Williams, Helen Maria (DNB00)
|←Williams, Griffith (1769-1838)||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 61
Williams, Helen Maria
WILLIAMS, HELEN MARIA (1762–1827), authoress, daughter of Charles Williams, an officer in the army, was born in London in 1762. While still a child, apparently on the death of her father, her family moved to Berwick-on-Tweed, 'where her sole instruction was derived from a virtuous, amiable, and sensible mother ' (Kippis). In 1781 she came up to London, bringing with her 'Edwin and Eltruda,' a legendary tale in verse, which Dr. Andrew Kippis [q. v.], an old family friend, undertook to see through the press, himself writing a short introduction. It was published in 1782, and was so far successful as to induce her to continue a literary career. During the next few years she produced several poems, including 'An Ode on the Peace' (1783) and 'Peru' (1784), which were published by subscription and brought in considerable profit. These, with other pieces, were included in her 'Poems' published in 1786 (2nd edit. 1791), in which was also an epistle to Dr. John Moore (1729-1802) [q. v.], expressing her gratitude for his friendship and his attention to her during a serious illness. She was at this time living 'where Epping spreads a woody waste,' at Grange Hill, Essex. In 1788 she went over to France on a visit to her elder sister, Cecilia, who married Athanase Coquerel, a protestant minister; and from that time she for the most part resided there, intermittently at first, but afterwards continuously. She adopted with enthusiasm the principles and ideas of the revolution, and wrote of it with a fervour that amounted almost to frenzy. She became acquainted with many of the leading Girondists, was on terms of intimacy with Madame Roland, was thrown into prison by Robespierre (from October 1793 she was in the Luxembourg), and narrowly escaped the fate of so many of her friends.
Both before her arrest and after her release she freely wrote her impressions of the events which she witnessed or heard of, impressions frequently formed on very imperfect, one-sided, and garbled information, travestied by the enthusiasm of a clever, badly educated woman, and uttered with the cocksureness of ignorance. It was in the nature of things that such writings should make her many enemies; and while some of these contented themselves with denouncing her works as unscrupulous fabrications, others attacked her reputation as a woman, and accused her of carrying her love of liberty to a detestation of all constraint, legal or social. She was apparently living at Paris from 1794 to 1796 under the protection of John Hurford Stone [q.v.], who had deserted his own wife for her. Wolfe Tone met them walking through the Tuileries on 19 July 1796, and three days later dined with them. 'Miss H. M. Williams,' he wrote, 'is Miss Jane Bull completely' (Autobiogr. 1893, ii. 86-7). In spite of her intrigue with Stone, and of, it is said, another with Captain Imlay, Miss Williams retained, with her religious sentiment, her association with the protestant set of her sister's family; and the tradition of her which remained to the younger members of it was as of one to admire and love. And in fact her writings are very much what might be expected from a warm-hearted and ignorant woman. The honesty with which she wrote carried conviction to many of her readers; and there can be little doubt that her works were the source of many erroneous opinions—as to facts, which have been largely accepted as matters of history, instead of as they really were, in their origin—the wilful misrepresentations of interested parties.
In 1817 she and Stone took out letters of naturalisation in France, it being then officially (but erroneously) noted that she was born in London in 1769, a date contrary to all available evidence, and shown to be absurd by the publication of 'Edwin and Eltruda' in 1782. During her later years she resided much at Amsterdam with her nephew, Athanase Laurent Charles Coquerel, pastor there of a congregation of French protestants. She died in Paris on 15 Dec. 1827, and was buried beside Stone in Pere-Lachaise. Her portrait was painted by Ozias Humphry ; another was engraved by R. Scott in 1786 (Bromley, p. 447). A lithographed portrait is said (Gent. Mag. 1828, i. 373) to have been published shortly before her death. Two smaller ones of an earlier date are in t he British Museum (print-room).
Besides her collected poems and several occasional pieces in verse, Miss Williams wrote 'Julia, a novel' (1790, 2 vols. 12mo), and the story, said to be from life, of 'Perourou, the Bellows-mender' (1801), now best known in its adaptation for the stage as 'The Lady of Lyons ' by the first Lord Lytton. She was on terms of close friendship with Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, of whose 'Paul et Virginie' she issued a version in 1795 (numerous editions); and she translated other works, including the 'Travels' of Von Humboldt and one of the tales of J. de Maistre. But it was by her political writings that she was best known, and these, even now, are worth reading, not as history of events, but of one, and that an important, phase of opinion and thought. They are:
- 'Letters written in France in the Summer of 1790,' 1790, 12mo.
- 'Letters containing a Sketch of the Politics of France from the 31st of May 1793 till the 28th of July 1794,' 1795, 2 vols. 12mo.
- 'Letters from France containing many New Anecdotes relative to the French Revolution and the present State of French Manners' 1792-6, 4 vols. 12mo.
- 'A Tour in Switzerland, or a View of the present State of the Governments and Manners of those Cantons, with comparative Sketches of the present State of Paris,' 1798, 2 vols. 8vo.
- 'Sketches of the State of Manners and Opinions in the French Republic towards the close of the Eighteenth Century,' 1801, 2 vols. 8vo. It is in this work that she has given a history of the revolution and counter-revolution at Naples in 1799, and a criticism on the conduct of Nelson, based on her history, which is distinctly false in every detail (a copy in the British Museum, Addit. MS. 34391, is enriched with several autograph notes by Nelson).
- 'The Political and Confidential Correspondence of Louis XVI,' 1803, 3 vols. 8vo. This called forth 'A Refutation of the Libel on the Memory of the late King of France, published by Helen Maria Williams under the title of "Political and Confidential Correspondence of Louis XVI," by A. F. Bertrand de Moleville; translated from the original manuscript by R. C. Dallas,' 1804, 8vo, in which not only the work thus specifically named, but all Miss Williams's earlier works are severely condemned; she herself is referred to as ' a woman whose lips and pen distil venom;' 'whose wretched pen has been long accumulating on itself disgrace after disgrace by writings of a similar nature' similar, that is, to the present * scandalous production.'
- 'A Narrative of the Events which have taken place in France from the landing of Napoleon Bonaparte on the 1st of March 1815 to the Restoration of Louis XVIII,' 1815, 8vo.
- 'Letters on the Events which have passed in France since the Restoration in 1815,' 1819, 8vo.
[Gent. Mag. 1828, i. 373, 386; Michaud's Biogr. Universelle; Alger's Englishmen in the French Revolution; Julian's Hymnology; C. A. Coquerel's Souvenirs de la Ræévolution, traduits de l'Anglais de H. M. W., with an introduction; works named in text.]