About Elizabeth Williams Champney
Profile photo: Cover of Champney's Three Vassar Girls Abroad
Elizabeth "Lizzie" Williams Champney (February 6, 1850 – October 13, 1922) was an American author of numerous articles and novels, most of which focused on foreign locations. Her novels were originally directed mainly at young girls, including the "Witch Winnie" series and the "Vassar Girls Abroad" series, but she later wrote romantic semi-fictional fables of castles, such as The Romance of the Feudal Chäteaux (1899). She was the wife of artist James Wells Champney.
Champney was born Elizabeth Johnson Williams in Springfield, Ohio, on February 6, 1850. Her parents, who were abolitionists, moved the family to Kansas Territory in her youth, to join the fight against the spread of slavery to Kansas. After the Civil War, she attended the Seminary for Young Ladies in Lexington, Massachusetts, where the artist James Wells Champney was her drawing instructor. She completed her education at Vassar College, where she received her A.B. in 1869, a member of the second class of Vassar graduates.
After graduation she returned to Kansas, to Kansas State Agricultural College in Manhattan, Kansas, where she served as Secretary for the college and the first instructor of drawing at the school.
While living in Kansas, she was engaged to be married to a farmer. However, the marriage apparently never took place, and in May 1873, she instead married James Wells Champney – her former drawing instructor – who happened to be traveling through Manhattan, Kansas, as part of a trip through the Louisiana Purchase to illustrate an article entitled The Great South by Edward King for Scribner’s Monthly. For the next three years, the new couple traveled through the southern United States, and then Europe, before settling on the East Coast. Her first published piece, a poem, was published six months after her marriage.
In 1876, Elizabeth and James Wells Champney returned to the United States and settled in Deerfield, Massachusetts. In addition to their house in Deerfield, the couple also acquired a home in New York City in 1879, where James Wells Champney opened a fashionable studio at 96 Fifth Avenue. Elizabeth and James Wells Champney also continued to make frequent trips to Europe and other foreign locations, including North Africa, which provided material for both of their work.
Upon her return to the U.S. in 1876, Elizabeth began publishing travel fiction in Harper's Magazine. In 1883, she published the first of her long-running "Three Vassar Girls Abroad" novels for young girls. The "Vassar Girls" series eventually contained eleven novels, the last of which, Three Vassar Girls in the Holy Land, was published in 1892. The books were published by Estes & Lauriat, a publishing house in Boston.
Champney published the first of her "Witch Winnie" books in 1889, entitled Witch Winnie: The Story of a "King's Daughter". The subject of the series is not a practitioner of witchcraft, but rather a mischievous young school-girl, and the first book is dedicated to Champney's daughter ("My Little Witch Marie"). The "Witch Winnie" series eventually contained nine books, the last of which, Witch Winnie in Spain, was published in 1898. The first book in the series was published by Oliphant, Anderson and Ferrier, and the remainder by Dodd, Mead and Company.
From 1899, Champney concentrated on more adult books, writing romantic, semi-fictional descriptions and stories of foreign locations, beginning with The Romance of the Feudal Chäteaux. She ultimately wrote nine books in this "Romance" series, the last of which, The Romance of Russia, from Rurik to Bolshevik, was published in 1921, one year before her death in 1922. The books in this series were published by G. P. Putnam's Sons. In addition to her three main series of books, Champney also had several other books published.
Her husband James Wells Champney died in an elevator accident in New York City in 1903, after which Elizabeth moved to the West Coast, where she lived near her son Edouard until her death. The last of her "Romance" books were co-written with her son.
Elizabeth and James Wells Champney had a son, Edouard Frère Champney, born in France on May 4, 1874, and a daughter, Maria Mitchell Champney, born in 1877. Edouard was an architect and died childless in 1929. Marie became an artist, married John S. Humphreys, and predeceased Elizabeth on December 1, 1906, at the age of thirty. Marie's son, George H. Humphreys, born in 1903, was a noted surgeon in New York City.