Helen Maria Williams

From SiefarWikiEn

Jump to: navigation, search

Entry by Julia Milena Drumm and Nicole Pellegrin, 2009

Helen Maria Williams, born the 17th of July 1761 in London, was the daughter of a Welsh officer, who died in 1769, and of a Presbyterian Scotswoman, Helen Hay. She was raised with two sisters by her mother in Berwick-Upon-Tweed in the North of England. Helen Maria Williams acquired a vast knowledge at a very young age. At the age of twenty, she moved to London with her family. There she met Andrew Kippis, a minister and man of letters. He helped her publish a long poem with sentimental and medievalist undertones (Edwin and Eltruda). He put her in touch with intellectuals such as Samuel Johnson, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, William Wordsworth, and the ‘Bluestockings’ circle: Elizabeth Robinson Montagu and Charlotte Smith, among others. Shortly afterwards, Helen Maria Williams opened her own salon which gathers authors such as Thomas Holcroft, Fanny Burney and Dr. John Moore. Her poems were highly appreciated by literary critics. Their themes include the praise of God, criticism of slavery and colonial exploitation or the charms of nature. The sentimental story of a virtuous heroine is at the core of her only novel Julia (1790), in which she also inserts a poem, “The Bastille”, revealing her enthusiasm for revolutionary ideas. She settled in Paris in July 1790 and then undertook the description of the ongoing social upheavals. Letters from France is a compendium of several volumes which were compiled between 1790 and 1819 and published in London. It was soon translated into several languages and caused some controversy.

In 1797, she permanently settled in France joined by her mother and two sisters. There, Helen Maria Williams shared her life with a married man, the businessman John Stone, who was known for his political radicalism and his activities as a publisher (he might have become her husband after he divorced). She kept a salon visited by British, American and French people including Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine. She had connections with Brissot, Pétion, Buzot, Robespierre, Abbé Grégoire, La Harpe, Rouget de l’Isle, Manon Roland, as well as with Madame de Genlis. After the September 1792 massacres, she sided with the Girondins and attended, with horror, their execution and the rising of popular violence. On the 12th of October, 1793, she was imprisoned for some weeks, like all her fellow country(wo)men. She travelled to Switzerland from June to December 1794 (from where she would return with a travelogue). Back in France, she continued to show her commitment to the ideals of the Revolution but she refused to support Napoleon’s belligerent politics. She raised the French children of one of her sisters, who had died in 1798 and who was married to the Protestant minister Coquerel. She published various ambitious translations including an annotated edition of Louis XVI’s – apocryphal - letters, which displeased all parties. After the return of the Bourbons whose initial liberalism she felt drawn to, she became a French citizen in 1818 and, in the following year, she wrote her last interpretation of French contemporary history in a collection that combined poetry and prose. Her Souvenirs, akin to a life review, were published posthumously, upon her death on the 14th of December, 1827, in Paris.

A sensibility poet opposed to all injustices (slavery, despotism, death penalty, women’s weak position in society), Helen Maria Williams is still well-known for her chronicles of three decades of life in France. A direct witness and a passionate analyst, she knew how to combine objective observations, revelatory anecdotes and personal feelings. She was the subject of numerous comments in most British newspapers for her Francophile views, her republicanism and for integrating, despite her sex, political commentaries in her accounts. Thus, she played a prominent role as a cultural mediator between France and the Anglo-American and German countries. This role was strengthened by her activities as a translator and assistant director of English Press (a publishing house established in Paris by Stone). Today, the entirety of Helen Maria Williams’ works arouses the interest of historians and literary critics for the wealth of her reflections on the Revolution and the uniqueness of her status as a woman of letters who was not too keen on the explicit feminist claims by her friend Mary Wollstonecraft. To her compatriot, novelist, and Francophile traveller Lady Morgan, Williams was a true “citizen of the world”.

(Translated by Paula Yurss)


  • 1782 : Edwin and Eltruda. A Legendary Tale, by a young Lady, préface par Andrew Kippis, London, T. Cadell.
  • 1783 : An Ode on the Peace, by the Author of Edwin and Eltruda, London, T. Cadell.
  • 1784 : Peru, A Poem in Six Cantos, London, T. Cadell.
  • 1786 : Poems, in two volumes, London, T. Cadell, 2 vol. (un de ces poèmes mis en musique pour devenir l’hymne While thee I seek, Protecting Power; le frontispice est de Maria Cosway; avec une liste de souscripteurs) -- rééd. en facsimile, Oxford, Woodstock Books, 1994.
  • 1788 : A Poem on the Bill Lately Passed for Regulating the Slave Trade, London, T. Cadell. -- éd. Neil Fraistat et Susan S. Lanser, Letters Written in France, in the Summer 1790, to a Friend in England [...], Peterborough (Canada), Broadview Literary Texts, 2001, p. 194-202.
  • 1788 : «The Morai», dans Andrew Kippis, The Life of Captain James Cook, Londres, G. Nicol et G. G. J. Robinson [appendice] -- Chiswick, Whittingham, 1822.
  • 1790 : Julia. A Novel. Interspersed with Some Poetical Pieces, London, T. Cadell, 2 vol. -- éd. Peter Garside, Londres, Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1995 (porté sur la scène par lord Bulwer-Lytton sous le titre de The Lady of Lyons, 1798).
  • 1790 : 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 F..., London, T. Cadell (premier tome de sa première série de letters) -- éd. Neil Fraistat et Susan S. Lanser, Letters Written in France..., voir supra, p.61-150 (un extrait publié sous le titre Memoirs of Mons. And Madame Du F. In a Series of Letters, Boston, sn, 1794 ; une traduction en français par M. de La Montagné, Lettres écrites de France à une amie en Angleterre pendant l’été 1790, Paris, Garnery, 1791 ; des traductions allemandes et hollandaises, dont Briefe aus Frankreich an eine freudin in England im Sommer 1790, Leipzig, 1798, et Brieven in dem Zomer 1790, Haarlem, 1791).
  • 1790 : The Unfortunate Young Nobleman.
  • 1791 : A Farewell for Two Years to England. A Poem, London, T. Cadell.
  • 1791 : «Société des Amis de la Constitution. Extrait du procès-verbal de la séance publique des amis de la Constitution, du 13 juillet 1791», Journal de Rouen, 14 juillet 1791 -- avec la réponse de l’auteure du 13 septembre dans Lionel Woodward, Une Anglaise amie de la Révolution..., voir infra, Choix bibliographique, p. 43-46.
  • 1792 : Letters from France. Containing Many New Anecdotes Relative to the French Revolution, and the Present State of French Manners, Londres, G. & J. Robinson (deuxième tome de sa première série de lettres). Une traduction allemande met en valeur une éventuelle aide rédactionnelle : Neue Briefe über franzosische Revolution: aus dem Englischen der helene Marie Williams, Th. Christie und Hurford Stone, Berlin, sn, 1794-1795.
  • 1793 : Letters from France; Containing a Great Variety of Interesting and Original Information concerning the Most Important Events That Have Lately Occurred in that Country in the years 1790, 1791, 1792, and 1793, and Particularly Respecting the Campaign of 1792, Dublin, J. Chambers, 1794, 2 vol. (troisième et quatrième tomes de la première série de lettres) – Rééd. Caroline Franklin, dans Women’s Travel Writings, 1750-1850, Londres, Routledge, 2006, t.1.
  • 1795 : 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, London, G.-G. et J. Robinson, 2 vol. (les deux premiers tomes de la seconde série de lettres). Il y eut, en 1796, une traduction française anonyme du premier tome, dans Lettres sur les événemens [...], voir infra ; une traduction en allemand et des éditions irlandaise et américaine.
  • 1795 : Letters Containing a Sketch of the Scenes Which Passed in Various Departments of France During the Tyranny of Robespierre, and Of the Events Which Took Place in Paris on the 28th of July 1794, London, G.-G. et J. Robinson (troisième tome de la seconde série de lettres). Une édition américaine: Philadelphie, Snowden & M’Corkle, 1796.
  • 1795 : Lettres sur les événemens qui se sont passés en France, depuis le 31 mai 1793 jusqu’au 10 thermidor, traduit de l’anglois, Paris, sn -- Autre traduction française partielle, par F. Funck-Brentano, Le Règne de Robespierre, Paris, Fayard, c.1910 (ouvrage retraduit en anglais : Memoirs of the Reign of Robespierre, New York et Londres, John Hamilton, 1929) -- traduction allemande : Briefe enthaltend einem Abriss der französischen Angelegenheiten, Leipzig, 1794-1796.
  • 1796 : «Original Sonnets», dans Poems. Moral, Elegant and Pathetic, viz. Essay on Man, by Pope ; The Monk of La Trappe, by Jerningham ; The Grace, by Blair ; An Elegy in a Country Chuchyard, by Gray ; The Hermit of Warkworth, by Percy ; and Original Sonnets, by Helen-Maria Williams, London, Vernor et Hood, p. 211-220.
  • 1796 : Letters Containing a Sketch of the Politics of France, From the Twenty-Eighth of July 1794, to the Establishment of the Constitution of 1795, and Of the Scenes Which Have Passed in the Prisons of Paris, London, G.-G. et J. Robinson (quatrième tome de la seconde série de lettres). Une édition américaine : Philadelphie, Matthew Carey, 1796.
  • 1796 : «On the Death of the Rev. Dr. Kippis», Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1, janvier 1796, p. 66.
  • 1797 : «Auguste and Madelaine. A Real History», dans Seraphina. A novel. From the French of M. Mercier. To which is added Auguste and Madelaine. A Real History by Miss Helen Maria Williams, Charleston (Mass.), John Lamson, 1797 -- dans M. Ducray-Duminil, Ambrose and Eleanor, or the Adventures of Two Children Deserted on an Uninhabited Island. To which is added Auguste and Madelaine. A Real History by Miss Helen Maria Williams, Philadelphie, William W. Woodward, 1799, p. 201-220.
  • 1798 : A Tour in Switzerland ; or, A View of the Present State of the Government and Manners of those Cantons: with Comparative Sketches of the Present State of Paris, Londres, G. G. et J. Robinson, 2 vol. -- éd. Stephen Bending et Stephen Bygrave, Women's Travel Writings in Revolutionary France, Londres, Pickering & Chatto, 2007, vol.1-2. Une traduction hollandaise : Reize in Switzerland, Leyde, A. & J. Honkoop, 1798 ; une traduction française : Nouveau voyage en Suisse, contenant une peinture de ce pays, de ses moeurs et de ses gouvernements actuels, avec quelques traits de comparison entre les usages de la Suisse et ceux de Paris moderne, trad. par J. B. Say, Paris, Charles Pougens, 1798, 2 vol.
  • 1799 : «Memoirs of the Life of Charles Berns Wadstrom», Monthly Magazine, juillet 1799, p.462-465.
  • 1799 : «Lettre de la citoyenne Hélène-Maria William [sic] au citoyen Jean-Baptiste Say sur la mort du philanthrope Wadström», La Décade philosophique, 10 floréal an VII [29 avril 1799].
  • 1801 : «Ode to Peace», Morning Chronicle, 17 novembre 1801.
  • 1801 : Sketches of the State of Manners and Opinions in the French Republic, Towards the Close of the Eighteenth Century. In a Series of Letters, London, G. G. et J. Robinson, 2 vol. Une traduction française : Aperçu de l’état des moeurs et des opinions dans la République française vers la fin du XVIIIe siècle, trad. par Mme Grandchamp, Paris, Levrault, 2 vol.; deux traductions allemandes : Skisse von dem Zustande der Sitten und Meinungen in der französischen Republick gegen das ende der 18 jahre hunderts, Stuttgart, 1801 et Tübingen, 1801-1802 ; une traduction hollandaise: Haarlem, 1801.
  • 1801 : The History of Perourou ; or the Bellows-Mender, Dublin, sn (extrait des Sketches..., voir supra).
  • 1803 : Correspondance politique et confidentielle inédite de Louis XVI avec ses frères et plusieurs personnes célèbres, pendant les dernières années de son règne [...], avec des observations, Paris, Debray, 2 vol. (ouvrage apocryphe, édité simultanément en anglais et en français : Londres, G. et J. Robinson, 1803, 3 vol.). Trois traductions allemandes : Leipzig, 1803 ; Augsburg, 1804 ; et Strasbourg, 1804 ; une hollandaise : Dordrecht, 1804 ; une anglaise : Londres, 1805.
  • 1808 : Recueil de Poésies, extraites des ouvrages d’Helena-Maria Williams, traduit par M. Stanislas de Boufflers et M. Esménard, Paris, J. G. Cocheris.
  • 1809 : Verses Addressed by Helena Maria Williams to Her Two Nephews on Saint Helen’s Day, Paris, sn.
  • 1815 : A Narrative of the Events which Have Taken Place in France, from the Landing of Napoleon Bonaparte, on the 1st of March 1815, till the Restoration of Louis XVIII. With an Account of the Present State of Society and Public Opinion, London, Murray -- Cleveland, Burrows, 1894. Une traduction française : Relation des Evénemens qui se sont passés en France depuis le débarquement de Napoléon Buonaparte, au 1er mars 1815, jusqu’au traité du 20 Novembre, par Miss Helen-Maria Williams, trad. par M. Breton de La Martinière, Paris, J. G. Dentu, 1816.
  • 1816 : On the Late Persecution of the Protestants in the South of France, London, T. et G. Underwood.
  • 1817 : «Letter to Robert Burns, 20 juin 1787», The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, a New Series of the Scots Magazine, 1, [septembre 1817], p.109.
  • 1818 : «Preface», dans Personal Narrative of Travels of the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent During the Years 1799-1804, by Alexander von Humboldt et Aimé Bonpland, Londres, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme et Brown, vol.1-2.
  • 1819 : The Charter, Lines Addressed by Helena Maria Williams, to her Nephew Athanase Charles Laurent Coquerel, on his Wedding Day, Paris, sn.
  • 1819 : Letters on the Events which Have Passed in France since the Restoration in 1815, London, Baldwin, Cradock et Joy (ce texte incorpore celui de 1816 : On the Late Persecution of the Protestants in the South of France).
  • 1819 : Evénements arrivés en France depuis la Restauration de 1815, traduit de l’anglais par M. Moreau père, Paris, Rosa.
  • 1823 : Poems on Various Subjects. With Introductory Remarks on the Present State of Science and Literature in France, Londres, Whittaker.
  • Souvenirs de la Révolution française, traduit par C. C. [Charles Coquerel, neveu de l’auteure], Paris, Dondey-Dupré, 1827 (ce livre comprend le dernier poème qu’elle ait écrit: Lines on the fall of Mussolinghi, 1827.)
  • Letters from France, intr. par Janet Todd, Delmar (New York), Scolars’Facsimiles and Reprints, 1975, 8 vol. (reprise de l’ensemble des Letters).

Translations from French into English

  • 1795 : Paul and Virginia, translated from the French of Bernardin de Saint Pierre. With Original Sonnets, by Helen Maria Williams, London, G.-G. Robinson, ill. -- Oxford, Woodstock, 1989.
  • 1803 : The Political and Confidential Correspondence of Lewis the Sixteenth [Louis XVI]; with Observations on Each Letter by Helen Maria Williams, London, G. et J. Robinson, 3 vol. (ouvrage apocryphe).
  • 1814 : Researches, Concerning the Institutions & Monuments of the Ancient Inhabitants of America, with Descriptions & Views of Some of the Most Striking Scenes in the Cordilleras! Written in French by Alexander von Humboldt and translated into English by Helen Maria Williams, London, Longman et Hurst, 2 vol. ill. -- Amsterdam, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1971.
  • 1814-1821 : Personal Narrative of Travels of the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent During the Years 1799-1804, by Alexander von Humboldt et Aimé Bonpland; with Maps, Plans, &c. Written in French and Translated into English by Helen Maria Williams, Londres, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme et Brown, Londres, 5 vol. ill. -- New York, AMS, 1966.
  • 1817 : The Leper of the City of Aosta. A Narrative [de Xavier de Maistre], Londres, George Cowie.


  • Lettres manuscrites inédites dans plusieurs bibliothèques : Lausanne, Londres, Manchester, Oxford, Princeton, etc. (Deborah Kennedy, Helen Maria Williams…, voir infra, Choix bibliographique). On y trouve de nombreuses références à sa vie et à ses œuvres.
  • Poèmes de circonstances dans la presse britannique et les écrits personnels du temps.

Selected bibliography

  • FRAISTAT, Neil et Susan S. LANSER, «Introduction», dans Helen Maria Williams, Letters Written in France... [voir supra, OEuvres], p. 9-60.
  • FRUCHTMAN, Jack Jr. (éd.), An Eye-Witness Account of the French Revolution by Helen Maria Williams. Letters Containing a Sketch of the Politics of France, New York, Peter Lang Publishing, 1997.
  • KENNEDY, Deborah, Helen Maria Williams and the Age of Revolution, Lewisburg/Londres, Bucknell University Press/Associated University Presses, 2002.
  • «Williams, Helen Maria», The Literary Encyclopaedia. URL: http://www.litencyc.com.
  • WOODWARD, Lionel, Une Anglaise amie de la Révolution française, Hélène-Maria Williams et ses amis, Paris, Champion, 1930 -- Genève, Slatkine Reprints, 1977.


  • «[1784, Dr. Johnson] had dined that day at Mr Hoole’s, and Miss Helen Maria Williams being expected in the evening, Mr. Hoole put into his hands her beautiful “Ode on the Peace”. Johnson reads it over, and when this elegant, and accomplished young lady was presented to him, he took her by the hand in the most courteous manner, and repeated the finest stanza of her poem. [...] Her respectable friend, Dr. Kippis, from whom I had this anecdote, was standing by, and was not a little gratified.» (Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791), Londres, Everyman’s Library, 1963, t.1, p. 514-515)
  • «Mesdames [Anna] Seward and Williams, and half a dozen more of those harmonious virgins, have no imagination, no originality. Their thoughts and phrases are like their gowns -old remnants cut and turned.» (Horace Walpole, Letters, 4 novembre 1786, t.13, p. 416)
  • [A propos des Letters on the French Revolution, 1790] «That an English lady should be fond of, or intoxicated with liberty, is no phenomenon in these times; or even that an English lady should be eager for the parade and deception of the French Confederation. Such was Helen Maria Williams. “She saw it, and was glad”, and perhaps rejoices that she has made a profitable book out of it [...]. We, who have bestowed some attention to the calm reasonings of Burke and Calonne, must be permitted to entertain very different notions of the French Revolution, and indeed of the value of liberty [...]. The pathetic tale of M. and Mme du F... is a very seasonable episode in a declamation against tyranny. The writer herself fears it has the air of a romance, and we should perfectly agree with her as she is used to such writing, that every incident is made to tally, did we not know, from undoubted authority, that the tale was true» (Gentleman’s Magazine, 61, janvier 1791, p. 62 et suiv.)
  • «Miss Williams has behaved very civilly to me and I shall visit her frequently, because I rather like her, and I meet french company at her house. Her manners are affected, yet the simple goodness of her heart continually breaks through the varnish, so that one would be more inclined, at least I should, to love than admire her. Authorship is a heavy weight for female shoulders especially in the sunshine of prosperity [...].» (Mary Wollstonecraft, The Collected Letters, éd. Janet Todd, lettre à Everina Wollstonecraft, 24 décembre 1792, Londres, Penguin, 2003, p. 215)
  • [A propos de son évocation de la «tyrannie» de Robespierre, 1795] «She must excuse us if we say she has debased her sex, her heart, her feelings, her talents, in recording such a tissue of horror and villainy and we hesitate not to say, daring to insult a regular government and a happy people, with such details, whose result we defy her to show has yet been productive of one single good.» (Gentlemen's Magazine, décembre 1795, p. 1030)
  • «Her idea of government, and of its various effects on human affairs, takes a flight far about the common female range. Her language, too, if not always strictly correct, frequently aims at higher excellence. [...] It will seldom fail to interest the feelings of humanity and it will [...] command the approbation of the heart.» (Monthly Review, 1796)
  • «L’Aperçu des moeurs des Français, que madame Grandchamp vient de traduire, est propre à soutenir la réputation de l’Auteur [...]. Il est bon de voyager hors de son pays; il est bon de rencontrer d’autres opinions [...]. Elle tempère l’austérité du langage politique par des digressions, des anecdotes, des épisodes [...]. Mademoiselle Williams a su ajouter un nouveau prix à l’intérêt de cette histoire [les 18 et 19 Brumaire], par des détails pleins de sentiment et de vérité, d’où l’on peut conjecturer que si elle ne s’était pas vouée à la poésie et à la politique, elle aurait accru la reputation que les femmes ses compatriotes se sont acquise dans la narration des romans. Nous l’invitons à s’associer dans ce genre où brille avec tant d’avantage la délicatesse des sentimens, si naturelle à son sexe. Ses écrits ont de quoi plaire aux hommes qui pensent fortement, mais elle n’oubliera pas sans doute que les femmes ont aussi quelques droits sur les productions d’une plume qui peut suivre les mouvemens les plus fugitives du coeur, aussi facilement qu’elle sait tracer le tableau des grands bouleversemens politiques et la peinture des moeurs d’une nation» (Jean-Baptiste Say, La Décade philosophique, t. 28, 2e trim. de l’an IX [1801], p. 222-231, 278-288)
  • [À propos des Evénements arrivés en France depuis la Restauration, 1819] «Miss Williams, déjà connue par plusieurs productions distinguées, demeure à Paris depuis 25 ans, et ses relations avec l’église réformée dont elle fait partie, lui ont fourni les moyens de s’instruire d’un grand nombre de faits nouveaux, relativement aux troubles du Midi [...]. Il est beau de voir une étrangère prendre la défense des Français ; c’est un spectacle utile et digne de notre admiration que celui d’un écrivain de la Grande Bretagne plaidant la cause d’une nation qu’un trop grand nombre d’Anglais poursuit encore aujourd’hui de ses invectives. Miss Williams donne un exemple de l’union qui devrait régner entre les peuples; et il est consolant de penser que la religion protestante peut devenir la chaîne commune qui effectuera cette alliance.» (Annales protestantes, Paris, sn, 1820, t. 1, p. 48)
Helen Maria Williams
Biographical entries in old dictionaries
Dictionnaire Fortunée Briquet
Personal tools
In other languages