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Lady of the Lake Country

ISSUE:  Autumn 1987
Dorothy Wordsworth. By Robert Gittings and Jo Manton. Oxford. $17. 95.

Robert Gittings and his wife Jo Manton, who have written a number of popular biographies of English writers, now add another fine work to their credits: the first biography of Dorothy Wordsworth since Ernest de Selincourt’s of more than 50 years ago. Dorothy’s fame rests on her Journals of daily life in the Lake District and the inspiration she gave her brother William as a companion, friend, and amanuensis.

The Wordsworths were a middle-class family. The father John, a lawyer, was an employee of James Lowther (Lord Lonsdale), known to literary buffs for the meanness with which he treated James Boswell when he attached himself to him toward the end of his life in the hope of gaining one of the seven Parliamentary seats Lonsdale controlled. The Wordsworth family had the rent-free use of a handsome house on the main street at Cockermouth, where the children were born, and a position of some influence in the district. Lowther was a thoroughly unpopular personage, really somewhat mad. After the early death of their father and mother, the Wordsworth children were virtually penniless, although Lowther owed the family 7,000 pounds which he refused to pay. They were dispersed among relatives and lived on their charity. Dorothy and William were separated for many years, but at the age of 19 Dorothy (born in 1771) decided to live with William, whom she preferred to all her other brothers. Five years later the poet and his sister set up housekeeping in Dove Cottage at Grasmere in the romantic Lake District amid the fells and lakes they constantly explored on foot.

When William married Dorothy’s best friend, Mary Hutchinson, the arrangement became a ménage à trois, and this continued to the end of their lives.

Like most women of her class, say the authors, Dorothy received “a poor, scattered education.” When she was 22, she told a friend, “You expect to find me an accomplished woman and I have no acquirement to boast (of)… I have nothing to recommend me to your regard but a warm, honest, and affectionate heart.” But she was mistaken. She had a literary gift, and her passionate love of nature, and keen eyes and ears, exerted a great influence on her brother, as shown in The Lyrical Ballads published in 1798, whose avowed purpose, according to the Preface, was “to inspire a taste for the blessings of nature, the love of labor, and the dread of riches.” Much of this inspiration came from Rousseau and the Romantic novel of his follower Bernardin de St. Pierre’s Paul and Virginia.

Gittings and Manton have done a remarkable job in tracing the details of the lives of Dorothy and William, especially their ramblings and hikes. It was not too much for them to visit friends a hundred miles from home and walk all the way and back. Until Lowther died in 1802 and his heirs paid off his debts, they were too poor to keep a horse. Real security did not come until in 1813 Lord Lonsdale made Wordsworth Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland County and the Penrith district of Cumberland.

Dorothy was an unflinching admirer of her brother’s poetry, to some of which she contributed suggestions and, even more, actual phrases and tropes. In turn Wordsworth addressed her directly in many poems under the name of Emma or Emmeline. She addressed him in her Journal as “My Beloved” and with other endearments. She could see no faults in his poetry, even when it was excoriated by the critics. She resented the famous dictum of Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review, on “The Excursion,” published in 1814: “This will never do!” “He played the fool,” Dorothy replied to a friend. But a year later she admitted, “We shall never grow rich; for I now perceive clearly that till my dear brother is in his grave his writing will not produce any profit. , . . This I care no more about. . . . His writings will live.” That Dorothy was more than a silent partner to her brother is shown in the respect and friendship accorded her by William’s literary friends: Lamb, Hazlitt, Crabb Robinson, Coleridge (with whom she was probably in love), and others.

Much of the Gittings-Manton book is based on Dorothy’s Journals, first published in 1897, which chronicle Dorothy and William’s hikes and rambles, often accompanied by Coleridge (until he fell out with them). The difficulties of bringing up a large family on a small income, she said, “forced us to be self-reliant in provisioning, baking, brewing, repairs, laundry, gardening, shoemaking, etc.” and coping with the hazards of primitive medicine or no medicine, for the illnesses contracted in a damp, cold climate that resulted in high childhood mortality. This was the simple life Wordsworth extolled in his writings.

Dorothy, weighing hardly a hundred pounds, mainly ran the extensive household, including seven children, until her health broke down, in middle age. Occasionally she took care of a bachelor brother and other members of the clan who needed help. The best portrait of this indomitable woman is given by De Quincey, who was for a time a neighbor and close friend and later became tenant of Dove Cottage, in his Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets. “The young lady,” he said, “had no personal charms” and “did not cultivate the graces.” She was short “and lacked all feminine accomplishments and appeal, . . . The least painful impression was that of unsexual awkwardness. . . . Her movements were sharp and outward; her face was tanned from living much out of doors and doing field work; her eyes were wild and startling, and hurried in their motion.” Even her occasional stammer suggested nervous tension.

Her “subtle fire of impassioned intellect and communion with nature and humble folk had humanized Wordsworth’s austere genius,” said De Quincey. She gave him, so to speak, eyes with which to see. Listening to her, De Quincey was struck by the originality of her speech “and freshness of intellect, the brilliant or bewitching effects of her casual speech or writings.”

After the Wordsworths gained a measure of prosperity, thanks to Lowther, both the poet and his sister dropped their liberalism and moved into the Tory camp, as in the parliamentary election of 1818. Dorothy “regarded this triumph of electoral corruption with the most astounding complacency,” say the authors of the biography. They were now recognized and feted by the gentry. “Lord Lowther actually came to stay at Rydal Mount (their new home) for three days,” Dorothy told an old friend, “and my sister (Mary Wordsworth) and I liked him very much. . . . I wish not success to any opposers of the House of Lonsdale; for the side that house takes is the good side!” This reviewer has had the pleasure of getting to know the current James Lowther slightly, He is even wealthier than the mad Lowther or the latter’s heirs, sits occasionally in the House of Lords, has married and divorced several women, is a tough businessman, and a silent politician—a chip off the old block.

Wordsworth’s switch from Liberalism to Toryism occasioned Browning’s poem, “The Lost Leader,” with its famous opening lines:

Just for a handful of silver he left us, Just for a riband to stick in his coat . . .

Dorothy’s middle age was marked by illness leading to senility and the dreadful Alzheimer’s disease (not then identified), which destroys the brain and leaves the person a mute, helpless organism—a slowly decaying vegetable. Both Dorothy and William, according to De Quincey, showed such a “premature old age — that strangers invariably supposed them fifteen or twenty years older than they were.” William died in 1850, age 80, full of honors, poet laureate; his sister lived till 1855, aged 84. They are buried, along with other Wordsworths, in the Grasmere churchyard, beside a little stream that gurgles on its way to the larger river. Thousands of visitors come every year to see Dove Cottage, but not many look into the churchyard not far away.


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