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Hailed by her contemporaries as possibly her best book, Helen Maria Williams's A Tour in Switzerland offered readers across Europe an original travel narrative which, more than two hundred years later, has lost none of its freshness or interest. Williams (1759-1827) was a controversial British author, salon hostess and radical thinker. While she is best known for her eight volumes of letters defending the French Revolution, A Tour in Switzerland was widely reviewed and translated into four languages, notably in French by the economist Jean-Baptiste Say. Published on the eve of the French invasion of Switzerland in 1798, her book provides rare insight into the mind of a well-informed, curious and politically engaged Revolutionary-era woman writer and exemplifies recent critical assertions that travel writing offered women an important medium of public expression.
The Tour describes Williams's five-month stay in Switzerland with her partner John Hurford Stone and the exiled politician Benjamin Vaughan in 1794. If her descriptions of the Alps are written in a lively style mixing science and sensibility, her reports on Switzerland's institutions and inhabitants are deeply ironic and highly partisan, serving to deconstruct the Swiss myth of natural liberty. A hybrid text, Williams adds a review of Parisian society in 1795 and a political synopsis on the Swiss republics all the way up to late 1797. This edition brings together a newly edited and annotated text that includes variants in Say's French translation along with an introduction, chronology, map and five appendices which provide new details on Williams's tour and help situate the book's place within the debate on Swiss republicanism. Beyond its importance to scholars working on the Swiss Enlightenment, on Romantic literature, and on travel and natural history writing, A Tour in Switzerland will also appeal to the general reader interested in Switzerland and the Alps.
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