Victoria Glendinning

Small elephant at Dove Cottage

Victoria Glendinning reviews Frances Wilson's new book on Dorothy Wordsworth

This is a lively contribution to that mound of books — now approximately the height of Skiddaw — about Wordsworth and Coleridge and their ladies in the Lake District. Frances Wilson has found a niche, basing her book on Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals, written during the two and a half years at the opening of the 19th century when Dorothy and her brother lived at Dove Cottage. Dorothy was just 28 when they arrived, and Wordsworth a rather middle-aged 32, his impassioned revolutionary days left behind. Also left behind was Annette Vallon, the mistress he had abandoned in France pregnant by him.

The marriage of William to Mary Hutchinson was on the cards from the time these journals begin. They chronicle a precious period when William and Dorothy, in a trio with Coleridge, compensated for fragmented childhoods, and created a time-expiring idyll. The weird co-dependency of Wordsworth and his sister is history. Here, the author focuses on Dorothy — small, skinny, weathered like a gipsy, wild-eyed, super-sensitive — a ‘neurotic personality’, thinks Wilson, and a fascinating one.

It’s easy to see what Wordsworth gained. He had a big ego and he needed adulation. His dependency on Dorothy for his work was almost total. ‘She only has to open her mouth for him to write a poem.’ It was she, with her heightened sensibility, who pointed out to him and described in her diary the rural characters she met, the wild flowers, views, clouds, sunsets, etc, which he, not particularly observant, transformed into poetry, lifting entire phrases from her (as also did Coleridge). Dorothy copied and recopied her brother’s poems, knowing them by heart, reciting them back to him as lullabies when he could not sleep.

Dorothy and William were unwell a lot.

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