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Guide to the Elizabeth Robins Papers MSS.002

Fales Library and Special Collections

Collection processed by Janet Evander.

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on January 21, 2022
Description is in English.

Biographical Note

Elizabeth Robins (1862-1952) was an actress, playwright, prolific novelist and suffragist. American born and educated, Robins spent most of her adult life living and working in England, first in London and later in London and Sussex.

Robins, born in Louisville, Kentucky, was the first child of Charles E. Robins and Hannah M. (Crow) Robins.[l] Her parents had six other children, two of whom died in infancy. Her sister Eunice (Una) died in 1886, at age twenty. Of her three brothers, Saxton (1869-1901), Vernon (1872-1934) and Raymond (1873 1954), Robins was closest to Raymond, as their lifelong correspondence testifies.

Jane H. Robins, Elizabeth Robins's paternal grandmother, helped to rear most of the Robins children. Charles E. Robins was often away from his family pursuing a variety of business ventures and Hannah Robins spent much of her time with relatives in Louisville, Kentucky. Well into their adult years, Elizabeth and Raymond Robins recalled staying in Jane H. Robins's "Old Stone House" in Zanesville, Ohio. [For more information on the Robins family background, see the description for Series Three: Robins Family Papers.]

After 1880, Robins moved to New York City and began an acting career. She became a member of the Boston Museum Company, James O'Neill's Monte Cristo Traveling Company, and toured with Edwin Booth Lawrence Barrett. She appeared in such plays as A Celebrated Case, Julius Caesar, and The Merchant of Venice, first under the stage name Claire Raymond and later as Bessie Robins.

While a member of the Boston Museum Company, Robins met and married George Richmond Parks, another actor in the company. The 1885 marriage did not last long. Two years after the wedding, Parks committed suicide by jumping into the Charles River at the stroke of midnight, using a suit of theatrical armor to weigh himself down. Elizabeth Robins never remarried.

In 1888, Robins traveled abroad on a journey which included a stop in England. While she retained her American citizenship and made frequent visits to America, she adopted England as her permanent residence.

In England Robins established herself as a serious actress. She played a number of roles, such as Claire de Cintre in Henry James's The American, but by the 1890's she had discovered the plays of Ibsen and English audiences had discovered her. She became best known as an Ibsen actress, appearing as Hedda in Hedda Gabler, Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, Nora in A Doll's House, and, her most famous part, Hilda Wangel in The Master Builder.

Robins's interest in non-conventional theater led to her involvement in producing plays. She found the actor-manager system confining because it did not allow her to choose her own roles; controversial plays received little support from the powerful actor-managers. In the early 1890's, therefore, she joined forces with Marion Lea, another actress interested in Ibsen's plays, to produce Hedda Gabler.

Hedda Gabler was the first of many plays Robins was influential in bringing to the English stage. In 1896 she organized the Ibsen-Echegaray subscription series to raise money for the productions of Little Eyolf and Jose Echegaray's Mariana.

The following year William Archer (1856-1924) joined her in forming the New Century Theatre to sponsor non-profit productions. Although short-lived, the New Century produced several plays including John Gabriel Borkman, Admiral Guinea, and Peer Gynt.

During the 1890's, while Robins was active in English theater, she began a new career as a writer. Under the pseudonym C.B. Raimond, she saw four of her novels published by 1898. She also collaborated with her friend Florence Bell (1851-1930) on the play Alan's Wife, published anonymously in 1893. After the publication of one of her most successful novels, The Open Question (1898), Robins's identity as C.E. Raimond became widely known. [See Appendix I for a list of Robins's published books.]

In 1900 Robins went to Alaska in search of her brother Raymond, who, a few years earlier, had joined the gold rush in the Klondyke. Worried about her brother's safety, she convinced William T. Stead, publisher of the Review of Reviews, to finance her trip with the agreement that she would write articles for him about her travels. Although she was only in Alaska briefly, the journey was an important event in her life. In addition to convincing Raymond Robins to leave Alaska (which she believed saved his life), she wrote two novels, The Magnetic North (1904) and Come and Find Me (1908), and several short stories based on her experiences.

In November 1902 Robins made her final appearance as an actress in Mrs. Humphry Ward's Eleanor at the Court Theatre. Thereafter she devoted more time to writing and to her growing interest in issues of women's equality.

In 1907 a new play by Robins, Votes for Women, opened in London. Shortly after, her novelization of it, The Convert (1907), was published. During this time, she joined the Women's Social and Political Union and, in 1907, became a committee member of that organization. According to her diary entries for the years 1907-1911, Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst visited Robins on occasion and discussed policies for the campaign. Robins was also involved with the Actresses' Franchise League and served as vice president for the Women Writers' Suffrage League. She wrote many articles in support of women's suffrage, including "Why" (1910) and "A Defense of Militant Suffrage" (1913). The 1913 publication of Way Stations brought together a collection of her articles and speeches about suffrage.

In 1908 Robins met Octavia Wilberforce (1888-1963), who became her lifelong companion. Wilberforce studied medicine and became a doctor with special interest in health matters relating to women and children. She worked at the New Sussex Hospital for Women and Children, where Robins served on the Board of Management. In 1927 Robins, with Wilberforce and Dr. Marjorie Hubert, converted her country home, Backsettown, into a restplace for overworked women. She arranged for Backsettown to remain as a place of recuperation after her death. The facility is still in operation today.

Robins's interest in feminism continued throughout the 1920's. In 1924 she published Ancilla's Share, a collection of essays on sexism which also addressed the problem of racism and the possibilities for pacifism. During this period, she served on the Board of Directors of Time and Tide, a magazine begun by Viscountess Rhondda (Margaret Haig Mackworth) for and about women, and became involved with The Six Point Group.

During World War I, Robins performed Emergency Corps relief work, served as Honorary Librarian at the Military Hospital in London, and lectured to school children in Sussex. She spoke for the Ministry of Food in England and Ireland and was involved with the Henfield Women's Institute in Sussex, which she later served as honorary president.

Robins spent most of the period during World War II in the United States. The Vassar Alumni House in New York, the Princeton Inn in New Jersey, and the Prince George Hotel in New York City were several of her residences during the war.

Elizabeth Robins died in England on May 8, 1952, in her ninetieth year.

1. Charles E. Robins had one son, Eugene, by a previous marriage.