On September 16th, 1876, Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal published an article on “The Poems on Mrs. G. G. Richardson,” praising her as a poet of “striking originality of thought” who nevertheless had been relegated to “the class of forgotten or little-known poets” (607). If Richardson was remembered so little only twenty-three years after her death, she has certainly faded even further from the minds of students and readers of poetry. Yet, her life and poetry raise key questions for the study of Scottish women’s poetry concerning national identity and the status of the female poet.
Mrs. G.G. Richardson was born Catherine Eliza Scott on November 25th, 1777 in Canobie Parish, Dumfriesshire in southern Scotland to James Scott and his wife, Phoebe Dixon. Though she is often referred to as “Caroline Eliza Scott” because her relative, Mrs. MacArthur, gave Caroline as her first name in one of the earliest biographies, her birth and baptism registries confirm that her first name was Catherine (Scotland Births and Baptisms 1564-1950, FamilySearch). James Scott was a Justice of the Peace (Jackson 1) and a gentleman “of considerable property” (“The Poems of Mrs. G.G. Richardson” 607). He owned the family home, named “the Forge” where Catherine Eliza was born (“The Poems of Mrs. G.G. Richardson” 607). According to the Chambers’ article, the young girl possessed early poetic talent (607) and her relative, Mrs. MacArthur of Hillhead, Glasgow, who supplied Richardson’s memoir for The Scottish Minstrel, reports that in her childhood and teens Catherine Eliza wrote poetry and romances (177). MacArthur attributes Richardson’s enthusiasm for writing to the “Border scenes, Border traditions, and Border minstrelry” that surrounded the Forge (177). Her proficiency also surfaced because of encouragement from her highly educated mother and father (MacArthur 177). They ensured that their daughter and their many other children received an excellent education both at home and by visiting Edinburgh and London (Miller 265). When Catherine Eliza was nineteen years old, she completed a manuscript for a novel: Adonia, a Desultory Story (Jackson 1). The novel opens with the forbidden love and marriage of a French aristocrat and a young Englishwoman. The daughter resulting from this union, Adonia, becomes the heroine of the story. Adonia had not yet been published in 1799 when Catherine Eliza travelled to India (Jackson 1) where her uncle, General Harris, was stationed (MacArthur 177).
During her stay in India, Catherine Eliza became acquainted with her cousin, Gilbert Geddes Richardson. Gilbert Richardson was the captain of a merchant vessel and a partner in the House of Colt, Baker, Hart & Co (“Gilbert Richardson,” Families in British India Society Database). He and his many brothers had left their home in south Scotland to seek their fortunes in India (MacArthur 178). Catherine Eliza Scott and Gilbert Geddes Richardson married on April 29th, 1799 at Fort George, Madras. She was twenty-two years old and he was thirty-two. According to MacArthur, the Richardsons enjoyed a happy, loving marriage and had five children together (178). They lived their entire married life in India where Mrs. Richardson charmed Anglo-Indian society (“The Poems of Mrs. G.G. Richardson” 607). She was “young, beautiful, and doubly attractive from the warmth of her heart and the fascination of her manners” (MacArthur 178).
While Richardson charmed Anglo-India, her writing began to charm the British reading public. In 1801, Adonia was published anonymously in London in four volumes. It received a favourable review from the Monthly Review (Jackson 1). Richardson dedicates her work to the the Duchess of Buccleugh, an aristocrat based in Dumfriesshire. She asks the Duchess to accept her “juvenile performance” as a “simple and unpretending” offering (1). Richardson’s humble and self-effacing tone remained the characteristic attitude she adopted when discussing her own literary works.
Gilbert Richardson died at the age of 38 on 30 August, 1805 and was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Madras (“Gilbert Richardson,” Families in British India Society Database). Catherine Eliza was now a widow with five young children. Mrs. Richardson’s grief at her husband’s death left her unable to compose a poem for him. Gilbert Geddes tombstone reads:
“G. G. Richardson, aged 38 years of age on 30th August 1805. I would write thy eulogy, but my tears blind me.
C. E. R” (Cotton 55).
Catherine Eliza Richardson remained in India for several years after her husband’s death (Jackson 1), but eventually returned to the Forge in 1827 for solace in “the company of her nearest remaining friends, and in the rural scenes which had been dear to her since childhood” (“The Poems of Mrs. G.G. Richardson” 607). She oversaw most of her children’s education at home when they were young (MacArthur 178) but moved her family to London, where she felt her children would receive better intellectual and social instruction, when they reached adolescence (“The Poems of Mrs. G.G. Richardson” 607). MacArthur stresses that even during her time in London, Richardson longed for the rural pleasures of Scotland and would return to the Forge as often as possible (178). Between 1827 and 1828, Richardson contributed poems to The London Weekly Review, signing as R., C. E., or C. E. R. (Jackson 1).
Richardson’s first volume of poetry, entitled simply Poems, appeared in 1828. It was published in London by Marshall & Co. and William Crofts and in Edinburgh by Cadell & Co. and Simpkin. In her “Advertisement”, an introduction to the volume, Richardson claims these poems originate from her “earlier years” (Poems iii). She dates the composition of one sonnet to her thirteenth year (iv). In this introduction and in the titles of her poems, Richardson stresses the poem’s unedited and authentic nature. She entitles one poem “Written Anonymously in a Lady’s Scrapbook” (Poems 120). Though the 1876 review in Chambers distances Richardson from the poetess tradition in asserting that her work “contains no outbursts of passion” (“The Poems of Mrs. G.G. Richardson” 607), she herself addresses the legacy of “a Baillie, a Hemans, and a Landon” who “have created a new era for the female name” and extends thanks to all her friends (iv). These friends cumulatively purchased 1700 copies of the poetry volume by subscription (iv).
Poems contains sonnets, dramatic monologues, long narrative poems, lyrics, and translations of French songs. Richardson writes many poems focused on or through women. One dramatic monologue entitled “Lines Supposed to Have Been Written by Queen Elizabeth” imagines a friendship between the young queen and a rustic girl called Mary (Poems 33). The poet addresses other poems “In Memory of Emma–” (157) and to “Isabel” (44). Many of her poems discuss topics considered more controversial for woman writers at the time. Instead of writing solely about home and family, Richardson also writes about men with damaged psychologies, as in “The Misanthrope” (97). “On a Withered Flower” (53) metaphorically addresses a fallen women from the perspective of her seducer:
“But fond to be noticed, inviting thy ruin,
Thy gadding young stem o’er the border would stray!
I plucked thee, I praised thee, my ramble pursuing,
I tir’d of thy perfume, and threw thee away” (lines 5-8).
The volume contains few poems written in Scots, but according to Miller’s Poet’s of Dumfriesshire, Richardson’s most recognized work is a Scots poem, “St. Mary’s Kirk-yard” (Poems 68) quoted in Adam Black’s Guide to Scotland (cited Miller 265):
“St. Mary’s Loch lies shimmering still,
But St. Mary’s Kirk-bell lang dune ringing;
There’s naething now but the grave-stane hill,
To tell o’ a’ their loud psalm-singing” (lines 9-12).
Most often, however, Richardson expresses affection for her home country in standard English praising the Scottish landscape such as “Elegiac on Revisiting to Banks of the River Esk After an Absence of Some Years” (Poems 55). The 1828 volume was most recently republished by Kessinger Publishing’s Legacy Reprint Series in 2010.
Richardson published another poetry volume in 1834, Poems. Second Series. This volume had not been reprinted when Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal published its article on Mrs. Richardson in 1876 (607). It does not appear in WorldCat, but a photograph of the cover appears on Google Books. The Chambers’ article says little about the contents and MacArthur only remarks that Richardson dedicated it to the Duchess of Buccleuch and that it was “remarkably successful” (178). However, one poem “The Young Mother to Her first Born Child” surely appeared in this elusive second volume since when Chambers published the poem in December 1834 it marked it as “from Poems, just published, by Mrs. G.G. Richardson” (367). This poem expresses a mother’s overwhelming love for her child and more closely adheres to the tradition of women’s domestic poetry than many of the poems in the first volume.
During her retirement years, Richardson continued to visit and correspond family and literary friends. She wrote essays, tales and poems, many of which, according to MacArthur, survive in manuscript (178). Catherine Eliza Richardson died on October 9th, 1853 when she was almost seventy-six years old. She was buried in the Canobie churchyard (Miller 265). All of her children, and much of her poetry survived her.
Richardson sparks discussion about what it means to be a Scottish woman poet. Her life and work contain many contradictions. While she composed many verses about Scotland, Richardson spent much of her life in India. The poem “Kishen Kower. A Fragment” (Poems 109) narrates the tragic death of an Indian princess and explores a femininity other than Scottish or English. And yet, this poem remains unfinished. Despite her love for her home country, Richardson insisted that her children receive an education in London. Her biographers describe her more often as a product of the English society world rather than as a daughter of Scotland. Though much of her poetry resists the construction of women poets as authentic lyric voices, Richardson consciously markets herself as a descendent of the poetess tradition in her “Advertisement.” Her poems in Chambers‘ express domestic emotions more conventional for women writers.
Perhaps the most important conclusion we can draw from Richardson is that Scottish women writers had to operate within the Anglo-dominated and male-centric constraints of their times. A London education for Richardson and her children meant social advancement and the means to write. All women, Scottish or English, had to nominally ascribe to nineteenth-century gender norms if their publications were to gain acceptance. In publishing, a woman boldly stepped out of the home and onto the intellectual playing field. Perhaps it is precisely because Richardson does not write in an authentic, lyric, domestic voice that she must insist that she is remaining within those perimeters.
“Catharine Eliza Scott.” Scotland Births and Baptisms 1564-1950. FamilySearch. Web. 20 August 2013.
Cotton, Julian James. “Gilbert Geddes Richardson.” List of Inscriptions on Tombs or Monuments in Madras, Volume I. Madras: Printed by the Superintendent Government Press, 1945. Print.
“Gilbert Richardson.” Families in British India Society Database. Web. 20 August 2013.
Jackson, J. R. de J. “Catherine Eliza Richardson.” The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004-2013. Web. 20 August 2013.
Mrs. MacArthur. “Mrs. G.G. Richardson.” The Scottish Minstrel: the Songs of Scotland Subsequent to Burns with Memoirs of the Poets. Ed. Rev. Charles Rogers. Edinburgh and London: William P. Nimmo, 1876. 177-179. Web. 24 February 2013.
“The Poems of Mrs. G.G. Richardson.” Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal 16 September 1876: 607-608. Web. 24 February 2013.
Richardson, Catharine Eliza. Adonia. London: A. & J. Black and H. Parry, 1801. Google Books. Web. 20 August 2013.
—. Poems. Edinburgh: Cadell, 1828. Web. 24 February 2013.
—. “The Young Mother to her First-Born Child.” Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal 13 December 1834: 367. Web. 24 February 2013.
Chapman, Alison. The Victorian Poetry Network. January 2011. Web. 24 February 2013.
Written by Raya M.