Williams’ Radical Journalism
While Helen Maria Williams is mainly heralded as a “pre-eminent among the violent female devotees of the revolution,” not only because of her unwavering written support for the radical faction of the French revolution, but more importantly for the method in which she expressed her dedication through her writings (Williams 108). Though her works were not explicitly created for public speculation and were merely letter correspondence with friends in her homeland, Williams still reported on events in the increasingly unstable environment of war-torn France with extraordinary attention to each and every gory detail.
Though this style of writing is not remarkable by today’s standards of media coverage, it was truly avant garde for the period. During the French Revolution, sentiments were largely expressed via a philosophical approach, in which writers took up a distant platform from which they could denounce or advocate the virtue or vice of the revolution and how it was executed.
Her fellow political critics typically approached the revolution from the outside, as in the case of her contemporary Edmond Burke, who spoke intimately of the misguided conception of the revolution through the filter of his English perspective of divinely appointed monarchs and the all important virtue of chivalry. Even Arthur Young, who spent time in France during the atrocities of the revolution, maintained a stance on the revolution that reflected the overarching thoughts of England.
Williams’ writing operates on a separate level than these writers not only because she is a female writer that claims as much stock in the cause of the revolution as any man, but because she is not opposed to immersing herself in the most visceral and savage aspects of the movement and emerges true to her original perspective. Williams is unafraid to jump into the fray. She gives a nauseating account of the execution of the king by writing in a very meticulous style. Williams writing style leaves no room for readers to skirt around the primal episode of Luis XVI’s execution. With no holds barred, William writes how his face contorted at the realization of his imminent demise, how his disembodied head was borne high in the air, and how onlookers jockeyed to the front of the scaffold to saturate their dainty handkerchiefs in his pooling blood and purchase swatches of his hair.
This brutally honest writing style is what sets Williams’ writing style apart from the other prominent writers of the era. Her unflinching rhetoric strengthens her position by demonstrating that her belief in the cause of the movement is firm, even throughout the reign of terror. She writes that the seeds of victory must be “sown with toil and trouble and bathed in blood,” but will be harvested by the next generation as a shining beacon of liberty (Williams 139). This is an especially effective use of pathos, because it encourages her readers to reevaluate their convictions about the war and examine the passion that led their forefathers to make such sacrifices for the liberty of posterity.
Williams, Helen M. “Letters From France, 1796.” The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. N.p.: Pearson Education, 2012. 108+. Print. The Longman Anthology of British Literature.