William Wordsworth, Annette Vallon and their daughter Caroline

I was put onto the story of William Wordsworth’s French daughter by Alison Bechdel, in her The Secret of Superhuman Strength:

An interesting footnote to literary history, I thought. A quick bit of googling brought me to Wordsworth’s French Daughter, by George McLean Harper, published in 1921; and a little more to William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon, by Émile Legouis, published in 1922. Both are available online. Harper’s book is very short and has no sections; its third paragraph is:

Sara Hutchinson, Mrs. Wordsworth’s sister, was to accompany Dorothy. They dreaded the inconvenience and dangers of travel, these two middle-aged ladies, in a foreign country against which England had been at war for nearly twenty years, and wished they could go under the protection of Henry Crabb Robinson, the more so as they intended to carry presents of English manufacture. From a letter begun on the last day of 1814, we learn that the wedding was postponed till April and that they were hesitating about going so late in the spring because they expected to stay nine or ten weeks and would thus be in Paris in June, when King Louis XVIII was to be anointed. They feared the public disturbances and possible outbreak of civil war which might attend that event. “Besides,” adds Dorothy, “the journey will be very expensive, which we can ill afford, and the money would be better spent in augmenting my Niece’s wedding portion. To this effect I have written to her. She would not consent to marry without my presence, which was the reason that April was fixed.”

Legouis’ book is a bit longer. The second paragraph of the third section, including poetic quote, is:

We know what Paul’s physical appearance was: he was a small dark man, with a thick-set neck, and large bold eyes under heavy black brows. We have a glimpse of his character in the memoirs of his grandson Amédée, a magistrate, who declares him to have been “one of the wittiest men he had the privilege of knowing” with an excellent heart. His chivalry and generosity tended to excess, and his carelessness of money was so great that his financial position suffered by it. The appearance of Annette’s daughter is also known to us. It is a face which, according to its age, wears a look of frank gaiety, or a gently mischievous smile. But Annette dwells so much on her daughter’s likeness to her father that it would be illusory to expect to find the expression of the mother in the face of the child. The portrait of Annette published in this volume is not well enough authenticated for us to place much reliance on it. It does not seem as if liveliness had been outstandingly characteristic of her, though kindness and generosity certainly were. In the letters of Annette that have recently been discovered the dominant note is that of an irrepressible, exuberant sensibility which is a trait of her nature and is not exclusively due to the harassing circumstances in which the letters were written. She abounded in words, was prone to effusions and tears. These emotions of a “sensitive soul” were, moreover, quite of a nature to win her the young Englishman’s heart. He himself was in those years inclined to melancholy and the elegiac mood. His very first sonnet <super><small>1</small></super> had been inspired by the sight of a girl weeping at the hearing of a woeful story. At that sight, he said, his blood had stopped running in his veins:

Dim were my swimming eyes my pulse beat slow,
And my full heart was swell’d to dear delicious pain.

The maiden’s tears had made manifest her virtue. The poet’s turn for sentimentality found in Annette many an opportunity of satisfying itself, while the garrulity of the young Frenchwoman fell in splendidly with his intention of learning the language.

The story is very simple. In early 1792, William Wordsworth, about to turn 22 and fascinated by revolutionary France, fell in love with Marie Anne Vallon, known as Annette – not in Paris, as Alison Bechdel would have it, but in Orleans, 110 km to the south. She was four years older; her family were strongly Royalist and Catholic, and the political pendulum was swinging against them.

Harper takes the view that for such a family, marriage would have been impossible that year, as hardliners like the Vallon family would have simply boycotted the state-run Church and the state’s annexation of marriage registration. Legouis is more sanguine; he points out that for the upper middle classes in France and England, having children out of wedlock was really not as big a deal in the late eighteenth century as it would be in the mid nineteenth century (or indeed the early twentieth century when he and Harper were writing). For Wordsworth as a foreigner, it would anyway have been difficult to stay in France.

On 15 December 1792 the state registry office in Orleans registered the baptism of Anne-Caroline, daughter of Marie Anne Vallon and William Wordsworth. He and his sister Dorothy stayed in touch with Annette and, when she was old enough, with Caroline too, as far as possible through the wars. They met only twice. During a brief period of international peace in 1802, Dorothy and William spent a whole month with Annette and Caroline in Calais. Wordsworth wrote this sonnet about the nine-year-old daughter who he was seeing for the first time:

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
And worship’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

Wordsworth married his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson a few weeks later, having come into an inheritance which enabled him both to marry and to make arrangements for his first daughter. He and Mary had five children, two of whom died young; Annette did not marry again and had no more children.

In 1816 Anne-Caroline, now 23, married in her turn, Wordsworth giving his formal consent (and Anne-Caroline signing her surname as Wordsworth). The wedding had originally been planned for April 1815, and Dorothy was all set to attend it with Sara Hutchinson, Mary Wordsworth’s sister, but the Hundred Days intervened.

The whole lot of them finally got together in Paris in October 1820, William, Mary and Dorothy spending a week with Annette, Caroline, Caroline’s husband Jean Baptiste Martin Baudouin and their first two daughters, the older nearly four and the younger ten months old, Wordsworth’s first grandchildren. They never met again, though Annette lived until 1841 and Wordsworth until 1850.

The older daughter in due course married the painter Theodore Vauchelet. Legouis has a great compare and contrast between Vauchelet’s portrait of his mother-in-law, Wordsworth’s daughter Caroline, and the classic portrait of Wordsworth himself: There’s something pretty unmistakable about the nose.

Legouis has much more to say about Annette’s life. He has a fascinating account of how her monarchist family twisted and turned to stay alive during the First Republic and the Empire. Annette’s brother Paul was imprisoned several times and could easily have been executed; Annette herself was a firm opponent of the new regime (Wordsworth’s feelings were more ambivalent).

The whole story only came to light just over a hundred years ago, seventy years after Wordsworth’s death. Wordsworth’s literary executor was his nephew Christopher Wordsworth, an Anglican clergyman and future bishop, and apparently he destroyed all the records he could find relating to Annette and Caroline in the family correspondence; Harper and Legouis have done their best from incidental notes in Dorothy’s diary and also the rich store of French official records.

Just one of Annette’s letters to William and Dorothy survives, written in 1793 when Caroline was still a baby. It survives because the police seized it and it remained unseen in the Blois city archives for 125 years. Strictly there are two letters, one to William and one to Dorothy folded up together. Legouis transcribes them both in an appendix, and it’s riveting to get her voice so clearly, still at that stage desperately hoping that she and William (and indeed Dorothy, who she cannot have met) would someday soon get together.

signoff to WIlliam
signoff to Dorothy

It’s always good to hear a voice speaking as clearly as this from the past, reminding us that there’s more to history than names and dates.

You can read Wordsworth’s French Daughter, by George McLean Harper here, and you can read William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon, by Émile Legouis here.