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The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth

An absorbing examination of the unusual life of Dorothy Wordsworth.

By / April 16, 2009



Dorothy Wordsworth has long been one of the great mysteries of English literature. A woman praised for her “wild and startling” eyes, a being “all fire, and ... ardour,” she inspired some of Britain’s best known poetry. Her journals, letters, and poems – famed for the lucid quality of Dorothy’s nature writing – have been in print for decades.

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And yet William Wordsworth’s beloved sister remains to us a cipher. Her “Grasmere Journals” are “regarded as an English national treasure,” writes literary biographer Frances Wilson in The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, her absorbing examination of this peculiar life. “But their greatness as literature is agreed upon without anyone’s being able to say what they are actually about or what type of woman it was who wrote them.”

When we think of Dorothy today, it tends to be in one of two extreme versions: either as a sprite-like child of nature or a personality-free spinster. One of the strengths of Wilson’s book is her willingness to accept rather than attempt to reconcile Dorothy’s numerous contradictions.

“She was a small woman – under five feet tall – with a wiry frame,” writes Wilson. “She was never beautiful.” Or was she? “If you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her ordinary,” wrote Samuel Coleridge, literary titan and bosom friend of both Dorothy and William. “If you expected to find an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty.”

Dorothy’s contradictions were not confined to her looks. She was, it seems, both deeply giving and blindly self-absorbed, effortlessly athletic and frequently sickly, daringly unconventional and cautiously retiring.

The facts of Dorothy’s life offer only limited help in gaining understanding.

She was born in 1771 and was only 6 when her mother died. Her brother William and their siblings stayed with their father, but Dorothy was sent to live with an aunt. The aunt was kindly, yet most biographers (Wilson included) agree that Dorothy never recovered from that early separation.

Dorothy was an adult before she was able to permanently reunite with William. He was by then an unusual young man, a loner with few obvious assets. Yet the two quickly became inseparable and Dorothy soon left her more respectable relatives to cast her lot with him.

When the family fretted about the wild fashion in which she and her penniless brother were “rambling about the country on foot,” she gamely defended her own “courage to make use of the strength with which nature has endowed me,” adding that this chance to enjoy her brother’s company was “an opportunity which I could not see pass from me without unspeakable pain.”

Dorothy’s faith in her brother was, of course, richly rewarded. From 1799 to 1802 they lived together in the mountains of the Lake District as he churned out some of Britain’s most revered verse. Her own poetic sensibility – and the descriptions of nature in her journals – was clearly integral to her brother’s creative process.

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