|Wordsworth's Foreign Affairs
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
28 January 2006
Émile Legouis, a professor at the Sorbonne,
was not the first scholar to realise that the young Wordsworth
had had a child by a French mistress, but he was the first,
in 1922, to tell the story in full, drawing on French sources.
His short book, William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon,
is wonderfully sympathetic, cheap on the internet, and of particular
interest as a document in the history of biography itself.
Wordsworth, who has featured in this column
as an enemy of intrusive biography, might be supposed to have
felt he had something to hide. Perhaps, as a public figure,
he had; but within the family circle it was well known that,
during the French Revolution when he was staying in Orléans,
Wordsworth had fathered a child. Dorothy Wordsworth corresponded
with Vallon and even accompanied her brother to France to meet
both mother and daughter.
Coleridge also knew, and at the time wrote
a sly squib in which he used the name Annette. And it was in
Coleridge's family that the story of the French child persisted.
But it had been kept out of the official record at the insistence
of Wordsworth's widow, Mary, and so the cover-up began in 1851
with the publication of the first biography, by Christopher
Wordsworth, the nephew. He had wanted to tell the story, but
A point made early in Legouis's book is that
Wordsworth was not a Victorian - he was 67 when the Queen ascended
to the throne, and "might have died before her accession
without any loss to his poetry and to his glory". "No
greater mistake can be made in literary history," says
Legouis, who co-authored what was for a long time the standard
history of English literature, "than the confusion of the
two epochs, the one in which Wordsworth lived and the one in
which he outlived himself and died." Wordsworth was a Georgian,
and should be judged according to the morals of his day.
In late 1791, Wordsworth took a boat to Dieppe,
and went via Paris to Orléans, arriving in early December.
A year later, Vallon gave birth to a child baptised as "Anne
Caroline Wordswodsth", [sic] and in the same month the
poet, having legally acknowledged his daughter, returned to
England, intent on accepting a curacy. Whether he also, in the
depth of his heart, felt "a vague mistrust of the woman
he loved" - a question Legouis poses - is impossible to
What survived as direct evidence of her personality
was a double letter to William and Dorothy, written in 1793
and intercepted by the revolutionary authorities. It is clearly
part of a regular correspondence, the rest of which Legouis
believed to have been destroyed by Christopher Wordsworth, and
it shows Vallon as passionately keen to persuade William to
return and to marry her. Most strikingly, she has already made
an ally of Dorothy and has even, it would seem, received from
her some indication that they might all set up house together.
But this never happened. Instead, Vallon and
her family lived through the Terror in Blois, and became active
supporters of the counter-revolution. They were royalists and
Catholics of a militant stamp, so it would have been particularly
scandalous had it been known not only that Vallon had never
married Wordsworth, but that her sister Françoise had
had an illegitimate child in 1798. She abandoned it on the day
of its birth and did not acknowledge it until 20 years later.
How dearly one would like to know how Vallon
at first responded to Wordsworth's early revolutionary enthusiasm,
and whether this was ever an issue between them. They met again
in 1802, when Dorothy accompanied Wordsworth to Calais and spent
four weeks in the company of Vallon and Caroline. The occasion
was a sombre one for Vallon: Wordsworth was due to marry Mary
Hutchinson, his childhood sweetheart. It is hard to know why
such a long farewell should be deemed necessary. By now, politically,
they had this in common, that they both despised Napoleon, although,
as Legouis points out, for diametrically opposed reasons.
In 1820, Wordsworth and his wife and sister,
on their way home from a continental tour, met Vallon and her
now married daughter in Paris. They all went to the Louvre.
"A psychological novelist," says Legouis, "might
find in this situation matter for a long chapter. Yet no very
vivid emotions seem to have been stirred by the meeting. We
may be sure that the greeting which passed between Mrs Wordsworth
and Annette was simple, friendly and devoid of bitterness."
Then Wordsworth went to the Jardin des Plantes with his French
granddaughter. One of that little girl's middle names was Dorothy.