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Perdita: Then and Now



The original Perdita, a character in The Winter's Tale,
imagined by artist Frederick Sandys in 1866

I’m beginning to think there's a link to the Regency period in just about any aspect of our popular culture. Today's case in point involves a current television show set in Hawaii, Magnum PI.

One of the actors in this reboot of the popular 1980s series is Perdita Weeks, a Welsh woman who stars in the show as Juliet Higgins. (Yes, in this Magnum PI version Higgins is a young woman instead of a middle-aged man). 

And wouldn’t you know it, there was a famous “Perdita” in the Prince Regent’s life as well.

As a side note, if like me you’re a fan of British TV shows Perdita Weeks may look familiar to you. She's the younger sister of Honeysuckle Weeks, who starred in Foyle’s War. And she’s just as talented and fun to watch.

Perdita Weeks as Higgins in Magnum PI  (CC-by-2.0)

But what really struck me is her name – Perdita. It’s the Latin word for “lost” and isn’t a very common moniker. (Neither is Honeysuckle, for that matter.) 

I did a little research and found a few other applications of this unusual name. There was a racehorse in the 19th century named Perdita, and it's also the name of one of the moons of Uranus.

The only other Perdita I can think of is a character in Disney’s 1961 animated movie, One Hundred and One Dalmatians. That heroic dog, you may recall, is Pongo's mate and the mother of 15 of the 101 titular puppies.


But the name Perdita during the Regency era would've most likely evoked one of two images: a character in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and the nickname a young Prince of Wales gave to his first mistress. 

Prinny's "Perdita" didn't come directly from Shakespeare. Much the same way Shakespeare's plays get adapted today (the many different movie versions of Romeo and Juliet come to mind) The Winter’s Tale got adapted, too, in 1753 by David Garrick, an actor who wore many hats (producer, playwright, and theater manager) in the London theater of the 18th century. 

Garrick's adaptation of The Winter's Tale focused on the romance between two of the play's characters. He titled it Florizel and Perdita, and it was a hit. As a result of the show's success, Mary Robinson, who took the role of Perdita in a 1779 performance, became a London sensation.

Thomas Gainsborough's 1781 portrait of Robinson
But there was more to Mary beside her acting ability. She was a poet and writer, married to Thomas Robinson, a man whose unpaid debts led to his young wife and their infant daughter being imprisoned for nine months in the King's Bench Prison.

Mary didn't just languish in jail; she used her time to write she proved to be quite good at it. Her book of poems was well-reviewed and she attracted a noble patron, Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire.

It was after her husband was released from prison that Mary made it onto the London stage and into Regency history. 

Her starring role in Garrick's play earned her the nickname "Perdita" Robinson. In addition to her literary and acting talents, Mary was also quite beautiful and loved fashion, which made her a style icon and trendsetter. 

Mary is also known as one of the first feminists in English literature. In her works (poetry and novels) she promoted the idea of women's rights, including their right to education. She was a fan of other feminist writers of her day, especially the unconventional Mary Wollstonecraft, who is perhaps better known as the mother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein

But back to 1779. The Prince of Wales was a mere teenager, only about 17 years old when the lovely Mrs. Robinson caught his eye. He saw her on the stage and became infatuated with her. It didn’t matter that she was married and almost five years older than he was. He wanted her and was determined to have her. 

Coincidentally, in the 20th century, there was another well-known Mrs. Robinson, a character in the movie The Graduate. She, too, was famously older than her young lover, which was more shocking in 1967 then it is now. However, in real life, stars of the film Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman had nearly the same actual age difference between them as Mary Robinson and the Prince of Wales

Prinny besieged his Mrs. Robinson, showering her with jewels and attention, claiming he was the Florizel to her Perdita. Their romance was furthered by exciting, and secret, meetings. He offered to provide her with a luxurious London pad and 20,000 pounds if she'd agree to leave her husband.  

Mary finally gave in and consented to be Prinny's mistress. It was the Prince of Wales first, though certainly not his last, public love affair. 

But in 1781, after only two years, Prinny abruptly and coldly ended his relationship with Mary. And he never did pay her the 20,000 pounds he promised.

Miniature of a teenaged Prince of Wales, pictured
 at about the time of his affair with Mrs. Robinson
According to J.B. Priestly, author of the Prince of Pleasure and his Regency, this first romantic and sexual entanglement of the future George IV set a pattern for the rest of the royal’s life. Priestley argues that Prinny dumped Mary simply because he grew bored with her.

The future king then went on to have numerous affairs with women who were also several years older his senior.

The list includes Maria Fitzherbert (a Catholic he secretly married, even though he knew their marriage was invalid), Frances Villiers, the Countess of Jersey (who was the mother of ten children and a grandmother when she began an affair with the Prince), and the Marchioness of Hertford.   

Ironically, Prinny couldn’t stand his one lawful wife who was six years younger than he was, Caroline of Brunswick. In fact, he could barely bring himself to conceive a child with her. Their marriage didn't end well.

So, that’s why a bell rang in my head when I saw the name “Perdita” in the credits of the current Magnum PI television series. It just bolsters my theory that if you look hard enough, you can find traces of the Regency almost everywhere, even in Hawaii.





Comments

  1. The name Perdita evokes mystery and romance, probably because I've never encountered anyone with that name before. But, who names their daughters such arcane names as Honeysuckle and Perdita? Maybe Kayne and Kim, Brad and Angelina, aren't all that original with the oddball names they've saddled their kids with -- as if just being a person doesn't make you unique enough! Anyway, as you point out, there really isn't anything new under the sun, just new to me. I plan to be learning something new almost every day for rest of my life. Thanks for the history.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment! It made me curious, so I did a little more research into "Perdita" to see how common a name it is. Babynames.com doesn't rank Perdita on its list of popular U.S, baby names, but Nameberry.com has Perdita on a list of the 100 Poshest Baby Names in Britain. Apparently it took a while for parents to warm up to the name since Shakespeare’s Perdita in The Winter's Tale started out as an abandoned baby. But the sweet Perdita canine character in 101 Dalmatians helped overlay positive associations on that negative vibe!

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