Elizabeth Robins was born in Louisville, Kentucky on 6 August 1862. Her childhood was marred by tragedy, with the death of four siblings and her mother’s mental decline triggered by post-natal depression. The family spent seven years on Staten Island, New York, before her parents’ separation obliged Robins to live with her paternal grandmother in Zanesville, Ohio. Her mother never recovered, finally dying in an asylum in 1901.
Unwilling to assume responsibility for her younger siblings, Robins took to the New York stage at the age of nineteen, adopting the name of Claire Raymond. After moving to the renowned Boston Museum Company, Robins met the actor George Richarmond Parks, who became her husband in 1885. Unable to cope with the modest success of his wife and her refusal to give up her career, Parks drowned himself two years later. The young widow threw herself into a series of demanding Shakespearean roles, taking her all over the USA.
After stopping in London on the way home from Norway, Robins was inspired to stay and make her living on the West End stage. Although initially forced to take lowly roles, the arrival of Ibsen’s plays brought her stardom. In 1891 she played Mrs Linden in A Doll’s House and took the lead role in Hedda Gabler three months later, a performance described by The Sunday Times as “One of the most notable events in the history of the modern stage.” Along with critic William Archer, who was to become her lover, Robins was instrumental in popularising Ibsen, involving herself also in the production and translation of his plays. Like many actresses, she was drawn to his strong roles for women, at a time when the Woman Question dominated the press. Robins repulsed the sexual advances of George Bernard Shaw, whose professed feminism she thought specious.
Robins was drawn to the women’s rights movement, declaring herself a suffragist after the turn of the twentieth century. Her best-known play Votes for Women! (1907) has been credited as the first suffrage drama, and she subsequently turned it into The Convert (1907), a powerful novel describing the bitter struggle for female emancipation. Although these works were sympathetic portraits of militancy, Robins herself never participated in direct action. She did however contribute a number of polemics and sat on the executive committee of the Women’s Social and Political Union between 1907 and 1912, also becoming the first president of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League.
Although now most famous for The Convert and Votes for Women!, Robins published fourteen novels on a variety of subjects. Her most popular was The Magnetic North (1904), a story of gold prospectors based on her own intrepid journey to Alaska in search of her brothers. Robins also involved herself in other political causes, including human rights campaigns. In 1927 she converted her fifteenth-century Sussex house into a rest home for women invalids, moving into the Brighton residence of the doctor Octavia Wilberforce, who was her companion for forty years. During the 1920s Robins was a director of Time and Tide and a vice-president of the Six Point Group.
Robins died in Brighton on 8 May 1952 in her ninetieth year, leaving behind over seventy volumes of her diary and an extraordinary literary legacy.