We really need to talk about Dorothy

PUBLISHED: 13:57 16 April 2009 | UPDATED: 16:06 07 September 2010

What started as an attempt at an expose of the strange relationship between William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, turns out to be even more weird, writes Barry Reynolds The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson Faber&Faber, £9.99. For much of the latter part of the 18th century and the early years of the 19th century Dorothy Wordsworth lived with her poet brother William. Just how close that relationship was ha

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth

by Frances Wilson

Faber&Faber, £9.99.

For much of the latter part of the 18th century and the early years of the 19th century Dorothy Wordsworth lived with her poet brother William. Just how close that relationship was has been a matter of conjecture.

What Frances Wilson's new biography concentrates on is the Grasmere Journals, kept by Dorothy during the time they lived together in Dove Cottage in the Lake District. What they show is a woman in the worst kind of psychological agony when William decides to marry.

There has always been the suspicion that not only was Dorothy William's muse, his inspiration - sometimes providing him words and images for his most famous poems - but that they were lovers.

Wilson, who lives in Kentish Town, said that what drew her to Dorothy "was the oddness of their relationship".

"Previous biographers of both Dorothy and William have avoided the relationship like the elephant in the room," she said. "What was going on between them? I hoped I would discover some evidence of incest so I could write a racy book about them.

"But I realised early on there was no evidence and the nature of the relationship that was evolving was very much stranger."

What Wilson found was a profound co-dependence, a blending of two people into one, that strangely happened when they became adults rather than as children.

"William can't write or think without her and she can't really see properly without him," she said. "Everything she sees is for him."

The book, with its interpretation of the four Grasmere Journals, reveals a life that was lived in the mind, rather than as a series of adventures.

"She struck me as a very strange woman and I was also really drawn to the lack of events in her life, the emptiness of her life. As a biographer, the idea of writing about someone to whom very, very little happened is appealing.

"The events were all internal and I loved the idea of writing about that, writing about the unconscious mind. The event this book is written around is her waiting for William's marriage. I was interested in the great event that she was hugely in denial about."

Despite what appears to be an idyllic life of fresh air and long walks in the Lake District, a large part of Dorothy's writing is given over to days of headaches, bilious attacks and problems with the bowels when one or both were bedridden.

"It's so incongruous, yet they were always ill," Wilson said. "She walked in totally inadequate footwear and ridiculous clothes, but I think they suffered when they were still. They were happiest when they were moving, when there was some kind of physical activity and the nature of their neuroses [manifested] when they were sitting in the house and talking to each other, or when William was writing."

The fact that Dorothy's life was devoid of event meant that Wilson was able to add the voice of experts, such as Oliver Sachs, to explore just what made Dorothy tick.

"Often in biographies I think you skim over the surface of a life in order to get all the events in. If there aren't going to be many events then what you can do is concentrate on how everyone might have been feeling about what was going to happen next."

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