The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson is not exactly a traditional biography. It does tell Dorothy’s life story, but it doesn’t try to include all the details or treat all the times in her life equally. Instead, it moves through her early years quickly, rushes through the last five decades at breakneck speed, and spends most of its time on the years of the Grasmere Journals, four journals she kept from 1800 to the very beginning of 1803. In this section, she spends a lot of time discussing the journals themselves, reading them closely for insights into Dorothy’s life at this time, and also using details from Dorothy’s life to illuminate the journals. It was the most exciting, most famous time in her long life: the time when she and William Wordsworth collaborated on their writing and tramped all over the Lake District, with Coleridge as their frequent companion.

The picture Wilson creates of Dorothy is different than the one I had in mind and the one painted by her letters (which I wrote about here). I had always thought of her as an avid walker, which she was, and also a dreamy, melancholy type, a person who thought and felt deeply, moody and brooding, a woman of sensibility, full of Romantic longing. The letters portray her as a quiet family woman, a person devoted to her brothers, nieces, and nephews and concerned above all else for their welfare. She was at least some of those things, but in Wilson’s biography, she is also very charismatic and full of energy and life:

Those who knew Dorothy in her hot youth describe her as possessing all the wildness of the Brontë heroines she helped to inspire. It was the quality of her gaze they noticed first. For John Thelwall, the radical, she was “the maid of ardent eye”; Wordsworth, in “Tintern Abbey,” famously praised “the shooting lights” of her “wild eyes,” which were a clear and light gray-blue, and Coleridge, taking his cue, wrote of “the wild lights in her eyes.” De Quincey described her eyes as “wild and startling” and Dorothy as “all fire, and … ardour,” the “very wildest (in the sense of the most natural) person I have ever known.” She had something of the “gipsy” to her, De Quincey said…

It’s this wildness that’s intriguing, and also her anxieties and what Wilson calls her neurotic personality. At the center of Wilson’s biography is a very strange scene from Dorothy journal, which takes place on Williams’s wedding day. She is devastated by the wedding, completely undone, although she has known it would happen for many months and sees William’s wife Mary as a close friend whom she is very fond of. But she had had William all to herself for several years and now, although she will continue to live with him, she will have to share him. Here is the scene from Dorothy’s journal:

On Monday 4th October 1802, my Brother William was married to Mary Hutchinson …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 & blessed me fervently. When they were absent my dear little Sara [Mary’s sister] 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 & threw myself on the bed where I lay in stillness, neither hearing or seeing anything, till Sara came upstairs to me & said “They are coming.” This forced me from the bed where I lay & I moved I knew not how straight forward, faster than my strength could carry me till I met my beloved William & fell upon his bosom….

This is a bizarre scene for a lot of reasons — the exchange of the wedding ring that mimics a wedding ceremony, her loss of consciousness when she realizes the wedding is over, her propulsion into William’s bosom at the end. Her relationship with William was the defining factor of her life, and readers have long speculated on its nature. Could it have been incestuous? Or haunted by unfulfilled sexual longing? Or of a more ethereal, spiritual nature?

Wilson handles all these questions well and other tricky ones such as the nature of Dorothy’s mental illness in her later years (a very sad story). She weaves Dorothy’s words into her text, using italics for language from the journals, with no quotation marks. This could come across as presumptuous, perhaps, implying that Wilson’s mind has somehow melded with Dorothy’s, but instead it comes across as intensely devoted and sympathetic while at the same time, somehow, not losing a feeling of objectivity.

Another aspect of Wilson’s biography that surprised me is her description of Dorothy as not given to self-reflection or self-awareness. She is a creature of surfaces, not at all, as Wilson says, like Mary Shelley who wrote in her diary, “Let me fearlessly descend into the remotest caverns of my own mind, carry the torch of self-knowledge into its dimmest recesses.” Dorothy prefers to stay on the outside, observing the natural world or writing accounts of actions rather than thoughts. It’s true that self-revealing moments in the journals are rare and Dorothy rarely tells us what she is thinking, but I wonder whether it’s right to move from the evidence of the journals to making a claim about what goes on in Dorothy’s mind. Her record of her life is very incomplete, after all. But it’s fascinating to think of this woman surrounded by Romantic poets, living out what seems to be an intensely Romantic life, and not being terribly interested in exploring the movements of her own mind.

As I said in my previous post, Wilson’s biography made me want to pick up the journals again, which I have, and I’m now reading through them very slowly. It’s easy to skim over her entries and feel like you’ve gotten the gist, but Wilson’s book makes a case for taking one’s time with them and treating them more like poetry than prose, so that’s what I’m trying to do.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

6 responses to “The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth

  1. I really loved this book. Too many biographies (for my taste) get bogged down in masses of details, of who did what, where and when, to whom, and that busy middle section of a life can read like a sort of mad, existential grocery list. So I much preferred this approach of getting up close to the character. I had no idea about Dorothy W. before I began reading this, so was quite happy to take Wilson at her word. But it is intriguing to think that her portrait is as particular and partisan as any other.


  2. How interesting that they all mention Dorothy wild eyes. What sort of mental illness did Dorothy suffer from later in life?


  3. I’ve long had an interest in Dorothy, and I remember reading tidbits that made me wonder about her relationship with her brother. When I visited Dove Cottage years ago, I marveled at how the Wordsworths and Coleridges could have lived in such close quarters. The cottage, however, was simply a dream, and the little hill in the back where William would go to sit and think still makes me envious.
    Definitely adding this biography to the list!


  4. Litlove — I completely agree with you about preferring shorter, more focused biographies. I’m very easily overwhelmed by tons of pages and endless detail. It seems to me that this book captures Dorothy’s story very well; I think Wilson has done a great job.

    Stefanie — well, opinions differ, of course, as it’s kind of mysterious, but Wilson says she suffered from severe depression due to inactivity (a “Yellow Wallpaper” kind of story) and this led to mental instability.

    Jenclair — oh, I SO want to go to Dove Cottage! That would be wonderful. Next opportunity I get, I’m going to the Lake Distract, that’s for sure. I’m so jealous! I hope you enjoy the biography.


  5. I don’t think I’ve ever really read any of the Romantics except Mary Shelley–Dorothy Wordsworth sounds like an interesting woman to read about–imagine being part of that circle and maybe having an influence on their work. I wonder why she never married–never the opportunity?


  6. Danielle — I know, reading about the literary circle is a lot of fun. Dorothy may well have had proposals, although we don’t know for sure. There are hints of some possibilities. But Wilson speculates that she had decided to devote herself to William and didn’t marry for that reason. It’s another fascinating angle on a very strange brother/sister relationship.


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