Helen Maria Williams Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”