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The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth
The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth
Ordinarily presented as a self-effacing virgin or sacrificial saint, Dorothy Wordsworth was a talented writer and exceptional woman.
She was William Wordsworth's inspiration, aide and most valued reader and traded in a conventional life to share in his world of words. In her journals, Dorothy kept a record of their idyllic life together. The tale that unfolds through her brief, lyrical entries reveals a strange, intangible love between brother and sister, culminating in Dorothy's dramatic collapse on the day of William's wedding. In her beautifully told biography, Frances Wilson brings Dorothy to life in all her complexity. From the restrained prose of Dorothy's journals, she uncovers the rich emotional life of a woman who suffered the jealousies of a discarded mistress - and eventually insanity.
126mm x 195mm paperback
“On Monday, 4th October, my Brother William was married to Mary Hutchinson. . . . William had parted from me upstairs. I gave him the wedding ring – with how deep a blessing! I took it from my forefinger where I had worn it the whole of the night before – he slipped it again onto my finger & blessed me fervently.”
These words were written by Dorothy Wordsworth in her journal on the day of her brother’s marriage. She had worn her brother’s wedding ring throughout the night and he, symbolically, replaced it on her finger as though he were marrying his sister. Is this simply an act of brotherly love or does it suggest a more intense relationship?
Dorothy and William had been, and continued to be the closest of companions throughout their lives. Her mother had died when she was a small child and her father had sent her away immediately to live with distant relatives. She did not see her brother again till they were both grown up and from that time onwards they remained the very closest of companions.
Dorothy never married. Biographers have generally written of her as a background figure, someone of little personality overshadowed by the giant figures of her brother and of Coleridge and the other writers who surrounded her.
She was barely more than a servant or companion, someone who cared for Wordsworth and walked behind him on his long walks as he paced out his poetry, writing down the words that fell from his lips.
Her Journals show that she was a sensitive and meticulous observer of nature with a water-colourist’s sensitivity to the detail and character of the world about her. It was Dorothy who first wrote of the daffodils at Gowbarrow Park on Ullswater. She saw that the flowers among the mossy stones at the lakeside “tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind,” but it was William who took her words and shaped them into one of the most popular poems in the language.
And friends wrote of her as being wild and vivacious, a lively and intelligent woman who drew the admiration of Coleridge and caused the ever-excitable Thomas de Quincy to call her “the very wildest person . . . I have known.”
This doesn’t sound like the dumpy – she was under five feet tall – silent woman who is remembered for her delicate nature writing.
Dorothy lost all her teeth before she was thirty, lost her sanity in middle age and became feeble-minded, sitting in a chair and repeating meaningless phrases and making animal noises.
There remains the relationship at the centre of her life. She wrote Wordsworth’s love-letters to his French mistress, Annette Vallon, and she and William had such an intense sympathy with each other that they would “share” illnesses. Both suffered severely from headaches and bowel complaints and Dorothy’s journals wearisomely recount how the ailments seemed to be constantly tossed back and forth between them, each alternatively and sympathetically sharing their suffering.
The companionship seems to have been one of a deep, mutual interdependence, as close as the shared identity of twins.
When she heard that the marriage vows had been made, Dorothy “threw myself on the bed where I lay in stillness, neither hearing or seeing anything”. When William and his new bride, Dorothy’s friend, Mary Hutchinson, returned from church that October morning, Dorothy madly rushed down and “met my beloved William and fell upon his bosom”. And it was Dorothy who accompanied William over the threshold of the house where they waited for Mary to join them.
Frances Wilson’s book asks us to look again at Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals. For years they have been regarded as the fine writing of a talented woman, the work of someone who was a sensitive observer of nature, but who seemed to be of a quiet and unobtrusive personality.
Frances Wilson’s close reading of the Journals forces us to look at them again, to experience the disjointed day by day commentary of this passionate and intelligent woman from her own point of view rather than treat her as an adjunct to her brother. The effect is to transform the Journals, to make us appreciate far more fully the intensity of experience that underlies them and to read them with a new and deeper pleasure and understanding.
Frances Wilson has thrown down a challenge to the literary establishment. She asks us to radically re-assess one of the central figures of the Romantic Movement.
Needless to say, her book is written with the verve and panache of someone who is thrilled by her discovery of a “new” writer.
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