Williams, Helen Maria (1762–1827)
Williams, Helen Maria (1762–1827)
English poet and correspondent . Born on June 17, 1762, in London, England; died on December 15, 1827, in Paris, France; daughter of Charles Williams (an army officer) and Helen (Hay) Williams; educated at home.
Helen Maria Williams was born in 1762 in London, England, and raised in Berwick-on-Tweed. She developed a talent for writing as a child, encouraged by her widowed mother, who supervised Williams' education. Moving to London in 1781, she began experimenting with verse and published her first work of poetry, the romance Edwin and Eltruda: A Legendary Tale, in 1782. Williams' writing proved popular enough with readers that book sales provided her with a respectable income, and she continued to publish both poetry and fiction during her 20s. Notable among her early works is "Poem on the Slave Trade" (1788), which describes her liberal reaction to the then-legal market in human flesh and firmly cemented her acceptance within London's more radical literary circles.
In 1790, at age 28, Williams moved to France at the invitation of an aristocratic friend, funding her first year there by translating and reworking Jean-Jacques Rousseau's novel Julie and submitting it to British readers that year. Living in Paris and quickly caught up in the political energy of the French Revolution, the impetuous Williams began a salon that drew such expatriates as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft . She also published several volumes of correspondence, among them Letters Written in France in the Summer of 1790, a series of radical pronouncements that appeared in England that year. Astute enough to realize that her writing might prove inflammatory, she also set to work on a translation of the popular novel Paul et Virginie, which she intended to use as a cover in case her workspace was ever raided. Despite her efforts at concealment, in 1793 Williams was arrested as a suspected member of the political faction known as Girondists and imprisoned by Robespierre during his Reign of Terror—her arrest a result of her friendship with the late Girondist Madame Roland , her irresponsible publishings, and her romantic, live-in relationship with divorced Englishman John Hurford Stone, a Unitarian radical.
Barely escaping the guillotine that brought the end to much of the French aristocracy, Williams managed to escape into Switzerland on a borrowed passport, a six-month journey recounted in her A Tour in Switzerland (1798). Her Sketches of the State of Manners and Opinions in the French Republic (1801) and A Narrative of the Events Which Have Taken Place in France (1815), while notorious for presenting a misinformed and naive portrait of the politics and events they purport to describe, have remained of interest to students of the Revolution. Despite her experiences during the Terror, Williams never wavered in her praise of Revolutionary principles, a position that lost her both friends and readers in her later years. Following Stone's death in 1818, she moved to Amsterdam to live with a nephew, returning eventually to Paris where she died in 1827.
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Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut