Thursday, April 30, 2009

A life bound by despair

The Grasmere Journals are a set of four diaries that William Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy kept during her time in Grasmere. They span the period from 1800 to 1803 and are a ravishing portrait of sylvan English life. In the Grasmere Journals, Dorothy, the talented, poetically inclined sister of the master of Romanticism, notes everything from the changes in the weather to the siblings’ shared admiration for Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was a friend.

But the Grasmere Journals are most well-known for the cryptic, though not less passionate for that, references of Dorothy’s love for William. Countless scholars down the ages have tried to define this peculiar intimacy, always stopping short of calling the relationship between the siblings incestuous. Now Frances Wilson launches a biographical panorama that finally does justice to Dorothy’s long and eventful life.

Born in 1771, Dorothy spent her childhood away from William (the siblings were separated after their mother’s death), and this may have permanently defined — or, more appropriately, defiled — her vision of happiness. Her intense love for William is said to have originated in the lack of familial love she experienced as a child. When she and William spent a blissful six weeks together in Forncett in 1790, Dorothy wrote of how “his attentions to me were such as the most insensible mortals must have been touched with.”

The peaks of her life and love occurred at Dove Cottage in Grasmere—coterminous with the time described in the Journals. Curiously, the thought of starting a journal appeared to Dorothy at the time William was away visiting Mary Hutchinson, who he was to later marry. Her first entry morosely evokes the passage of her brothers William and John to Yorkshire: “I sate a long time upon a stone at the margin of the lake, & after a flood of tears my heart was easier.”

This sombre tone returns throughout the Journals, accompanied by headaches that Dorothy diligently records. The Journals themselves are bookended by the relationship between William and Mary. If William’s visit to Yorkshire was Dorothy’s reason to start writing, his marriage to Mary finally drags a dagger through the Journals’ heart — and hers. As Wilson writes, “[Dorothy] can stand it no longer. When she looks from her window at the two men running up the avenue to tell her that the wedding is over, she throws herself down on the bed, where she lies in a trance, neither hearing nor seeing.”

The Ballad takes the form of such imaginings, astute and immediate, and supplements them with actual notes from the Journals. Not that Wilson does not go beyond the time spent at Dove Cottage. Wilson’s book traces the remainder of Dorothy’s life, first at Dove Cottage and later at Rydal Mount in nearby Windermere, but throughout the stress is on those bygone halcyon days at Grasmere.

In an interesting aside, Wilson compares the relationship of William and Dorothy to that between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. She even suggests that Brontë may have based her iconic characters on the brother-sister duo. Certainly, Brontë’s story owes fantastically to intense sibling love, as Wilson explains:

“Catherine and Heathcliff, raised as brother and sister in the same family, evolve from childhood inseparability into a hybrid of such inward-looking self-consumption that the disappearance of one means the nonexistence of the other...The two of them shift between dread of separation and fear of engulfment.”

Further, she explains how the romantic ideal of Catherine and Heathcliff—and indeed, of William and Dorothy—is sexless:

“Like Dorothy and William, they [Catherine and Heathcliff] have sexual desires but not for each other. Sexual desire feeds on distance and separation, and what Catherine and Dorothy describe is proximity and sameness.”

Dorothy Wordsworth drifted from the wildness of her youth to endure the death of her beloved and later, towards the end of her life, was gradually consumed by mental illness. Dipping tantalisingly into the personal and the provocative, this fascinating, never dull book thumpingly reclaims a life consigned to the shadows by posterity.

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