Development & Alumni Relations Office 

REMEMBERING HELEN WADDELL – THE WRITER WHO ‘LIFTED A VEIL FROM THE PAST'  Lanyon Building in black and white from University Square with inset, Helen Waddell

05 March 2021

The tenth and youngest child of a Presbyterian minister, the eminent Queen’s graduate Helen Jane Waddell – a hugely talented writer, much respected medieval scholar, and an accomplished dramatist, poet and translator – is remembered today, 56 years after her death in London on 05 March 1965. 

She was born in Tokyo on 31 May 1889. She spent the first eleven years of her life in Japan during which time her mother, Jane Martin Waddell, died when Helen was barely three-years-old (in 1892). Her father then remarried his cousin, Martha Waddell, with whom it is said Helen Waddell had a difficult relationship. The family returned to Belfast in 1900, shortly after which her father – a Presbyterian missionary named Reverend Hugh Waddell – also passed away (in 1901), leaving Helen and her younger siblings in the care of their stepmother. 

Educated at Victoria College in Belfast, Waddell came up to Queen’s in 1908, the year the former Queen’s College became a university in its own right, to read English Language and Literature. She studied under the eminent Professor Gregory Smith, and graduated with a first class degree in 1911. Supported by a number of scholarships and prizes, she followed this with a Master's the following year, awarded for her research on the English poet, John Milton.

Throughout this period, the health of the second Mrs Waddell (Martha) deteriorated and Helen became her sole carer. Her charge, who it is alleged became a secret whiskey addict, strongly disapproved of novels and thought that plays were the devil's work. This, along with her obligations as a family carer, greatly impacted on Waddell’s scholarly ambitions, regularly interrupting her education at Queen’s.

Despite this she still managed to write, publishing her first volume of translations, Lyrics from the Chinese, in 1915 and the play The Spoilt Buddha published in 1919, and first performed at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, reputed to be a portrait of her brother Sam. However, it was not until the death of her stepmother in 1920 that she was released from family responsibilities, allowing her to enrol in Somerville College at Oxford to study for her doctorate.  

A promising academic career lay ahead of her, and she was appointed Cassell Lecturer for St Hilda’s in 1921, lecturing at Bedford College, London, during 1922 and 1923. However, by this stage she was finding academic life in Oxford somewhat unsettling – the all-female atmosphere suffocating and the work constrictive – so she moved to London where she freelanced and marked school and university exam papers and was more comfortable among writers and artists.  

And it was around this time that she became close and ultimately life-long friends, with the Irish historian and a fellow Lady Margaret Hall (LMH) scholar, Maude Clarke, whom she had met in 1910 when they were both at Queen's. As one writer would later put it, it was a ‘productive friendship between two exceptional women which was based on shared nationality and intellectual passions’.

In 1923, Helen Waddell accepted the award of the Suzette Taylor Fellowship (a travel scholarship) from LMH, one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford, which allowed her to spend two years in Paris, researching what would become her best known publication, the critically acclaimed academic study entitled The Wandering Scholars, published in April 1927 by noted London publisher, Constable. An immediate best-seller, with three editions in print by the end of the year, the book dealt with Medieval Latin lyric poetry and the study of the goliards, a group of young clergy in Europe who wrote satirical Latin poetry in the 12th and 13th centuries.

After her return from Paris in 1925 she settled into work in London, writing, lecturing, broadcasting and later joining the publishing firm of Constable and Co. as a literary advisor and reader, and the editorial staff of The Nineteenth Century.

Soon she was rubbing shoulders with the great and the good, among them the then British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin – a firm friend – who introduced Waddell to another admiring fan, Queen Mary, wife of King George V.

She also started work on her first – and ultimately only – novel, set in the fictional world of twelfth-century France. Published in 1933, Peter Abelard is the tragic medieval love story of Abelard and Héloïse d'Argenteuil, his brilliant student and ultimately his wife, and was another bestseller.

Other published works of note include:

  • Medieval Latin Lyrics (Constable, 1929)
  • Beasts and Saints (Constable, 1934)
  • The Desert Fathers (Constable, 1936)
  • Poetry in the Dark Ages (Constable, 1948)
  • More Latin Lyrics: From Virgil to Milton (posthumous, edited by Dame Felicitas Corrigan, 1976)
  • Between Two Eternities (1993) (posthumous, edited by Dame Felicitas Corrigan.)

In her heyday Waddell also wrote regularly for the Evening Standard, the Manchester Guardian and The Nation, as well as lecturing and broadcasting. She was the assistant editor of The Nineteenth Century magazine and counted among her circle of friends in London, where she was vice-president of the Irish Literary Society, W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Rose Macaulay, Max Beerbohm and George William Russell.

She received honorary degrees from the University of Durham (1932), from her alma mater (1934), from Columbia University, New York (1935) and from St Andrew's University (1936). She won the A. C. Benson Foundation Medal of the Royal Society of Literature (1928) and became its first woman fellow; she was elected to the Irish Academy of Letters, founded in 1932 by W.B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. She became a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, and was admitted to membership of the Royal Irish Society (1932).  

In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II, Waddell made her London home in Primrose Hill available to those in need and not just family and friends but students, soldiers and others. Once again her personal ambitions – much like in the mid-1900s – were put on hold, and she gave way to a sense of personal duty and family responsibility.

While she is alleged to have had many suitors, she never married and had no children. There were close relationships with a number of older men, including her elderly publisher, Otto Kyllmann of Constable and a personal and professional friendship with Siegfried Sassoon, which apparently made Sassoon’s wife suspicious.

Helen Waddell retired in 1945, but delivered the W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture at the University of Glasgow in 1947. By 1950 a serious debilitating neurological disease had put an end to her writing and she died at the age of 76, in London on 5th March 1965.

Her obituary in the London Times praised her ‘poet’s gift of translation’ for her work examining the dawn of romanticism in Medieval Latin literature. She was taken home to Northern Ireland to be buried in Magherally near Banbridge, in the graveyard of the church with which her family had many connections and near the home of her sister, Meg, to whom she had been particularly close. Inscribed on her headstone is the wording: ‘She lifted a veil from the past.’

Helen Waddell was a woman ahead of her time. She was an individual with an extraordinary mind and a glittering career to match. At a time when women often had no access to third level education she showed others the way. She wrote imaginatively on historical matters – frequently seen as the preserve of the academic world – and in a way that was successful while being accessible to, and popular with, so many.

Out of fashion now perhaps, and clearly not remembered as well today as some of her peers and contemporaries, Helen Waddell’s immense contribution to scholarship, literature and academia – and indeed to the reputation of Queen’s University Belfast – remains beyond question.

Queen's University Belfast has over 600 items in its Special Collections archive consisting of notes, translations, holograph and typescript manuscripts of published and unpublished works by Helen Waddell, c.1909-47. 

For general enquiries about this story or to submit a graduate news item, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office (DARO), Queen’s University Belfast, on telephone: +44 (0)28 9097 5321.

Credit (headline): Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

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