Helen Waddell

Novelist, critic and committed Christian

Helen Waddell was born in Tokyo in 1889 to a Presbyterian missionary father. On the family’s return to Belfast in 1900, Waddell was educated at Victoria College and then Queen’s College (renamed Queen’s University in 1908), where she gained a first class degree in English.

In 1915, while caring for her ailing and possessive stepmother at Cedar Avenue, north Belfast, Waddell published her first volume of translations, Lyrics from the Chinese. Four years later, she entered Oxford University, where she studied and taught until 1922. She continued to support herself financially by writing and editing freelance.

In 1927, Waddell published The Wandering Scholars, a study of early renaissance writers and thinkers, followed by another collection of verse in translation, Medieval Latin Lyrics (1929).

Waddell’s Presbyterian upbringing left her a committed if never wholly orthodox Christian. Her work and personality expressed ‘the seeming paradoxes of the religious humanist and the Belfast Romantic’, while her surviving letters speak of an intensely passionate, but oddly thwarted, erotic imagination. Peter Abelard (1933) gathers all these preoccupations into a novel, reprinted nine times within its first year of publication.

Waddell’s emotional and intellectual sympathy with pre-modern Europe is evident in much of her work. Such feelings were further strengthened by her wartime experiences as an Air Raid precaution warden and victim of the blitz. However, the war years proved punishing, and Waddell began to show symptoms of the degenerative neurological condition that would progressively rob her of memory and personality. She died of pneumonia in March 1965.

Further Reading:
The Mark of the Maker: A Portrait of Helen Waddell (1973) by Monica Blackett