Williams, Helen Maria

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Helen Maria Williams (1761-1827): English woman of letters.

London-born Helen Maria Williams was one of three daughters of a Welsh father and Scottish mother. After the death of the father when Williams was only eight years old, the Williams family took up residence in Berwick-on-Tweed, near the Scottish border, where the mother continued the education of the daughters. Williams returned to London at the age of 18, accompanied by the Rational Dissenter Dr. Andrew Kippis, editor of the Biographia Brittanica. Dr. Kippis facilitated the publication of Williams’ first poem "Edwin and Eltruda" in 1783. Owing to the success of the poem, the Williams family was able to reunite in London, where they met with many of the prominent intellectuals of the period, including Frances Burney, Anna Seward, and possibly Franklin, Benjamin.

Williams continued to publish poems throughout the 1780s, most notably "An Ode to the Peace" (1783) which celebrates the end of the war for American independence, and "Peru" (1786) which details the disastrous effects of the Spanish conquest on the indigenous people of South America. In 1788 Williams published "A Poem on the Bill Lately Passed for Regulating the Slave Trade" (also known simply as "The Slave Trade"), which furthers her representation of the domestic lives of individuals victimized by political and commercial policies.

Throughout 1789 Williams befriended Monique Coquerel, a French woman exiled to London—the young wife of Augustin du Fossé, son of the Baron du Fossé who disapproved of Coquerel’s humble birth. Following the Baron’s death, his young son refused his title and thus embraced the basic tenets of the French Revolution. As an act of friendship, du Fossé invited Williams to France for the summer of 1790. Williams wrote copious letters describing her observations. These letters were later made public under the title of Letters Written in France in the Summer of 1790. This manuscript was but the first of eight volumes of letters devoted to Williams' observations of the events in France during and following the Revolution. The letters—Williams most popular work—are now known simply as Letters from France. For Williams, the persecution of the Fossés stood for the abuses associated with the ancien régime, and the Fossé’s ability to live in peace under the post-Revolutionary government demonstrated the freedoms associated with the Revolution.

In 1790 Williams produced her only novel, Julia, a reworking of Rousseau, Jean-Jacques's Julie; ou, la nouvelle Héloise. The novel contains the first of Williams' writings on the French Revolution, the poem “The Bastille, A Vision,” in which she praises the ideals of the new regime. Julia exists today as one of the earliest depictions of a woman divided by the notions of sense and sensibility, doing so in a style lauded by The Critical Review as “tender, pathetic, and pleasing.”

In 1792 Williams moved to France, never to return to England. In 1793 during the English seizure of the French fleet at Toulon, Williams was imprisoned by Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de along with other non-native French. She escaped the guillotine only thanks to her sister’s Swiss fiancé, Althanese Coquerel. After a six-month stay in Switzerland to avoid the threat of Robespierre, Williams returned to Paris where she produced A Tour of Switzerland in 1798 along with more letters, sketches, short fiction, and translations, most notably a translation of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Jacques Henri’s Paul et Virginie.

Williams’ experiences in the private sphere were similar to those of the public. In the early 1790’s Williams became involved with the married John Hurford Stone, and although Stone divorced in 1794, critics still do not know whether or not Williams and Stone ever married. Their long-standing relationship caused a scandal in England and resulted in many personal attacks against Williams in the British press. These attacks, although directed toward Williams’ personal life, damaged her public life as an author as well.

Williams died in France on December 14, 1827. She is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery next to Stone.

Williams is best known for the several volumes of letters and sketches that provide an eyewitness account of the French Revolution, the Age of Bonaparte, and the Restoration of the French monarchy. An early supporter of the Revolution, Williams’ enthusiasm waned during the bloody violence associated with the Reign of Terror. Her initial admiration for Bonaparte, Napoleon gave way to disillusionment, and by the time the Bourbon monarchy was restored on a constitutional basis in 1818, she viewed the event in positive terms. Williams' accounts of the events she witnessed were strongly influenced by the culture of sensibility, and she is both praised and disparaged for feminizing the French Revolution and its aftermath for her readers.

Further Reading:

Blakemore, Steven, 'Helen Maria Williams and the French Revolution', in Blakemore, Crisis in Representation (1997), 153-198.

Kennedy, Deborah, Helen Maria Williams and the Age of Revolution, 2002.

Cathy Jellenik

The Citadel

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