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Helen Waddell was born in Tokyo, where her father was a Presbyterian missionary and lecturer at the Imperial University of Tokyo. Her older brother Sam Waddell became an actor and playwright under the pseudonym Rutherford Mayne. Helen's family returned to northern Ireland when she was 11 years old, and she attended Queen's University, Belfast, and Oxford University. She won a scholarship that allowed her to do research in Paris. Helen Waddell became widely known for The Wandering Scholars (1927), which revealed to the modern reader the world of the medieval goliards, many of whose poems she translated in a companion volume, Medieval Latin Lyrics (1929). Her bestselling novel Peter Abelard (1933) also was set in the medieval world. However, she also wrote Lyrics From the Chinese (1913), her first book; an authoritative work on the anchorites of the Sinai Desert, The Desert Fathers (1936); and two plays, among others. She worked for the publishing house Constable, which issued her books. She was assistant editor of The Nineteenth Century magazine, and wrote articles for the Evening Standard, the Manchester Guardian and The Nation. She moved in literary circles in London and counted among her friends W.B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Rose Macaulay, Max Beerbohm, and Siegfried Sassoon. She stopped writing in 1950 due to a disabling neurological disease.
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