Halfway through my MA in Life Writing, I was instructed to read Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere journals. The event was not a happy one, and I don't think I ever made it through more than a third. This was a woman who, it seemed to me, had a headache every other entry and was totally preoccupied with getting letters from her brother, William. 'He's only been gone two days!', my mind screamed as she moaned, 'pull yourself together!'
Unsurprisingly I completely missed the point, preferring only to see the words and not what their underlying impetus told me about the relationship between the two.
I have just swallowed Frances Wilson's 'The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth' whole, which I wrote about when I went to Dartington last year. It's an intriguing book, for Frances Wilson takes the bare words of the journal, complete with running commentary on health, and seeks to find the thinking, feeling, person beneath and between the lines.
Dorothy, she states, is rarely seem in the journal, all we get is a mass of finely jangled nerves, observations of nature and details of her brothers' activities. She is less visible in his presence because of the space he takes up - although as Frances Wilson herself says 'Without William, Dorothy has no substance: even in her journal she is hardest to see when she is most alone.' When we see her most clearly, it is almost always when she is reporting on the lives of those closest to her.
I have never really 'got on' with Wordsworth, having always seen him as something of a failure. Now, before you all respond with a cry of 'heathen!', let me make clear that I don't mean him to be a failure as a poet, rather it is as a Romantic that he fails. The German poet Friedrich Schlegel said Romanticism was an art that is eternally in the 'process of becoming' and 'can never be completed' (quoted in Frances Wilson's book p 29) and if we consider the most famous romantic poets, then we see that Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron and Clare all died at fairly young ages, with their poetic dream incomplete. Wordsworth on the other hand, transcended the romantic ideal and became in the end a much feted Victorian Gentleman. Can you imagine any of the other Romantics becoming Poet Laureate?
To return to Dorothy, however, I feel somehow that Frances Wilson has changed my opinion of her. True enough, the headaches are in as much abundance as they ever were, but I can now put them into context. Dorothy was a remarkably emotive woman. She never seemed to have felt anything by halves, even though she uses the word often enough in her journals and letters (she is half full, half afraid, half overcome) and the love she was deprived of when her father cast her out of the family at the age of seven when her mother died, seems to have crashed forth like a waterfall when she turned her back on polite society and went to ramble with William all over the countryside. This was not the usual practise for young woman and at one point during the period she and William lived near Coleridge in Somerset, the group was described as 'a mischievous gang of disaffected Englishmen', which seems a perfect way to sum up the early Romantic era.
Who was Dorothy? Why was she so devoted to her brother? Did they, in fact, have a more intimate relationship than their friends ever guessed? Was she completely senile by the time she died? The answer to all these questions, even after reading Frances Wilson's book seem to be 'I'm not quite sure.' No evidence other than readings of journal entries have been found to prove an incestuous relationship; the woman seen in the journal is quite different from the one presented in her letters or her friends recollections. She is an unsolvable riddle, but one that biographers will continue to puzzle over. I'm off to hunt out my copy of her journals, for I see now they have more to say than I previously supposed.