The analogy between biography and portraiture is such a commonplace that we scarcely notice its metaphoric complications. "A wholly new portrait," proclaims Stephen Parrish of The Hidden Wordsworth, "fleshed out, humanized, and very compelling." "Looking at Wordsworth's earliest portraits," begins Kenneth Johnston's first sentence; his biography, he tells us, "is a portrait in words that attempts to restore the fire to Wordsworth's eyes." From its dust jacket, title page, and half-titles the heavy-lidded Wordsworth of the Edridge portrait looks out at us; even a likely spurious portrait, possibly resembling the one William Hazlitt may have destroyed, is carefully considered, speculated about, and set aside.
Johnston's work, however, is far different from the portraiture we usually find in literary biographies. Most biographies resemble portraits in this respect: they focus on their subjects exclusively, reducing to shadows friends, relatives, and influential contemporaries, and barely sketching in the social milieu which they inhabited. The Hidden Wordsworth, however, more closely resembles a Flemish landscape: its scope is very broad, and it is filled with figures, all of them minutely articulated and in motion. Johnston has written what amounts to a social history of England in the last two decades of the eighteenth century, and in its midst, one can trace the frequently obscure narrative of Wordsworth's life, its dark places made more visible than ever before by Johnston's strenuous effort to integrate one man's life with what used to be called "his times." Lacking hard evidence for much of Wordsworth's doings (largely because of the Wordsworths' systematic attempts to hide them), Johnston speculates, argues from probability and by analogy, and relentlessly mines passages from poems, notebooks, account books, and government records for what they can yield about the poet. One can argue with Johnston's conclusions and disagree about the nature of his evidence. But one cannot dispute one thing: this is the most important study of Wordsworth of our time, and will shape the course of Wordsworthian studies for the next half-century.
Johnston fleshes out his portrait by investigating Wordsworth's family, his sexuality (including the question of incest), his finances, and his political involvements more thoroughly and fearlessly than any of his other biographers. His argument is that the Wordsworth we know, the poet of calm tranquillity amidst the storms of Helvellyn (the poet, that is, of the great Haydon portrait, which never appears in Johnston's book), is the self-conscious creation of a man whose early life was anything but tranquil. And this means (as Stephen Gill has also argued) that Wordsworth's account of himself in The Prelude must be handled with care. "It is like one of those Renaissance paintings," remarks Johnston, "with the artist himself represented down in a lower corner, gesturing toward his subject. Except that, in this case, the subject turns out to be ... the subject himself." (p. 13) To break through all this self-fashioning, Johnston adopts a simple "rule of thumb ... : when there's a choice of possibilities, investigate the riskier one." (p. 9) Such a procedure is bound to create controversy.
Johnston's most controversial argument, as all RoN readers are by now aware, is that Wordsworth was a paid government agent during his trip to Germany in 1798-99. The argument rests on an entry in the Duke of Portland's account book, recently acquired by the Wordsworth Library, indicating a payment of nearly £100 to a "Mr. Wordsworth;" on the same page, payments to several known spies are also entered. This is slender evidence, as Johnston well knows, but taken together with other events (in particular, Wordsworth's mysterious association with a known French double agent), it suggests that when Wordsworth went abroad, he was not draft-dodging (as E. P. Thompson suggested thirty years ago), but engaged in some form of espionage. How probable is this argument? As Stephen Gill has already written in the TLS, it will stand or fall on what we subsequently learn about the Duke of Portland's accounts, something that will take time and scholarly effort. Even so, Johnston's position has, in my view, real credibility, though perhaps not in the sensationalistic ways that some would like. For in 1798, Wordsworth was short on money, long on radical acquaintances, and engaged in regular correspondence with France. In a word, he was vulnerable. Would it be so surprising if the Foreign Office might have singled him out, either to be an informant or a courier, or just to let someone know what he saw? Is it any less surprising than what many idealistic American Peace Corps volunteers discovered, to their dismay, in the 60's and 70's?
But ultimately this book will not stand or fall on arguments about espionage, incest, The Philanthropist, or a secret return to France, however good copy such things make for advertisers and literary journalists. It is too good a book for that. What makes it good is Johnston's remarkable skill in reading this man's poetry. Wordsworth, he maintains, possessed "remarkably low powers of invention" (p. 8); he almost never made anything up. Consequently, there exists in his poetry a rich reciprocal relationship between historical and biographical data, on the one hand, and the details of his verse, on the other. This, of course, is not news to Wordsworth scholars. But Johnston's use of facts and source material to illumine the verse, and then his use of the verse to provide further facts about Wordsworth's life, is astonishingly new, and more often than not, convincing. His reading of "Vaudracour and Julia" can be taken as exemplary. The known facts of Wordsworth's affair with Annette Vallon are carefully accounted for, the different versions of the poem (initially part of The Prelude and later substantially revised and made an independent work) are compared with each other, and the chief literary source for the poem, Helen Maria Williams's Letters from France, is also brought into play. Johnston uses factual data to explain peculiarities in the poem, shows how, in later revisions, Wordsworth progressively disguised factual details, usually by substituting vague generalizations for what was originally quite specific, and he points out clear differences between the poem and its literary source. These differences, according to Johnston, provide further clues about Wordsworth's life: where Wordsworth departed from a literary source, he drew directly from his own experience. And Johnston then presents further evidence to corroborate this hypothesis. History, biography, and literary art are inextricably bound together, and must be so, for anything like coherent meaning to emerge. Johnston repeats this procedure time after time, with passage after passage of Wordsworth's poetry. Evidence from a wide variety of sources is laid out for us clearly, with the dispassionate detachment of a legal brief, a number of possible interpretations are set forth, and while always offering his own preference, Johnston gives his reader space to disagree and dispute, and take up the argument in another forum. Even where his specific conclusions are not wholly convincing, he has defined the procedures by which future Romantic criticism must be carried out.
There are a number of inconsistencies and inaccuracies, as one would expect in the first printing of a 900-page scholarly book. One would think, for instance, that a biographer would have his subject's birthday firmly to hand, but Johnston gives it as April 23, "Shakespeare's day and England's," the date of Wordsworth's death (p. 779). It was the Lower Falls at Rydal for which the le Flemings built the viewing house, not the Upper Falls, as Johnston states (p. 688); the house still stands, though now it has been converted into an oratory (a hermitage?) by the Diocese of Carlisle, which operates Rydal Hall as a conference center. Johnston's account of the career of James Beattie contains several errors: first, he is called Thomas Percy's "countryman" (that is, English instead of Scottish), then he is said to have had only a grammar school education (he attended Marischal College, Aberdeen, where he studied under Thomas Blackwell, the most accomplished Homeric scholar of his time, and received an M.A.), and the fact that Beattie later assumed the chair of moral philosophy at Marischal College is omitted (pp. 84-88). Gilbert Wakefield, a hobby of mine, is said to have been Malthus's tutor, and the context clearly suggests that the tutoring took place at Jesus College, Cambridge (p. 117). In fact, Wakefield was classical tutor at Warrington Academy, and it was there that Malthus studied with him, just before the demise of that institution. Johnston twice gives the wrong date for Richard Price's anniversary sermon (or "Discourse," as Price called it)—1789, on the anniversary of the Glorious Revolution, not 1791—(pp. 177, 242), he misdates the composition of The Waggoner (p. 836), and he calls Anna Aikin "Lucy" (p. 79) and Robert Tyrwhitt "William" (p. 179). Somewhat more serious are his references to the recently-published Cornell edition of Wordsworth's Early Poems and Fragments, edited by Carol Landon and Jared Curtis. Johnston did not have access to the published volume, nor was he apparently able to consult the latest pre-print version of the manuscript transcriptions. As a result, his transcriptions often do not reflect the Landon-Curtis edition accurately (the errors are usually quite minor), and his references to their edition are always several pages off. These are errors that can be easily corrected, and as this biography will surely go into further editions, one hopes that they will be.
At the very end of his magnificent work, Johnston muses about the title of Wordsworth's autobiographical poem:
There is no '-iad' suffix in English, to indicate topicality, like Iliad or Aeneid, the story or the 'matter' of Troy and Achilles, of Aeneas and Rome. Like them, The Prelude is a foundational epic, but it declares the independence of the human imagination: The Imagination-iad or Imagiad.... But the real subject is more specific, and can be roughly adapted to the old form of epic titles. It could be called The Wordsworthiad, or perhaps The Axiologiad, referring to the materia of the semirevolutionary Wordsworth and demirevolutionary England. More specifically, given its narrow range, it is not a general treatise on imagination but a long-withheld story of obscure self-creation: The Hidden Wordworth.p. 843
The paradox is bold yet apt: biographer and poet, poem and biography, are that deeply implicated in each other, and it will be essential, for many years to come, to read the one beside the other. Johnston's portrait is of the something that is not there, to reveal the something that is.