Wordsworth washes darker

The Hidden Wordsworth - Wordsworth and the Victorians

June 19, 1998

William Wordsworth was already a myth before he was dead. He received fan mail and visits from his admirers; he lost his walking stick to an Anglican clergyman who revered it as a relic; a chair he had sat upon at a London party was treasured as sacred; and a handful of rose petals were gathered from his garden by a passing gent who gave them to his doting sister, Mary Ann Evans - later George Eliot.

Such souvenir hunting, whether for signatures or for impressions of the poet's buttocks, indicates that by the 19th century the cult of relics had become entirely secularised. No longer holy witnesses to divinity, relics were testimonies to human genius: Keats's keen sense of communion with a lock of hair from Milton's head shows that even the new Promethean society of poetic visionaries was profoundly structured around, and dependent upon, physical remnants. Relics were a point of contact with the object of desire. In the case of Wordsworth, they were doubly appropriate: authenticating the poetry and memory of a poet whose most persistent theme was empathetic remembering.

These two books tackle Wordsworth's memory from opposite directions. Stephen Gill's superb study examines the construction and marketing of the cultural monument William Wordsworth in the 19th century, while Kenneth Johnston flamboyantly rewrites the first 30 years of Wordsworth's life in the light of startling new speculation. Johnston questions the poet's self-memorialisation through such autobiographical epics as The Prelude, and suggests great ironies in the Victorian canonisation of what Mrs Humphry Ward was glad to call "a respectable genius".

Revelations about Wordsworth have always been gossipy. His affair with the feisty Frenchwoman Annette Vallon, and their illegitimate daughter Caroline, was a family secret, hinted at in the authorised Life (1851), but entirely effaced from William Knight's standard biography (1889) to make Wordsworth's life as saintly as his poetry. Such tampering extended to the printed corpus. Knight, in his Complete Works (1882-9), scoffingly rejected Wordsworth's juvenilia, and, much worse, actually burned a copy of "The Somersetshire Tragedy" (what appears to be the only other extant copy also ended up in the grate in 1931). It is as if this poem, describing the brutal murder of a retarded woman by her husband who loves the miller's daughter, were a false relic, a heresy. "The only curious thing about it," Knight said, "is that Wordsworth could have written it." Knight in effect ensured that he had not.

Since the detailing of the Vallon affair, there has been the creeping suspicion of an incestuous affair with Dorothy; we now have Johnston's tome (almost 1,000 pages long) forging, in fantastic detail, a new Wordsworth as lover and spy. Johnston compiles rapacious family politics, extemporised ballad singing at Hawkshead School, Wordsworth's half-cock career at Cambridge, the cosmopolitan hubbub of London and the blandishments of revolutionary Paris (its cellars full of sex and drugs). The Hidden Wordsworth ends with the split from Coleridge over the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, credited solely to "W. Wordsworth" - a Wordsworth out of hiding.

Johnston endeavours to make explicit everything heretofore hidden. Cambridge is described as a den of undergraduate vice where Wordsworth read Rochester and Chaucer's bawdy tales, and, we are led to hope, might have bedded his college bedder. Wordsworth's sexual prowess was also, apparently, expressed through his poetry. After a few weeks at Cambridge, he is responding to Cumberland (and Cumbrian lasses) in the most sensual way, seeing the landscape as "fresh, glowing, postcoital skin" (Johnston's words, not Wordsworth's).

Johnston thus combines the critic and the investigative journalist, the scholar and the inquisitor: "The date, place and persons of Wordsworth's first sexual experiences I remain matters of opinion and speculation." On his walking tour of 1790, Wordsworth parts company with his companion for a possible dalliance with an Italian girl. Johnston is agog: still, even if his speculations on Wordsworth's movements up and down Lake Como are accurate, there is no proof of a love affair - it is tantamount to saying that whenever two sexually attracted people are alone together they will inevitably fall into bed.

Johnston is on much firmer ground with Vallon, whom he presents as spectacular proof of the libidinous Wordsworth: "Annette was one of the best things that ever happened to Wordsworth." It may also have sent Wordsworth back to France in 1793 on a mission to "see, marry, or rescue" his beloved. Tragically, he could not reach her; he narrowly avoided some skirmishing armies and escaped home. Speculation follows on speculation: this entirely undocumented trip becomes Wordsworth's first encounter with the secret service, engaged in sending couriers to counter-revolutionary groups.

Before we become too sceptical, however, we should consider the Alfoxden incident, in which the Home Office, acting on rumour, launched a surveillance operation on Coleridge & Co. Excited chat had been overheard, and Wordsworth, as Coleridge later mentioned, was held in great suspicion by the locals as "the dark traitor". An agent was sent to spy on the poets, and reported back on one "Wordsworth, a name I think known", implying that Wordsworth was familiar to the secret service. Next is the evidence that in 1799 the home secretary paid a "Mr. Wordsworth" almost Pounds 100. Johnston's argument is that this sponsored the Wordsworths' trip to Germany, and he scrupulously provides accounts to show that their expenses were within a few pounds of this sum. The party (William, Dorothy and Coleridge) travelled (coincidentally) with a secret agent, who corresponded with the chief of espionage in the most shady terms. Of course it is Johnston's contention that Wordsworth is the man "whose name is not to be mentioned" - though why Wordsworth's name, a name Coleridge admitted before the publication of Lyrical Ballads meant "nothing", should be kept so secret, is not clear. Johnston points out that the Wordsworths (William and Dorothy) made unrecorded movements throughout Germany, then later tore several pages from their notebook, ergo they were probably on secret errands: "the only available evidence tends to support the wildest possibility".

Part of the problem of this beguiling speculation is the pliability of the textual record. We can only know what was written, we interpret what is ambiguous, we fill gaps with elegant hypotheses. At its most absurd, this is seen in Johnston's reading of a letter from Germany about "a new invention for washing", in which Wordsworth offers Coleridge a partnership in the (perhaps literally) revolutionary Wordsworthomatic. This is crazy enough, but Johnston trumps it: "Was this a coded reference to something else? I Was he involved in some other kind of laundering operation? Of Grenville's money, for example?" "Money laundering" in this context is an anachronism by some 180 years, but there is a 17th-century use of laundering meaning to sweat gold or plate. So, either the reference to the Wordsworth washing machine enterprise is a hint that he is involved in international espionage, or it means that he has seen a large mechanical basin and thinks he might join the industrial revolution.

Again, all this comes from a gap in Wordsworth's history. Johnston, like Henry James remarked of Conrad, comes "once more and yet once more to 'glory in a gap'": a lack of evidence indicates an abundance of event. A name, "Mr. Wordsworth" (after Johnston has admitted code names were in use), carries the argument - it is the slenderest of evidence and it would collapse if "Mr. Wordsworth" were discovered to be active at times that do not coincide with pregnant pauses in Wordsworth's biography. And yet it might be true.

At its most unfortunate, Johnston's speculation risks turning Wordsworth's best work into farce. Is it possible to write and rewrite The Prelude, the growth of the poet's mind, if the poet is a spy, an impostor? Is Wordsworth indulging in some fantastic Chattertonian ventriloquism? To be sure, The Prelude makes no mention of Annette Vallon or Caroline - so is it an aspirational poem, an elaborate auto-fiction?

Johnston's Wordsworth is a Daniel Defoe, prospecting and prying. But there are game efforts to flesh out these notions with intelligent readings of the poems, providing excellent summaries of poetical development: this is not the cranky prattle of a conspiracy theorist. And it is timely that such a bracingly ingenious reassessment comes as Stephen Gill examines Wordsworth's afterlife in the 19th century, suggesting that the man was promptly reinvented by the Victorians as a marketable commodity and a model of palatable Eng. Lit. fit for schools. The Victorians made their own moral Wordsworth - we now have a Tarantinoesque renegade.

Gill's model of cultural influence is seen most dramatically in Wordsworth's honorary degree from Oxford, awarded in 1839: the Arnolds were present, Clough was there (with a hangover), Wordsworth himself awarded the Newdigate Prize to the young Ruskin, and next morning he breakfasted with Newman and Keble. He was at the epicentre of cultural life. Ruskin, who became such an eloquent advocate of the Wordsworthian countryside, later admitted to reading The Excursion daily, alongside his Bible. Arnold, who like Tennyson ranked Wordsworth alongside Shakespeare and Milton, edited the poet. Wordsworth's influence on Gaskell and Eliot went deep into the dynamics of history and memory - especially acute, as Gill rightly says, in the memories of actually reading Wordsworth.

Gill is particularly intrigued by Wordsworth's theology, appealing to Quakers and Anglo-Catholics: "What links all the numerous tributes is the conviction, born of first-hand experience, that Wordsworth - both the work and the example of the life - was a spiritually active, empowering force." Wordsworth's poetry seemed to provide a spiritual retreat. It was a space that had to be preserved, and it inspired at least one over-zealous counsellor in the shape of Frederick Faber, an Anglo-Catholic and subsequent Roman convert. Faber exercised considerable influence on Wordsworth's ongoing revisions - most notably the excision of the Miltonic allusions at the beginning of The Prelude - so as seriously to weaken the radical Wordsworth voice.

The meddling did not stop. Even editors such as Arnold were guilty of heavy-handed revision and invisible mending. This was in part due to the complex compositional practice of Wordsworth. His poetry was a process in which every revision entailed substantial rewriting: the act of the living poet was finalised only by death. Gill is a wonderfully arch guide through this "textual anarchy". He displays sound judgement and a fine ear for the Wordsworthian cadence, and he is not afraid to declare lines good or bad, insipid or inspired.

Wordsworth became national property in 1880 when William Knight founded the Wordsworth Society. The group took relic collecting to its zenith: preserving the school-desk at Hawkshead on which a delinquent Wordsworth had hacked his name, and then purchasing Dove Cottage. Although they failed to halt the development that destroyed the inscribed "Rock of Names", Knight's knights eventually won over public opinion. The greatest souvenir of all became the Lake District itself, rescued by the National Trust in a language forged by Wordsworth. Thus Wordsworth became the defining vision of the English bourgeois countryside - which is why he will never rest in peace.

Nick Groom is lecturer in English studies, University of Exeter.

The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy

Author - Kenneth R. Johnston
ISBN - 0 393 04623 0
Publisher - W. W. Norton
Price - £30.00
Pages - 965

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