Helen Maria Williams, A Narrative of the Events which have taken place in France with an Account of the Present State of Society and Public Opinion. 2nd Edition. London: Printed for John Murray, Albemarle-Street. 1816.
Jane Austen borrowed the first edition of this book from her publisher, John Murray, while staying in London with her brother Henry, writing to Cassandra:
“He [John Murray] has lent us Miss Williams & Scott, & says that any book of his will always be at my service” (24 November 1815).
Her reading of this work suggests an interest in contemporary politics and recent foreign history, with which she is rarely credited. Following James Edward’s statement that “the politics of the day occupied very little of her attention” (Memoir 78), for many years critics considered Austen to be an entirely apolitical writer, with little or no interest in contemporary current events. However, more recent scholarly work has reassessed this early view. Austen’s reading of the Narrative of the Events which have lately taken place in France demonstrates the breadth of her reading, and mention of Scott and Williams in the same breath shows her willingness to read books by those with widely differing political views. Helen Maria Williams was a notorious political radical, an “unsex’d female” in Richard Polwhele’s 1798 poem of the same name, in which he warns women readers in particular away from “Gallic Freaks” such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Williams.