Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 September 2009
… time or succession is always broken and divided.David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)
In a memorable prolepsis in her Letters from France (1790) Helen Maria Williams anticipates “grateful” generations in the future flocking to the Champs de Mars, site of the Festival of the Federation in Paris on July 14, 1790, an event which epitomized for Williams, as for many others, the liberal promise of the Revolution. Elaborating the imagined scene, Williams presents the visitors eagerly pointing to and searching out the spots “where they have heard it recorded” that various participants in the festival took their places, and then stops to comment: “I think of these things, and then repeat to myself with transport, ‘I was a spectator of the Federation!’” The redundancy of this declaration – she and her readers already know she was a spectator – underlines the paradoxical point of the rhetorical maneuver: in anticipating a time when she no longer is, Williams not only assures herself that she has been but does so by transforming a central experience of her own life into a vital memory for those who will come after. Reiterating her presence at the scene, she inscribes herself into a larger narrative of historical continuity that confirms and extends her own present-tense narrative of contemporary witness.