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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Wandering with Wordsworth, Dorothy, that is

I can’t remember when or how biographies came to be a major meal in my reading menu, but I know that I love them. I acknowledge that behind every biography there lurks a nosey parker but at the same time, I frequently find them stark and true windows through which to view wider pictures. Most biographies try to tread the path between a person’s inner and outer life; between what they were thinking and feeling and the world around them. The wider picture that they seek to show is often the proverbial “times” of the soul in the spotlight.

The wonderful, slightly odd but ultimately rather liberating thing about Frances Wilson’s book The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth is that it bothers not with such conventions. It sort of says hang the need to provide social and historical context; never mind what people were wearing and how rich they were compared to others; who cares about the wars, the battles, the headlines. It seeks to engage completely with and to gut out every aspect of the inner world of Dorothy Wordsworth. If you are unfamiliar with her, suffice to say that she was a gifted writer and daring thinker who was not an easy woman to live with. She is better known as the sister whom William Wordsworth may have slept with, or at any rate, done something other than simply written poetry with.

There is in this book, an extreme concern with the details of a life that I found surprising and extremely moving. I am a great lover of walking for example, and although I cannot claim to have undertaken the major yomps that Dorothy and William did up hill and down dale in all weathers, there was something about the pattern of their early life – of walking huge distances and being thought strange that really touched me. They walked, according to Wilson because they were defiant and restless and felt homeless, although this was something that they never were. By fetching out the walking in this way, the reader is left with a real sense of the wildness of these two, and especially of Dorothy. This is not a domestic story; there are no interiors; it all seems to take place on a wind smashed moor.

Illness is not an occasional inconvenience. It is a member of the family; a character at the table in the Wordsworth household. The siblings and their circle are cursed with ill health, with the need to go to bed for days at a time, with debilitating headaches. Wilson puts William’s ailments down to his being a hypochondriac opium addict, but for Dorothy, she reserves really enquiring and thoroughgoing treatment. What were Dorothy’s headaches like? Was she anorexic? What exactly was wrong with her oft lamented bowls? Was it mostly her mind which had the problem? It is the historian of footnotes and the collector of tiny details in me that is so excited by this.

All this illness and wandering however, has, over time, added to the impression that there was something flagrantly odd about the household of William and Dorothy. Historians and literary academics have looked at William’s mysterious “Lucy” poems and at Dorothy’s journal in which she describes an odd scene between them on the morning of William’s wedding, and they have concluded that brother and sister were lovers. Wilson approaches this narrative with both incredible depth of research, in so far as that is possible, and also with real imagination. In fact, she brings out and acknowledges the significance of the imagination of others in the whole idea. Not a usual approach for a biographer, but an excellent and a memorable one.

9 comments:

  1. I must read this now! I too never used to be very interested in biography, but now I'm fascinated by the way others chose to resolve the problems they faced, and - well, just to live their life. You've made this one sound a really sensitive evaluation of a woman we've all heard of, and admired probably, but maybe not understood very well.

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  2. What a fantastic review, Hannah. You've incited my appetite for more on this remarkable woman. Thanks.

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  3. I heard a Blackstone podcast that brought this to my attention, and the way you've described it makes it even more appealing!

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  4. Leave it to you, Hannah, to review this with such dash. I've always been fascinated by the Wordsworths, not least of all for their weirdness. This has been on my reading list for some time.

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  5. better known as the sister whom William Wordsworth may have slept with

    This is why biography depresses me, sometimes. She should be better known as the author of The Grasmere Journal, a great piece of literature.

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  6. What a great review! I have had this book on my TBR pile for some time having stumbled across it (as with all the best book purchases!) in a charity shop. I think I was worried it would be a bit of a dry read, but your review has made me desperately keen to get reading!

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  7. Great review-I love a good literary biography-I recently read and loved Victoria Glendinning biography of Elizabeth Bowen-an old book from 1977 and a brand new wonderful biography of Katherine Mansfield by Kathleen Jones

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  8. What a wonderful review! You've made me want to track this book down and read it - thank you!

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  9. I loved this book so thanks for reminding me of it with such an interesting review. I love biography especially literary & historical biography & this was a fantastic example of the genre. I read Dorothy's journals strtaight afterwards & the two books illuminated each other.

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