Wordsworth and the French Revolution

by Sinead Fitzgibbon
On the right bank of the Seine, just a stone’s throw away from the Palais Royal, the Paris Opéra and the Musée de Louvre in the French capital’s second arrondissement, lies a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it passageway. Despite being so close to these popular Parisian tourist attractions, the Passage des Petits-Pères boasts little to attract the attention of even the most intrepid of travellers. In the late 18th century, however, this little thoroughfare was significantly larger (a portion has since been swallowed up by the re-development of an adjacent street), and was home to both the Hôtel des Etats-Unis and the Hôtel d’Angleterre. As such it was a destination of choice for members of both the American and British ex-pat communities, most notably the group of radical Anglo-American exiles who called themselves ‘The Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man’.

The first recorded meeting of this Society (which was later, somewhat misleadingly, called the British Club) took place at the Hôtel d’Angleterre, also known as White’s Hotel, on 18 November 1792, a Sunday. This ‘meeting’ was in fact a banquet to celebrate the establishment of the first French Republic and the advancement, as they saw it, of the Romantic ideals of democracy, human rights, and equality. In attendance were about one hundred British and American intellectuals including such progressive thinkers as Thomas Paine, author of the seminal Rights of Man; radical publisher, John Hurford Stone; the Welsh philosopher and polemicist David Williams; the poet and novelist, Helen Maria Williams; and the Irish aristocrat and revolutionary, Lord Edward Fitzgerald.

Another possible attendee that night was a young William Wordsworth. While definitive proof of his presence at the meeting remains frustratingly elusive, we do know that the twenty-three-year-old, having already resided in France for a year, was in Paris at the time. He was also armed with a letter of introduction to Helen Maria Williams, which had been furnished by Charlotte Smith, a novelist acquaintance of the Wordsworth family. Further adding to the conceivability of his attendance is the fact that the young man’s interest in revolutionary politics had already been piqued: during his stay in London from January to May 1791 he would have undoubtedly been cognizant of the heated parliamentary debates on the situation in France, while in The Prelude he recalls having ‘sometimes read / with care the master pamphlets of the day’ by the likes of Paine and Edmund Burke. His subsequent acquaintance with Captain Michel de Beaupuy, who was a rarity in late 18th century France being as he was an aristocrat and an ardent supporter of the Revolution, further influenced Wordsworth’s nascent political beliefs – it is thought that Beaupuy was the person who ultimately converted Wordsworth to the Jacobin cause.

However, unlike many other ex-pat intellectuals in Paris at the time and most of the guests at White’s Hotel on that November evening in 1792, a desire to witness revolution in action was not solely what had initially drawn Wordsworth to France. The reality was much more prosaic: having graduated from Cambridge in 1791 with an undistinguished pass degree (through idleness and a contempt for organised education rather than from any intellectual inadequacies), and after a year of mooching around Britain doing not very much, Wordsworth decided to travel to France ostensibly ‘Led thither chiefly by a personal wish / To speak the language more familiarly’. This, though, was a smokescreen; his real intention, when he sailed across the English Channel on 26 November 1791 was simply to escape the suffocating expectations placed on him by his guardians, who wished him to enter either the legal profession or ‘a paltry curacy’ in the Church.

Landing in Dieppe, the young traveller first made his way to Paris, where he stayed for some five days. During this time he did the rounds of the usual tourist sites, visiting Montmartre, Notre Dame, the Pantéon, and the fallen Bastille where he “sat in the open sun / And from the rubbish gathered up a stone / And pocketed the relic, in the guise / Of an enthusiast”. He also met with compatriot James Watt who introduced him both to the Jacobin Club, of which Watt was a member, and the National Assembly. Although he later declared that “In both her clamorous halls / The National Synod and the Jacobins / I saw the Revolutionary Power / Toss like a ship at anchor”, it is unlikely that Wordsworth would have been able to follow proceedings very closely given his then-limited grasp of the French language.

Leaving Paris, the young man then made a fateful journey south to Orléans. It was here, presumably not very long after his arrival on December 6 1791, that Wordsworth met Marie Anne Vallon. Whether the poet’s relationship with Marie Anne (known as Annette) was really the grand passion it has often been claimed to have been is debatable. Certainly, Annette’s surviving letters prove that she was quite infatuated with him, initially at least, but we can’t say for certain that this intensity of feeling was reciprocated by Wordsworth (perhaps tellingly, there is no direct reference to her in The Prelude). Nevertheless, one fact remains immutable; barely two months after their initial meeting, Annette was carrying Wordsworth’s child.

During the early stages of Annette’s pregnancy, the parents-to-be travelled to the smaller town of Blois, presumably to escape the unwanted attention (and perhaps the censure) that a pregnancy out of wedlock might have attracted. It was here that Wordsworth met Beaupuy, a man who was ranked by birth “With the most noble, but unto the poor / Among mankind he was in service bound … Man he loved / As man”. Quickly becoming close, the pair spent time at the local revolutionary club and habitually took long walks together in the countryside along the banks of the Loire. It was during one of these rambles that the men happened upon a starving young girl, and Beaupuy’s response to the sight was, for Wordsworth, both hugely admirable and intensely inspiring: “My friend in agitation cried, ‘Tis against that/ That we are fighting”. Now completely converted to the anti-monarchist cause, the young Englishman hoped that the outcome of the French Revolution “Should see the people having a strong hand / In framing their own laws; whence better days / To all mankind.” Having entered into this “noisier world”, he “thus ere long became a patriot.”

Revolutionary politics and the abstract predicament of the rural poor were not, however, Wordsworth’s only concerns at this time. With Annette’s pregnancy rapidly coming to term, the indolent traveller was forced to confront his own impoverished circumstances. The prospect of having to support two dependents was weighing heavily on him, and he was left with little choice but to make his way back to England in order, finally, to pick up some gainful employment. And so, with Annette safely back in Orléans, Wordsworth made his way back to England via Paris.

At almost six weeks, his second stay in Paris – which coincided with the meeting at White’s Hotel – was significantly longer than the first. This time, though, he encountered a very different atmosphere. The Bourbon monarchy had fallen in August, amid a violent attack on the Tuileries Palace while the September Massacres – an ominous presentiment of the atrocities to come – had thrown the National Convention into turmoil. But while these ugly eruptions of violence, which sullied the high-flown Romantic ideals of many of the Revolution’s foreign supporters, worried and sometimes frightened Wordsworth, they did little to dampen his enthusiasm for the republican movement.

Once in England however, with the outbreak of war between Britain and France making it impossible to return to, or even communicate with, Annette and his new-born daughter Caroline, Wordsworth began to waver. Initially, he found himself at odds with the public mood in his home country – his political affiliations and emotional loyalty were still very much with France. Indeed, in his Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, written in early 1793, he is as defiant in his defence of the Revolution as ever. But the advent of Robespierre’s reign of terror in the autumn of 1793 horrified him, and as the utopian ideals of liberté, egalité et fraternité drowned in a sea of blood, Wordsworth, like many of his contemporaries, became profoundly disillusioned. He saw in Robespierre the destruction of the Revolution, but still, when the bloodthirsty Jacobin was himself shaved by Madame Guillotine, Wordsworth still hoped “for golden times”.

But golden times were not forthcoming. The advent of the Napoleonic era precipitated a radical change in Wordsworth’s political views, as he became increasingly conservative in his outlook. At the beginning of his French adventures, Wordsworth declared “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!” By 1794, he was saying in a letter to a friend “I am of that odious class of men called democrats” while in another he baldly stated “I recoil from the bare idea of a revolution…” By 1811, in View From the Top of the Black Comb, he was likening Napoleon to Milton’s Satan. Not content simply to distance himself from his early beliefs, Wordsworth in later life actively renounced them. In an echo of his doomed relationship with Annette, whom he met just twice more in 1803 and 1820, William Wordsworth had fallen out of love with France and all that she represented. It was a remarkable turnaround, by anyone’s standards.

As is often the case with such things, it can be argued that two competing narratives have grown up around the events in France at the end of the 18th century – there is the myth and there is the reality. The second generation of Romantic poets, including Byron and Shelley, were greatly inspired by the utopian ideals of the early Revolution, without giving sufficient weight to the destruction and horror which followed. It was easy for them to embrace a selective, almost mythical, version of events twenty years after the fact. Not so for Wordsworth; for him, the French Revolution was reality, and a painful reality at that. In renouncing all the beliefs he had once held dear, he was perhaps the most honest of them all.

(All quotes from The Prelude 1805 unless otherwise stated.)

Sinéad Fitzgibbon is the author of five titles for the popular History In An Hour series, including Shakespeare, Titantic, and JFK.  She has also embarked on a series of city histories – A Short History of London is out now, while A Short History of Dublin is due in April.