Author. Wells was born in Charleston, the daughter of Scottish immigrants Robert Wells and Mary Rowand. Her father was a successful Charleston bookseller and newspaper publisher. Although she received no formal education, Wells was raised in the privileged atmosphere of Charleston society. Her father espoused the cultural life of the city. He was an accomplished Latinist who wrote poetry. He was also an outspoken Loyalist who published his views in his newspaper. By 1775 he had earned the enmity of the Charleston community, and in 1777–1778 he responded by moving his family to London. Helena never returned to the land of her birth. Nevertheless, in her writings her attitudes appear to have been shaped by her experiences growing up during the Revolutionary War period as a young female member of the Charleston merchant class.
Not long after settling in England, the Wells family fell upon hard times and Helena was forced to seek employment. During the 1780s she worked as a teacher and perhaps as a governess and opened a boardinghouse for “young gentlewomen of fortune” with her sister. Wells also turned to writing, possibly to supplement her meager income. Although strongly conservative in her views, she sought to convey the somewhat revolutionary idea that gentlewomen should be schooled for employment as well as for marriage. She believed that to succeed, however, they had to remain within the norms of society, never surrendering their integrity, modesty, or virtue, no matter what the cost.
The two novels Wells wrote played on this theme. The first, The Step-Mother: A Domestic Tale from Real Life, was published in England in 1798. A second edition, identifying the author as “Helena Wells of Charles Town, S.C.,” was published in Charleston the next year. The book was well received at the time, although later critics found it to be didactic and overly sentimental. It was followed in 1799 by Letters on Subjects of Importance to the Happiness of Young Females, cautionary letters written to impressionable young female pupils and imploring them to keep their emotions in check by avoiding excessive novel reading and by using proper English. The letters also stressed the importance of upright manners and sound religious principles and warned against luxury, laziness, godlessness, gossiping, uncleanliness, and snobbery toward, or familiarity with, servants. In 1800 Wells published a second novel, Constantia Neville: or The West Indian. More than one thousand pages long, this work of fiction, like her earlier novel, was well received by contemporary reviewers but later criticized by twentieth-century scholars for its thin plot, weak characterization, and cloying sentimentality.
In 1801 Wells married Edward Whitford and bore four children in quick succession. In 1809 she published Thoughts and Remarks on Establishing an Institution for the Education of Unportioned Respectable Females, in which she proposed a teacher-training school that would provide young gentlewomen with academic training, proper health care, and spiritual guidance while expecting them to help maintain the premises and charging them according to their ability to pay. This last work received little critical attention. Ahead of her time in her views on educating and supporting single or widowed women without means, Wells faded from public view and died in London on July 6, 1824.
Hamelman, Steven. “Helena Wells.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 200, American Women Prose Writers to 1820, edited by Carla Mulford, Angela Vietto, and Amy E. Winans. Detroit: Gale, 1999.
Moltke-Hansen, David. “A World Introduced: The Writings of Helena Wells of Charles Town, South Carolina’s First Novelist.” In South Carolina Women Writers: Proceedings of the Reynolds Conference, University of South Carolina, October 24–25, 1975, edited by James B. Meriwether. Spartan- burg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1979.
Ponick, Frances M. “Helena Wells and Her Family: Loyalist Writers and Printers of Colonial Charleston.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1975.