HELEN MARIA WILLIAMS
Helen Maria Williams published several works in the 1780s, including Edwin and Eltruda (1782), “An Ode on the Peace” (1783), Peru (1784), and Poems (1786). She was living in London at the time, having come under the influence of Dr. Andrew Kippis (1725-95), a prominent Dissenting minister. She moved to Paris in 1788, and, except for a brief return to England in 1792, remained in France and Europe the rest of her life, making a name for herself as a political writer. Her Letters written in France (1790-96) brought her considerable attention by providing English readers with a sympathetic eyewitness account of the French Revolution (Flower published an excerpt from the Letters in the CambridgeIntelligencer, January 4, 1794). John Hurford Stone, who also went to France shortly after the Revolution, became an intimate friend of Williams. Though a married man, he accompanied Williams’s on her travels in Switzerland in late 1794; at that time, she had been forced to flee France for fear of reprisals upon her by Robespierre (she would later record this experience in her Tour of Switzerland ). J. H. Stone was accused of treason and tried in absentia in 1798. He and Williams would live together until his death in 1818. In her later years, Williams lived with her nephew, a congregationalist minister, in Amsterdam. She died in Paris on December 15, 1827, and was buried beside Stone in Pere-Lachaise. In addition to Williams’s works in verse, she also wrote novels such as Julia (1790) and Perourou, the Bellows-Mender (1801). She also translated many French works into English, but she was best known for her political writings, especially her ardent support of revolutionary and republican ideals. For more on Williams, see Mary A. Favret, Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics, and the Fiction of Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993), 38-55.
Annotated List of Works
1. Edwin and Eltruda (1783)
A poetic epic ballad on Edwin and his daughter Eltruda. A skilled knight, Albert, grieves his lover's passing but takes consolation in raising their daughter, Eltruda, who grows to be all that is virtue and goodness. Eltrude's lover, Edwin, becomes torn between his passionate conviction to fight for Henry's claim to the throne and his duty to defend the aged Albert who has taken up his lance for the Lancasters. Eltruda laments the inevitable divisiveness of war. Edwin goes off to war despite Eltruda's pleas. Curiously, Williams glosses over the war, focusing instead in its effects on victims. Albert dies at Edwin's hand, expounding on the tenderness he still feels towards Edwin. Also dying, Edwin resolves to see Eltruda one last time before expiring. He reveals himself as the assassin, and, overcome with guilt, Eltruda dies at the shock. This piece launched Williams's career and was followed quickly by "An Ode on the Peace." Click below for text.
2. “An Ode on the Peace” (1783)
A piece celebrating the end of the American Revolution. Using irregular Spenserian stanzas, Williams paints an allegorical version of America, describing the return of warriors to their families and the resuscitation of commerce in the land. The second half of the poem celebrates the scientific and artistic achievement of Britain, utilizing figures like Hayley, Herschel, and Montagu to demonstrate the heights of cultural development. Click below for text.
3. Peru (1784)
A poem exploring the disastrous effects of Spanish conquest on the indigenous people of South America. She recounts specifically Francisco Pizarro's conquest of the Incas. Interestingly, Williams revisited and revised this work several times throughout her life, publishing it again in 1823 as "Peruvian Tales." Click below for text.
4. Poems (1786)
A collection of old and new poems by Williams. The work sold many copies through subscriptions (a list of subscribers can be seen on the copies available through ECCO). The work contains older works such as "An Ode on the Peace" and "Edwin and Eltruda," and also other poems including "Sensibility," "Sonnet to Twilight," and "An American Tale." Click below for text.
5. “Poem on the Slave Bill” (1788)
A poem advocating Williams’s abolitionist views in response 1788 legislation regulating the slave trade. One of the first pieces in addition to Julia to showcase Williams’s interest in social issues and reform. In the work, Williams focuses on the domestic aspects of life for victims and explores how they are victimized by political and commercial policies.
6. Julia (1790)
A reiteration of Rousseau’s Julie which details the romance between an aristocratic woman and her tutor. Much like the romance featured in the family history catalogued in Letters, Williams utilizes the romance to champion revolutionary ideals, making frequent commentary on the trivial and unfair consequences of class hierarchy and aristocracy. The novel contains a poem “Bastille. A Vision” that functions as one of her first overtly pro-revolutionary works in print.
7. Letters written in France: in the summer 1790, to a friend in England: containing various anecdotes relative to the French revolution; and memoirs of Mons. and Madame du Fosse (1790)
A series of twenty-six letters documenting Williams’s travels through France, a family history of the du Fosses, and her general perceptions, observations, and judgements on the social climate in France at the time. Over the course the of the letters, Williams describes her various trips to places associated with the revolution and writes on various revolutionary figures. She also catalogues the history of the du Fosses, focusing on the younger du Fosse and his rebellion against his father in marriage. She uses the du Fosse narrative as a loose allegory for the French Revolution, championing the revolutionary cause. This is reprinted again under the title Letters on the French Revolution.
8. Letters containing a Sketch of the Politics of France from the Thirty-First of May 1793, till the Twenty-Eighth of June 1794, and of the Scenes which have passed in the Prisons of Paris (1795)
Another set of letters exploring the current politics in France and of the atrocities in the Parisian prisons. Williams continued to support the revolution at this point despite the dismay of her friends in England and the decreasing support for the revolution across Europe.
9. A Tour in Switzerland; or, A View of the Present State of the Governments and Manners of those Cantons: with Comparative Sketches of the Present State of Paris (1798)
A travelogue of Williams's self-imposed exile in Switzerland.
10. Perourou, or the Bellows-Mender (1801)
Here Williams satirizes rank and prestige within the aristocratic class and reiterates her republican politics.
11. Narrative of the Events which have taken place in France; with an Account of the Present State of Society and Public Opinion (1815)
12. Letters on Events which have passed in France since the Restoration in 1815 (1819)
In this set of letters, Williams explores the reign of Napoleon, whom she considered a tyrant, and the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy.
13. Poems on Various Subjects (1823)
Another collection of Williams’s poetry on a wide array of topics. The volume includes many old, new, and revised poems, several scripture paraphrases, and a commentary on the state of science and literature in France.
Blakemore, Steven. Crisis in Representation: Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams, and the Rewriting of the French Revolution. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. Madison, NJ. 1997.
A critical look at the pro-revolutionary writings of Paine, Wollstonecraft, and Williams and their perception of the French Revolution. The way these writers “revised” or re-envisioned the French Revolution raises questions about how rebels and Romantics are portrayed in eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction.
Duckling, Louise. "From Liberty to Lechery: Performance, Reputation and the 'Marvellous Story' of Helen Maria Williams." Women's Writing 17.1 (2010): 74-92. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.
The article explores William’s strategic rhetoric in Letters from France (1790). Duckling focuses on Williams’s manipulation of theatrics and its use to establish authorial performance, even suggesting that Williams, in a sense, casts herself as an ideal of liberty. Duckling also explores how Williams’s public scandal affected her career and this performance. She notes how the public perception of her transformed from images of intelligent “darling” to wild lech.
Duquette, Natasha. "'The Grandeur of the Abbey:' Exploring Gothic Architecture in Novels by Helen Maria Williams, Ann Radcliffe, and Jane Austen." Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal On-Line 31.1 (2010): MLA International Bibliography. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.
Duquette explores connects Williams, Radcliffe, and Austen’s work by exploring their Gothic aspects. Specfically, Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey seems to allude to Williams’s Julia. Duquette notes how heroines in Northanger, Julia, and Radcliffe’s work experience Gothic sublime through contemplation and meditation. She also briefly discusses the interplay between the works and how an allusion to Julia would give new political implications on Northanger.
Kennedy, Deborah. Helen Maria Williams and the Age of Revolution. Buckness University Press. Lewisburg, PA. 2002.
The first comprehensive study of Williams’s work, it is an exhaustive account of her life and career within its historical context. Kennedy succeeds in complicating and extending Williams’s biography via political, historical, and intellectual history as well as literary and social criticism.
Sigler, David. "'The Ocean Of Futurity, Which Has No Boundaries:' The Deconstructive Politics of Helen Maria Williams's Translation of Paul and Virginia." European Romantic Review 23.5 (2012): 575-592. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.
Sigler looks at Williams’s 1795 translation of Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's popular novella Paul et Virginie, specifically at how her translation exploits, manipulates, and directs the narrative into new political directions. While the original work was characterized as sentimental and romanticized, Williams’s translation offers a more meditative look at chattel slavery in the work. Her refusal to separate the horrors of slavery with the aesthetic of the pastoral setting deliver an ambiguous narrative, undermining reader’s sympathies with the enslaved. The work confronts the contradictions of slavery representation within itself, wrestling with complicating factors such as globalization and cultural difference.
Leslie, Steven ed. Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 61. New York: Macmillan, 1900.
Image: Helen Maria Williams (1761-1827) Stipple Engraving. Digital image. New York Public Library. New York Public Library, n.d. Web.
This page assisted by Esther M Stuart , Georgia Southern University