Friday, 29 January 2010

'The ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth', by Frances Wilson

I have been investigating the personal lives of some of the English Poets, and wanted to know more about William Wordsworth. This account of the life of his sister, Dorothy, seemed to be a profitable side-entrance to his life, and so it proved to be.

In particular, I wanted to know more about the love and sex life of Wordsworth, who had been portrayed as a supreme, upright and admirable poet to me. There is no sex to speak of in Wordsworth’s poetry. The key issue directly, frankly and subtly explored by Frances Wilson in this book is the extraordinarily close, strong and passionate relationship between the siblings, particularly during the period December 1799 to October 1802, when they lived together in Dove Cottage, near Grasmere.

Dorothy devoted herself to her brother, caring for him, cooking meals, doing the washing, nursing his health, taking his dictation, walking with him, copying out his poems, reading other authors to him, talking together about nature and the landscape around them. She was certainly the midwife to much of his poetry.

She kept a journal during that period, revealing her character to be passionate and sensitive. She does not reveal any dark secrets, and probably nothing conclusive will ever be known, but Frances Wilson explores their relationship with great skill and perception. It is clear that William and Dorothy loved each other deeply, a sibling love that can find few comparisons. But the intensity of that love is revealed in a passage of her journal from the very morning of his marriage to Mary Hutchinson: “I saw them go down the avenue towards the church, 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 and blessed me fervently. When they were absent my dear little Sara [sister of the bride] prepared the breakfast. I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men running up the walk, coming to tell us it was over, I could stand it no longer and threw myself on the bed where I lay in stillness, neither hearing or seeing anything…”

This ritual of the ring symbolises William Wordsworth marrying two people that day. Is this true? Did Dorothy make it up? Does it not reveal a disturbing strength of feeling bordering on incest? Frances Wilson does not go so far as to suggest they had an incestuous physical relationship, but she picks out tiny details in the journals that suggest the turmoil of incestuous emotions in both of them.

This book is well written, poetic in its own right. The tone is just right, and the weighing of the facts balanced and perceptive. It certainly is extremely informative, giving us a picture of Dorothy Wordsworth from her point of view that is akin to a novel – or a ballad, to use her own title. I read it quickly (within five days) and found it deepened my understanding of both characters, and of the famous poetry that emerged from that period.

Incidentally, I identified closely with Dove Cottage, since I worked very close by in the summer of 1975. I did volunteer work clearing out the weed from White Moss Tarn, a few hundred yards from their house. Their favourite walk was past this tarn up to the Upper Rydal path. They walked out together virtually every day.

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