Wordsworth’s Anglo-French Pamphlet: Public Argument and Private Confession in “A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff”
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Wordsworth’s first substantial composition on returning from France in December 1792 was his “Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff,” an intended contribution to the British pamphlet war in which he declares himself to be a Republican, an egalitarian and a defender of regicide. Wordsworth adopts a Painite stance and prose style, continuing the polemic against Burke and confronting Richard Watson, the Bishop of Llandaff, with the betrayal of his former liberal values. Yet he also brings to bear first-hand knowledge of revolutionary France, citing Watson’s French counterpart, Abbé Grégoire, the revolutionary Bishop of Blois, and the Breton peasant-politician Michel Gérard (‘Père Gérard’), another iconic figure of the Revolution, who may have been some kind of role model for Wordsworth. He includes, too, as a comment on “the present period,” two striking quotations from Racine’s Athalie, a tragedy about king-killing, royal succession and a concealed child. Analysing these references and Wordsworth’s public self-fashioning as a French revolutionary eyewitness entering the fray of British political debate, this article also uncovers coded allusions to Wordsworth’s scandalous personal life. Left unfinished and unpublished, Wordsworth’s outspoken “Letter” reveals the ultra-radical political views that were one (temporary) legacy of his French experience but it also holds clues about his inner state of mind as he resumed his English life separated, seemingly by his own volition, from his French mistress Annette Vallon and their new-born love-child. By examining its polemical tactics, its strategic use of Anglo-French comparison and its interweaving of public and private codes, the article shows that the “Letter” is a more significant and revealing document than has previously been recognised.