The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth

An absorbing examination of the unusual life of Dorothy Wordsworth.

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life By Frances Wilson Farrar, Straus and Giroux 316 pp., $30

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.

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.

In effect, says Wilson, Dorothy and William became “a single poetic voice.”

They roamed the countryside gazing on nature’s glory and debating poetics with Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, and others.

Those short years were the high point of Dorothy’s life. Yet her journal entries chronicling those glorious days are oddly opaque. She is a sensitive observer of the natural world around her, but gives away little or nothing of her own interior.

She describes a domestic life that mingles the mundane with the esoteric. (Wilson calls it “a routine of mutton and moonscapes, walking and headaches, watching and waiting, pie baking and poem making.”)

Once in a while, however, there is a sentence in Dorothy’s journals that draws back a curtain on the almost scary depths of her feeling for her brother. “The fire flutters & the watch ticks I hear nothing save the Breathings of my Beloved & now and then he pushes his book forward & turns over a leaf.”

Were Dorothy’s feelings incestuous? It was an unusual attachment, to be sure, and even in its time it aroused gossip. But Wilson, to her credit, doesn’t force conclusions, suggesting instead that the bond between these orphaned siblings is perhaps something that the rest of us cannot fully understand.

Certainly among the strangest pages of Dorothy’s journals are those that describe the day of William’s wedding – an event Dorothy could not bring herself to attend. (Although she slept the night before wearing his wedding ring.) And yet she seems to have lived peacefully with her sister-in-law, Mary, for the rest of their lives.

On the subject of Mary, Wilson seems prone to reaching for conclusions undefended by much evidence. “Mary ... was ... at ease in her own sexuality.” How do we know this?

Or, when Dorothy calls Mary “dear,” Wilson sees it as “more a recognition of rivalry.” It's an interesting idea – but in this case seems nothing better than a supposition. Such moments are unfortunate intrusions in a narrative otherwise more sensitive and skilled.

There is little dramatic arc to the second half of Dorothy’s life. She never left William and Mary. It was finally William who left the women, dying four years before Dorothy and nine before Mary.

The final years of Dorothy’s life were not happy ones. She was an invalid and mentally addled much of the time. The woman whom more than one literary giant insisted was a genius shone no longer.

But Dorothy herself never accepted more than a modest accounting of her own gifts. “I have not those powers which Coleridge thinks I have,” she insisted later in life, almost as if making a case for the blandest possible version of her persona. “My only merits are my devotedness to those I love and I hope charity towards all mankind.”

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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