Fact and Fiction in Annette Vallon

             In writing fiction about people who actually existed, the novelist balances the biographical parameters within which one must operate with the creative license to make the most dramatic turn of events take place.  Few times in history can have more dramatic turns of events, however, than the French Revolution.  My job, then, was not to change what we know but to use my imagination to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know.  I tried to do that in such a way that it all could have taken place.
             So I wove the plot around biographical and historical events: Annette’s father died when she was young, and she was “estranged from her mother by the latter’s re-marriage” (Émile Legouis, William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon, 9); the dates when Wordsworth was in France; the poems he would have been working on; what we know of his behavior when he returned to England; the Battle of the Tuileries; the September massacres; the execution of the king, the Queen, and the Girondins; Annette’s resistance work from 1792-1815; the infamous Noyades, engineered by Citizen Carrier; and William’s trips back to France: to Calais in 1802 and to Paris in 1820.
             The evidence we have for William’s actions are, of course, documented in many biographies, although biographers don’t always agree, especially on the episode of his life that involves Annette Vallon.  We have only the broadest parameters for his actions in his year in France during the Revolution:  He met Annette in Orleans; she was his language tutor, then lover; he followed her to Blois, where he also became good friends with the patriot Captain Beaupay.  William sympathized with the Girondin cause, met some of their leading characters, and spent time in Paris before returning to England, shortly before the birth of his daughter in mid-December, 1792.   Such a general outline of facts leaves ample room for biographers to interpret and to disagree and for a novelist to imagine scenes and the emotions that filled them. 
             And what is the evidence we have for Annette?  In doing research on who Annette Vallon actually was, I found that many of Wordsworth biographers—especially the British ones--treat her frigidly, as if to give her her due would be somehow to diminish the stature of the great poet.  Even Émile Legouis, usually sympathetic to Annette, and whose 1922 workis still the foundation for all later Wordsworth biographers dealing with her, calls her “devoid of intellectual curiosity” (33); “prone to effusions and tears” (13); and “ill-fitted for prolonged ecstasies in nature” (69).   Mary Moorman, in William Wordsworth, the Early Years (1957), asserts that Annette is “easily moved to tears,” then goes on to describe her as “finding her interests entirely in those whom she loved…there was in her nothing that could have reciprocated [Wordsworth]…in all the deepest springs of his being” (180-81).  Juliet Barker’s recent Wordsworth, A life, clearly tries to undermine Annette.
             And on what basis do they draw their conclusions?  On two surviving letters, one addressed to William and one to his sister Dorothy, both written when Annette was distraught over her plight as a new single mother, wondering when and how her lover could return when her nation was at war with his.  But would that not be a situation where one could be “easily moved to tears,” one that does not call for either great “intellectual curiosity” or “ecstasies in nature”?  No, the basis of these biographers’ treatment of Annette has to spring from their desire to justify William—a poet of great moral rectitude—in a situation which seems to decry that rectitude.
             Far better, when drawing conclusions, instead of looking at two letters written in a time of distress, to look at evidence of the two lovers’ characters themselves.  Only a brief perusal of Wordsworth’s poetry shows to us an incredibly serious and sincere nature.  Wordsworth was no Lord Byron, with illegitimate children spread over the continent; it follows that his “natural child” as they were called then, would be the result of a relationship in which he had deep feelings—and his guilt and sorrow and extreme state of distress upon returning to England seem to indicate this; William himself writes that he only returned, “dragged by a chain of harsh necessity” (Prelude, X. 222).  We should not see his despair at this time as only arising from the collapse of his ideals of the Revolution.  I think we can read a far deeper emotional source for many poems based on orphaned children and abandoned women, for him wandering the southwest of England and even, in the summer of 1793, spending a month on the Isle of Wight—as close as you can get to the French shore. 
             Legouis tells us that, after war was officially declared between their countries, “the lovers, who had, when they parted hoped for a near reunion, found themselves divided by an almost insuperable obstacle.  William could only run the risk of another journey to France at the cost of the utmost difficulties and perils.  Did he run that risk?” (34)  Legouis thinks he probably did.  Kenneth Johnston, in his meticulous biography, The Hidden Wordsworth (2000), devotes two chapters to the probability that William made a secret trip to France at the height of the Reign of Terror.  (I was happy to read those chapters, for I had just written my own chapter when William makes such a return.)  Johnston even thinks Wordsworth went to rescue Annette, failed, and was hiding out in caves and forests (287-88), as his character, the lover Vaudracour, “Lay hidden for the space of several days” (Prelude, IX. 734).  Johnston bases this on information that Legouis reveals, that William told the English historian Carlisle that he had seen Corsas, the Girondin journalist, executed in Paris.  Now that was in October of 1793, and Wordsworth left France in December 1792.  Either Carlisle got it wrong—highly unlikely for a respected historian—or Wordsworth remembered wrongly—if so, why the detail of Corsas’ death?  Far more likely that Wordsworth let slip—consciously or not—something that he was usually at pains to hide.
             Wordsworth disguised his relationship with Annette.  Yet in referring to his famous lines that characterize the heady enthusiasm of the early days of the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!” Johnston points out that “we must appreciate Annette’s part in creating Wordsworth’s bliss,” and that “there are also not many expressions that better capture the transfiguring effect of young love at first sight than Wordsworth’s description of Vaudracour’s vision of Julia” (217-18): “he beheld / A vision, and he loved the thing he saw…Earth lived in one great presence of the spring” (Prelude, IX. 582-3, 586).  But Wordsworth himself said first that this was simply a story he had heard from Captain Beaupay, and later that he got it entirely from a French lady and did not make up anything at all.
              Wordsworth does not refer directly to Annette in any of his poems, though we can find indirect allusions to his feelings for her and also to his guilt and distress at his having to abandon her and Caroline.  Legouis concludes that, “as a poet he helped to blind the world…he allowed an image of himself, more edifying than exact, to take shape in his verse…He practiced…the deceit which consists of omission of embarrassing facts” (116).  William’s family is also complicit in this effort.  Legouis laments, “It is a great pity that all traces of Annette and Caroline should have been carefully destroyed by the poet’s nephew and biographer” (102).  Yet he believes that “it is certain that the correspondence was not closed with the visit in 1820” (112), and that William and Annette kept up a life-long friendship.
             One poem alludes directly to Caroline—the famous sonnet, “It Is A Beauteous Evening, Calm And Free.”  When I was a freshman in college being introduced to the Romantic poets, a professor explained to the class that the footnote to this poem referred to the poet’s affair with Annette Vallon, who wasn’t even mentioned in the footnote, only Caroline, and my teacher’s brief background on this young poet in love in the midst of a revolution became the seed that grew into my novel twenty years later, when, now teaching the class myself, I came upon the same footnote and wondered about the story behind it.
             At the time Wordsworth published that sonnet, however, no one knew whom it referred to—some mistakenly thought he was writing about his sister.  They didn’t know the real reason why he was in France during the brief peace of Amiens in 1802, just before he got married.  Those who downplay the importance of Annette Vallon on Wordsworth’s life may think that he was at Calais only to secure some financial arrangement for his daughter (of which there is no record).  But if one were to meet an ex-lover and parent of one’s child for these purposes alone, how long would one stay?   Several hours, a day, two days?  Wordsworth stayed a month, during which time his sister and chaperone, normally a meticulous recorder of daily events as simple as fetching gingerbread from town, also joins in the disguise and abandons her journal.  (Or were there more emotional reasons for her abandoning it?)  The couple entries she does have seem to have been inserted later.  In Dorothy’s letters and in the journal itself, she usually refers to Annette only as A, or, “We had a long letter from France,” or as “C’s [Caroline’s] mother.”
             Indeed, the only reason we do know at all of Annette is that, in the early 1920’s, Monsieur Guy Trouillard discovered Annette’s two letters, impounded by the Committee of Surveillance, in the records a sub-police station in the Loire Valley.  The name of the famous English poet Monsieur Williams Wordsworth fortunately alerted M. Trouillard.  Unfortunately, the address London, Angleterre had alerted the Committee in 1793.  How many other letters were lost?  The letter makes references to other letters of which we have no knowledge.  But the story came out, and when it did, in the early 1920’s, it rocked the British literary establishment, whom I think never forgave the French for discovering those letters.  Wordsworth had by then become a Victorian icon, and now he had an illegitimate child and by a French woman.  But baptismal records show that Wordsworth owned the child as his and gave it his name.
             I quote from Annette’s surviving letter to William in the front of my book     and in a few sentences in one of her letters in the novel itself, but for the most part I have used the tone of her letters and not her words themselves.  I will translate more of the letter here, dated March 20, 1793:

             Come, my friend, my husband, receive the tender kisses of your wife, of your daughter.  She is so pretty, this poor little one, so pretty that the tenderness I feel for her would drive me crazy if I didn’t always hold her in my arms.  She resembles you more and more each day.  I believe that I hold you in my arms.  Her little heart beats against mine…[I say to her,] “Caroline, in a month, in fifteen days, in eight days, you will see the most cherished of men, the most tender of men” …Always love your little daughter and your Annette, who kisses you a thousand times on the mouth, on the eyes…I will write to you on Sunday.  Goodbye, I love you for life.

             This letter is all the more touching when we realize that Wordsworth never received it.  And the parting sentiment is no lover’s hyperbole, for she kept his name “Williams” for the rest of her life.    
              Legouis (and before him, Professor Harper in his Wordsworth’s French Daughter, 1921), explained something of who this Annette Vallon was.  From that we have a much more clear basis on which to draw conclusions as to her character than two emotional letters.  We find her a major figure in the resistance movement against the reign of Terror, and later, against Napoleon, risking her life to help save the lives of others.  Johnston writes that, “she took initiatives in hundreds of matters in dozens of different ways, braving the secret police of, successively, the Terror, the Directoire, and Napoleon…she was a dynamo of action” (216).  It’s easy to see her as a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel, and it is hard to reconcile the figure “easily moved to tears” with the unrelenting underground fighter, as it is hard to think that “there was in her nothing that could reciprocated” Wordsworth, when one simply thinks of the passion for her cause and the passion behind Wordsworth’s poetry.
             The primary document that states her involvement in this service is the 1816 petition to the newly restored king on behalf of Annette Vallon, to secure for her a pension for her services of almost twenty-five years.  The list of names that signed this petition reads like a who’s who of the Restoration—two peers of France, a number of marquis’, counts and viscounts, duchesses and chevaliers. (One, the Marquis d’Avaray, we learn from Legouis, is most likely a personal delegate to the king, for the marquis’ brother was the closest friend of the king in his exile.)  Such an impressive list represents the respect that Annette Vallon had earned over the years. 
             In the list of names, a chevalier “declares that Madame Williams saved his life”; a viscount and major general “attests that Madame Williams rendered services at the time of the insurrection of the Vendée.”  Annette asked for any reward to be given not to herself, but to her daughter, Caroline.  I will roughly translate below a section of this petition.  The full petition can be found, in French, in the appendix of Émile Legouis’ book.

              Madame Williams, born Vallon… has, for the past twenty-five years, hidden and aided a great number of Emigrés and other persecuted persons.  She has engineered escapes from prisons and has, by her zeal and her courage, saved many loyal subjects from death.  She has performed all this service with an absolute selflessness.  In recent events [the return of Napoleon from Elba] she again showed her courage without any thought of personal gain: she posted proclamations at night, distributed them during the day, helped brave men escape to serve the King…I attest that in this unfortunate epoch there did not exist in all of France another of such zeal, such devotion, and such courage as she.
             --Le Baron de Tardif, Field Marshal and Superior Officer of the Gardes du Corps, Paris, March 6, 1816.

             We also have reference to her in police records (Legouis, 89-90), such as

              Have the conduct carefully observed…of the demoiselles Vallon, one of whom is married to an Englishman named Willaume.
--Napoleon’s secret police, March 8, 1804.

             The woman Williams is particularly known as an active intriguer.
             --Corbigny, Loir-et-Cher prefect of police, March 16, 1804.
             (Archives nationals, F6410, 5 division: Police secrete, Dossier n 8171.)

             Some facts I did change for reasons of my plot—Annette was actually the youngest of sixth children.  Two of her sisters, not just one, aided in her underground work.  She did not have a brother who died on the guillotine, but Angelique did die when she was young, in 1809; since she was part of the underground network, it is certainly possible she met her end that way.  Jeanne Robin was killed leading a cavalry charge against the Revolutionary Army.  Annette did not have an older sister who emigrated to England, and Paul, who came so close to the guillotine and spurred Annette’s entry into the world of intrigue by coming to his aid, was her brother, not her brother-in-law.


             Other details are from biography and history:  After Caroline’s marriage, Annette lived with the Badouins, on Rue Charlot, on the left bank in Paris.  The marquis in my book is based on the swashbuckling Marquis de Rouairie, who fought alongside the Indians against the British in the American Revolution and returned to use those tactics successfully against the armies of Paris.  To dramatize the beginning of the Reign of Terror history handed me an apt metaphor: A full eclipse of the sun actually occurred on the same afternoon that the National Assembly placed “Terror on the order of the day.”
             The pink cap that in my story Annette is knitting, which she carries in her basket to Vendome and bids William kiss just before he boards the carriage for Paris, the real-life Annette mentions in her letter:  “The first time she had it on…I said to her, ‘My Caroline…your father is less happy than I; he cannot see it, but it should be dear to you, for he put his lips to it’.”  I also refer to the odd fact that William became friends with Caroline’s future brother-in-law, a French prisoner of war in the north of England—in actuality, Eustace Badouin visited William so often that Coleridge thought that Wordsworth had a French son, not a French daughter.
             One curious fact I could not use, though, because it happens after her death, at age seventy-five.  The following year Wordsworth publishes a rare French translation: a poem about young men who died fighting for the Chouans (“The Eagle and the Dove”).  Why would he choose to translate a poem on such an obscure topic unless he was, in doing so, writing an elegy for Annette, who had fought so tirelessly and so long for the Chouans?  It was one of the last poems he wrote.

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