Why weren't Dorothy's words worth as much as William's?


Last updated at 13:46 04 March 2008

The snowdrops come first, the crocuses follow, but it is the daffodils that shout spring. And Wordsworth's famous poem comes to mind.

Less well known is the fact that he took his cue from his sister's journal. His 'host of golden daffodils' grew from Dorothy's rapt observation: 'I never saw daffodils so beautiful … some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.' The passage records a long belt of flowers along a lakeside shore encountered by brother and sister while walking home from Eusemere to Grasmere. But in the classic poem, which William wrote two years later, he is 'wandering lonely as a cloud'.

Dorothy Wordsworth

Dorothy Wordsworth discovered life did not live up to poetry

No one could claim that Dorothy Wordsworth has been ignored. She is renowned as one of our finest nature writers, and her dedication to her brother has given her a place in the history of Romanticism. William himself admitted: ' She gave me eyes, she gave me ears.' B UT WHAT lay behind those eyes and ears? What turbulent emotions ran beneath her serene descriptions of the mind-expanding silence of the Lake District? And why did this small (barely 5ft tall), excitable woman, normally so sharply observant, fall into a coma in which she could see and hear nothing for part of the day on which her brother married? Questions like this pour through Frances Wilson's book. There is nothing she is afraid to ask. Her tenacity is allied with vivid prose, and a humorous but sharp impatience with scholars who pontificate without a shred of common sense.

This page-turning narrative gives Dorothy Wordsworth new stature. More usually employed by biographers of the Romantics as a background figure, she is here brought centre-stage, a troubling, poignant but gifted woman, who voiced in her journals a shift in sensibility.

Out go those tired certainties promulgated by William's biographers.

They insist heartily on Dorothy's childhood happiness. Yet this was a child whose mother died when she was seven, after which she was separated from her five siblings and pushed from pillar to post. She was raised by second cousins, moved on to her maternal grandparents and ended up with an uncle and aunt in Norfolk.

'The tears of childhood are quickly dried,' wrote the Wordsworth scholar Ernest de Selincourt. But as Frances Wilson point outs, this denies Dorothy a psychological or unconscious life. More accurate are Dorothy's own words: 'I cried and laughed alternately.' It does not surprise that her comments on herself reveal a lack of self-esteem. Wilson identifies a permanent sense of being unwanted and displaced. This is the emotional terrain against which Dorothy developed her dream of a home.

When reunited at intervals with her siblings, she noticed that it was William who gave her the most attention.

On him, she focused her capacity for devotion, the only talent she recognised in herself. Dove Cottage, at Grasmere, was to be the realisation of her longing. She had fantasised about this cottage, and their life within it, long before it became reality.

She envisaged closing the shutters, setting the tea table, brightening the fire. William would bring his books and read aloud, after which would follow free-wheeling discussion, without ridicule or censure. In its ideal form, this humble dwelling would be 'the central point of all our joys'.

But when achieved at Grasmere, their way of life, though bursting with happiness, was never free of tension or Dorothy's fear of loss.

All the signs are there. Wilson lists the numerous days in one year in which one or other of the Wordsworths is scuppered by ill health; Dorothy by severe headaches.

To this tally is added the woes of one of their visitors, Coleridge. He bounded into their lives bringing conversation which, in Dorothy's words, 'teemed with soul, mind and spirit'.

But he also carried the weight of an unhappy marriage and the sideeffects of opium addiction.

Wilson's narrative covers Dorothy's life as a whole, including the extraordinary fact that, when woken from her coma with news that William and his bride were approaching the house, she runs downstairs, flings herself in his arms and with him enters the house so that, together, they greet his new wife. She accompanies William and Mary on their honeymoon and for the rest of her life remained part of their household — finally slipping into madness and imbecility. But the two-and-a-half years leading up to William's marriage, covered by Dorothy's 'Grasmere' journals, are the main focus of this book.

Others have found an erotic attraction in the devotion that bound brother and sister. Wilson revives the possibility of incest by noticing a post-coital intensity in one scene which Dorothy describes of a late breakfast and last-minute haste before William departs on a journey.

But what this new study identifies, skilfully and brilliantly, is a sad contrast between the heart-stopping sublimity that Dorothy finds in common things and the appalling heaviness of what is left unsaid.

Buy a copy of The Ballad Of Dorothy Wordsworth

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