Elizabeth Robins was one of the most popular actresses on the West End stage.

In 1898 Robins joined with her lover, William Archer, to form the New Century Theatre to sponsor non-profit productions of Ibsen. The company produced several plays including John Gabriel Borkman and Peer Gynt. After one production, the actress, Beatrice Patrick Campbell called her performance in "the most intellectually comprehensive piece of work I had seen on the English stage". According to her biographer, Angela V. John: "In the 1890s her incipient feminism had been fuelled by witnessing the exploitation of actresses by actor–managers and by Ibsen's depiction of strong-minded women."

1898 saw the publication of Robins' popular novel The Open Question. In 1900 Elizabeth travelled to Alaska in an attempt to find her brother, Raymond Robins, who had gone missing while on an expedition. Later she wrote about her experiences in Alaska in the novels, Magnetic North (1904) and Come and Find Me (1908).

Raymond returned to the United States and became an important figure in the social reform movement. He was a member of the Hull House settlement in Chicago and served on the national committee of the Progressive Party. In 1905 he married Margaret Dreier, who was later to become president of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL).

Elizabeth was a strong feminist and initially had been a member of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. However, disillusioned by the organisation's lack of success, she joined the Women's Social and Political Union. Soon afterwards Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence commissioned Elizabeth to write a series of articles for her journal Votes for Women. She also asked her to write a play on the subject.

Evelyn Sharp saw Elizabeth Robins make a speech on women's suffrage in Tunbridge Wells in 1906: "The impression she made was profound, even on an audience predisposed to be hostile; and on me it was disastrous. From that moment I was not to know again for twelve years, if indeed ever again, what it meant to cease from mental strife; and I soon came to see with a horrible clarity why I had always hitherto shunned causes."

In 1908 two members of the Women's Social and Political Union, Bessie Hatton and Cicely Hamilton formed the Women Writers Suffrage League. Later that year the women formed the sister organisation, the Actresses' Franchise League. Elizabeth Robins became involved in both organisations. So also did the militant suffragette, Kitty Marion. Other actresses who joined included Winifred Mayo, Sime Seruya, Edith Craig, Inez Bensusan, Ellen Terry, Lillah McCarthy, Sybil Thorndike, Vera Holme, Lena Ashwell, Christabel Marshall, Lily Langtry and Nina Boucicault.

Inez Bensusan oversaw the writing, collection and publication of Actresses' Franchise League plays. Pro-suffragette plays written by members of the Women Writers Suffrage League and performed by the AFL included the play Votes for Women by Elizabeth Robins and was performed by suffragists all over Britain. Robins also used the same story and characters for her novel The Convert. Both of these works of art deal with how men sexually exploit women. The heroine in the story, Vida Levering, a militant suffragette, rejects men because in the past, a lover, Geoffrey Stoner, a Conservative MP, forced her into having an abortion because he feared he would lose his inheritance. The heroine was initially named Christian Levering and was based on Elizabeth's close friend, Christabel Pankhurst. When Emmeline Pankhurst raised fears about what the play might do to Christabel's reputation, Elizabeth agreed to change the name to Vida. Elizabeth Robins, like her heroine in the play and novel, turned down offers of marriage from many men, including the playwright, George Bernard Shaw and the publisher William Heinemann.

In 1907 Elizabeth Robins became a committee member of the WSPU. In July 1909, she met Octavia Wilberforce. Octavia later recalled: "It was a turning point in my life… I had always read omnivorously and longed to write myself, and to meet so distinguished an author in the flesh was a terrific adventure. It was a small family luncheon at Phyllis Buxton's house. Elizabeth Robins was dressed in a blue suit, the colour of speedwell, which matched her beautiful deep-set eyes. I was introduced as Phyllis's friend who lives near Henfield... Elizabeth Robins.... with a charming grace and in an unforgettable voice asked me if I would come to tea one day and she would show me her modest little garden." The two women became lovers.

When the British government introduced the Cat and Mouse Act in 1913, Robins used her 15th century farmhouse at Backsettown, near Henfield, that she shared with Octavia Wilberforce, as a retreat for suffragettes recovering from hunger strike. It was also rumoured that the house was used as a hiding place for suffragettes on the run from the police.

Elizabeth wrote a large number of speeches defending militant suffragettes between 1906 and 1912 (a selection of these can by found her book Way Stations). However, Elizabeth herself never took part in these activities and so never experienced arrest or imprisonment. Emmeline Pankhurst told her it was more important that she remained free so that she could use her skills as a writer to support the suffragettes. It was also pointed out that as Elizabeth was not a British citizen she faced the possibility of being deported if she was arrested. Elizabeth once told a friend that she would "rather die than face prison."

Like many members of the WSPU, Elizabeth Robins objected to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst's dictatorial style of running the organisation. Elizabeth also disapproved of the decision in the summer of 1912 to start the arson campaign. When the Pankhursts refused to reconsider this decision, Robins resigned from the WSPU.

In 1908 Elizabeth became great friends with Octavia Wilberforce, a young woman who had a strong desire to become a doctor. When Octavia's father refused to pay for her studies, Elizabeth arranged to take over the financial responsibility for the course.

After women gained the vote, Robins took a growing interest in women's health care. Robins had been involved in raising funds for the Lady Chichester Hospital for Women & Children in Brighton since 1912. After the First World War Robins joined Louisa Martindale in her campaign for a much more ambitious project, a fifty-bed hospital run by women for women. Elizabeth persuaded many of her wealthy friends to give money and eventually the New Sussex Hospital for Women was opened in Brighton.

Elizabeth Robins also became involved in the campaign to allow women to enter the House of Lords. Elizabeth's friend, Margaret Haig, was the daughter of Lord Rhondda. He was a supporter of women's rights and in his will made arrangements for her to inherit his title. However, when he died in 1918, the Lords refused to allow Viscountess Rhondda to take her seat. Robins wrote numerous articles on the subject, but it was not until 1958, long after Viscountess Haig's death, that women were first admitted to the House of Lords.

Robins remained an active feminist throughout her life. In the 1920s she was a regular contributor to the feminist magazine, Time and Tide. Elizabeth also continued to write books such as Ancilla's Share: An Indictment of Sex Antagonism that explored the issues of sexual inequality.

Elizabeth Robins joined Octavia Wilberforce and Louisa Martindale in their campaign for a new fifty-bed, women's hospital in Brighton. After the New Sussex Hospital for Women in Brighton opened, Octavia became one of the three visiting doctors. Later she was appointed as the hospital's head physician.

In 1927 Octavia Wilberforce helped Elizabeth Robins and Marjorie Hubert set up a convalescent home at Backsettown, for overworked professional women. Wilberforce used the convalescent home as a means of exploring the best way of helping people to become fit and healthy. Patients were instructed not to talk about illness. Octavia believed diet was very important and patients were fed on locally produced fresh food. Whenever possible, patients were encouraged to eat their meals in the garden.

During the Second World War Elizabeth Robins went back to the United States. However, at the age of eighty-eight, she returned to live with Octavia Wilberforce at her home at 24 Montpelier Crescent in Brighton.

One of her regular visitors was Leonard Woolf. He recalled in his autobiography, The Journey Not the Arrival Matters (1969): "Elizabeth was, I think, devoted to Octavia, but she was also devoted to Elizabeth Robins; when we first knew her, she was already a elderly woman and a dedicated egoist, but she was still a fascinating as well as an exasperating egoist. When young she must have been beautiful, very vivacious, a gleam of genius with that indescribably female charm which made her invincible to all men and most women. One felt all this still lingering in her as one sometimes feels the beauty of summer still lingering in an autumn garden. After the war, when she returned from Florida to Brighton, a very old frail woman, she used every so often to ask me to come and see her in bed, surrounded by boxes full of letters, cuttings, memoranda, and snippets of every sort and kind. In stamina I am myself inclined to be invincible, indefatigable, and imperishable, and I was nearly twenty years younger than Elizabeth, but after two or three hours' conversation with her in Montpelier Crescent, I have often staggered out of the house shaky, drained, and debilitated as if I had just recovered from a severe attack on influenza."

Elizabeth Robins died at 24 Montpelier Crescent, Brighton, on 8th May 1952.

Primary Sources

(1) In 1887, after two years of marriage, George Parks, an unemployed actor, committed suicide. The evening before he killed himself, George Parks sent a letter to his wife, the successful actress, Elizabeth Robins.

I will not stand in your light any longer… Think the best you can of me. I die loving you if possible more than ever - I die to save you pain and sorrow in the future - may your lines be cast in pleasanter places than in the past four years. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. Yours in death, George.

(2) William Stead, The Review of Reviews (October, 1900)

It is ten years ago since I first had the pleasure and privilege of making the acquaintance of Miss Elizabeth Robins. I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was in the summer of 1890. I had just brought out my book on Ober-Ammergau, when a card was brought in to me with the message that its owner wished to see me for a minute. Not having the least idea as to who she was, I told them to send her in, and the next moment found me face to face with Miss Robins. As I do not go to theatres, I apologised for not recognising her as the famous Ibsenite actress, who had virtually created the role of Hedda Gabler on the English stage. The remark diverted her from her original purpose, which had been merely for an introduction to somebody at Ober-Ammergua who would enable her to study the mounting of the Passion Play from the point of view of the stage manager. This however, immediately dropped into the background, and I found myself once more in the presence of a categorical imperative in petticoats. My first experience of the kind was when I met Olive Schreiner fifteen years ago, since which time I had not met as charming a representative of a prophetess with a message. Olive Schreiner's message those who know her can divine. Miss Robins's was of a different nature, but it was delivered with no less decision and earnestness, which was charming to behold. Her theme was the wickedness of boycotting the theatre, upon which she preached so fervent a sermon, so full of personal application and striking illustration, that it almost sent me to the penitent form. I fear that I was but imperfectly converted, for I have not yet paid my maiden visit to the theatre, not even to see Hedda Gabler on the boards; but from that day to this I have been proud to count Miss Elizabeth Robins as one of my best friends.

(3) In December 1909, Elizabeth Robins wrote an article, Votes for Women, that criticised British marriage laws.

The children's mother has no legal right to a voice in deciding how they shall be nursed; how or where educated; what trade or profession they shall adopt; in what form of religion they shall be instructed.

If a father wants his child vaccinated, or if he is merely indifferent, and so does not lay an objection before the magistrate, the mother cannot prevent the child being vaccinated. If the father wishes the child to be left unvaccinated, the mother cannot legally have it done.

The late Sir Horace Davy introduced a Bill, which proposed that father and mother should be acknowledged equal guardians of their children. This just and logical reform secured only nineteen votes in the House of Commons.

(4) In a speech she made at the Wardorf Hotel on 4th May 1909, Elizabeth Robins argued that women's equality would improve relationships between the sexes.

My own adhesion to the Suffrage Cause was given largely because I saw that only through political equality may we hope to see established a true understanding and a happier relationship between the sexes.

Changes in society… have long been tending towards increasing separation between men and women, in practically all the interests of life save one. In the world of industry, of business, of thought - even in what is called society, the growing tendency has been to divide the world into two separate camps. Men who are "doing things," or want to do things, have less and less time to give to an order of beings having no share and, as it came to seem, no stake in the varies aspects - save one - of the great game of life. The conditions of modern life are more and more separating the sexes. Instead of still further dividing us, Women's Suffrage is in reality the bridge between the chasm.

(5) Octavia Wilberforce described her first meeting with Elizabeth Robins in her autobiography, Octavia Wilberforce: An Autobiography of a Pioneer Woman Doctor.

In the early summer of 1909, when I was twenty-one, I met Elizabeth Robins. It was a turning point in my life… I had always read omnivorously and longed to write myself, and to meet so distinguished an author in the flesh was a terrific adventure. It was a small family luncheon at Phyllis Buxton's house. Elizabeth Robins was dressed in a blue suit, the colour of speedwell, which matched her beautiful deep-set eyes. I was introduced as Phyllis's friend who lives near Henfield. 'A neighbour then?' Said Elizabeth Robins, and with a charming grace and in an unforgettable voice asked me if I would come to tea one day and she would show me her modest little garden.

(6) In Way Stations, Elizabeth Robins explained why she joined the Women Writers Suffrage League.

The magnificent platform work being done from various centres must be supplemented and further spread about the world through the medium of the written word. I don't mean by frankly propagandist writing (though I am the last to deny the importance of that) but even more valuable is, I think, the spirit which both men and women writers are able in a thousand ways to illustrate and justify.

My complaint is that not enough has been made of such traces as history preserves of significant lives lived by women.

The Great Adventure is before her (woman). Your Great adventure is to report her faithfully. So that her children's children reading her story shall be lifted up - proud and full of hope. "Of such stuff," they shall say, "our mothers were! Sweethearts and wives - yes, and other things besides: leaders, discovers, militants, fighting every form of wrong."

(7) On June 1908, the NUWSS and the WSPU organised massive demonstrations in London in favour of women's suffrage. Elizabeth Robins described the event in her book Way Stations.

On June 21st an impressive historical and symbolical pageant, organised by the National Union of Suffrage Societies, marched through crowded, cheering streets from the Embankment to the Albert Hall. Under the chairmanship of the President, Mrs. Fawcett, a mass meeting was held of such size and enthusiasm as men of long political experience declared had seldom being equalled… A week later came the monster demonstration in Hyde Park, under the auspices of the Women' Social and Political Union. The Times said of it: "Its organisers had counted on an audience of 250,000. The expectation was certainly fulfilled, and probably it was doubled, and it would be difficult to contradict anyone who asserted that it was trebled… The Daily Chronicle said: "Never, on the admission of the most experienced observers, has so vast a throng gathered in London to witness an outlay of political force."

(8) Evelyn Sharp, Unfinished Adventure (1933)

Elizabeth Robins was inadvertently responsible for this impetuous action, which altered the whole course of my life. I was sent by the Manchester Guardian, in the autumn of 1906, to Tunbridge Wells, to report the annual conference of the National Union of Women Workers and by a coincidence, the customary session on woman suffrage, usually rather an academic affair unheeded by the Press, fell on the day when my friend Mrs. Cobden-Sanderson and several other women, including Mrs. Pethick Lawrence, appeared in a London police court on charges of obstruction outside the House of Commons, whence they had been ejected for making a protest in the lobby the night before. This sensational news in the morning paper had the effect, that afternoon, of crowding the theatre at Tunbridge Wells, where the conference was meeting. No seat was unoccupied at the Press table, and Mrs. Fawcett rose to the drama of the occasion with a speech in which she reminded her audience that "if you treat women as outlaws, you must not be surprised to find them behaving as outlaws." Discussion was invited, and the first name to be read out was that of Elizabeth Robins.

Elizabeth Robins, then at the height of her fame both as a novelist and an actress, sent a stir through the audience when she stepped on the platform. I, who not only thought (and still think) The Open Question one of the finest of novels, but had also sat in the pit many times and admired her from afar in her Ibsen impersonations, was thrilled at this unexpected sight of her away from her natural background. The thrill was deepened when she, making her first suffrage speech and I know now what it must have cost her to make it -told quite simply in her wonderful voice how she had come straight from the police court to give the conference an eye-witness account of the women whose actions had been grossly travestied in most of the newspapers.

The impression she made was profound, even on an audience predisposed to be hostile; and on me it was disastrous. From that moment I was not to know again for twelve years, if indeed ever again, what it meant to cease from mental strife; and I soon came to see with a horrible clarity why I had always hitherto shunned causes.

The next time I saw Elizabeth Robins was at a stormy meeting in the Fulham Town Hall, a month or two later - I had joined the W.S.P.U. by that time - where I made my own maiden speech. At the end of it she came up from the audience and spoke to me, and from this circumstance dated a friendship of the kind that is readily understood by those who know from experience the sort of relationship, even when it is not an intimate relationship, that grows between people who are comrades in work or a cause. Her praise on this occasion was infinitely welcome, for I did not feel a success at all. The hall was nearly filled with Social Democrats, who were definitely hostile because at that time they thought ours was only a middle-class movement; and Christabel Pankhurst, who opened the proceedings, made no attempt to conciliate them. She won every one of the women who sat mutely on the front benches and had never before seen a woman stand up to a man in public; for, apart from her political insight, that was Christabel's great asset - to put fight into women and make them demand as a right what they were inclined to beg as a favour. But at Fulham her attitude drove the men in the audience, who also had never previously encountered this sort of thing in a woman, to a frenzy, and when I got up to speak I could not get a hearing for some minutes. After that I was more fortunate, probably because I did not look very militant, though it was left to a kind member of my first open-air audience, some weeks later, to silence my interrupters with the appeal: " There ain't much of her, so give 'er a chance!"

They gave me quite a good chance, even in the Fulham Town Hall; but neither then nor in the years to come, during which I addressed every kind of audience, indoor and outdoor, did I ever lose my distaste for the platform or overcome that cold feeling at the pit of the stomach which always proves the true locality of the emotions. I was not afraid of missiles, which varied from live mice to eatables - chestnuts I used to resent most, though they may not have been intended symbolically-for at least you knew what your listeners were feeling when they threw things at you, and open warfare is always preferable to the frozen hostility of the drawing-room crowd.

(9) In an articlein Votes for Women, that Elizabeth Robins wrote in December 1909, she criticised the way that the Government looked after orphan children. Robins argued that when women had the vote, the Government would come under stronger pressure to improve the workhouse system.

The State keeps 22,483 children in workhouses. Here is a description of a Government nursery: "Often found under the charge of a person actually certified as of unsound mind, the bottles sour, the babies wet, cold and dirty. The Commission on the Care and Control of the Feebleminded draws attention to an episode in connection with one feeble-minded woman who was set to wash a baby; she did so in boiling water, and it died."

"We were shocked," continues the Report, "to discover that infants in the nursery of the establishments in London and other large towns seldom or never get into the open air. "We found the nursery frequently on the third or fourth story of a gigantic block often without balconies, whence the only means of access even to the workhouse yard was a flight of stone steps down which it was impossible to wheel a baby-carriage of any kind. There was no staff of nurses adequate to carrying fifty or sixty infants out for an airing. In some of these workhouses it was frankly admitted that these babies never left their own quarters (the stench was intolerable) and never got into the open air during the whole period of their residence in the workhouse nursery. In some workhouses 40% of the babies die within the year.

I doubt if there exists in print a better plea for the urgency of Woman's Suffrage that that embodied in this Report of the latest English Poor Law Commission… What it reveals is an incompetence and legalised cruelty in the treatment of the poor… that thousands of innocent children are shut up with tramps and prostitutes; that there are workhouses which have no separate sick ward for children, in spite of the ravages of measles, whooping-cough, etc.

Men have talked about these evils for seventy-five years. We see now that until the portion of the community standing closest to the problems presented by care of the old and broken, the young children and the afflicted, until women have a voice in mending the laws on this subject, the inadequacy of the laws will continue to be merely discussed.

(10) In 1912 Elizabeth Robins was a strong supporter of the militant suffragettes. Octavia Wilberforce revealed in her autobiography that the authorities suspected that Robins was using her house, Backsettown in Henfield, as a hiding place for suffragettes wanted by the police.

In 1912 Elizabeth Robins was greatly preoccupied with the Women's Suffrage agitation. "Mrs. Pankhurst in the Dock" said the placards and "Vain Search for Christabel". This was enough for the Henfield villagers to be convinced that Christabel Pankhurst was being concealed at Backsettown and Elizabeth Robins' correspondence was watched by the police! The Pankhursts would come to stay and were constantly seeking her advice… Lady Brassey and H. G. Wells also visited her. My family was critical of this visit. They did not know that he had invited himself, that he had stayed up till past midnight arguing with Elizabeth Robins, who disapproved of his affair with the daughter of one of her friends.

(11) Leonard Woolf and Virginia Woolf were close friends of Elizabeth Robins and Octavia Wilberforce. Leonard Woolf wrote about her in his autobiography, The Journey Not the Arrival Matters (1969)

Elizabeth Robins was an even more remarkable woman than Octavia Wilberforce. She was born in Kentucky in 1862, a young lady belonging to the old slave-owning American aristocracy of the South. She did in Kentucky what Octavia was to do later on in Sussex; with extraordinary strength of mind and determination she broke the fetters of family and class, the iron laws which prescribe the life and behaviour of young ladies whether they be the Greek Antigone 600 years before Christ in Thebes or 2,500 years later in Kentucky, U.S.A., and Octavia in Lavington.

Octavia's relation to Elizabeth was that of a devoted daughter. If you had searched the earth from Kentucky in the United States to Lavington in Sussex, you would never and nowhere have found two other women more different from each other than they were. Elizabeth was, I think, devoted to Octavia, but she was also devoted to Elizabeth Robins; when we first knew her, she was already a elderly woman and a dedicated egoist, but she was still a fascinating as well as an exasperating egoist. When young she must have been beautiful, very vivacious, a gleam of genius with that indescribably female charm which made her invincible to all men and most women. One felt all this still lingering in her as one sometimes feels the beauty of summer still lingering in an autumn garden.

After the war, when she returned from Florida to Brighton, a very old frail woman, she used every so often to ask me to come and see her in bed, surrounded by boxes full of letters, cuttings, memoranda, and snippets of every sort and kind. In stamina I am myself inclined to be invincible, indefatigable, and imperishable, and I was nearly twenty years younger than Elizabeth, but after two or three hours' conversation with her in Montpelier Crescent, I have often staggered out of the house shaky, drained, and debilitated as if I had just recovered from a severe attack on influenza.