Monday 12 October 2015

Helen Maria Williams: a lost reputation in defence of liberty

Please welcome Sarah Agnew, with the tale of a most remarkable woman!


Helen Maria Williams born London 17th June 1759 - died Paris, 15th December 1827

Famous in her own lifetime, Helen Maria Williams was once the subject of gossip columns in the London press. She was loyal, brave and passionately committed to human rights, yet it were these qualities that led to her losing favour and falling into obscurity. They were also to lead to her arrest and imprisonment at 2am on 12th October 1793 along with her mother and sisters during the Reign of Terror in Paris.

Born in London the family moved to Berwick on Tweed on the Scottish border after her father's death, where Helen grew up amid Protestant thinkers at the end of the enlightenment era. Moving back to London in her early twenties, Helen first came to public notice for her poetry, published under the mentorship of the Dissenting minister Andrew Kippis. Her poems were part of the sentimental movement and she wrote about the anguish of prisoners forgotten in subterranean prison cells and the horror of slaves tortured and shackled.

©Trustees of the British Museum
©Trustees of the British Museum

A young Wordsworth, not yet known to the world was so impressed by her poetry that he composed a poem called, "A Sonnet on Seeing Miss Helen Maria Williams Weep at a Tale of Distress" in her honour. She charmed Dr Samuel Johnson and was befriended by the famous Mrs Piozzi, formerly Mrs Thrale.

At the same time the family began to take French lessons from an emigre Madame du Fosse, whose husband had been locked up by lettre du cachet. They had married in secret, which had enraged the man's father due to her inferiority of birth and as a consequence had imprisoned his own son without trial.

Inspired by this tale of injustice and by the changes taking place in Paris, Helen Maria Williams, along with her sisters and mother visited France. Arriving in July 1790, they were just in time to witness the Fete de la Federation, an event where approximately 600,000 assembled in the Champs de Mars to see Louis XVI swearing an oath of allegiance to the new constitution. It was a marvellous spectacle that made a deep impression on Helen. She wrote, "had I not reached Paris at the moment I did reach it, I should have missed the most sublime spectacle, which, perhaps was ever represented on the theatre of this earth."
So delighted with the prospect of this new world order, Helen turned to prose to record events and published her accounts in London, entitled Letters Written in France. She described how every walk of life shared in the joy of this new regime and wrote a very positive report. An account that differed significantly from how events were recorded by the London papers.

At a time when it was generally considered that women could not comprehend politics let alone hold a political opinion, Helen had to be careful how she conveyed her liberal views.
Using a combination of anecdotes and eye witness accounts to support her liberal thinking she sought to make persuasive arguments in support of radical change. One of her most compelling stories was that of their former French tutor who was now happily restored to her husband in France under the new constitution.

Living in Paris allowed Helen to feel released from this restrictive view of women and she flourished in an atmosphere of equality holding a literary salon attended by many of the most eminent thinkers of the day.

This in itself was liberating and she began to make friends with political figures of the new regime, later known as Girondins. Although a disparate group this term distinguished them from the more radical members of the Convention who were soon to become more powerful.

Helen also became connected with a Welshman, John Hurford Stone. An interesting character in his own right he was also passionate about the liberal thinking that the French Revolution was embracing.

They became close despite the fact that John was still a married man, although separated.
When Helen briefly returned to England in the early summer of 1792 and visited her friend Mrs Piozzi with John in attendance her reception was a little colder than before.
Meanwhile back in France events had become more volatile leading in August to the annihilation of the Swiss Guard outside the Tuileries palace while defending the royal family. Living just beside the palace Helen was only a few minutes distant from where this tragedy unfolded. More and more of those who had been sympathetic in England began to turn away.

In London the press reported Helen as afterwards walking unconcerned through the dead bodies in the Tuileries Garden. This was far from the truth. Correspondence from England became less frequent and she became dangerously ill. Her sister Cecilia at this point wrote to her former friend Mrs Piozzi to advise her of Helen's illness. A letter eventually came back, with a cold response explaining her daughter had been ill and that Helen should be careful about the company she was keeping and accusing her of democratic fury.

©Trustees of the British Museum
©Trustees of the British Museum

Her ties with England had been broken. Her friends in Government weren't faring any better and in June 1793 a coup saw 21 of them rounded up, again in the Tuileries and falsely arrested. The Reign of Terror had begun in earnest.

One of the deputies, Barrere escaped and fled for sanctuary to Helen's apartement in a nearby street. Helen welcomed him in and when she heard of the unjust arrest of the others she avowed to publish an account to tell the truth. A risky step to take considering the turbulence of the times when even innocent people were sent to the guillotine.

A few months later and a decree meant all foreigners were also arrested and imprisoned. It was too late to escape. At 2am on 12th October soldiers came to the door and arrested Helen, her mother and sisters Cecilia and Persis.

They were taken to the Luxembourg Palace, now turned into a house of arrest where more and more prisoners were brought each day. There Helen was reunited with John who had been arrested with his wife a couple of days earlier.

Their stay in prison lasted only a few months and their release was thanks to the efforts of a cousin of the Du Fosse's who was in love with Helen's sister and aided by two poets, friends of Helen's. Upon their release Helen's sister married the Du Fosse's cousin, making her a French citizen and therefore removing the threat of arrest.

John divorced his wife and arranged passports for Helen and him to travel to Switzerland for greater safety, where they stayed briefly until it was safe to return to France.

John continued to live with Helen and her family in France until his death in 1818, although they never married or publicly confirmed they were a couple.

There are so many elements to Helen's story that I could mention and for me so many unanswered questions, I hope this brings parts of her story back to life.
As a mere eighteenth century fancier I have limited access to eighteenth century resources or time to devote to research. 
However, if I could follow new lines of enquiry I would investigate the following:
John Hurford Stone was one of 1,500 subscribers to Helen's book of poems in 1786, did they know each other before they lived in Paris?
How many copies did Helen's book sell when first published, what were the dates each volume was published and were copies only for sale in England?
What involvement did the poets have in the release of Helen and her family?
What were her mother and sisters like?
Sarah Agnew is an eighteenth century enthusiast, who has drafted a radio play based on Helen Maria Williams' story in the years 1790 - 3. She blogs about fabulous food and days out at some with an eighteenth century connection, mostly in relation to Brighton and London.
She also tweets about food and days out at and posts photos of food and architecture on

Written content of this post copyright © Sarah Agnew, 2015.


Unknown said...

Absolutely fascinating,Madame! I'm sure there is more in this tale to be yet told!

Sarah said...

heh, very interesting! I know her principally for having coined some very singular names for her heroines, which I could not resist using for a family of sisters in a story.

Catherine Curzon said...

I suspect there is much drama!

Catherine Curzon said...

Oh, wonderful!

Stephen Baines said...

Excellent; lots of new & interesting research! Andrew Kippis wrote one of the early biographies of Captain Cook.

Catherine Curzon said...

Oh yes, he did!