Biography of Elizabeth Helme by Sharon Watson, May 1998
Biographical information on this eighteenth century novelist is limited, with the most useful biographical detail to be found in The Feminist Companion to Literature (Blain et al, 1990) and the applications made by members of the Helme family to the Royal Literary Fund.
Elizabeth Helme was born near Durham, although a specific birthplace has not yet been traced, as there is no record of her maiden name. She moved to London at the age of seventeen and met Mr. William Helme, the man who was shortly to become her husband. Elizabeth had five children, including three girls, all of whom later married. The eldest daughter was also named Elizabeth and became Mrs. Somerville after marrying a J. Somerville, who was employed by Mr. G. Warren, the proprietor of a counting house in London. Elizabeth is frequently confused with her mother as she also wrote novels, specialising in children's literature, including such works as James Manners, Little John and Dog Bluff and Grandmothers Stories. She later became a schoolmistress at a school at Brentford, just as her mother had been. Helme's other daughters were a Mrs. Louisa Dalton and a Mrs. Anne Radziniski. Unfortunately, there is no mention of Elizabeth Helme's other children in the information provided by the letters within the archives of the Royal Literary Fund. However, the letters addressed to the fund reveal that Elizabeth and her family lived in London throughout their lives.
Elizabeth Helme was multilingual, translating works from German and French literature including Travels from the Cape of Good Hope into the Interior Parts of Africa (Summers, 1940). Helme's array of novels is indicative of her need for additional income, and evidence of this can be seen in her application to the Royal Literary Fund, 1801-1809. Correspondence with the fund continued after her death with letters from members of her family, with a final letter having been written in July, 1847 on behalf of her daughter, Louisa Dalton, which informed the Fund that she was now elderly and residing in an area of Bethnal Green, and that a lack of funds made it necessary for a further application to be made. This application was refused on account that assistance had already been granted to Elizabeth Helme's other daughters. This suggests that unless this was Louisa's final attempt to gain monetary assistance, she had not remained in contact with her siblings following the death of Elizabeth Helme in 1810. Both Elizabeth Somerville (daughter) and William Helme (husband) passed away in 1822, with William having reached the age of seventy-five after being cared for by his daughter Anne Radziniski of Upper Marylebone Street, London: 'Providence has now mercifully released him from a state of great suffering' (RLF Archives, File 115).
The early letters to the Royal Literary Fund by and on behalf of Elizabeth Helme in actual fact reveal very little biographical information other than her financial struggle and the many illnesses which engulfed her life. Furthermore, there is a distinct lack of detail on her relationships with her husband and children other than an instance when she informed the Fund that she was the financial support for her family, having begun writing for the press in 1786, and that her struggle for money had resulted in a 'dropsical and liver complaint from which I can flatter myself with no relief but death' (RLF Archives, File 97). The entire Helme family, according to the archives of the Royal Literary Fund, died totally destitute with money having been provided by the Fund for the funerals of Elizabeth Helme and her daughter Elizabeth Somerville some years later. In August, 1806, at a meeting of the Royal Literary Fund, it was decided that out of seventy-four applicants, Mrs. Somerville was one of twenty questionable applicants, perhaps suggesting that there were uncertainties over the issues of poverty which she continued to plead. This suspicion of Elizabeth Somerville was confirmed when William Helme mentioned in a letter to the Fund in February 1815 that his daughter had disposed by auction of property or suchlike sufficient 'to put herself into some little way of business and to afford me also some assistance' (RLF Archives, File 295). Another of Helme's daughters, Anne Radziniski, informed the RLF in the December of 1821 that she supported her children by means of the ostrich feather business but was in need of further money if she was to bury her sister Elizabeth, as she refused to allow her to be buried by the Parish out of respect for her mother's memory. After all, both mother and daughter had been authors of publications 'all invariably of a moral tendency' (RLF Archives, File 115, 8 Dec, 1821).
Each of the letters addressed to members of the Royal Literary Fund and written by various individuals of the Helme family pleaded poverty. With limited information to rely upon, it is difficult to assess whether or not this poverty was acute or if it simply followed the pattern of many other applicants who wrote such begging letters in an attempt to secure assistance. Of the many novels which Elizabeth Helme was successful in having published, Louisa; or, The Cottage on the Moor continued to be reprinted until the end of the nineteenth century due to their popularity, with novels including Albert (2nd ed.) 4 Vols., being sold for £1.00 (RLF Archives, File 115). In addition, both Elizabeth and William Helme's teaching careers would have inevitably ensured further monetary assistance, leading to an assumption that their financial status was not as dire as it would seem according to the information provided by the Royal Literary Fund. The publications had 'at best afforded me a very scanty and precarious existence' (RLF Archives, File 115). In January, 1817, William Helme had once again written to the Fund informing them of his extreme poverty, asthmatic complaint, and paralytic disorder which left him no alternative other than the use of his left hand for the purpose of writing, forcing him to relinquish his employment of 'private tuition in families of distinction' (RLF Archives, File 295, Jan 1817).
Clearly, there is considerably more biographical information available on the characters of William Helme and his daughters than on the novelist and wife of William: Elizabeth Helme.
Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy. 1990. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. Batsford.
Summers, Montague. 1940. A Gothic Bibliography. Fortune Press.
The Royal Literary Fund. Archives. File 97. Mrs. Elizabeth Helme
The Royal Literary Fund. Archives. File 115. Anne Radziniski and Mrs Elizabeth Somerville. 8 Dec, 1821.
The Royal Literary Fund. Archives. File 295. Mr. William Helme. Jan 1817.
The Royal Literary Fund. Archives. Publicising latest editions of various texts.