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Helen Waddell was a medieval scholar, writer and poet. Born in Japan in 1889, she was the youngest child of a Presbyterian missionary from the Co Down area of Northern Ireland.
At the age of eleven she returned to Ireland and lived the next twenty years with her step-mother in Belfast. Moving from Victoria College for girls to Queen's University in 1908, she quickly earned a reputation as a bright and brilliant student. In 1911 she graduated with a first class honours in English, followed by a Masters degree the next year. But by now Helen Waddell was at the start of a lost decade. Obliged to remain in Belfast as a companion to her step-mother, it would be a considerable number of years before she could pursue her academic and literary career as she moved from Somerville College, Oxford to London.
From 1913, with the publication of her first book of poems "Lyrics from the Chinese" at the tender age of 19, to her height of her success in the late 1920s and 30s, Helen Waddell was to become a dominant figure in medieval scholarship and creative writing. With her books read by everyone from Queen Mary to factory workers, she cut a swathe across all social groups and was feted in the highest echelons of society. However, for a woman who felt deeply and wrote sensitively success mattered little, her passion was the imagination.
Sadly Helen Waddell slipped quickly from the public consciousness as her career, which began so late in life, was cut short by illness. However, with a new revival of her work, Waddell is being rediscovered as a significant writer and a path breaker in her area of expertise.
Fionola Meredith goes in search of the life and works of Helen Waddell.
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