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The Burns Encyclopedia
Home | Introduction | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

Riddell, Maria Banks Woodley (1772 — 1808)

The third and youngest daughter of William Woodley, Governor and Captain-General of the Leeward Islands, and his wife Frances Payne of St Kitts. Maria was born and brought up in England until she was sixteen. In 1788, she accompanied her father to the West Indies. There, she met the dissolute and empty-headed Walter Riddell, younger brother of Robert Riddell of Glenriddell, who lived in Friars' Carse. Walter had married an Antigua sugar-prince's daughter, who, after a few months, had left him a widower and some sugar estates. In 1790, Maria became his second wife. They returned to England the following year. A daughter was born to them in London on 31st August 1791, and a second daughter on 23rd November 1792.

Early in the spring of 1792, they came to Scotland, to look for an estate. Walter put down a thousand pounds as deposit for Colonel Goldie's estate of Goldielea, near Dumfries, renaming it Woodley Park.

Maria, like many young ladies of her time, was a poetess. (Her verses are about equal to Clarinda's in merit.) She was witty, and, as we know from Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait of her, she was beautiful. Burns probably first met her at Friars' Carse, the home of her brother-in-law, in the latter part of 1791. At any rate, by 22nd January 1792, she had Burns writing an introductory letter to his friend William Smellie, the Edinburgh printer and publisher, about a book she proposed to bring out, Voyages to the Madeira and Leeward and Caribbee Islands. Wrote Burns: 'Mrs Riddell who takes this letter to town with her, is a Character that even in your own ways as a Naturalist and a Philosopher would be an acquisition to your acquaintance. The Lady too, is a votary of the Muses; and as I think I am somewhat of a judge in my own trade, I assure you that her verses, always correct, and often elegant, are very much beyond the common run of the Lady-Poetesses of the day.

... Lest you should think of a lively West-Indian girl of eighteen, as girls of eighteen too often deserve to be thought of, I should take care to remove that prejudice. To be impartial, however, the Lady has one unlucky failing; a failing which you will easily discover, as she seems rather pleased with indulging it; and a failing which you will as easily pardon, as it is a sin that very much besets yourself; where she dislikes, or despises, she is apt to make no more a secret of it than where she esteems and respects.' Smellie took to Maria on first sight, and became one of her intimate correspondents. Though not interested in her poems, he published her book on the Leeward Islands.

A month later, when Burns wrote to congratulate Maria on her returning health — she had been to London to get medical advice — he addressed her as 'My dearest Friend' - 'God grant that you may live at least while I live, for were I to lose you it would leave a vacuum in my enjoyments that nothing could fill up.' In the autumn, he undertook when visiting Robert Riddell to 'say nothing at all, and listen to nothing at all, in which you are mediately, or immediately concerned' - an indication that there was little love lost between the Riddells of Woodley Park and the Riddells of Friars' Carse. There had been an excursion together to the lead mines at Wanlockhead. Maria had insisted on going down a shaft, and Burns had suffered from claustrophobia.

In April 1793, Maria had become: 'thou first of Friends, and most accomplished of Women; even with all thy little caprices!!!' Songs followed. Sending 'The last time I came o'er the moor', Burns commented: 'on reading over this song, I see it is but a cold, inanimate composition. It will be absolutely necessary for me to get in love, else I shall never be able to make a line worth reading on the subject.'

In June 1793, Walter Riddell had to go out to the West Indies on business, possibly to try to raise the balance of the money due on his Dumfriesshire estate. During his absence, Burns presumably saw Maria at Friars' Carse, and at the theatre in Dumfries, where she was wont to receive friends in her box at the interval. One note from Burns read: 'I meant to have called on you yesternight, but as I edged up to your Box-door, the first object which greeted my view was one of these lobster-coated puppies, sitting, like another dragon, guarding the Hesperian fruit.'

It does not take much reading between the lines to see that Burns's regard for Maria was steadily growing in temperature. Then, towards the close of the year, came the mysterious incident which led to a rupture with the Riddell family, and a temporary interruption in the friendship between Maria and Burns.

Exactly what happened, and exactly where, has puzzled, and still does puzzle, Burns scholars. The facts of the puzzle are most fully set out by Hilton Brown in his book There was a Lad, in a chapter called 'The Riddell Quarrel'. All that can be said with certainty is that Burns, egged on by his host, apparently drank too much at a dinner-party, and misconducted himself with his hostess, probably by embracing her in such a way as to give affront and lasting offence. The most probable explanation, though it is by no means completely satisfactory, is that the affair took place at Friars' Carse: that the host was Robert Riddell, and the affronted lady his somewhat prim and colourless English wife, Elizabeth: that Robert Riddell, possibly reluctantly, took his wife's side and ordered Burns out of the house: and that Maria felt obliged, or was persuaded by Robert Riddell, to teach Burns a severe lesson by withholding her friendship.

True, Mrs Robert Riddell's unmarried Edinburgh sister, Miss Kennedy, wrote a letter to Dr Currie on 20th January 1798, stating categorically that the affair was over: 'improper Conduct of Burns to Mrs Walter Riddell which she represented to Mr [Robert] Riddell and which he thought (in his Brother's absence) he ought to resent and therefore declined taking any further notice of Burns'. This may of course refer to some other incident than the so-called 'Sabine Rape' incident, generally considered the sole cause, of the rupture. For if it referred to the 'Sabine Rape', Walter being in the West Indies, Robert Riddell as Burns's host must have seen the affair with his own eyes, and therefore would not need 'representation' from Maria or anyone else.

The reference to your husband' makes it fairly certain that the recipient must have been Mrs Robert Riddell. She ignored the letter. Burns probably never much liked her, and would feel the loss of her friendship not at all. Her husband, Robert Riddell who had been a good friend to

Burns, died about four months later, unreconciled to the poet.

What did apparently infuriate Burns, however, was the defection of Maria. On her and, in passing, on her husband, he unleashed the full fury of his pen.

He wrote to Maria, probably in January 1794: 'I have sent you Werther; truly happy to have any, the smallest opportunity of obliging you.

' 'Tis true, Madam, I saw you once since I was at W[oodley] p[ark]; and that once froze the very life-blood of my heart. Your reception of me was such, that a wretch, meeting the eye of his Judge, about to pronounce sentence of death on him, could only have envied my feelings and situation.'

And a few days later: 'I return your Common Place Book. 1 have perused it with much pleasure, and would have continued my criticisms; but as it seems the critic has forfeited your esteem, his strictures must lose their value.

'If it is true that 'Offences come only from the heart', before you I am guiltless. To admire, esteem, prize and adore you, as the most accomplished of Women, and the first of Friends — if these are crimes, I am the most offending thing alive.

'In a face where I used to meet the kind complacency of friendly confidence, now to find cold neglect and contemptuous scorn - is a wrench that my heart can ill bear. It is however some kind of miserable good luck; that while De-haut-en-bas rigour may depress an unoffending wretch to the ground, it has a tendancy to rouse a stubborn something in his bosom, which, though it cannot heal the wounds of his soul, is at least an opiate to blunt their poignancy. '

The reference to seeing Maria once 'since I was at Woodley Park' is puzzling, and the affair is further complicated by the hysterical letter Burns wrote the morning after, unaddressed, but which Ferguson supposes went to Mrs Robert Riddell. See Riddell, Elizabeth Kennedy.

The 'stubborn something' aroused in Burns was the least pleasant aspect of his character, which found expression in the 'Monody on a Lady Famed for her Caprice' the verses 'Pinned to Mrs Walter Riddell's Carriage', and that cheap and bitter imitation of Pope, 'Epistle from Esopus to Maria ' (Professor J. de Lancey Ferguson has gone some way towards demonstrating that possibly they may not, in fact, be by Burns). The 'Monody' closes:

"Here lies now, a prey to insulting neglect,
Who once was a butterfly gay in life's beam;
Want only of a Wisdom denied her respect,
Want only of Goodness denied her esteem."

The 'Carriage' lines go:

"If you rattle along like your Mistress's tongue,
Your speed will outrival the dart;
But a fly for your load, you'll break down on the road,
If your stuff be as rotten's her heart."
Walter Riddell came in for an even more unpleasant 'Epitaph':
"So vile was poor Wat, such a miscreant slave
That the worms even damn'd him when laid in the grave.
In his skull there's a famine!" a starved reptile cries;
'And his heart, it is poison!' another replies."

So far as is known, Burns stopped short of sending these vulgar trifles to Maria, though some kind friend would possibly make sure she was aware of their existence, after the manner of kind friends. But Burns did send them to other people: the 'Carriage' lines to Miller, for the Morning Chronicle, where it never appeared; both the 'Monody' and the 'Carriage' lines to Clarinda, with the explanation: 'The subject of the foregoing is a woman of fashion in this country, with whom, at one period, I was well acquainted. By some scandalous conduct to me, and two or three other gentlemen here as well as me, she steered so far north of my good opinion, that 1 have made her the theme of several illnatured things.' The 'Monody' also went to Mrs Dunlop, with the note that they were about 'a fantastical fine-fashioned Dame of my acquaintance'.

If Maria's twenty-one-year-old heart had really been as rotten as Burns alleged, her ensuing conduct would have been different from what it was. She sent him a book, which he politely acknowledged in the third person, early in 1795.

By the spring of 1795, they had so far become friendly again for Burns to send her Reid's miniature on loan. By now, Maria was living, much more humbly, at Tinwald House, between Dumfries and Lochmaben. For, on her husband's return from the West Indies without the balance of the purchase money, Woodley Park had been repossessed by its former owner. In May, the Walter Riddells moved again, to Hallheaths on the eastern side of Lochmaben. From there, Maria wrote to Burns asking his advice about getting a job for a protege of hers. By the late summer, she was again sending her verses for Burns's criticism. In October and November 1795, Burns told her of 'severe domestic rnisfortune' — the death of his daughter Elizabeth. He added: 'I am much correspondence in your debt: I shall pay it soon.'

But he was never able to pay it.

In June 1796, unaware of the seriousness of Burns's condition and unwell herself, Maria apparently invited the poet to attend the Assembly to be held in honour of the King's birthday. The last letter she received from him revealed all too plainly the state to which he had sunk:

'I am in such miserable health as to be utterly incapable of showing my loyalty in any way. Rackt as I am with rheumatisims, I meet every face with a greeting like that of Balak to Balaam - "Come, curse me Jacob; and come, defy me Israel!" So, say I , Come, curse me that East-wind; and come, defy me the North! ! !... I may perhaps see you on Saturday, but I will not be at the Ball. Why should I? "Man delights not me, nor woman either!" Can you supply me with the song "Let us all be unhappy together". Do, if you can, and oblige,

le pauvre miserable,


A month later, when Burns was at Brow, bathing himself on Dr Maxwell's orders, under the belief that he was making a last attempt to regain his health, Maria invited him to dine with her. She, too, was in search of health, and living not far away. She sent her carriage to bring him to her lodgings. Soon afterwards she recorded her impressions of this meeting, which must have given deep satisfaction to the dying poet: 'I was struck with his appearance on entering the room. The stamp of death was imprinted on his features. He seemed already touching the brink of eternity. His first salutation was: 'Well, madam. have you any commands for the other world?" I replied, that it seemed a doubtful case which of us should be the soonest, and that I hoped he would yet live to write my epitaph. He looked at my face with an air of great kindliness, and expressed his concern at seeing me look so ill.... He showed great concern about the care of his literary fame, and particularly the publication of his posthumous works. He said he was well aware that his death would occasion some noise, and that every scrap of his writing would be revived against him to the injury of his future reputation: that letters and verses written with unguarded and improper freedom, and which he earnestly wished to be buried in oblivion, would be handed about by idle vanity or malevolence, when no dread of his resentment would restrain them, or prevent the censures of shrill-tongued malice....

'He commented that he had written many epigrams on persons against whom he entertained no enmity, and whose characters he would be sorry to wound... , I had seldom seen his mind greater, or more collected. There was frequently a considerable degree of vivacity in his sallies, and they would probably have had a greater share, had not the concern and dejection I could not disguise damped the spirit of pleasantry he seemed not unwilling to indulge.

'We parted about sunset on the evening of that day [the 5th of July. 1796]. The next day I saw him again, and we parted to meet no more!'

Of all the friends who were dearest to him, she remained the most constant to him after his death. In the Dumfries Weekly Journal for August 1796, she wrote a generous sketch of him, which she later revised for Currie's 1801 Edition. See

Riddell, Maria: Memoir by. Henley

and Henderson described it as: 'so admirable in tone, and withal so discerning and impartial in understanding, that it remains the best thing written of him by a contemporary critic'. That ill-natured gossiper Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe left us his word-portrait of Maria: 'She was an

affected-painted-crooked postiche-with a mouth from ear to ear and turned-up nose-bandy legs-which she however thought fit to display-and a flat bosom, rubbed over with pearl powder, a cornelian cross hung artfully as a contrast, which was bared in the evening to her petticoat tyings.

This pickled frog.... Burns admired and loved.... Burns wrote a copy of satirical verses on the Lady - which she afterwards humbly forgave, for a very obvious reason - amid all his bitterness; he spared her in the principal point, which made her

He shunned by her own sex, and despised by the rest of the community.'

Against that estimate, the portrait of Lawrence and her own memoir of the poet speak louder by far.

Maria did not long survive Burns. Her worthless husband died in Antigua in 1802 leaving Maria and one surviving daughter to live as state pensioners at Hampton Court. In 1807, she married a Welsh officer of Dragoons, Philips Lloyd Fletcher, but she died the following year.


Dr Robert S. Gilchrist thinks that Maria Riddell's death at the early age of thirty six may have been due to Graves disease.
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