Helen Maria Williams

(17 June 1759 - 15 December 1827)
Helen Maria Williams (1759-1827)

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Helen Maria Williams (1759-1827)

Works in ECPA

alphabetical listing / listing in source editions

Source editions

  • Williams, Helen Maria, 1762-1827. Edwin and Eltruda: A legendary tale. By a young lady. London: printed for T. Cadell, 1782. [4],iii,[1],31,[1]p.; 4⁰. (ESTC T81521; OTA K066811.000)
  • Williams, Helen Maria, 1759-1827. Poems on various subjects: with introductory remarks on the present state of science and literature in France. London: G. and W. B. Whittaker, 1823.

Biographical note

Helen Maria Williams was born in London, the daughter of Charles Williams (d. 1762), secretary to the island of Minorca, and his second wife Helen, née Hay (1730-1812). After her father's death, she was brought up (with a sister and a step-sister) by her mother in Berwick-upon-Tweed. In 1781 the family returned to London where Williams was encouraged to write by their minister, the writer Andrew Kippis. Her first poem, Edwin and Eltruda, appeared in 1782, which was followed by several other pieces. In 1786, her two-volume collection Poems was published, which included An American Tale, To Sensibility, Peru, and Euphelia. Williams came into contact with fellow writers, including Samuel Johnson and the Warton brothers, and corresponded with Anna Seward. In the late 1780s, Williams joined fellow dissenting writers such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld in the abolitionist cause, to which she contributed her On the Bill which was Passed in England for Regulating the Slave-Trade (1788). Williams was enthusiastic about the French Revolution, which had a profound impact on her personal and literary life. She first visited Paris in 1790 and quickly became a chronicler of the crisis in France for a British audience. Her Letters from France (1790-6) provide an eye-witness account of the revolutionary struggles and the reign of terror and its aftermath. Williams' sister Cecilia married a Frenchman, Martin A. Coquerel, in 1794 and settled in Paris. Soon after, Williams went into exile in Switzerland for six months to avoid prosecution. She came under attack by some writers for her pro-revolutionary views and rumours about an affair with a divorced Englishman living in Paris. In 1798 her sister Cecilia died, and Williams became adoptive mother of her nephews Athanase and Charles. After the peace of Amiens in 1801, Williams entertained the French and British literary elite in her salon in Paris for many years. In 1810, she began translating the works of German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, which resulted in a long friendship with v. Humboldt. Williams was naturalized as a French citizen in 1817. A final collection of her Poems on Various Subjects was published in 1823. She died in Paris in 1827.


ODNB 29509; NCBEL 693-694; DLB 158; DMI 2329


  • Kennedy, Deborah. Helen Maria Williams and the age of revolution. Bucknell studies in eighteenth-century literature and culture. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2002. Print.

Reference works

  • Baines, Paul, Julian Ferraro, Pat Rogers, eds. The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Eighteenth-Century Writers and Writing, 1660-1789. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 369-370. Print.
  • Radcliffe, David H., ed. Helen Maria Williams (1762-1827). Spenser and the Tradition: ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830. Center for Applied Technologies in the Humanities, Virginia Tech, 2006. Web. 14 Oct. 2011. https://web.archive.org/web/20170908014740/http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/AuthorRecord.php?recordid=33600.
  • Todd, Janet, ed. A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800. Paperback edition, revised. Lanham et al.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1987. 323-326. Print.


  • Davies, Kate. The Poem That Ate America: Helen Maria Williams's Ode on the Peace (1783). Labbe, Jacqueline M., ed. and introd. The History of British Women's Writing, 1750-1830. History of British Women's Writing 5. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.
  • Duquette, Natasha. Dauntless Spirits: Sublimity and Social Consciousness in the Poetry of Ann Radcliffe, H. M. Williams, and Joanna Baillie. Dissertation Abstracts International, Section A: The Humanities and Social Sciences, 66(4) (2005): 1361. Queen's University, 2005. Print.
  • Gravil, Richard. Helen Maria Williams: Wordsworth's Revolutionary anima. Wordsworth Circle 40(1) (2009): 55-64. Print.
  • Guerra, Lia. Helen Maria Williams: The Shaping of a Poetic Identity. Crisafulli, Lilla Maria and Cecilia Pietropoli, eds. Romantic Women Poets: Genre and Gender. DQR: Studies in Literature 39. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2007. 63-76. Print.
  • Kennedy, Deborah. 'Storms of sorrow': the poetry of Helen Maria Williams. Man and Nature 10 (1991): 77-91. Print.
  • Mitchell, Robert Edward. 'The Soul That Dreams It Shares the Power It Feels So Well': The Politics of Sympathy in the Abolitionist Verse of Williams and Yearsley. Romanticism on the Net: An Electronic Journal Devoted to Romantic Studies 29-30, 2003. Web. 13 Sep. 2016. https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/ron/2003-n29-30-ron695/007719ar/.
  • Saglia, Diego. The aesthetics of the present: commerce, empire and technology in late eighteenth-century women's poetry. Textus 18(1) (2005): 205-20. Print.