Well-kept Secrets: The Story of William Wordsworth by Andrew Wordsworth

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Reviewed by Harriet

Well-kept Secrets: The Story of William Wordsworth by Andrew Wordsworth

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, this year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wordsworth, one of England’s most celebrated poets, much loved by many (apart, perhaps, from those people who had ‘Daffodils’ forced on them at school). A mass online project [http://www.wordsworth250.com] is underway in which the poet’s descendants have been joined by a host of celebrities to read his poems aloud. And of course there are books. A couple of eminent professors have contributed: Stephen Gill, whose impressive 1989 biography has been revised and updated, and Jonathan Bate, whose Radical Wordsworth emphasises the poet’s fiery political youth.

And now, out of left field as it were, comes a new assessment from someone who is neither a professor nor indeed an established academic. Andrew Wordsworth’s main claim to authority here is his relationship to Wordsworth himself, whose younger brother was his great-great-great-great-grandfather. As someone who spent many years studying Wordsworth, taught by another collateral descendant Professor Jonathan Wordsworth (laying my cards on the table here), I was curious enough to ask for a review copy. Could it be any good? Short answer: yes. I don’t always agree with some of Andrew Wordsworth’s conclusions, but I enjoyed reading it tremendously and came away with some unexpected insights.

As Andrew Wordsworth points out, the conventional academic view is that the life of a writer is of secondary importance to the study of their work. However, this argument falls apart in the case of Wordsworth, since all his most important poetry is unashamedly autobiographical.  This includes his two most famous shorter poems, ‘Tintern Abbey’ and the so-called ‘Immortality Ode’ as well, of course, as his thirteen-book magnum opus The Prelude. This work was originally completed in 1805 but only published in a heavily revised version after his death in 1850. This fact raises an important and on-going dispute among Wordsworth scholars. Early editors of his poetry scrupulously followed his own clearly articulated wishes that only the final versions of his poems should be made public. But increasingly in the second half of the twentieth century, a tidal wave of scholarly interest started to focus on the vital importance of studying the original versions of the poems. The argument here – with which I wholeheartedly agree – is that the first versions show the poet’s thoughts in all their freshness and immediacy, rather than those overlaid by the increasingly conservative and orthodox thinking of his later years. Andrew Wordsworth rather sits on the fence here – he wants to honour the poet’s wishes, but in fact his assessment rests largely on readings of the early poems and versions.

What, then, are the well-kept secrets of the title? The most important of these was Wordsworth’s relationship with a Frenchwoman, Annette Vallon, and the birth of his illegitimate daughter Caroline. Conceived in 1792, during the year he spent living in France, the baby was born just after her 22-year-old father had returned to England, and she did not meet him until she was nine. At the time, this affair was only known to his closest family and friends, and did not become public knowledge until many years after his death. Needless to say he did not refer to it openly in The Prelude, but the1805 version of the poem contains a coded account, which was later extracted and published in 1820 as a separate poem, ‘Vaudracour and Julia’. This poem is not much studied, presumably because it is thought to be uncharacteristic of Wordsworth, in that it describes a passionate youthful love affair. As such, it reveals a side of the poet that has, as Andrew Wordsworth points out, been overlooked or flatly denied by biographers. But, as he goes on to argue, this is because it was a side that he himself was at pains to suppress.

Interestingly, a little-known article of 1918 made the very point that Andrew Wordsworth is now arguing. The author quotes an early biography – ‘There was a vein of asceticism in the man; he seemed afraid of all ardent passion, however pure’ – before going on to say ‘He was afraid; and this explains his reticence on the subject of love’. This is the conclusion reached by Andrew Wordsworth, who argues that he sublimated his naturally passionate nature by transferring it to nature. This is a refreshing version of Wordsworth, who has often been seen as sexless, ascetic and aloof.

The other so-called secret that is confronted here is the poet’s relationship with his sister Dorothy. The two had been parted as children after their mother’s death, and only reunited in their late teens. From that point on they were literally inseparable, and when they set up home together in the Lake District at the end of 1799, he wrote a poem (’Home at Grasmere’) in which, Andrew Wordsworth argues, the place becomes a second Eden with himself and Dorothy figured as Adam and Eve. The closeness of their relationship has led to speculation that it may have been incestuous. I agree with Andrew Wordsworth’s conclusion that despite the fact that their mutual love of each other was unusually deep, this was certainly not the case in a physical sense. He believes that the taboo that prevented him from initiating a full sexual relationship with his sister was a continual struggle for the poet, creating a sort of ‘emotional congestion’, which he was only able to resolve by marriage, in 1802, to his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson. 

Andrew Wordsworth supports this, and many other ingenious arguments, by a close reading of the poetry. I do feel, however, that in arguing for Wordsworth’s passion for nature as a sublimation of his sexual impulses, he has paid too little attention to the profoundly spiritual experiences in the natural world which he describes in The Prelude and elsewhere as being an important feature of his childhood. It was these experiences that were primarily what he removed or altered in his later revisions of The Prelude, when he had abandoned his so-called pantheism and embraced Christian orthodoxy.

Andrew Wordsworth is a sculptor, and introduces some interesting parallels with the fine art of the period, especially that of Turner, who was more or less Wordsworth’s contemporary. So, although I have some quibbles, overall I found the book immensely readable and thought provoking.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Andrew Wordsworth, Well-Kept Secrets: The Story of William Wordsworth (Pallas Athene, 2020). 978-1843681946, 480pp., hardback.

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