Williams, Helen Maria, 1762—1827
by Benjamin Colbert
Helen Maria Williams was born in London, the daughter of Charles Williams (d. 1762), Secretary for the island of Minorca, and his second wife, Helen Williams, née Hay (1730–1812). Charles Williams died while Helen Maria Williams and her older sister, Cecilia, were still infants, and his widow raised her daughters and a half-sister from Charles Williams’s first marriage at Berwick-upon-Tweed. Helen Maria Williams returned to London at 19 and, encouraged by the minister Andrew Kippis (1725-95; ODNB), published her first poem, Edwin and Eltruda (1782), followed by several more volumes including her successful Poems (1786), which earned her a substantial reputation.
Already moving in abolitionist and liberal dissenter circles in the 1780s, Williams was well prepared to welcome the French Revolution. She visited the fledgling Republic in the summer of 1790 and published a glowing account of the visit, Letters Written in France (1790). She travelled again to France in September 1791 and published a continuation of her letters, now called simply Letters from France (1792), during a brief period in London before returning to Paris. Two more volumes followed in 1793, both critical of the violent turn of events while remaining committed to the revolutionary cause. In October 1793, as a citizen of a belligerent nation (France was by then at war with England), Williams was committed for six weeks to the Luxembourg prison, and after her release lived for a few months in Paris with her sister, Cecilia, who had married a Frenchman. Around this time she became intimate with the recently divorced radical, John Hurford Stone (1763-1818; ODNB), a relationship about which not much is known but which lasted until his death. In July 1794, she travelled with Stone to Switzerland for six months, and later published A Tour in Switzerland (1798) covering this period. Meanwhile, back in Paris, she continued her epistolary account of political developments with her 4-volume Letters Containing a Sketch (1795-96).
By now established in France for good (she became a naturalized French citizen in 1817), Williams continued periodically her historical-political correspondence, detailing key transitional phases (1801, 1815, 1819) as France moved from republic to empire to restored monarchy. In 1810, she began working with Alexander von Humboldt in preparing an English translation of his South American travel writings, published as Researches Concerning [...] Inhabitants of America (1814) and Personal Narrative of Travels to [...] the New Continent (7 vols, 1814-29). From 1823 she resided with a nephew in Amsterdam, returning to Paris in 1827 where she died later that year.
Kennedy, Deborah F. Helen Maria Williams and the Age of Revolution. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2002. Print.
–––. 'Williams, Helen Maria (1759–1827), writer'. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sept. 2010. Oxford University Press. Web. 16 Mar. 2015. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/29509