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"It is with regret that I pronounce the fatal truth: Louis ought to perish rather than a hundred thousand virtuous citizens; Louis must die that the country may live" Maximilien Francois Robespierre
"Justice has its anger, my lord Bishop, and the wrath of justice is an element of progress. Whatever else may be said of it, the French Revolution was the greatest step forward by mankind since the coming of Christ. It was unfinished, I agree, but still it was sublime. It released the untapped springs of society; it softened hearts, appeased, tranquilized, enlightened, and set flowing through the world the tides of civilization. It was good. The French Revolution was the anointing of humanity." Victor Hugo
"Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; - the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!"
Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities)
Helen Maria Williams was a woman ahead of her time. While writing letters home to England during the French Revolution, the turmoil and political upheaval around her closely mimicked the turmoil she was experiencing personally. An outcast amongst her friends, Williams' observations and desolation are apparent in her Letters Written in France, in the Summer of 1790, a collection of her writings to friends and family still in England. As a woman effectively on the front lines of war, Williams was able to capture the reality of the revolution and record her observations in Letters, the accepted writing medium of women. Romanticism was an intellectual movement which began around the latter half of the 18th century and is was defined mostly by change. Most arts, like music, poetry, literature, and even politics began to adapt in response to the turbulent social climate seen in France during the Revolution. Romanticism emphasized emotion, imagination, and originality, which was in stark contrast to the science, reason and order defined by the "Age of Enlightenment" which came after the Revolution. Romanticism, as opposed to Enlightenment, concentrated more on the individual writer or artist themselves, as opposed to the state or reason. Both visual arts and literature, from the Romanticism movement, elevated and celebrated Nature as a wild Being, rather than as something that can easily be explained reason or study. The Romanticism movement in literature evolved in response to the French Revolution and rather than focus on reason and rationality to explain nature and man, Romanticism focused more on emotions and feelings to explain and portray them. The poetry and Letters of Helen Maria Williams espouse the Romanticism ideals as they portend the future of feminism and women who live their lives for themselves.
Helen Maria Williams directly confronted the ideals of the Revolution. Williams had relocated to Paris in 1792, and she was imprisoned for a short time in the Bastille during the Reign of Terror. Both her time in prison, and the atrocities she witnessed during the Revolution, personally influenced her and directly influenced the tone of much of her work. While imprisoned, Williams wrote many of her poems, like "Sonnet to the Curlew", which deal with freedom and longing. In the "Curlew" poem, Williams identifies with a curlew and wishes she could be as free as he is upon the wind. As Williams faced the Revolution of France, she began to face a revolution of her own that was reminiscent of the ideals of both Romanticism and Feminism.
During her early years in France, Williams began a relationship with John Hurford Stone, a married Englishman and radical activist. Though Stone divorced in 1794, it is unclear whether Williams and Stone ever married and their relationship caused a scandal in England which resulted in Williams being personally attacked by the British press. Before Williams first visited France in 1790, she had been celebrated as a fine, feminine poet. After publicly identifying with the Revolution, Williams was denounced as a shameless woman who had developed debased political and sexual proclivities. She had become a woman who had "betrayed both her country and her sex" (Blakemore 676). In a Gentleman's Magazine, a reviewer of her Letters from France said of Williams
"[s]he has debased her sex, her heart, her feelings, her talents in recording such a tissue of horror and villainy and daring to insult a regular government and a happy people [i.e., the English] with such details, whose result, we defy her to show has yet been productive of one single good" (Adams 114).
Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, referred to Williams as "a scribbling trollop" in his Correspondence and in Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, Williams was portrayed as Lechery in a procession of the Seven Deadly Sins. The magazine went so far as to state,
"[Williams has] an inveterate hatred of all existing establishments, by an earnest desire to promote their destruction, and by a contempt of truth, decency, and decorum, which constitute the general characteristics of a female mind infected with the poison of democracy"(Blakemore 676).
Williams was vilified by the presses, both at home and abroad, and it is understandable that she would seek a more hospitable locale to call home. For Williams, that welcoming place was a nation in the throes of civil war.
In June 1794, Williams and Stone fled to Switzerland after a law was passed by Maximilien de Robespierre requiring all nobility and foreigners leave Paris under penalty of law. Williams and Stone remained in Switzerland for 6 months, and she wrote Tour in Switzerland which dealt with topics including politics, history, and nature. In response to the effects of the revolution, Williams said that she appreciated what the Revolution had done for women's rights, but she openly condemned the violence needed to achieve it. In her letters, Williams' response to the Revolution varies, often comparing the feminine culture of the Revolution with the "Antient government of France" and she condemns the violence much as she had during the American Revolution.
â€¦The executioner held up the bleeding head, and the guards cried 'Vive la republique!' ['Long live the republic!'] Some dipped their handkerchiefs in the blood-but the greater number, chilled with horror at what had passed, desired the commandant would lead them instantly from the spot. The hair was sold in separate tresses at the foot of the scaffold (100).
After describing the scene of King Louis XVI's death by guillotine, Williams describes the aftermath in an almost calm and serene voice, as though she had become numb to the violence of the Revolution
â€¦The destruction of the monarchy in France on the 10th of August-the horrors of the massacre of the 2d of September, and then the death of the king, finally alienated the minds of Englishmen from the French revolution; rendered popular a war, which otherwise no minister would have dared to undertake; disgusted all wise, and shocked all human men; and left to us, and all who had espoused the cause, no hope but that Heaven, which knows how to bring good out of evil, would watch over an even so interesting to the welfare to mankind as the French revolution; nor suffer the folly and vice of the agents concerned in it, to spoil the greatest and noblest enterprise ever undertaken by a nation (100).
Laetitia Matilda Hawkins, a contemporary of Williams, wrote a response to each of Williams' letters admonishing Williams for her views on the Revolution
Hawkins's Letters conveys a sense of urgent crisis; for her, the Revolution is a foreign invasion threatening English life and English womanhood-a Revolution turning the natural order upside down. She bases her response to Williams's Letters on a reading of the first two series (in the Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints edition, 1:1.1-223; 1:2.1-206), in which Williams celebrates the role of women in the Revolution as well as their "place in the world" (1:1.27-8) (Blakemore 677).
Although Williams seemed to appreciate what the Revolutionary culture did for women, she did not approve of the violence used to achieve the change. Williams was becoming a newer, more assertive and unfettered woman than she was before.
"In the years preceding the French Revolution, a patriarchal ideology emphasizing proper female behavior, the "natural domestic role of woman, and her acquiescent subordination to her husband (underscored in various biblical texts) had been in place for centuries" (Blakemore 673).
After experiencing social upheaval, imprisonment, exile from her adopted homeland, and the loss of some of her closest friends, Williams emerged as a woman who was not afraid to live her life her own way.
In Paris, as in London, Williams was introduced to and hosted many prominent intellectuals and literary figures in her salon, such as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. Williams' salon quickly became a meeting place for prominent Girondins, but as the Jacobins gained power, many of her friends were arrested and executed. Williams wrote in a style acceptable for women's writings, the epistolary. Despite the controversial content of her Letters, Williams' writings received generally positive reviews from many English magazines. What negative reaction her writing received, was in response to the style and vocabulary she chose because she would often use French colloquialisms and spellings which alienated many of her English readers.
Williams lost almost everything she held dear during the French Revolution. She had lost her homeland, her freedom-for a time, her friends, but she refused to lose herself. Because of Williams' Letters, readers have a woman's first-hand account of the political and social upheaval seen during the Revolution. The uniqueness of the history contained within her Letters has assured Williams a place in feminist study, regardless if that was her original intent. Williams personifies all the ideals of Romanticism within herself and her writings-emotional appeal to trepidation, horror and awe-and the sublimity of untamed nature.