Dorothy Wordsworth

I happened to pick up a copy of Dorothy Wordsworth’s selected letters while in London — I have her journals and a biography, so it seemed appropriate to get some letters as well — and on a whim I began reading them while flying back to the U.S. The letters were interesting; I enjoyed the glimpse into Dorothy’s life they gave, and it’s always fun to read about that group of great writers who spent so much time together, Dorothy, William Wordsworth, and Coleridge, with appearances now and then by Thomas De Quincey and Charles and Mary Lamb. The letters are also fairly tame and quiet since Dorothy is being her best social self, although it was fun to see her putting an aunt firmly in her place by insisting that there is nothing improper in going on a long walking tour with her brother:

I cannot pass unnoticed that part of your letter in which you speak of my “rambling about the country on foot.” So far from considering this as a matter of condemnation, I rather thought it would have given my friends pleasure to hear that I had courage to make use of the strength with which nature has endowed me, when it not only procured me infinitely more pleasure than I should have received from sitting in a post-chaise — but was also the means of saving me at least thirty shillings.

As Dorothy is penniless at this point, saving thirty shillings is significant. I love the fact that she is basically running away from home here. She’s not sneaking off exactly, but she has left the aunt and uncle who have taken care of her since her mother died, and her relatives are not particularly pleased with her. This was unconventional behavior. She and William walk for the next two days, the first day to Grasmere, which is where they will live five years later during that famous time William Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote their Lyrical Ballads and she wrote her Grasmere journals, and the second day to Keswick, where they stayed with friends.

This is, perhaps, the point at which she finally grows up. She is 23 at the time, having spent most of her life up to this point separated from her four brothers. Her mother died when she was six, the event that shook up the family and sent her off to live with her aunt and uncle. Her father died when she was 12, but even then, she didn’t see her family. Finally, now that she is in her 20s, she is reunited with her long-lost brothers, and at this point, she is making her dramatic move — leaving her guardians and clinging to William, with whom she will live for decades to come.

She is also establishing her reputation as a serious walker. She will walk miles and miles, most famously in the area around Grasmere. She and William, accompanied sometimes by neighbors and friends, will cover the same ground again and again, getting to know their area intimately, and their walks will inspire the poetry and poetic prose to come. It’s fitting that part of her striking out on her own with William involves a defense of the value of walking: it’s healthy and pleasurable, and it’s using the great gift given to herby nature — her strength.

After reading the letters, I thought I would pick up a recent biography of Dorothy, Frances Wilson’s book The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. I’m nearing the end of it now. I quickly decided that reading the biography meant I needed to reread the Grasmere journals as well, so I’m in the middle of those too. The biography and the journals paint quite a different picture of Dorothy than the letters do. But more on that later.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

12 responses to “Dorothy Wordsworth

  1. Although I have not investigated her very thoroughly, I have a sneaking suspicion that Dorothy Wordsworth is the member of that Romantic cadre who holds the most potential of being a good match for my reading tastes. I’ve always imagined starting with her journals…but I will be interested in your thoughts on the bio, as well.


  2. I’ve not read much on Dorothy, though I know she was important to her brother’s life and writing. I love the excerpt you shared. Thanks.


  3. I really enjoyed that biography of Dorothy Wordsworth. How intriguing, though, to find a different account that shows the dramatis personae in a different light! I will look forward to hearing more about that. And yay for unconventional behaviour! Good for Dorothy for finding the gumption to do what she wanted and stand up for her choices. It’s never easy to do.


  4. I know nothing of Dorothy Wordsworth, but I find the passage and your commentary about her intriguing.


  5. The letters sound really interesting.

    “The biography and the journals paint quite a different picture of Dorothy than the letters do. But more on that later.”

    Oh suspense! Please don’t make us wait too long 🙂


  6. I like the sound of this. I read so many novels it’s nice to diversify and pick up letters and journals from time to time.


  7. How you’ve described her makes me think of Elizabeth Bennet of P & P, who loves to roam in the countryside, walk rather than ride, to the dismay of her mother. Anyway, I love the Lake District, and Wordsworth’s poetry. I visited Grasmere and the Dove Cottage over twenty years ago and bought the book Home in Grasmere or something like that, by Dorothy Wordsworth. Did she write a book like that? or maybe it’s a compilation of her journals.


  8. I love reading books of letters but only wish you could also see the reply or letter she is replying too as well! She seems like such an interesting woman–I really should read something by her or about her.


  9. Emily — the journals are fascinating, and the bio is great because it helps makes sense of the journals. Not that the journals are hard to understand, but there’s a lot lying underneath the surface, and it’s helpful to have a guide. The biography focuses very closely on the journals, so it makes a great companion.

    Julie — thanks for stopping by! Their relationship is so interesting to study. They were important to each other and each other’s writing, and the collaboration is fascinating.

    Litlove — well, I guess I meant that the biography portrayed her differently than the picture I had of her in my head. I think of her as melancholy and thoughtful, but the bio portrayed her as much more energetic, emotional, and charismatic than I thought. And yes, she had a lot of gumption!

    AnneCamille — she’s been great to learn about. If I get around to it, I hope to write more on her.

    Stefanie — I’ll try not to! 🙂

    Nicola — I agree that variety is great. I usually have some kind of nonfiction going, but I’ve been in a mood to read more letters and journals lately, and it’s been interesting.

    Arti — I’m so jealous! I want to go to the Lake District. Perhaps next time I’m overseas, I can head in that direction. I think the book you’re thinking of is a compilation of her journals, plus some of William’s poems. Frances Wilson in her biography compares Dorothy to Elizabeth Bennett as well, so I think your comparison is right on.

    Danielle — yes, seeing the whole exchange would be good. This edition could have had more extensive notes; I had trouble situating the letters in their context, which would have made them even more meaningful.


  10. Pingback: The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth | Of Books and Bicycles

  11. You’ve inspired me to have a wander through the journals that have been sitting, neglected, on my shelves for years. I like what you’ve said, too, about their having a lot beneath the surface that doesn’t come through on a first reading without some background: I’ll look forward to that!


  12. BuriedInPrint — I like your phrase “wander through the journals” — how apt! In this case, some background knowledge is definitely useful, I think.


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