The spinster sister of the immortal poet William Wordsworth was present at the creation of his and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1799 Lyrical Ballads, which gave birth to the Romantic movement in English literature. She was also present throughout her famous brother’s adult life. Brother and sister, among the five Wordsworth siblings orphaned and separated at an early age, would rejoin when Dorothy Wordsworth was 24 and William 25, and they would live under the same roof until William’s death 55 years later.
Theirs was an extraordinarily loving relationship, and Dorothy’s prose is credited with influencing her brother’s poetry by the keen observations on nature she recorded in the journals William encouraged her to keep. An example from Dorothy’s journal:
One leaf on the top of a tree—the sole remaining leaf—danced round and round like a rag blowing in the wind.
From her brother’s poem Cristabel:
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.
The first of her journals, The Alfoxden Journal 1798, takes up less than ten percent of my volume from Oxford University Press. Of more importance are The Grasmere Journals 1800-1803 because they record Dorothy Wordsworth’s observations of the Lake District which her brother and Coleridge made famous. Dorothy and William moved to Dove Cottage in Grasmere the last month of the eighteenth century. Two years later William married Mary Hutchinsons who, along with her orphaned siblings, had been close to the Wordsworth orphans for many years. There is no jealousy on Dorothy’s part toward the woman with whom she would share the brother she had lived alone with for the previous seven years.
Perhaps that is because as Mary busied herself with mothering the five children she bore William, Dorothy remained William’s companion on their legendary walks throughout the Lake District.
These journals, which are copyrighted by the Dove Cottage Trust, give those of us reading them two centuries later a feel for the minutia of their everyday life: the ringing of distant sheep bells, haystacks in the fields, baking day. Surprisingly, to Dorothy, plodding through the frost of a cold January day was pleasant, but summer heat could send her to bed for days.
For the author of English-set historicals, these journals are an invaluable source for descriptions of the English countryside—its plants, birds, and other creatures—in every season of the year. This little volume is a keeper.—By Cheryl Bolen, whose latest release is Ex-Spinster by Christmas, a House of Haverstock books.