Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson.

7 October 2012

Sir Banastre Tarleton, Reynolds, 1782. Photo: National Gallery, London.

I’m in a bit of a Georgian mood right now so thought it was time to treat you all to this wonderful guest post by Madame Guillotine reader, Holley Calmes about the romance of two of the eighteenth centuries most controversial celebrities, Sir Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson. Holley is a HUGE fan of Tarleton and wanted to write something in the defence of this much criticised man.

Mary Robinson, Gainsborough, 1781. Photo: Wallace Collection, London.

History can be as entertaining as fiction, and nowhere is that more evident than in the lives of Mary Robinson and Banastre Tarleton.

Two popular British figures from the late 18th century, Mary and Ban get plenty of attention for their exploits before they met. Mary was the Prince Regent’s first public mistress. Tarleton is the boogy-man of the American Revolution and unfairly cast as a villain when he was simply a good soldier. Fortunately, historians are beginning to use actual 18th century contemporary data instead of relying on 19th century myths, (when American historians were intent on creating Manifest Destiny and needed villains as foils to their Revolutionary heroes.) Ban’s reputation is improving among military historians, at least in the USA.

So much has been written about Mary Robinson as a writer and early feminist that much more is known about her. Banastre hasn’t had as much luck, so a more complete description of him is warranted, and thus the object of this short description. Relying mostly on fun facts instead of historical bullet-points, this wandering treatise is created from a fascination for the man, imperfect though he might have been. Indeed, he was a flawed but fascinating personality: a regency rake, a friend of the Royal Princes whom he regularly beat at tennis, a gambling addict, an owner of racehorses which he rode himself during contests, and an all-round “jock.” He was at one time a professional gambler, owning his own bank.

There is also evidence that he spied for the British during the French Revolution, and there are several historian/novelists who have described him as being the prototype for The Scarlett Pimpernel (down to having an actress for a mistress and being a friend of the Prince Regent) and possibly inspiring Jane Austen’s Willoughby in “Sense and Sensibility.” Though there is absolutely no evidence to support these two somewhat whimsical thoughts, Ban was a public figure and his associations and activities widely described in the media of the time: the tabloid press. In the very least, it is evidence that he inspires romanticized speculations.

Sir Banastre Tarleton, Cosway, 1782. Photo: Private Collection.

There are three known portraits from life of Banastre. The most popular is the Reynolds which was painted upon his return from America. Hanging in London’s National Gallery, it is sufficient proof that he was quite the looker. A Thomas Cosway miniature painted in France several years later shows another face: big puppydog brown eyes and a sweet youthfulness. His wife created a watercolor when in his 50’s which shows a distinguished and still very handsome man, although one would hope a wife would be complimentary, regardless of age.
Many military historians also describe Ban as “short” and redheaded. Where this information comes from is anyone’s guess. All firsthand accounts describe him as “middle sized” and the lock of hair in the back of the Cosway miniature is dark brown. The only known description of Ban being “short” is found in a highly suspicious folk myth which opens the Robert D. Bass biography “The Green Dragoon.” Making Ban sound like an 18th century movie star, the description was oral history passed down by Loyalist families in Tennessee, USA. It’s worth reading for the fun of it, but it is doubtful historically. Yet again, Ban inspires hyperbole.

The most frequent descriptions of Ban are “polite” and “youthful.” Joachim du Perron, Comte de Revel (a junior officer with De Rochambeau) described Ban: “[He has] a most gentle and genteel face as well as elegance, a certain air of ease, and French manners.” Another description, by a well-known historian/actor living in South Carolina, USA is more succinct: “Ah, the boy Ban. Face of an angel. Heart of a wolverine.” No one has ever suggested that his military prowess was anything but brilliant, having risen from the lowly rank of Cornet to Lt. Colonel of Provincial Troops in a few years based on merit alone.

Mary Robinson, Reynolds, 1782. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

However handsome, charming, and polite he might have been, he was loyal and befriended ex-enemies with enthusiasm. His once-enemy-turned-friend, the Duc du Lauzun, shared Mary Robinson with him briefly. The Duc and Tarleton were both present at a dinner for twelve in Paris the moment that Princess Lamballe’s head was carried beneath their windows. Within a year, Tarleton was the only one of the 12 left alive. He and Mary escaped France exactly one day before the revolutionary authorities issued an edict to arrest all Englishmen in France.

Ban and Mary were in France a lot. In fact, Mary was bosom buddies with Cosway’s wife Maria, Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. It was at this time that Cosway painted miniatures of both Ban and Mary. Could Ban and Tom have shared a glass of port while their ladies visited, the men discussing the war on which they had claimed opposite sides? It is plausible. Tom could have thanked Ban for sparing his home, Monticello, from burning as the British Army marched through the Virginia countryside towards Yorktown. Ban had forbidden it be touched by his troops.

Other enemies turned friends included Lafayette and the Polish warrior Koscuisko, both of whom had served in the American rebellion on the rebel side. During the French Revolution, Lafayette had offered Ban a command in the Royalist Army, which he turned down. However, a friendship between Lafayette and Tarleton continued into the later years of the century. When Kosciusko visited London during a time of Ban’s terms in Parliament, Ban introduced him into the Whig Club and had a special sword made for the old warrior which was publicly presented. Evidently Ban did not carry a grudge.

Sir Banastre Tarleton, unknown artist, 1782. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

The relationship between Ban and Mary was definitely a roller coaster. On again, off again. It is fair to assume they met at Reynold’s studios where they both were sitting for portraits. But it took awhile for the two to become an item. Much has been made that Ban seduced Mary on a bet, and that sounds about true to character, however vague the evidence is that it actually happened.

The relationship did lead to Mary’s unfortunate health issues. Running to the Continent from his debts, Ban was followed by a pregnant and highly upset Mary, who either had a miscarriage or contracted a rheumatic fever en route. This was in the beginning of their relationship, and she experienced very poor health for the majority of their time together. There are newspaper stories of Tarleton carrying her to and from her box at the theater in his arms. It was the talk of London.

Ban has been depicted poorly in many of Mary’s biographies due to his gambling and wandering eye. Still, it is hard to see Mary as any kind of “victim.” She was too resourceful, vain, emotionally manipulative, and smart to be absolved of responsibility for continuing the relationship if she wasn’t happy with it. Every time he wandered, Mary would write love poems and publish them in the paper until he came back home. Truly a remarkable woman with great gifts, Mary was also plagued with a sense of self-dramatization which could probably cause most men to cringe.

Then there was the day he didn’t come back. His father had been the mayor of Liverpool, and his family very affluent, conservative, and proper. Ban was their prodigal. His mother was not at all impressed with Mary and pleaded with him to leave her during the entire course of the relationship. After her death, Ban had a moment of clarity about his life: he was broke, had no job, no children, home or family of his own. About all he had was Mary, who was becoming a political and social liability with her feminist writings.

Mary Robinson, Samuel William Reynolds, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1820 after 1782. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

The break was sudden. Almost as sudden was Ban’s engagement to a beautiful, accomplished young heiress, the illegitimate but well loved daughter of one of his war-era rakehell friends. Susan Bertie was 22 years his junior and evidently adored him. After their marriage in December of 1798, Mary went on a prolonged literary revenge.

She skewered Ban in two characters from her collection of novels, but first she skewered innocent Susan with barbed, sarcastic descriptions of her “accomplishments” after printing confirmations of Susan’s illegitimacy. In “The False Friend,” Ban was probably the inspiration for the character of Treville, an evil rector. Mary describes the character as “Too polite to be religious; too witty to be learned; too youthful to be serious; and too handsome to be discreet.” There’s that polite quality once again!

Then Mary created a buffoon in her novel “The Natural Daughter.” The eldest son of the Leadenhead family, the Ban-inspired character was depicted as boorish, inconsiderate and somewhat stupid. Mary also took the opportunity to bash the entire Tarleton family, whom she loathed for their disapproval of her, as the rest of the Leadenheads. Literary revenge was perhaps sweet but fleeting. She died the day after Christmas, 1800, only 43. The day after her death, two men received locks of her auburn hair. One was a Prince, the other was Ban. Several excellent biographies of Mary have been recently produced. Most are fair when dealing with Tarleton. 15 years is a long time, and the pair must have truly had a special relationship to stay together that long.

Ban’s life took an upturn when he married Susan. Financially secure at last, he received promotions and honors, becoming a general of the British Army and a Knight of the Bath. The pair settled in Leintwardine in Herefordshire, where tradition has it that Susan was never truly accepted into the local society because of her illegitimate state, whatever her wealth or accomplishments. He retired to a bucolic life of fishing and oddly enough, drawing. His journal, now in the hands of a private collector, includes sketches of the beautiful countryside, complete with a river running through it. Susan, an accomplished artist herself, befriended Mary Robinson’s daughter, even illustrating a collection of poems written by the young Miss Robinson. This is not terribly unusual. Ban was probably the only father figure she had for the majority of her life.

Sir Banastre Tarleton painted by his wife. Photo: Private Collection.

Although described as childless, that fact is not completely true. He acknowledged a daughter, Banina, whose birth notice, which he signed, is found among the St. Pancras Birth Records. The mother was an anonymous “Kolina.” Nothing more is known about her. However Ban evidently took care of the daughter, who tragically died at age 21.

Ban died of old age at 78, on January 16, 1833. Ironically, the date was the eve of the anniversary of his worst defeat in America, the battle of Cowpens. Susan lived to be 96.
Such a colorful personality and such a long life full of drama seems to have been largely forgotten, except as a villain. Tarleton has been the boogy man of the Carolinas, the champion of the Slave Trade, or the lover who abandoned a helpless mistress. All three descriptions have basis in fact, but an entirely different person comes to light when the facts are put into flesh. Someone needs to make a movie about Ban and Mary. They are worthy of at least a romance novel. But I will leave that for someone else.

Thanks Holley!

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