Helen Waddell

Helen Waddell (1889-1965)

Helen Waddell, poet, playwright and translator, was born in Tokyo, the youngest of the ten children of Presbyterian missionary Reverend Hugh Waddell; she spent the first eleven years of her life in Japan before her family permanently returned to Belfast. On her mother’s death in 1892, her father had remarried and following his own death only months after their return home, his younger children were left in the care of their stepmother. As the second Mrs Waddell’s health deteriorated, Helen eventually became her sole carer, a situation which would significantly impact on her future scholarly ambitions.

Waddell was educated at Victoria College for Girls and in 1910, entered Queen’s University Belfast where she was an active member of various literary societies.  She received a first-class Honours degree in Literature and language and, supported by a range of scholarships and prizes, followed this with an MA. She was acutely aware of the inequalities suffered by women in both academia and the wider world. Although she published her first volume of translations, Lyrics from the Chinese, in 1915, it was not until the death of her stepmother that Helen was released from her family responsibilities in Belfast and in 1919 she enrolled in Somerville College at Oxford.  In 1923, research in Paris was facilitated by a travelling scholarship from Lady Margaret Hall.

Her best-known work, The Wandering Scholars was published in April 1927 and was an instant best-seller, with three editions in print by the end of that year, followed by a translation of the goliards’ Latin poetry in the companion volume Medieval Latin Lyrics. Scholarly but academically unorthodox, the popularity of her history of the medieval scholars did not always go down well in academia and it was from the publishing industry that Helen was to earn her living. A second anthology, More Latin Lyrics, was compiled in the 1940s but not published until after her death. She also enjoyed success as a playwright with The Spoiled Buddha, performed at Belfast Opera House in 1915 and The Abbe Prevost staged in 1935. Her historical novel, Peter Abelard, was published in 1933 and was another bestseller.
Waddell was the assistant editor of The Nineteenth Century magazine and vice-president of the Irish Literary Society in London.  She also wrote many articles for the Evening Standard, the Manchester Guardian and The Nation and was a regular contributor to the Presbyterian missionary magazine, Daybreak.

Waddell received honorary degrees from Columbia, Belfast, Durham and St. Andrews and won the Benson Medal of the Royal Society of Literature. She suffered a serious neurological disease which ended her writing career in 1950 and died in London fifteen years later.

Jennifer FitzGerald, Helen Waddell and Maude Clarke: Irishwomen, Friends and Scholars (Peter Lang, Oxford, 2012)
Jennifer FitzGerald (ed) Helen Waddell Reassessed: New Readings (Peter Lang, Oxford, 2014)