William Wordsworth is one of the most infamous English poets. Known for his love of nature, Wordsworth and his colleague Coleridge ushered in the period known as Romanticism in poetry. A man dedicated to family and the romantic ideals of life, Wordsworth appeared to be the ideal gentleman, with nothing staining his prestigious reputation.
In the early 1920s, Guy Trouillard discovered two letters that forever rocked the world’s perception of Monsieur William Wordsworth, to whom the letters were addressed. Confiscated by the Terror’s Committee of Surveillance, the two letters were written during the height of the French Revolution by a French woman named Annette Vallon, who gave birth to Wordsworth’s illegitimate child.
“[When] the story came out…it rocked the British literary establishment, which I [Tipton] think never forgave the French for discovering these letters…[for] Wordsworth had by then become a Victorian icon,” writes James Tipton, author of the recent fictional autobiography of Annette Vallon, simply titled Annette Vallon. History all but forgot Annette Vallon until the two surviving letters (which hint at more, but those letters have either been destroyed or lost forever) fell into the hands of historians.
This mysterious woman suddenly brings new clarity to several of Wordsworth’s works, including the poem “Vaudracour and Julia,” the sad tale of two lovers who are parted in the end by death. Annette is now believed to be Julia and Wordsworth himself Vaudracour. One of Wordsworth’s most famous sonnets, “It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free,” alludes to his illegitimate child by Annette, Caroline. The line “Dear Child! dear Girl!” is attributed to Caroline.
A footnote at the bottom of this poem, which briefly mentions Wordsworth’s affair with Annette, led Tipton to write his novel about the young woman. “My teacher’s brief reference to this young poet in love in the midst of a revolution [the French Revolution] became the seed that grew into my novel twenty years later,” explains Tipton.
Fascinated by this unknown woman, Tipton makes her the central character of his novel, Annette Vallon, presented as an autobiography written by Annette herself in her old age. Weaving a tale of love and loss, Tipton breathes life into the untold story of William Wordsworth and his young love, Annette Vallon.
Written in a lyrical syntax, not unlike poetry itself, Tipton’s narrative opens with the tale of a young Annette, growing up in the lap of luxurious France. The young girl has her first lesson in love and loss at the tender age of adolescence, marking her for the rest of her life as a romantic.
Annette’s father dies while Annette is still in her teens, an event that starts the rift between Annette and her mother, who wishes to see her daughter married, not for love but for wealth. Instead, Annette never marries, but chooses to remain in her older sister Marguerite’s household as a tutor to her niece and nephew. Her one other love is riding her horse La Rouge through the lands of Blois, France.
One day at a ball, Annette is introduced to the “fair-haired stranger” from England by the patroness who whispers to Annette, “He doesn’t know anyone; his French is poor, and his clothes are worse.” Annette is given the task of entertaining the gentleman for the night, who, she learns, is named William Wordsworth.
They quickly bond over a shared interest in nature and the romanticism of words. By the end of the night, Annette is engaged as a French tutor to the Englishman. Over the next few weeks, the young duo become even more entranced, with Annette taking on the role as Wordsworth’s muse. The Englishman begins seeking her help with his poems, from translating to simply offering a critical ear.
Little is known about Wordsworth’s days spent in France, or about when he and Annette first meet, leaving Tipton plenty of room to spin a romantic tale of two people drawn to each other by a love of beauty and of words.
Wordsworth has come to England, so he claims, to become a tour guide for the Loire Valley. He is young and full of the vitality of youth and life. When the Revolution breaks out in Paris, Wordsworth heralds it as the triumph of an era where all men are equal. Annette, however, is more cautious about the sudden outbreak of violence. She seems to hold a deeper intelligence about the corruptible nature of man.
As the two lovers become closer than ever, even dreaming of a house of their own, the world around them crumbles apart. The Girondin Party, of which Wordsworth is a member, begin to quarrel with the more radical Jacobin Party. The result is the Reign of Terror.
The Jacobites twist the public into believing the Girondins (who helped start the Revolution) are, in fact, counter-revolutionaries, a crime punishable by death. Hundreds of Girondins are sent to the guillotine, while Wordsworth is forced to escape the same fate.
Annette chooses to remain in the country of her birth, even though she loves William above all others, and even though she now carries his child. She does, however, help Wordsworth escape to the coast, where he boards a boat heading back to England.
In one of the surviving letters from Annette to Wordsworth, Annette writes passionately, “Adieu, mon ami…Aime toujours ta petite fille et ton Annette qui t’embrasse mil fois sur la bouche, sur les yeux…Adieu, je t’aime pour la vie.” Goodbye my love…Always love your little daughter and your Annette, who kisses you a thousand times on the mouth, on the eyes…Goodbye, I love you for life.
Annette gave birth to a little girl on the fifteenth of December, 1792. She was baptized Anne Caroline Wordsworth, and was recognized by Wordsworth as his own daughter. Everyone called her Caroline. Annette became referred to as Madame Williams.
Annette retires to a small farm in the countryside which she and her faithful maidservant own and operate. There, the small family of three (including Caroline) live a peaceful life away from the violence that rocks Paris. Even in the country, however, Annette does not escape the Revolution.
Disturbed by the violent acts of the Reign of Terror, and angered by the condemnation of innocents, Annette allies herself with the Chouans, a rebel band that fights to free the people from the oppression of the Revolutionary government. Disguised as the Fearless Chouanne of Blois, as she becomes known, Annette helps save hundreds of lives from the guillotine’s blade.
Years later, a pension is signed by the king of France to reward one Annette Vallon for almost twenty-five years of service fighting against the evils of the Revolution. “The list of names signed to this petition reads like a who’s who of the restoration,” writes Tipton.
The French Revolution eventually absolved in 1815, and the monarchy was reinstated. Throughout that time, Annette never stopped loving William. The pair of lovers, however, never manage to form a family. Wordsworth reunites with his sister, Dorothy, while awaiting the end of the war. During this time, Dorothy introduces him to her friend Mary. William and Mary eventually marry, though whether it was for love is not said.
Wordsworth does meet with Annette one last time. In 1802, William makes the trip back to France with his sister, Dorothy. There, along the coast, he reunites with Annette and greets his daughter for the first time. Tipton makes the reunion a confessional, with William explaining to Annette why they can never be together, and eventually revealing his engagement to Mary.
Knowing they may never be together again, Annette and Wordsworth still manage to spend a happy month together by the sea. Both received something precious from their union, Wordsworth his poetry and Annette their daughter Caroline.
Since the novel is about Annette’s life rather then William’s, the ending chapters deal with Annette after the Revolution. They tell of how she is honored for her service, of how she sees her daughter Caroline married, and of how she and Wordsworth still kept in contact through the last years of their lives.
Annette never married, but chose to remain true to her belief that there is only one true love during a person’s lifetime.