Helen Maria Williams
born 1762, London
died Dec. 15, 1827, Paris
English poet, novelist, and social critic best
known for her support of such radical causes as
abolitionism and the French Revolution.
The daughter of an army officer, she was
privately educated at Berwick-on-Tweed. After
she went to London in 1781 to publish her poem
Edwin and Eltruda, she made a wide literary
acquaintance, which included Dr. Samuel Johnson
and Robert Burns as well as such prominent
radicals as Joseph Priestley and William Godwin.
In the 1780s she achieved some success with her
poetry; her collected poems (1786) had a
subscription of some 1,500 names.
The first important expression of Williams’s
interests in social reform came with her Poem on
the Slave Bill (1788), and her opposition to
slavery was clear in her novel Julia (1790),
which also indicated her support for the French
Revolution. She spent the summer of 1790 in
Revolutionary France, returned again in late
1791, and settled there in late 1792. Her
sympathy for the Revolution is recorded in
volumes of Letters published from 1790 to 1796.
She was particularly attracted to the moderate
Girondins and allowed her Paris salon to serve
as a meeting place for them as well as for
British radicals; among the attendees were the
English-American political pamphleteer Thomas
Paine and the English feminist Mary
Wollstonecraft. Arrested with other British
citizens in October 1793, Williams was soon
released but had to leave Paris the following
year, eventually going to Switzerland in June to
escape Jacobin persecution.
On her travels Williams was accompanied by
another English expatriate, John Hurford Stone.
She wrote about her time in Switzerland in Tour
in Switzerland (1798), which also includes some
of her verse. Her hatred for Robespierre did not
destroy her faith in the original principles of
the Revolution, and after his fall (July 1794)
she returned to Paris.
Williams’s enthusiasm for political change in
France lost her most of her literary friends in
England. Because of her disenchantment with the
Directory, she initially admired Napoleon
Bonaparte, but she later condemned him as a
tyrant and finally welcomed his fall in her
Narrative of the Events (1815). In the meantime
she satirized rank and privilege in Perourou
(1801) and reiterated her republican principles
in an edition of the forged correspondence of
Louis XVI (1803). In 1817 she took out letters
of naturalization in France but spent most of
the remaining decade of her life in Amsterdam.
Her Poems on Various Subjects appeared in 1823.