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by Bamber Gascoigne

Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855)


English prose writer, the younger sister of poet William Wordsworth, famous for her diaries and 'recollections'. Several of Dorothy Wordsworth's own poems or notes in her journal were included in various editions of her brother's poetical works. She published nothing during her lifetime, and spent the last twenty-five years struggling against physical and mental illness. E. de Sélincourt, who published her journals in 1933, has called her "probably... the most distinguished of English writers who never wrote a line for the general public."

"She did not cultivate the graces which preside over the person and its carriage. But, on the other hand, she was a person of very remarkable endowments intellectually... Her knowledge of literature was irregular, and thoroughly unsystematic. She was content to be ignorant of many things; but what she knew and had really mastered lay where it could not be disturbed - in the temple of her own most fervid heart." (Thomas De Quincey in Reminiscenes of the Lake Poets, 1961)

Dorothy Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, Cumberland. She was the third of five children. Her childhood Dorothy spent with various relatives. Ann Cookson of Penrith, her mother, died when Dorothy was six."I know," she wrote in a letter of March 1805, "that I received much good that I can trace back to her." (Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley by Meena Alexander, 1989, p. 87) Dorothy's father, John Wordsworth, an attorney, died when she was just twelve. He died intestate, his affairs in chaos, and Dorothy was removed from boarding-school.With her "Aunt" Elizabeth Threlkind she lived until she was fifteen.

While staying with her grandparents in Penrith, she met her brothers again. However, she was not to see much of them before she was 23. From 17 to 22 she lived at Forncett Rectory, Norfolk, where her mother's brother, William Cookson and his new wife, took her in. She enjoyed her life in Norfolk more than at her grandmother's house. She read, wrote, and improved herself in French, and did an enormous amount of childcare and housework. After the winter of 1793/4 she continued to stay in various other places.

Wordsworth began writing in about 1795 when she shared a house in Dorset with her brother. At Alfoxden, Somerset, she became friends with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and traveled with him and William in Germany (1798-99), where they lived in lodgings in Goslar. William and Dorothy stayed in the Hartz Mountains for five months. F.W. Bateson has suggested in Wordsworth: A Re-interpretion (1954) that William tried to repress his intense feelings toward his sister in Lucy poems, which he wrote during this time. Coleridge spent a good deal of time at the University city of Göttingen. For the journey she bought a notebook, which she used for her daily affairs. It contained among others things lists of the clothes, from shirts and nightcaps to fur items, that she would need in the cold winter, and also list of groceries – bread, milk, sugar, and rum. In Alfoxden she started her first journal, and then kept several other journals of travels and expeditions. Her thoughts and writings were an important source of stimulation for Coleridge and William. "Tho we were three persons," Coleridge wrote, "it was but one soul." (Thicker Than Water: Siblings and Their Relations, 1780-1920 by Leonore Davidoff, 2012, p. 208) Sarah Coleridge's role in this artistic circle was not central – she was considered dull, but she raised the children and took care of her opium-addicted husband, who eventually abandoned his patient wife.

With her brother Dorothy occasionally played a curious game – they lay down next to each other outdoors, pretending to be in their graves. Some biographers have speculated about their strong attraction to each other, considering it sexual. William's poems, such as 'Lines' and 'To My Sister', don't give any hint of this, but do express his happiness, when she accompanies him on the walking trips: "My sister! ('tis a wish of mine) / Now that our morning meal is done, / Make haste, your morning task resign; / Come forth and feel the sun." (from 'To My Sister') Dorothy called William lover-like names ("my Beloved slept") quite unconsciously; she slept in his bed when he was away. (Thicker Than Water: Siblings and Their Relations, 1780-1920 by Leonore Davidoff, 2012, p. 209)

In 1799 Dorothy settled with her brother in Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in the Lake District. It was her first real home since her mother died. In 1802 William married Mary Hutchinson, who was Dorothy's best friend. The marriage was happy but Dorothy was too hysterical to attend the wedding. A few days before the marriage she wrote to her friend: "I have long loved Mary Hutchinson as a Sister, and she is equally attached to me. This being so, you will guess that I look forward with perfect happiness to the Connection between us, but, happy as I am, I half dread that concentration of all tender feelings, past, present and future which will come upon me on the weddingmorning." (William and Dorothy Wordsworth: 'All in Each Other' by Lucy Newlyn, 2013, p. 178)

When Thomas De Quincey met William at Grasmere in 1807, he also made the acquaintance of Dorothy. In the household also lived Mrs. Wordsworth, two children, and at that time one servant. According to De Quincey, Dorothy's face was of Egyptian brown, "rarely, in a woman of English birth, had I seen a more determinate gypsy tan. Her eyes were not soft, as Mrs. Wordsworth's, nor were they fierce or bold; but they were wild and startling, and hurried in their motion." (Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism, Revised Edition, by Susan M. Levin, 2009, p. 155) Quincey was impressed by the Lake District: its small fields, miniature meadows, and solitude. Dorothy's influence on William was, according to Quincey, the way she "humanized him by the gentler charities". (The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey: Volume 2 by David Masson, 2020, p. 175) Dorothy remained in Grasmere, the Lake District, until 1813, when she moved to nearby Rydal. In 1829 she became ill and was obliged to lead the life of an invalid. From 1835 she developed arteriosclerosis and for the remaining 20 years she suffered from mental problems, possibly originating in thiamin deficiency. She often played with a bowl of soapsuds and hid from visitors. Dorothy Wordsworth died in Rydal Mount on January 25, 1855.

Dorothy Wordsworth started to keep her journal in the late 1790s, recording walks, visits, conversations, and above all the world of nature. The journals were not intended for publication. Suppressing her ambitions of becoming a writer, and devoting herself to domestic duty, she told her friend Catherine Clarkson: "I should detest the idea of setting myself up as an Author." (Romanticism & Gender by Anne Kostelanetz Mellor, 1993, p. 162) Instead, she hoped to "give Wm Pleasure by it". Her brother's poems, such as 'Beggars' and 'Daffodils', use her precise descriptions of the countryside and life in Dove Cottage. Dorothy's Alfoxden Journal 1798 and Grasmere Journals (1800-03) were published posthumously. The first notebook of the Grasmere Journal was not empty – it also contained lists and accounts of her stay in Goslar. Among her other works are Journal of the visit to Hamburg and journey to Goslar (1798), the memoir Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, A. D. 1803  (1804),  An Excursion on the Banks of Ullswater (1805), Journal of a Tour on the Continent (1820), which included her irritated views of William on their journey in Switzerland, Excursion up Scafell Pike  (1818), and  Journal of a Tour in the Isle of Man (1828).

For further reading: Dorothy Wordsworth; the story of a sister's love by Edmund Lee (1887); Reminiscenes of the English Lake Poets by Thomas De Quincey (1907); Dorothy Wordsworth, the Early Years by Catherine MacDonald Maclean (1932); Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. by E. de Sélincourt (1933); Dorothy Wordsworth by Ernest De Selincourt (1933); Wordsworth: A Re-interpretion by F.W. Bateson (1954); Three Women Diarists by M. Willy (1963); Rebels and Conservatives by A.M. Ellis (1968); Dorothy Wordsworth by Robert Gittings (1985); Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson by Margaret Homans (1987); Dorothy Wordsworth & Romanticism by Susan M. Levin (1987); Prominent Sisters: Mary Lamb, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Sarah Disraeli by Michael Polowetzky (1996) ; The Poetry of Relationship by Richard E. Matlak (1997); A Passionate Sisterhood by Kathleen Jones (2000); The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson (2008); Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism by Susan M. Levin (2009); Dorothy Wordsworth and the Profession of Authorship: a Critical Commentary on Her Letters, Journals, Life Writing, and Poetry by K.E. Smith; with a foreword by Stewart Crehan (2011); Dorothy Wordsworth and Hartley Coleridge: the Poetics of Relationship by Nicola Healey (2012); William and Dorothy Wordsworth: 'All in Each Other' by Lucy Newlyn (2013); Dorothy Wordsworth: Wonders of the Everyday by Pamela Woof (2013); Jane and Dorothy: a True Tale of Sense and Sensibility: the Lives of Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth by Marian Veevers (2018); The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, the Wordsworths, and Their Year of Marvels by Adam Nicolson; with Woodcuts and Paintings by Tom Hammick (2019)

Selected works:

  • An Excursion on the Banks of Ullswater, 1805
  • Excursion up Scafell Pike, 1818
  • The Journal of a Tour on the Continent, 1820
  • Journal of My Second Tour in Scotland, 1822
  • Journal of a Tour in the Isle of Man, 1828
  • Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, A. D. 1803, 1874
  • Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, 1897 (ed. by W. Knight)
  • Letters of the Wordsworth Family from 1787 to 1855, 1907 (3 vols., collected and ed. by William Knight)
  • The Early Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth (1787-1805), 1935 (arranged and edited by Ernest De Selincourt)
  • The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Middle Years, 1937 (2 vols., arranged and edited by Ernest De Selincourt)
  • The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Later Years, 1937 (3 vols., edited by Ernest De Selincourt)
  • The Poetry of Dorothy Wordsworth, 1940 (ed. by Hyman Eigerman)
  • Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, 1941 (2 vols., ed. by Sélincourt)
  • Home at Grasmere; Extracts from the Journal of Dorothy Wordsworth, 1960 (ed. by C. Clark)
  • The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth I. The Early Years, 1787-1805, 1967 (second edition, revised by Chester L. Shaver)
  • The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth III. The Later Years: Part I, 1821-1828, 1967 (second edition, revised, arranged and edited by Alan G. Hill)
  • Letters of the Wordsworth Family, from 1787 to 1855, 1969 (ed.  William Angus Knight)
  • Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth: The Alfoxden Journal, 1798; the Grasmere Journals, 1800-1803, 1971 (ed. by Mary Moorman)
  • Letters of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Selection , 1985 (ed. by Alan G. Hill)
  • Selections from the Journals, 1992 (edited by Paul Hamilton)
  • The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: Volume VIII: A Supplement of New Letters, 1993  (ed. by Alan G. Hill)
  • The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth II: The Middle Years: Part 1, 1806-1811, 2000 (second edition, revised by Mary Moorman)
  • The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth III. The Middle Years: Part 2, 1812-1820, 2000 (second edition, revised by Mary Moorman and Alan G. Hill)
  • The Letters of Willian and Dorothy V. The Later Years: Part 2, 1829-1834, 2000 (second edition, revised, arranged and edited by Alan G. Hill)
  • The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth VI. The Later Years: Part 3, 1835-1839, 2000 (second edition, revised, arranged and edited by Alan G. Hill)
  • The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth VII. The Later Years: Part 4, 1840-1853, 2000 (second edition, revised, arranged and edited by Alan G. Hill)
  • The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth VIII: A Supplement of New Letters, 1993  (2nd edition, edited by Alan G. Hill)
  • The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, 2002 (ed. by Pamela Woof)
  • Dorothy Wordsworth, A Longman Cultural Edition, 2009 (ed. Susan Levin)

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