Williams, Helen Maria
Helen Maria Williams 1761-1827
English epistolary writer, poet, novelist, essayist, and translator.
Williams is best known for several volumes of letters and sketches, written to her countrymen in England, that provide an eyewitness account of the French Revolution, the Age of Bonaparte, and the restoration of the French monarchy. She was an early supporter of the Revolution, but her enthusiasm waned during the bloody violence associated with the Reign of Terror. Similarly, her initial admiration for Napoleon quickly 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.
Williams, the daughter of an army officer, was born in London on June 17, 1761. Her father, Charles Williams, was Welsh and her mother, Helen Hay, was from a distinguished Scottish family. In 1769, after the death of her father, the family moved near the Scottish border, where Williams was educated at home by her mother. She returned to London in the early 1780s with the assistance of the dissenting minister Andrew Kippis, who also helped her publish her first poem. Following its success, Williams was joined in the city by her mother and her older sister, Cecilia. Kippis introduced the family to a wide circle of acquaintances that included Frances Burney, Anna Seward, and Benjamin Franklin. Following the example of Williams' sponsor, Elizabeth Montagu, who presided over a famous London literary salon, the Williams family opened their own home to a variety of distinguished intellectuals and dissenters.
Williams published a number of poems in the 1780s, most of them dedicated to reform causes, and in 1790 produced her only novel, Julia. During these years she became acquainted with the du Fossés, a couple from differing social strata. Their union was violently opposed by his father, the Baron du Fossé, who managed to separate them. After the Baron's death and the success of the revolution, the young couple was reunited in France and invited Williams and her sister to visit them in Paris. They arrived in the city just in time for the Fête de la Féderation, honoring the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, and Williams was caught up in the spirit and promise of the early days of the Revolution. She returned to London briefly in 1791 and again in 1792, but then moved to France in August of that year, never to return to her homeland. The du Fossé story became a part of Letters Written in France in the Summer of 1790 (1790), the first of eight volumes of letters devoted to Williams' observations of the events in France during and after the Revolution. These volumes were later compiled and are now known as Letters from France.
During her early years in France Williams became involved with John Hurford Stone, a married English businessman. Stone divorced in 1794, and while it is unclear whether 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. In Paris, as in London, Williams was introduced to prominent intellectuals and literary figures who were frequent guests at the literary salon presided over by Madame Roland, the wife of an official in the Girondin government. Again, Williams began to hold a salon of her own, hosting a wide variety of international liberals and radicals, among them Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. Williams' salon, like Madame Roland's, became a meeting place for prominent Girondins, but as the Jacobins gained power, many of her friends, including Madame Roland, were arrested and eventually executed. In 1793, Williams, her mother, and her sister, were themselves arrested and imprisoned for a brief period.
After fleeing to Switzerland for six months in 1794 to escape the threat of Robespierre, the Williamses and Stone returned to Paris, where she produced A Tour of Switzerland (1798), more letters, sketches, some short fiction, and translations. During Napoleon's reign, she wrote little, eventually producing an account of Bonaparte's last days and the restoration of the monarchy, an event she supported. Although she attempted to reopen her salon in 1816, she was unable to keep it going because of financial reversals, including the loss of Stone's fortune. After living briefly with her nephew in Amsterdam, Williams returned to France, where she died on December 14, 1827. She was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery next to her long-time companion, Stone, who had predeceased her by nine years.
In the 1780s while living in London, Williams wrote a number of antiwar poems beginning with Edwin and Eltruda (1782), followed by An Ode on the Peace (1783), celebrating the end of the war for American independence. In 1784 she published Peru, detailing the disastrous effects of the Spanish conquest on the indigenous people of South America. By focusing on war's consequences for the common people, particularly women, Williams was employing an established convention of the culture of sensibility, a literary movement championed by Williams and other women writers of the time which focused on the emotional aspects of human life. In 1788, she produced A Poem on the Bill Lately Passed for Regulating the Slave Trade (also known simply as The Slave Trade). It was one of her most famous works, again concentrating on the domestic lives of individuals victimized by political and commercial policies.
In 1790 Williams published her only novel, Julia, a reworking of Rousseau's Julie; ou, la nouvelle Héloise. The novel contained the first of Williams' writings on the French Revolution, the poem “The Bastille, A Vision,” in which she praised the ideals of the new regime. Her enthusiasm for the Revolution was also the inspiration for Letters Written in France in the Summer of 1790, her most famous work. Again Williams brought national events down to the personal level, this time emphasizing positive consequences for individuals. For Williams, the persecution of the lovers, Monique Coquerel and Augustin du Fossé, was emblematic of the abuses associated with the ancien régime, and their ability to live in peace under the post-Revolutionary government demonstrated the superior freedoms associated with the Revolution. Over the next quarter century, Williams continued to provide her countrymen with eyewitness accounts of the events taking place in France, the most famous of which were Letters from France, containing Many New Anecdotes Relative to the French Revolution, and the Present State of French Manners (1792), which addresses Edmund Burke's negative assessment of the Revolution; and Letters containing a Sketch of the Politics of France from the Thirty-first of May 1793 till the Twenty-eighth of July 1794 (1795), in which she continued to support the Revolution to the dismay of her friends in England. Later volumes of the Letters cover the reign of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy.
Other major works include a two-volume poetry collection entitled Poems, published in 1786, A Tour of Switzerland, produced during her self-imposed exile in that country, and translations of foreign works, including one by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.
In the 1780s Williams' poetry appealed to the liberal sentiments of her countrymen; her list of admirers included the young William Wordsworth, who composed a sonnet about her in 1787, and Robert Burns, who praised her anti-slavery poem. Peru inspired a tribute in sonnet form by Anna Seward, and Williams' novel, Julia, was generously praised by Mary Wollstonecraft, despite the latter's usual distaste for sentimental novels. Liberal English writers and intellectuals shared Williams’ enthusiasm for the French Revolution in its early days, but that support quickly faded with the Reign of Terror and the execution of the French king. Williams, too, abhorred violence, yet she continued to support the Revolution, and her work began to garner considerable criticism in the British press. The focus of the unfavorable reviews was not limited to her political stance and the perceived disloyalty to her homeland, but included the inappropriateness of political writing by women, the emphasis on emotions in her work, and her unconventional relationship with Stone. In England her writings on the Revolution and its aftermath were often considered fabrications rather than eyewitness accounts. Horace Walpole called her a “scribbling trollop,” and she was featured in The Unsexed Females, the Reverend Richard Polwhele's 1798 diatribe against radical women. Conservative women, incensed over the impropriety of her relationship with Stone, joined the chorus against her. Laetitia Matilda Hawkins produced a direct response to Williams' writings in Letters on the Female Mind, Its Powers and Pursuits Addressed to Miss H. M. Williams, With Particular Reference to Her Letters From France. Williams' reputation never recovered from the onslaught of negative reviews and criticism. M. Ray Adams, writing as late as 1939, claimed that “her memory has never been cleared of the obloquy which the enemies of the French Revolution heaped upon her and she still remains almost without honor in her native country.”
Modern critics, however, tend to view Williams's work more favorably, considering her writing transgressive and ground-breaking. Williams is often compared to Mary Wollstonecraft, and although their styles were vastly different—Williams emphasizing the emotional and Wollstonecraft the rational element—they are both credited with blurring the boundaries between the public and private spheres, and between appropriate masculine and feminine writing. Scholars have also remarked on the way Williams manipulated the conventions of the novel of sensibility for political purposes, turning the removal of the French king and queen from their palace in 1789 into a “family drama,” and presenting the story of the du Fossés as a “moving melodrama.” Eleanor Ty has studied Williams's novel, Julia, and believes that it carries a strong political message even though it “appears to be a somewhat innocuous sentimental novel.” She believes the work can “be read as a strong statement against patriarchy, and an effort to escape conventional roles designed by society for women.” Matthew Bray also suggests that Williams relied on sentiment and sensibility to hide a more complicated agenda. He rejects “the immemorial image of Williams as a caricature of overwrought sensibility,” contending instead that her work represents a “sustained critique” of the political ideas of Edmund Burke. In her Paris salon, Williams blended international hospitality with French politics and became, through her writings, “one of Europe's first foreign correspondents,” according to Mary A. Favret. Commenting on the popular success and significance of her multi-volume Letters from France, Favret claims that Williams “brought the French Revolution into the libraries, parlors and sitting rooms of a generation of English readers. Resting in their own armchairs and sofas, the English public viewed France through the eyes of this female correspondent. They also watched an exile playing hostess to a world in revolution, a woman at home in the theater of politics.”
Edwin and Eltruda: A Legendary Tale (poem) 1782
An Ode on the Peace (poem) 1783
Peru, A Poem. In Six Cantos (poem) 1784
Poems. 2 vols. (poetry) 1786
A Poem on the Bill Lately Passed for Regulating the Slave Trade (poem) 1788
Julia: A Novel; Interspersed with Some Poetical Pieces. 2 vols. (novel) 1790
*Letters Written in France in the Summer of 1790, to a Friend in England. Containing Various Anecdotes Relative to the French Revolution and the Memoirs of Mons. and Madame du F——— (letters) 1790
A Farewell, for Two Years, to England (poem) 1791
*Letters from France, containing Many New Anecdotes Relative to the French Revolution and the Present State of French Manners (letters) 1792
*Letters from France, containing a Great Variety of Interesting and Original Information Concerning the most Important Events that have lately occurred in that Country and particularly respecting the Campaign of 1792. 2 vols. [with John Hurford Stone and Thomas Christie] (letters) 1793
*Letters containing a Sketch of the Politics of France from the Thirty-first of May 1793 till the Twenty-eighth of July 1794 and of the Scenes which Have Passed in the Prisons of Paris. 2 vols. (letters) 1795
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SOURCE: Adams, M. Ray. “Helen Maria Williams and the French Revolution.” In Wordsworth and Coleridge: Studies in Honor of George McLean Harper, edited by Earl Leslie Griggs, pp. 87-117. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1939.
[In the following essay, Adams examines the manner in which Williams interpreted the events of the French Revolution for her reading public in England.]
“The most sensible women,” wrote George Dyer in 1792, “are more uniformly on the side of liberty than the other sex; witness a Macaulay, a Wollstonecraft, a Barbauld, a Jebb, a Williams, and a Smith.”1 The establishment of such a generalization perhaps requires a greater range of observation of the sex than George Dyer could boast, but the list of women radicals who were writing with more or less distinction during the revolutionary era is very striking. We might add to those whom Dyer mentions Mary Hays, Maria Edgeworth, Mrs. Amelia Opie, Mrs. Mary Robinson, and Mrs. Inchbald. Of them all Mary Wollstonecraft was the sturdiest and most original intellect, but no one of them knew as much of the French Revolution first-hand, no one of them had such opportunities to observe the very soul of the machine, and no one of them left so complete a record of what she saw and heard and thought as Helen Maria Williams. No modern appraisal2 has been made in English of this record in thirteen...
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SOURCE: Bray, Matthew. “Helen Maria Williams and Edmund Burke: Radical Critique and Complicity.” Eighteenth-Century Life 16, no. 2 (May 1992): 1-20.
[In the following essay, Bray explores the contradictions in Letters Written in France, contending that although most critics concentrate on its similarity to the sentimental novel, the work is more heavily influenced by its author's association with English dissenters and was written as a response to Edmund Burke's condemnation of the French Revolution.]
As several critics point out, Letters Written in France in the Summer of 17901—Helen Maria Williams' eyewitness, epistolary account of revolutionary France during the euphoric months following the Fête de la Fédération—is a work containing pronounced contradictions. Although it celebrates the Revolution's transformative effects, Letters Written in France tends to advocate a “noble equality” of sentiment2 which preserves intact the class hierarchy and the subordinate status of women that existed before the Revolution. Two explanations have been offered for the disparity between Williams' rhetoric—her joyous declarations of almost apocalyptic change in France—and her simultaneous reification of the status quo. The first explanation is straightforwardly ad feminam. Since Williams was an overly emotional woman of rather shallow...
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SOURCE: Jones, Vivien. “Femininity, Nationalism and Romanticism: The Politics of Gender in the Revolution Controversy.” History of European Ideas 16, nos. 1-3 (January 1993): 299-305.
[In the following essay, Jones contrasts Williams's emotional account of the French Revolution with the more rational writings of Mary Wollstonecraft on this subject.]
Survey with me, what ne'er our fathers saw A female band despising NATURE's law As ‘proud defiance’ flashes from their arms, And vengeance smothers all their softer charms. I shudder at the new unpictur'd scene, Where unsex'd woman vaunts the imperious mien; … With equal ease, in body or in mind, To Gallic freaks or Gallic faith resign'd, … With liberty's sublimer views expand, And o'er the wreck of kingdoms sternly stand …
In this scurrilous piece of conservative propaganda, radical British women writers of the 1790s are found guilty of a triple violation: of national loyalty, of generic decorum and, inevitably, of sexual morality. They have become, according to the poem's title, The Unsex'd Females, betrayers of an ideal femininity which ‘in ancient days, To modest Virtue, claim'd a nation's praise’.1 Ostensibly about women's writing, the poem clearly demonstrates the way in which, in the post-revolutionary period, ideologies of literary value, gender, and national identity are inextricably bound up...
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SOURCE: Favret, Mary A. “Spectatrice as Spectacle: Helen Maria Williams at Home in the Revolution.” Studies in Romanticism 32, no. 2 (summer 1993): 273-95.
[In the following essay, Favret discusses Williams' Paris salon, frequented by an international group of artists and intellectuals in the early days of the French Revolution as a place that blurred the boundary between the domestic and the political realms.]
It was a rendezvous for the most famous orators, the best-known men of letters, the most celebrated painters, the most popular actors and actresses, the most fashionable dancers, the most illustrious foreigners, the lords of the Court, and the ambassadors of Europe; the old France had come there to end, the new had come there to begin.
—Chateaubriand, Mémoires d'Outre Tombe1
The Paris home of the English writer Helen Maria Williams was just the sort of rendezvous Chateaubriand recalled from the early days of the French Revolution. At Williams' dinners and teas mingled generals and diplomats, poets and philosophers, actresses, journalists, and educators; the intellectuals, artists and politicians of several generations and various countries met in a heady, head-turning society. In Williams' salon the young Peruvian Miranda, recently arrived in Paris, was introduced to Manon Roland and consequently, in...
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SOURCE: Ty, Eleanor. “Resisting the Phallic: A Return to Maternal Values in Julia.” In Unsex'd Revolutionaries: Five Women Novelists of the 1790s, pp. 73-84. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Ty claims that Williams's novel Julia can be read as a challenge to patriarchal values.]
In the previous chapters we have seen how a woman writer's connection with the pre-Oedipal world, or what Kristeva calls the semiotic, influences her use of language. The unsevered link with the maternal binds both Wollstonecraft and Hays in certain ways to literal meaning. In their fiction which actively engages in feminist politics, this attachment to the literal becomes a strength rather than a weakness as the realization of metaphors and the physical rendering of female fears serve to heighten what the authors saw as the power of the Law of the Father and to demonstrate the dangers of the tyrannical patriarch. In the process of refuting Burke's paradigm of the benevolent ruler, Wollstonecraft and Hays discover alternate narrative strategies which, in our culture, I think are more likely to come from a female than a male pen. Replication, repetition, and the weaving back and forth of the same plots and themes may seem tedious to some, but they are techniques which reinforce woman's sense of helplessness, and her social confinement. They may also reveal the insistence and...
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SOURCE: Kelly, Gary. “Helen Maria Williams in Post-Revolutionary France.” In Women, Writing, and Revolution 1790-1827, pp. 192-233. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Kelly examines the post-Revolutionary writings of Williams and the rhetorical technique by which she hoped to feminize the Age of Bonaparte and its aftermath just as she had done with the Revolution itself.]
In the late 1790s Helen Maria Williams was secure and well off in Paris, at the centre of intellectual, literary, and political life. Despite continuing war with Britain, Bonaparte's military victories and overthrow of the Directory seemed to stabilize the Revolution at last, apparently guaranteeing the values of feminized civil society that Williams claimed to be the ‘true’ character of the Revolution, and she argues this view for British readers in Sketches of the State of Manners and Opinions in the French Republic, Towards the Close of the Eighteenth Century, in a Series of Letters (1801). Since she aims to feminize the Bonapartist Revolution, which otherwise would seem to have an excessively masculine, martial, and autocratic character, she again takes up the ‘feminine’ rhetorical techniques she had used in the 1790s. The title of Sketches suggests the desultory, personal, belletristic form suited for a ‘mere’ woman involved in a man's sphere, and it is again dialogical,...
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SOURCE: LeBlanc, Jacqueline. “Politics and Commercial Sensibility in Helen Maria Williams' Letters from France.” Eighteenth-Century Life 21, no. 1 (February 1997): 26-39.
[In the following essay, LeBlanc explores the radical nature of Letters from France, claiming that the connection Williams makes between revolution and commerce differs from the writings of others sympathetic to the French Revolution, who tend to ignore that relationship.]
Helen Maria Williams has rightfully taken her place in the newly formed canon of British women writers, most notably as a correspondent from revolutionary France. A popular poet and sentimental novelist of the late eighteenth century who used her verse to speak out on the oppressions of war, the slave trade, and colonialism, Williams traveled to France in July 1790 and began a series of letters to an imaginary friend in support of the Revolution.1 A dramatic tour of French life and politics, Williams' Letters From France is a cross section of genres, merging personal correspondence, travel narrative, sentimentalism, and radical politics.2 In volumes one and two (1790 and 1792), the most dramatic and emotional of the Letters, Williams responds to the turmoil in France with the personal excitement of a tourist, detailing the spectacle of the nascent republic and cheering the victory of the revolutionaries in the...
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SOURCE: Feldman, Paula R. “Helen Maria Williams (1761?-1827).” In British Women Poets of the Romantic Era, pp. 797-803. Baltimore, M.D.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
[In the following excerpt, Feldman discusses Williams's published writings and their reception by her contemporaries.]
Helen Maria Williams, best known for her eyewitness chronicles of the French Revolution and her influential salon in Paris, was also a poet who could not resist weaving verse into her novels and even into her translation of another author's work. She received her education from her Scots mother, Helen Hay. Her father, Charles Williams, a Welsh army officer, died when she was still a child, and her mother took her and her younger sister, Cecilia, to live in Berwick-upon-Tweed, on the border with Scotland. In 1781 Helen went to London. Andrew Kippis, a leading dissenting minister and family friend, became her mentor and introduced her to Elizabeth Montagu, Frances Burney, Anna Seward, Benjamin Franklin, George Romney, William Hayley, and other writers and intellectuals. Just as important, he edited and helped her publish her first book, Edwin and Eltruda, in 1782. A long antiwar poem, it recounts the tale of a woman who loses her lover and her father to a pointless war. The poem's success enabled Williams's mother and sister to join her in London. Eventually Williams's London circle came to include...
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SOURCE: Blakemore, Steven. “Comedy, Tragedy, and Romance in Williams' Letters from France.” In Crisis in Representation: Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams, and the Rewriting of the French Revolution, pp. 163-79. Madison, Wis.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.
[In the following excerpt, Blakemore discusses Williams' characterization of the French Revolution as a comedy that turned into a tragedy during the Reign of Terror.]
In many ways Helen Maria Williams is the antithesis of Mary Wollstonecraft, even though they both have a Girondist view of the Revolution. Wollstonecraft emphasizes reason and judgement, while Williams stresses emotion and the heart. Williams' “political creed is entirely an affair of the heart,” which she opposes to her “head” (Letters, 1:1.66). She notes that political arguments are often confusing, but once “a proposition is addressed” to her heart, then she has “quickness of perception” and can “decide, in one moment, points upon which philosophers and legislators have differed in all ages” (1:1.195-96). By emphasizing “quickness of perception,” she emphasizes her sensibility (see Samuel Johnson, 1755 Dictionary, def. no. 2), especially the “feminine” sensibility that Wollstonecraft excoriates in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In 1777 Hannah...
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SOURCE: Fruchtman, Jr., Jack. “The Politics of Sensibility: Helen Maria Williams' Julia and the Terror in France. Eighteenth-Century Women: Studies in Their Lives, Work, and Culture 1 (2001): 185-201.
[In the following essay, Fruchtman summarizes Williams' novel Julia with reference to her influences and her eyewitness accounts of the French Revolution.]
Helen Maria Williams's novel Julia (1790) possesses all the ingredients of the eighteenth-century sentimental novel, or novel of sensibility. Julia tells the story of the unrequited love of Frederick Seymour for the young, strikingly beautiful Julia Clifford (Ellis 214-20; Ty 73-84). At first blush, Julia is intensely private and sensitive, often lost in her own world, her thoughts about life, her friends and relations, and the limited social world in which she inhabits. Because her sensibility is more profound than that of any woman in the novel, she deeply understands the power relationships, especially the problem of domination, that prevails in her closed society. This domination takes the conventional form of men over women, but also women over other women as well. Frederick Seymour perceives the depth of Julia's sensibility, which is part of her attraction to him. His passion for Julia becomes extraordinarily complicated, when it turns out that Seymour's fiancée, then his wife, is Julia's first cousin and closest...
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SOURCE: Kennedy, Deborah. “Benevolent Historian: Helen Maria Williams and Her British Readers.” In Rebellious Hearts: British Women Writers and the French Revolution, edited by Adriana Craciun and Kari E. Kokke, pp. 317-330. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, Kennedy considers how Williams successfully negotiated the cultural and political minefield she entered as a liberal female historian.]
Traditionally, the areas of politics and history have not been regarded as a woman's proper sphere of study or activity. If, even in the twentieth century, as Joan Wallach Scott has observed, the involvement of women in those fields has been problematic, then how much more so was that the case for women in the late eighteenth century,1 when Catharine Macaulay was the only female historian of stature,2 and Angelica Kauffman perplexed critics by surpassing her male contemporaries in the genre of history painting.3 What, then, did readers think of Helen Maria Williams (1761-1827), a well-known poet of sensibility, with many friends in London's politically active Dissenting circles, who became famous for her books on the French Revolution? Her eight volumes of Letters from France (1790-1796) trace the development of the Revolution from the period of the Festival of the Federation in July 1790, when she visited France for the first time,...
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Fruchtman, Jack, Jr. Introduction to An Eye-Witness Account of the French Revolution by Helen Maria Williams: Letters Containing a Sketch of the Politics of France, pp. 1-30. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.
Provides an overview of Williams's life and career.
Blakemore, Steven. “Revolution and the French Disease: Laetitia Matilda Hawkins's ‘Letters’ to Helen Maria Williams.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 36, no. 3 (summer 1996): 673-92.
Discusses the gendered discourse on the French Revolution involving Williams's Letters from France, which was countered by Hawkins's Letters on the Female Mind.
Ellison, Julie. “Redoubled Feeling: Politics, Sentiment, and the Sublime in Williams and Wollstonecraft.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 20 (1990): 197-215.
Explores the relationship between sentiment and the sublime in fictional writing and political discourse as practiced by Williams and Wollstonecraft.
Jones, Vivien. “Women Writing Revolution: Narratives of History and Sexuality in Wollstonecraft and Williams.” In Beyond Romanticism: New Approaches to Texts and Contexts 1780-1832, edited by Stephen Copley and John Whale, pp. 178-99. London: Routledge, 1992.
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