Waddell, Helen Jane (1889–1965), scholar, translator, and author, was born 31 May 1889 in Tokyo, Japan, youngest of eight sons and two daughters of Revd Hugh Waddell (1840–1901), a presbyterian missionary in Manchuria and Japan, originally from Glenarm, Co. Antrim, and Jane Waddell (née Martin), of Banbridge, Co. Down. She was a sister of the playwright Samuel Waddell (qv) (‘Rutherford Mayne’). After her mother's death in Belfast when she was two, her father married secondly (1893) his cousin Martha Waddell, and went back to Tokyo with her and the four youngest children. On the closing of her father's mission in 1900, the family returned to Belfast, where they lived at 19 Cedar Ave.; her father died within a year of their return.
Helen was educated in Belfast at Victoria college and QUB, which she entered in 1908. A brilliant student, she obtained a BA (1911) and MA (1912) in English, and was awarded QUB's first Isabella Tod memorial scholarship. Her first published work, Lyrics from the Chinese (1913), consisted of metrical renderings of selected poems from the translation by James Legge (1815–97) of the ancient Chinese Shih ching, or Book of songs. In 1915 her two-act play ‘The spoiled Buddha’, a provocative, philosophical historical drama, was performed by the Ulster Theatre in Belfast, with her brother Samuel in the leading role; the play was published in 1919. During the years 1912 to 1919, while remaining in Belfast to look after her invalid stepmother, she wrote many retellings of biblical stories for the presbyterian children's magazine Daybreak.
Resuming her studies at Somerville college, Oxford (1920–22), she taught Latin while studying the secular origins of the stage. Appointed to a lectureship under the Cassell Trust in St Hilda's Hall, Oxford (1921), she gave a course of lectures on ‘Mime in the middle ages’. After lecturing at Bedford college, London (1922–3), she was offered the Susette Taylor fellowship by Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and researched in Paris until 1925. The literary outcome of her research was The wandering scholars (1927), a widely acclaimed study of the medieval vagantes – vagabond scholar-poets of the eleventh- and twelfth-century goliardic movement – with translations from the Carmina burana, for which the Royal Society of Literature awarded her the A. C. Benson silver medal, and elected her their first woman fellow.
In 1927 she joined the publishing firm of Constable as a literary advisor and reader, and became friendly there with Otto Kyllmann, who in time became permanently resident in her home. Her lecture on the twelfth-century humanist scholar John of Salisbury was published in Essays and Studies (1928). She published the compilations Mediaeval Latin lyrics (1929) and A book of medieval Latin for schools (1931); the latter selection of story and verse was frequently re-printed. As a translator, Waddell subordinated exactitude to fresh, creative composition that adroitly captured the spirit of the original. She lectured on the early medieval scholar Alcuin (735–804) to the Irish Literary Society in 1930. While working on a rendition of the Abbé Prévost's History of the Chevalier des Grieux and of Manon Lescaut (1931), translated from the original French text of 1731, she was inspired to write a play about the author, The Abbé Prévost (1931), produced by the Croydon Theatre in 1935.
Her foremost popular success was the historical novel Peter Abelard (1933), based on the love story of Abelard and Heloise and evoking a sense of medieval Parisian life, which was translated into many languages. Waddell translated Marcel Aymé's The hollow field (1933). Her translations of medieval Latin lives of saints were published as Beasts and saints (1934), with woodcut illustrations by Robert Gibbings (qv). The desert fathers (1936) was translated from a 1615 edition of the Vitae patrum.
A celebrated author and Latin scholar, acclaimed by some as ‘the darling of Ulster’, Waddell cultivated friendships with literary personalities such as George Russell (qv), W. B. Yeats (qv), and Virginia Woolf. She received honorary doctorates of literature from Durham (1932), QUB (1934), and Columbia (1935), and an honorary LLD from St Andrews (1936). Elected the first woman member of the Irish Academy of Letters in 1932, she was made a corresponding fellow of the Medieval Academy of America in 1937. She contributed reviews and articles to the Manchester Guardian, the Nation, the Fortnightly Review, Blackwood's, and Asia, and was assistant editor of the Nineteenth Century (1938–45), until her retirement owing to ill health. Her book A French soldier speaks (1941) collected her translations, originally published in the journal Nineteenth Century, of pseudonymous articles by French resistance fighter Guy Robin.
Waddell published little during the second world war; her home on Primrose Hill Rd, London, was severely damaged during the blitz, causing her profound psychological distress. Her translation of John Milton's Epitaphium Damonis was privately printed as Lament for Damon (1943). Her last scholarly work, Poetry in the dark ages (1948), was adapted from her W. P. Ker memorial lecture at the university of Glasgow. Stories from holy writ (1949) was a collection of her early biblical stories for Daybreak.
Waddell was unmarried. Her health deteriorated rapidly after 1950, and owing to the onset of Alzheimer's disease she could no longer recognise family or friends. She died at Whittington hospital, London, on 5 March 1965, and was buried in Magherally churchyard, Co. Down. Her papers are held at QUB and at Stanbrook Abbey, Worcester, England; a catalogue of the former was compiled by Mary T. Kelly (1981). A posthumous work, The Princess Splendour and other stories (1969), edited by Kaye Webb, was compiled from a selection of Oriental, Scottish, and Irish fairy tales retold by Waddell, which were found in manuscript in 1966.