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The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life

by Frances Wilson

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Described by the writer and opium addict Thomas De Quincey as "the very wildest . . . person I have ever known," DorothyWordsworth was neither the self-effacing spinster nor the sacrificial saint of common telling. A brilliant stylist in her own right, Dorothy was at the center of the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century. She was her brother William


Described by the writer and opium addict Thomas De Quincey as "the very wildest . . . person I have ever known," DorothyWordsworth was neither the self-effacing spinster nor the sacrificial saint of common telling. A brilliant stylist in her own right, Dorothy was at the center of the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century. She was her brother William Wordsworth's inspiration, aide, and most valued reader, and a friend to Coleridge; both borrowed from her observations of the world for their own poems.William wrote of her, "She gave me eyes, she gave me ears."

In order to remain at her brother's side, Dorothy sacrificed both marriage and comfort, jealously guarding their close-knit domesticity—one marked by a startling freedom from social convention. In the famed Grasmere Journals, Dorothy kept a record of this idyllic life together. The tale that unfolds through her brief, electric entries reveals an intense bond between brother and sister, culminating in Dorothy's dramatic collapse on the day of William's wedding to their childhood friend Mary Hutchinson. Dorothy lived out the rest of her years with her brother and Mary. The woman who strode the hills in all hours and all weathers would eventually retreat into the house for the last three decades of her life.

In this succinct, arresting biography, Frances Wilson reveals Dorothy in all her complexity. From the coiled tension of Dorothy's journals, she unleashes the rich emotional life of a woman determined to live on her own terms, and honors her impact on the key figures of Romanticism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Elegant . . . Ms. Wilson's decision to limit her scope was a small bit of genius. She's written a succinct yet roomy book, one that moves along with novelistic buoyancy and grace. She gets the facts-to-fancy ratio, always a difficult one for a biographer to weigh, exactly right. She lays out the essentials of Dorothy Wordsworth's life like a well-orchestrated banquet, leaving no doubt that the resonating years 1800-3 are the bravura main course . . . In The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, Ms. Wilson strides purposefully through Wordsworth's intoxicating life, quibbling when needed with earlier biographers, poking into every bit of tangled brush, triangulating her subject's life through the work of many other writers, some of them contemporary. The range of this biographer's references is wide, and wickedly inclusive. One chapter begins with a quotation from the political-punk band Gang of Four: 'This heaven gives me migraine.' This book, its own kind of heaven, gave me quite the opposite.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Entertaining and sometimes ingenious . . . Wilson . . . makes a strong case for taking a fresh look at Dorothy Wordsworth . . . [She] dives deep and headlong into the journals, applying various modern psychological and medical hypotheses. She comes up with some fascinating insights.” —Jamie James, Los Angeles Times

“Sensitive and elegantly written.” —Publishers Weekly

“Frances Wilson's gifts as a textual critic, and her flair for dramatic storytelling, have delivered a new and potent Dorothy Wordsworth for the 21st century. In its precision and subtlety, her book has the power of a great portrait miniature.” —Mark Bostridge, The Independent on Sunday

“[Wilson] is not always respectful, but she is always interesting . . . This gripping narrative presents a character more subtle than the devoted, self-effacing amanuensis of tradition, or the later feminist stereotype.” —Margaret Drabble, The Times Literary Supplement

“An elegant, psychologically astute and original book.” —Virginia Rounding, The Observer

“[A] fine biography . . . Eloquent in her revelation of Dorothy's tormented private self, Wilson is equally sensitive and astute in her reading of the journals.” —Miranda Seymour, The Times (London)

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth doesn't disappoint . . . She writes with a definite sense of astonishment, but controls it with calm scholarly interest and a prevailing mood of humane tolerance. The combination is deeply attractive and original.” —Andrew Motion, The Guardian

“Beautifully written, at times combative, and displaying a formidable knowledge of literature . . . Dorothy emerges as a fascinating woman--neither a handmaiden nor a victim but a talented and broken human being.” —Richard King, The Sydney Morning Herald

“[An] enjoyable and original book . . . Frances Wilson sensitively analyses this intense relationship, and provides a cleverly structured commentary on the journal as a whole . . . Wilson is a good scholar and her judgment is sound; moreover, she is not afraid to use her imagination to carefully explore what cannot be verified.” —Adam Sisman, The Irish Times

“Sympathetic . . . Informed by delicacy and common sense . . . The writing is often lovely, and there are many moving, observant collations between the journal entries and William's poems.” —Ann Wroe, The Daily Telegraph

“This searing portrait of Dorothy Wordsworth draws on her celebrated journals but refracts them through a distinctly now sensibility. This is not the Dorothy so movingly addressed at the conclusion of her brother's magnum opus ‘Tintern Abbey.' Nor is this the self-effacing sororal companion of the poet's youth, and helpmeet and support of his sedate later life. Here, she is at the center of a nest of incest, anorexia, and destructive passions reminiscent of Wuthering heights (indeed, Wilson speculates that Emily Brontë based Heathcliff and Cathy on her understanding of the relationship between the Wordsworth siblings). For all the author's aggressively contemporary psychological perspectives, Wilson has produced a deeply insightful, disturbing correcting to the conventional understanding of the angel of Dove Cottage.” —The Atlantic Monthly

“Graceful, perceptive and poignant.” —Kirkus Reviews

Dwight Garner
[Ms. Wilson's] written a succinct yet roomy book, one that moves along with novelistic buoyancy and grace. She gets the facts-to-fancy ratio, always a difficult one for a biographer to weigh, exactly right. She lays out the essentials of Dorothy Wordsworth's life like a well-orchestrated banquet, leaving no doubt that the resonating years 1800-3 are the bravura main course.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

This sensitive and elegantly written life of Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855), sister of the poet William Wordsworth, centers on four small notebooks, her so-called Grasmere Journals. These journals reveal how William functioned as Dorothy's male muse and how she, more traditionally, was his. What is most untraditional, and certainly peculiar, is the not-quite-stated true relationship between brother and sister. Commentators and biographers describe Dorothy Wordsworth as having virtually no inner life, existing solely for and through her brother. Yet, Wilson relates, the opium-eater De Quincey found her a most sensuous creature; she was a big part of William's friendship with Coleridge as well. First teasing out Dorothy's truly rich interior life through careful examination of the journals and other writings, Wilson (Literary Seductions) then uncovers the nature of Dorothy's emotional connections to William, his work, his wife and even the French mistress he had as a younger man. Most controversial in the Grasmere Journals are several blotted lines regarding William's wedding ring-which Dorothy wore to sleep the night before the wedding. These lines, as well as Dorothy's visionary tendencies, her migraines and trances, almost of an epileptic nature, and a long depressive decline are scrupulously analyzed. 31 illus. (Feb. 24)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Wilson continues her examination of the fraught terrain where sex and literature meet (Literary Seductions, 2000, etc.) in a bleak biography of the celebrated poet's unmarried sister. Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855) shared the home, the vision, the language, the life and-at least upon occasion, it seems-the bed of her brother William (1770-1850), devoting herself to his art and comfort. Wilson begins with one of the oddest moments in literary history, the morning of William's 1802 marriage, when he went into his sister's bedroom to retrieve the wedding ring she had worn all night. The author will return to this incident from a new perspective in the final pages, but initially she moves back to proceed in fairly chronological fashion, quoting liberally from the principals' papers and commenting on the Wordsworths' relationship with others, principally Samuel Taylor Coleridge. (Wilson sees an almost psychic connection between Coleridge and Dorothy, both of whom William in a sense betrayed.) The text focuses largely on Dorothy's Grasmere Journals, kept during her sojourn in the Lake Country with William from 1800 to 1803, which Wilson judges as evidence that the poet's sister was "one of our finest nature writers." William's marriage to Mary Hutchinson was traumatic, but Dorothy honeymooned with the couple and lived with them for the rest of her days, which were darkened from the 1830s on by mental illness. Wilson veers occasionally into uncertain terrain. Though it might be wiser to eschew contemporary medical and psychological analyses of 200-year-old somatic illnesses and relationships, the undaunted author quotes Oliver Sacks on migraines and diagnoses elderly Dorothy with "depressivepseudodementia." Wilson frequently summarizes the research of others, then declares it inadequate, wrong, biased. Scholars will find it difficult to locate documentation for such assertions or simply to check contexts for quotations: The author provides no endnotes, just an appended "bibliographic essay." Still, much of her well-researched text is graceful, perceptive and poignant. An often lyrical ballad with some superfluous, unmelodious stanzas.

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth

A Life

By Frances Wilson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2008 Frances Wilson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5925-4



"My life is dreary,
He cometh not," she said.


What voice console the incessant sigh,
And everlasting longings for the lost?

— JOHN LOGAN, "Ode: Written in a Visit to the
Country in Autumn"

The soul of Romanticism was longing without goal
and boundary and object.

— FRITZ STRICH, Deutsche Klassik und Romantik

She is sitting on a stone when we first meet her, by the shore of Windermere. Dorothy and William have been living together in Grasmere since Christmastime 1799, five days before her twenty-eighth birthday. It is now an early afternoon in late spring, and Dorothy is crying. William and their younger brother John, who has been with them for four of the five months they have been at Dove Cottage, have set off over the Yorkshire Dales to Gallow Hill near Scarborough, in order to see Mary Hutchinson, leaving Dorothy alone in a house for the first time in her life. She does not say why she is not included on this visit to her friend, but it is almost certainly because William has decided to marry Mary. Dorothy and William, who share everything together, have agreed that this visit is something William has to do without her. It is from William and not John that Dorothy cannot bear to part, and it is with William's name that the Grasmere Journals begin:

May 14th 1800. Wm & John set off into Yorkshire after dinner at 1/2 past 2 o'clock — cold pork in their pockets. I left them at the turning of the Low-wood bay under the trees. My heart was so full that I could hardly speak to W when I gave him a farewell kiss. I sate a long time upon a stone at the margin of the lake, & after a flood of tears my heart was easier. The lake looked to me I knew not why dull & melancholy, the weltering on the shores seemed a heavy sound.

Dorothy Wordsworth documents things rather than thoughts, but one of the hallmarks of her Grasmere Journals is the way in which, by blending factual accuracy with emotion, she gives new shapes to subjects and scenes. The world she draws, with Dove Cottage and its environs at the center and all that is out of her vision peripheral, is defined by edges and boundaries, separations, spaces, and oppositions. Dorothy's walks are all in the vale that encloses her home; walking out of Grasmere, William is stepping over the circumference. In his poem Home at Grasmere, Wordsworth describes "our dear vale" as a place that "received us ... with a passionate welcoming," that "loves us now." Wrapping him up and folding him in, their valley is the perfect mother: "I feel your guardianship; I take it to my arms." This afternoon the vale is enclosing neither of them. The lake, which Dorothy loves, is now distant and comfortless, dull & melancholy, the weltering on the shores seemed a heavy sound. She weighs and measures her condition: her heart is full, she cries until it is lighter; her brothers are together, she is apart from them; they are walking, she is still; she leaves them under the trees, she sits upon a stone. Dorothy initially wrote that she sat upon a stone at "the foot of the lake" before changing "foot" to "margin," which gets in more her sense of frames, limits, borders. It is William who provides the contours of her life.

Her writing is praised for its simplicity and transparency, for being unaware of its own effects, but what is striking in the opening scene of the Grasmere Journals is how self-conscious Dorothy is. She appears, badger-like, when no one is looking; Dorothy is most vivid when William is not there. Her mind, as the critic William Hazlitt said of Wordsworth's, is assumed to be the reverse of the dramatic, but there is a great deal of drama in the way Dorothy sets the stage. She reviews her actions, surveys her own image, picturing herself to herself, envisaging what she looks like as she weeps by the lake at half past two, as though she were checking in the glass — as women often do — the effect of tears on her face. But at the same time as being conscious of the impression she makes, Dorothy is curiously egoless; the cold pork in William's and John's pockets has a more solid identity than she does. It is as if she were simply a path down the hillside, a channel through which perceptions pass, like streams.

John's absence is of no emotional consequence to her, even though Dorothy had not seen him for nearly eight years and he has been at Dove Cottage for almost the same amount of time as she and William have themselves. At sea with the East India Company from 1790, John was a sailor without a home on land. He considered himself a burden on other people: when he arrived at Dove Cottage in January, he was so overcome by shyness that he twice turned back from the front door, eventually sending a message from the local inn to tell his siblings he was there. Once united with Dorothy and William, he paced the slate floor of their cottage "exulting ... that his Father's Children had once again a home together." John, ever practical and keen to earn his keep, helped in the house and garden and suited, in his temperament, Dorothy and William entirely. He was, they thought, a "silent poet." It was John, wrote Dorothy, who "was continually pointing out something which perhaps would have escaped our observation, for he had so fine an eye that no distinction was unnoticed by him." Herein lies another of the oddities of Dorothy's journal: not only does John, so harmonious a companion, go unmentioned, but for all her accounts of the life she shared with William as a couple, the two of them are almost never alone during the time she covers. In 1827 Dorothy would remember 1800 as the year in which they were isolated from the rest of the world. "W and I quite alone this evening as 27 years ago," she wrote in the journal she then kept. But throughout that year the tiny cottage had been filled to bursting point, with Mary Hutchinson arriving for a five-week stay the month after John's arrival and Coleridge appearing in April for four further weeks, returning with his wife and young child for another month at the end of June. Dorothy no doubt had to give the camp bed she slept in to the Coleridges and move into John's room, leaving John to double up with William. Because Coleridge arrived more unwell that June than he had been since a boy, making him bed-bound for two weeks, with William unwell himself, and with Sarah Coleridge and Dorothy not in sympathy with one another, the house would have seemed smaller still.

Then barely had Mary left before William was off seeing her again, at her brother's new farm in Gallow Hill, and this time without Dorothy. In mourning the loss of her life alone with William, Dorothy is mourning the loss of something she has never, except for their melancholic months in Goslar, really had.

* * *

Having poured out her grief on the shores of the lake, Dorothy sets off home. As she begins her five-mile journey back to the cottage, she does as she always does when she fades into melancholy: she looks and she lists. Looking, she reconnects, bit by bit, detail by detail, with outward things, and she and the world come back into color. She is in a micro-realm, a detective searching for clues. Listing, she itemizes her surroundings as if ticking off an inventory. As they do for Hamlet's Ophelia, flowers symbolize her sorrow:

I walked as long as I could amongst the stones of the shore. The wood rich in flowers. A beautiful yellow, palish yellow flower, that looked thick round & double, & smelt very sweet — I supposed it was a ranunculus — Crowfoot, the grassy-leaved Rabbit-toothed white flower, strawberries, Geranium — scentless violet, anemones two kinds, orchises, primroses. The heckberry very beautiful as a low shrub.

It is now that she determines to keep a journal until William's return: I set about keeping my resolve because I will not quarrel with myself, & because I shall give Wm Pleasure by it when he comes home again. Dorothy begins her journal when she fears the loss of her brother; her writing will serve as a reminder to him of what it is he values in her most — the purity of her observations, the richness of her sensibility, her alertness to "the sudden charm," as Coleridge put it, of light and shade on familiar things — and a reminder of how abandoned she feels when he is with Mary. Keeping a journal about the emptiness of their home without him, Dorothy conveys more than a hint of accusation in its origins. It seems that Dorothy is hoping to give William something rather more complicated than pleasure.

At nine o'clock that night, her face flame colored from the fire and her head dully aching from the strain of the day, she takes out a small mottled-brown notebook. It has been used before, during the freezing winter she and William spent in Goslar two years earlier, but six pages have been cut from the front and five from the back. She has already written inside the front cover, listing the clothes she would take to Germany (shirts, nightcaps, and handkerchiefs) and the groceries she bought there (bread, milk, sugar, rum). On the back cover is a doodled drawing, the size of one of Thomas Bewick's thumbnail illustrations, of two churches, one with a cemetery attached. Also already contained at the back of the book are five verses from Wordsworth's "Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman" and epigrams taken from the life of the American scientist and inventor of the lightning rod, Benjamin Franklin, who lived with his wife, Dorothy recorded, "together with reciprocal affection for fifty nine years / And without private fortune." It is in keeping with her character that she noted this down; Dorothy is a keen reader of biography, and Franklin provides a model of the life she and William want to lead: industrious, frugal, dedicated to work. In small, neat writing she pens her first line: May 14th 1800. Wm & John set off into Yorkshire, followed by some amens to test the nib of her quill. The Grasmere Journals have begun.

Many diarists write to make the bits and pieces of their daily selves seem continuous, but Dorothy appears among the flotsam and jetsam of her non sequiturs as episodic, fractured, and forensic. The first entry of her journal continues:

Arrived at home with a bad head-ach, set some slips of privet. This evening cold had a fire — my face now flame-coloured. It is nine o'clock, I shall soon go to bed. A young woman begged at the door — she had come from Manchester on Sunday morn with two shillings & a slip of paper which she supposed a Bank note — it was a cheat. She had buried her husband & three children within a year & a half — all in one grave — burying very dear — paupers all put in one place — 20 shillings paid for as much ground as will bury a man — a gravestone to be put over it or the right will be lost — 1 1/6 each time the ground is opened. Oh! That I had a letter from William!

It is the fragmented style and its incompletion as well as the story it tells of the self as a perceiving subject that makes Dorothy's journal so identifiably Romantic, if we understand Romanticism at least in part to be, as the German poet Friedrich Schlegel said, an art that is eternally in the "process of becoming" and "can never be completed."

She meant it to seal her brother closer to her, but also to seal together her own discordant sides: because I will not quarrel with myself is the first reason Dorothy gives for starting a journal, and something of what she means by this striking phrase becomes more apparent as the months roll by. Perhaps this is what De Quincey called the distressing "self-conflict" that he felt resulted from the friction between her "excessive organic sensibility" and the demand for a certain "decorum of her sex and age." If writing for Dorothy is a way of avoiding conflict, she suggests that it is also a way of outwitting her demon: she sees writing as a pacifying, unifying activity that she hopes will bring the two sides of herself into harmony. As such, she makes it clear that she does not regard herself to be a writer in the way that her brother is a writer. Self-conflict was for him the basis of poetry, the battle between pain and pleasure making up the very stuff of Wordsworth's creativity, not least because writing, particularly rewriting, made him ill. The need to shed himself of words as a snake sheds its skin was his vocation. Wordsworth would never have turned to writing by way of avoiding self-conflict: it was there, on the page, that his self-conflict began.

Dorothy's unambitious approach to her journal is vital in understanding the kind of person she was: living among the most brilliant poets of the age, she saw that for Wordsworth and Coleridge their craft consisted in the pursuit of endlessness, of infinite complexity, that they found no security in the words by which they were tormented and struck down. She realized the full implications of becoming a writer and did not set out to achieve anything so vertiginous. "I should detest the idea of setting myself up as an author," she wrote to a friend. Instead, when she begins her journal, she identifies herself with the grieving woman who comes begging at the cottage door, whose entire family has been lost to her in a matter of a year and a half. Wishing, only seven hours after he leaves to see his future wife, that she could have a letter from William, Dorothy instead begins a letter to him. Recording the visit of the bereaved pauper is one of the ways by which she communicates her fears for her immediate future. Dorothy's record of the widow's visit also tells her brother something of her present state of mind: with the loss of him, she loses everything.

So far unmentioned in her journal is Mary Hutchinson, the reason behind the project's origin. Dorothy's prose is weighed down by what goes unsaid.

* * *

The Grasmere Journals were born of longing. Dorothy Wordsworth's theme, if journals can be said to have themes, is loss, which has also been, so far, the story of her life. She was first separated from William following the sudden death of their mother, Anne, in 1778. Dorothy was six, "a little Prattler among men"; William was seven, and they were playmates. It was apparently Anne Wordsworth's dying wish that her third child and only daughter be taken from home and raised by her second cousin Elizabeth Threlkeld in the Yorkshire town of Halifax. The four Wordsworth sons, Richard, William, John, and Christopher, stayed behind in the Cumberland market town of Cockermouth, but as they became old enough, they went off to boarding school at Hawkshead, in the heart of the Lake District.

The Wordsworths were genteel; John Wordsworth, the father Dorothy hardly knew, was an attorney to Lord Lowther, and the redbrick house she left, in which she was born on Christmas Day 1771, is still the grandest in Cockermouth. Situated on the main street, it is fronted by stone steps and a portico, with a terrace behind that overlooks the river Derwent. The place remained, in Dorothy's adult memory, "a spot which I remember as vividly as if I had been there just the other day." Anne Wordsworth read her children the tales of Robin Hood and Jack the Giant Killer, and sent them to play in fields of yellow ragwort. Her death was a devastation that determined the rest of Dorothy's life. She did not return to Cockermouth, not even for Christmas, which was also the time of her birthday. "I was never once at home," she recalled on her thirty-fourth birthday, "was never for a single moment under my father's roof after her death, which I cannot think of without regret." John Wordsworth's rejection of his daughter she never understood. "We at the same moment lost a father, a mother, a home," Dorothy later wrote to her childhood friend Jane Pollard. But Dorothy's brothers did not, initially, lose a father or a home. It was only Dorothy, as Wordsworth later wrote of his mother, who "lost a home in losing thee." Along with the loss of their mother the boys lost only a sister, but what was lost by Dorothy was a part of herself.


Excerpted from The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson. Copyright © 2008 Frances Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Frances Wilson is the author of Literary Seductions: Compulsive Writers and Diverted Readers and The Courtesan's Revenge: Harriette Wilson, the Woman Who Blackmailed the King. She lives in London with her daughter.

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