Biography Helen Maria Williams

Helen Maria Williams

photo of Helen Maria Williams
  • Time Period1761 - 1827
  • Place
  • CountryEngland

Poet Biography

Helen Maria Williams was one of three daughters born to Charles Williams and Helen Hay. Her father Charles was an army officer of Welsh descent while her mother was Scottish. While Williams gave her date of birth as late as 1769, it is probable that she was born in 1761. Her father died in 1769 and she, her mother, and her two sisters moved to Berwick-upon-Tweed. She was educated by her mother, developing her intellect according to principles of the religious Dissent and the subsequently spawned Enlightenment. Williams moved with her mother to London in 1781 where they were joined by her sisters Cecilia and Persis. Like most female authors of the time, to facilitate publication of her works, Williams sought the mentorship of a male author in Dr. Andrew Kippis. He helped her publish her first work Edwin and Eltruda, A Legendary Tale (1782). In 1783, Williams published An Ode on the Peace regarding the end of the American Revolution. She she followed this with Peru: A Poem; in Six Cantos (1784), both published with the help of Dr. Kippis. She published Poems (1786) which was dedicated to the Queen of England. In 1788 Williams took up a common political interest of women writers at the time with On the Bill...for Regulating the Slave-Trade. In early 1790 Williams published her first novel, Julia: A Novel; Interspersed with Some Poetical Pieces, a passionate story inspired by the works of such authors as Sophia Lee and Frances Burney. Julia also included a poem entitled The Bastille, A Vision which, according to M. Ray Adams in his essay, "Helen Maria Williams and the French Revolution," was the first, "outright expression of her revolutionary sympathies" (96). Williams quickly became an enthusiast and supporter of the French Revolution and her interest in the politics therein was to distinguish her life greatly from those of her more moderate contemporaries.

Williams' first visit to France in 1790 was on the wave of her involvement with a young French couple who had been separated by law. Adams points out in his essay that it is likely that Williams' sympathies for the couple, "excited...her initial love for the French Revolution" (98). The couple was Mons. and Madame Du Fossé whose marriage had not been approved of by his father because of her "lowly" ancestry. The young man's father, Baron Du Fossé of France detained his son in France with a lettre du cachet, a legal method of detaining people under Frech law. The young man's wife and child fled to England where she was introduced to Helen Maria Williams as a French tutor. Willimas became interested upon hearing the young woman's story and later accepted Monsieur Du Fossé's invitation to stay with him and his wife after the Baron had died and the young Du Fossé had inherited his estate and title. The trip inspired her Letters Written in France, in the Summer of 1790, to a Friend in England; Containing, Various Anecdotes Relative to the French Revolution; and Memoirs of Mons. and Madame du Fossé. Although she used a form acceptable for women's writings, the epistolary, Williams walked beyond the reaches of mainstream English culture, inviting reactions towards the extremes of the positive/negative spectrum. Despite the controversial content of her Letters, she recieved generally positive reviews from English magazines. Much of the negative reaction invoked by her writings were in response to her style and vocabulary. Her use of French idioms and spellings alienated much of her support in England. In her letters, Williams' response to the Revolution is varied, contrasting the feminized culture of the Revolution with the "Antient government of France" on the thematic side, and condemning the violence outright as she had during the American Revolution. Williams' condemnation of the violence was taken up later in the publication as she believed early on that the violence had been concluded with the taking of the Bastille. Although she seemed to like what the Revolutionary culture did for women, she did not approve of the violence. Thus Williams' interest in and support for the Revolution raging in France deepened and she wished to be there. She decided to go back to France in the summer of 1791, announcing her departure in Farewell to England. On this excursion Williams wrote the second volume of her Letters, in which she does not delve into politics with the same enthusiasm as in her first volume. In April of 1792 she returned to England in order to persuade her mother and two sisters to join her in returning to France. They arrived in August of that year. She took residence in France in 1792. Williams spent much of her time there caught up in the political turmoil of a highly aggravated revolutionary culture.

By this time, Williams was gaining a literary reputation in France, where she frequented "salon" discussions. She also held many Sunday afternoon teas at her apartment in Paris, inviting intelectual discussions. Mary Wollstonecraft was one of her first visitors in France in late 1792. Williams knew many of the Revolution's leaders, including members of the Girondist and Jacobin parties, as well as being familiar with Napoleon Bonaparte and other important political leaders. In mid 1792, the Jacobins and the Girondists separated further and Williams found her sympathies on the side of the more moderate Girondists. As she began to mingle in Girondist circles, she met another revolutionary sympathizer, John Hurtford Stone. Stone's friends were the leaders of the liberal Dissent and he belonged to the English Revolution Society. When Hester Piozzi visited Paris to find Williams and Stone as friends, she was shocked. This demonstrates Williams' deviation from the lifestyle of her literary contemporaries. By the Fall of 1792, Stone was leading the British and American Revolutionary sympathizers. He was arrested on October 10, 1793 and held at Luxembourg at the same time as Williams. He was arrested again in April 1794 and released on the condition that he was to leave France. This prompted Williams and his excusion to Switzerland. Williams and Stone kept their relationship secret for unknown reasons and it is not known for sure whether they were involved intimately. It has been speculated that they were married after his announcement of divorce from his wife in January 1794.

Among the salons frequented by Williams was that of Marie Roland and her husband who, in March 1792, became the the Girondin governments' Minister of the Interior. It was in this salon where Williams met many leading revolutionaries. Also, in late 1792, King Louis XVI's betrayal of the Revolution was discovered and Monsieur Roland, who conducted the investigation, was attacked on suspicions of having concealed evidence. In 1793, the King's execution among other circumstances such as the war between Britian and France created chaos for Williams' Girondist friends. By this time, Williams began to see the Revolution with more disdain than she had during the composition of the first volume of her Letters. A second publication, Letters from France: Containing a Great Variety of Interesting and Original Information Concerning the Most Important Events that Have Lately Occured in that Country, and Particularly respecting the Campaign of 1792 details Williams' experience with the Revolution during and shortly after 1792. This work differed from her first publication from France in that it shared authorship with two males: Stone and another Girondist and Scotchman, Thomas Christie. Williams authored only one of the eight letters; Stone having written six and Christie one. During the same period, Williams composed the fourth volume of Letters, mainly regarding the defection of Dumouriez and the revolution in England.

On October 12, 1793 at 2 o'clock a.m., Williams and her family were arrested by Maximilien de Robespierre. The following day they were sent to Luxembourg. After the separation of men and women, the Williamses along with many other women were sent to the English Conceptionist Covenant. In late November of that year the Williamses were released, having been helped by poets Dorat-Cubiéres and Jean de Bry, as well as the nephew of her friend Madam Du Fossé, Anthanase Coquerel. On April 16, 1794, Robespierre passed a law ordering all nobility and aliens to leave Paris under penalty of law. Willimas and her family left but returned within a matter of months.

In June however, Williams fled with Stone to Switzerland for six months and authored Tour in Switzerland which contained a menagerie of topics including politics, history, as well as natural observations. They returned to Paris in 1795 where Williams published Bernadin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie which she had translated while being held at the Covenant. Williams published two more works: Perourou, and The Bellows-Mender in 1801. The Bellows-Mender was adopted for stage in 1838 by Bulwer Lytton and named "The Lady of the Lyons." In 1803 Williams published her most criticized work, The Political and Confidential Correspondence of Louis the Sixteenth, with Observations on each Letter, in three volumes. The manuscripts that she had used for the letters later turned out to be fraudulent. Williams recieved her most loud and abusive criticism for this work by English readers, however, the most vitriolilc attack was in the form of a book by a Frenchman, Bertrand de Moleville. His book, A Refutation of the Libel on the Memory of the Late King blatantly attacked Williams with an argument that her writings had been not only false but incompetent. By this time, many of Williams' contemporaries did not view her with much respect and took the liberty of publishing statements stating such in journals and letters. Hester Piozzi stated in her journal that her friend was, "Sacrificing her Reputation to her Spirit of Politics," had, "totally lost her Character--as a Woman," and that her, "Friends are all ashamed of her." Nevertheless, Williams was not out of the political ring. In 1802, Williams was arrested by Napoleon and held for twenty four hours because a poem she had written, Ode on the Peace of Amiens had annoyed him. Williams was burdened by Napoleon's expansion of the French empire and this led to a period between 1803 and 1815 in which she did not print a single work. In 1815 however, she published A Narrative of Events which have taken place in France from the Landing of Napoleon Bonaparte on the First of March 1815 until the Restoration of Louis XVI. Adams best expresses a response to this work in his essay, "In this book she is more conscious of the calamities of the Revolution than of its victories" (112). In 1818, she was naturalized in France. Williams last publication, Letters on Events which have passed in France since the Restoration in 1815, was issued in 1819 and seemed to have been written out of her need for money. In unpublished letters from this period, Williams expressed an eager willingness to move to America, had she had the opportunity. When Stone died in 1818, Williams was essentially penniless and her and her remaining sister Persis were invited to live in Amsterdam with their nephew A.L.C. Coquerel, who had earlier helped them to be freed from prison. Williams expressed lament at having left France and a few years after she arrived, Coquerel returned her to her beloved country and granted her an annuity. Helen Maria Williams died in Paris in 1827, having made many foes through her enthusiasm in the French Revolution and French culture. Her most controversial work and the most glaring aspect of her life involved France's revolutionary movement, materializing into her most famous publications.