Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends:
The one-year-old Sara Coleridge was staying in the small cottage at Townend in Grasmere when Dora Wordsworth was born in 1804. Her father was the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Dora’s father was William Wordsworth. Their lives were set on intertwining paths, which would be dominated by serving the needs of their increasingly influential fathers.
The two girls are but a background shadow in literary history and yet their lives cast an interesting light on the complex and egotistical nature of their great fathers.
Dorothy Wordsworth, enthusing about Sara, wrote, “The exquisite grace of her motions, her half Lady, half spirit form, and her interesting countenance made her an object of pure delight.”
And as a child, she was such an object, small, beautiful, big-eyed, but her life was difficult. Her father was intense, moody, a disturbing presence in the household, telling her imaginative, terrifying ghost stories. He was addicted to opium and in love with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson. Her name, Sara, may even have been for this love and not after her mother Sarah. But it was Sarah who brought her up, when Coleridge left the house they shared with Robert Southey’s family in Keswick.
Dorothy described Dora as being “extremely wayward” and “desirous to master everyone”. Dora’s life at Dove Cottage, then Allan Bank and finally Rydal Mount, may have been more secure, but it was no less difficult. The house revolved round the needs of the great man. Everything, whether it was the two meals of oats a day or the activities interrupted by the demand to write down his passing thoughts was determined by serving Wordsworth’s genius. He believed their five children should be brought up naturally, but Dora found her life increasingly one of servitude.
Household expectations were that her life would be dedicated to her father, continuing to serve as his secretary and support as her aunt Dorothy had done.
When a young, nervous devotee of her father’s, Edward Quillinan, called at the house, Wordsworth “worked himself up into a temper and threw a chair round the room”. Dora, home from boarding school, rushed into the room and calmed the poet. Quillinan declared it “A timely interruption, I have loved that sweet girl ever since.” Edward saw Dora as “rather tall, of good features perhaps, not handsome, but of most engaging innocence of aspect”. He was married to an ailing wife and with children, but years later, much against the wishes of the poet, he and Dora were to marry and she was able to make some sort of adult life for herself.
At eighteen Sara, brought up in the orderly Southey household, was translating South American missionary travelogues from the Latin. She visited her estranged father in London and fell in love with her cousin Henry. It was another marriage which succeeded despite parental opposition.
In later years, Dora suffered from depression and anorexia and Sara, like her father, became addicted to opium. Their lives had been lived in the shadow of their fathers’ fame.
Katie Waldegrave has woven together two lives. Sara and Dora knew each other well, but their lives were not spent closely together. They were two women of their time, who would have been forgotten save for the reputation of their fathers. Their lives, through the vast amount of letters and diaries available, have left a more detailed record than most.
This interweaving of their lives casts fresh light on the lives of the poets, but it also presents an interesting study of the lives of two very different women. It is the intimacy of so much of the detail available, which brings their lives to life.
Sara and Dora were far more than simply “The Poets’ Daughters”.