Grasmere, because I must, I suppose.
After reading Adam Sisman's The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge I wrote that I thought Dorothy Wordsworth was one of the most interesting characters in the book and that I wanted to know more about her. I counted myself lucky, then, when I read an excellent review of Frances Wilson's The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. I was wrong.
First, a bit about Miss Wordsworth. The Wordsworth family's mother died when Dorothy was six and William seven. Dorothy was sent away to live with another relative and spent little time with her brothers until she was in her teens. When they did reunite, Dorothy and William formed an intense attachment and lived together for the rest of their lives, most famously making their home in England's Lake District. Even after William married Mary Hutchinson in 1802, Dorothy continued to be part of the household.
Most of what we know about Dorothy comes from "the Grasmere Journals." Dorothy began writing these small diaries in 1799, when she and William moved into Dove Cottage in Grasmere, and kept them until 1802, during the first year of William's marriage. Other information comes from the numerous letters Dorothy wrote to friends, both before and after, and the depictions of her from others, notably Thoma DeQuincey.The journals, though, have become an endless source of fascination because of the poems Wordsworth--and his then-close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge--composed during that period, with Dorothy as their seeming muse. Dorothy was a close observer of nature, and her journals' descriptions of what they saw on their long walks can be found verbatim in Wordsworth and Coleridge's poems. Coleridge hailed her extraordinary sensitivity, and everyone seemed to feel that somehow, in this small, thin woman with the "wild" eyes, there was the very essence of Romanticism.
Wilson's book focuses primarily on these journals and this time period, with the necessary before and after framing material. In that way, the book reads more like a piece of literary criticism, a gloss of Dorothy's journal entries that attempts to draw out the real Dorothy by parsing each word she wrote during this time period.
Looking for Dorothy in her bits of extant writing is something that has attracted a number of writers. With so little information outside her own journals available, how can a literary biographer resist? She was so important to Wordsworth, yet we know so little about her. And because we know so little about her beyond lines like, "The lake became like glassy calmness & all was still; I sate till I could see it no longer," and "I lay down after dinner. Wm [William] poorly," there is an enormous temptation for writers to fill out this half-finished sketch of lakes, grass, and clouds with every bit of literary and psychological theory they can imagine. Was Dorothy a greater writer than William? Was she a prototype feminist, who flouted convention to live the way she chose? Was she a casualty of a paternalistic society that didn't allow her either to love or become a poet in her own write? A frustrated virgin whose love for her brother and Coleridge could never be fulfilled? A scandalous participant in incest? Dorothy Wordsworth is one of those people, both in real life and in fiction, of whom there is just enough information to tantalize and allow imaginations to run wild (I am thinking of the endless fascination with Ophelia in Hamlet; during the 19th c. there was virtually a subgenre of biographies of the rest of her life outside the play).
Dorothy has been hailed for her nature writing, which is noteworthy for students of Romantic poetry, but it is the other bits that lead biographers into temptation. Wilson notes that Dorothy generally writes about what she sees, rather than what she feels, so when she does write about her emotions or with an unusual amount, it stands out. The most famous is the passage Dorothy wrote about her brother's wedding day, where she describes how before he left to get married, she threw herself on her bed and lies in a veritable trance, until William enters to say goodbye. She gives him the wedding ring he will use to marry Mary (now there's a tongue-stumbler), which she wore to bed that night. He then puts it on her finger again, blesses it, and withdraws it. She then spends the rest of the day distraught. In another passage, Dorothy writes with an unusual amount of giddiness, refers to William as "Darling;" upon finding an apple he had bitten into, she can't bring herself to throw it in the fire but says instead she must wash it off (and eat it? keep it? carve it?).
I'm sure you can imagine what Wilson wants to debate about passages like these, and she is only the latest in a long line: "What exactly was up with William and Dorothy's relationship?" Were they actually lovers? Or was it just wishful thinking on one or more side? Or are people just overreading the often effusive, excessively sentimental language of the era? Wilson doesn't come to an absolute conclusion, which makes sense--I mean short of finding a long-lost diary entry that says, "Hey! Guess what William and I did last night?" it's impossible to know. But she does spend plenty of time discussing it--in fact, I'd say it's one of the two core themes of the book, and there's something about that that troubles me.
I understand the interest people have had over the last two years in the relationship between William and Dorothy, and by relationship, I don't just mean her influence on his poetry, I mean the question of the nature of their relationship. People read this material and think, "Wow, incest? Shock! Horror! Intrigue!" The problem, though, is that when people discuss this in terms of William, it's as a sidebar to his work; with Dorothy, it's more often than not the main theme. What bothers me about that is that it seems like whenever I read biographies of women, they always end up being about who the woman loved, whether she loved anyone, if not why, etc, etc. It's almost as if the subject's love life is the most important part, as if her life is not complete without the question of love. And when an unmarried woman is the topic, it seems like the story always devolves into "what went wrong?!" followed by an attempt to justify or explain how the woman ended up single. When you read biographies of men, if the man never marries, it's not a big deal. Sure, there might be a little bit a romance gone bad but it gets the attention of why the subject might not have moved to a certain place or passed on a job. It does not get the "what went wrong?" treatment that you find in books about women. I understand with Dorothy Wordsworth we don't have a lot to work with, and that her relationship with her brother is why people have any interest in her at all. But I am frustrated by the idea that we can only define Dorothy in terms of who she loves and what that love was like. I want to believe there is something more in her life, in any woman's life, and if there isn't, maybe I don't want to read about her.
The other theme that Wilson focuses on is the question of Dorothy's health. This is also one of the few things we have a lot of information about, because Dorothy's journals are filled with pieces of information about her headaches, stomach aches, and other ailments. I'm not an expert, but from books I've read about people in the 18th and 19th century, this was a very common topic; people used their journal to keep track of their health, often with a meticulousness and specificity that can lead readers to believe that people of that time were sick in some way pretty much every day of their lives (well, maybe they were). But of course, when it comes to biographies of women, health concerns can't be just biological problems; they usually become mental ones as well. Wilson tries to determine whether Dorothy's headaches were actually migraines and if so, whether some of the descriptive power of her nature writing was actually the product of the visions and euphoria that migraine sufferers sometimes experience. Wilson also analyzes the descriptions of the mental illness Dorothy experienced as she grew old and determines that it was not dementia (no, that would be too ordinary...), but rather a specific type of depression that manifested itself after Dorothy lost her purpose in life--William had long been married, and other members of their circle had begun to die. In other words, she had no self outside of the others around her. Again, Dorothy can only be defined by those around her. Oh, and in additon to the madness and the migraines, Wilson also comes to the conclusion that Dorothy was an anorexic. This is so depressing I don't even want to get into it. I'm sure you can imagine, though--the power of refusal, asserting command over the body, otherworldliness, etc., etc.
To be fair--and I want to be, because I always feel bad when I don't like a book--some of the frustration I felt while reading this book was not Wilson's fault, but came rather from a general annoyance with biographies of women. It seems like it always comes down to the same things--she was in love, she was not, she was loved, she was not, that is a problem; she is sick, she is sick because she is frustrated, she is sick because she is mentally frustrated, she has headaches and they're the explanation for her talent, she is mad because she has no outlet for her talent, she is anorexic because she needs to control her body. Always always always, even in the best written, and best-intentioned books. As the Peggy Lee song goes, "Is that all there is?" I wonder.
What I can direct specifically at Wilson is a dislike of her writing style. Many passages are written in present tense, presumably so we can immerse ourselves in Dorothy's world and in her mind. So there are plenty of phrases like, "Dorothy throws herself on the bed...Dorothy sits on the stone...Dorothy stands at the window...Dorothy feels sad...Dorothy wonders what they're doing..." You know what? We're not there and while some of these movements and thoughts can be backed up by journal passages, others can't be. The result is that the book feels like it is written in this strained, romance novel style, as if Wilson is constantly trying to create this smoldering, smoky atmosphere of love and desire in a remote English cottage. I didn't buy it and I didn't like it.
I've said an awful lot for a book that didn't take that long to read and that I didn't particularly like. I'm sure it's a worthy addition to the Dorothy Wordsworth canon. I can appreciate the thought and care Wilson put into her book and she should be commended for that. This book has been well-received and I would, as always, encourage others to read it, hopefully enjoy it, and come to their own conclusions. But I came out of it tired of Dorothy, and sorry that she left so little information about herself that all people want to do is burden her with their own thoughts, beliefs, and theories. Dorothy has become whoever the world wants her to be. Wilson writes about how Dorothy had no sense of self; I hope she did, and we just don't know it.