"Ponderynge together yestardayes promise, and two-dayes doyng"
(Hall's Chronicle - 1548)


"Goronigl gwyr yr Ynys" (Lewis Glyn Cothi - 1450)

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Reading Dorothy Wordsworth

Dove Cottage from an illustration of 1882

Readers of this blog will have noticed that I have been using Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal below the title heading to mark the progress of the year. In the current entry above she records travelling from London with William for his marriage to Mary Hutchinson following an extended stay in France where he settled his affairs with Annette Vallon, the mother of a child by him that he had never seen because of the impossibility of visiting France after the French Revolution.

Dorothy’s Journal was begun when she and her brother William settled for a while in Alfoxden, Somerset to be near Coleridge. The so-called Alfoxden Journal records everyday incidents and the responses to nature and the passing seasons during 1797 and 1798. It also records indirectly the development of the friendship between both the Wordsworths and Coleridge at this time. But it was not written for public consumption so gives glimpses rather than a full account of this process.

William was the main reader of the Journal and apparently encouraged Dorothy to continue the practice of keeping it when they set up home together at Dove Cottage in their native Lake District. The so called Grasmere Journal runs from May 1800 to January 1803. Many incidents recorded in the Journal also occur in William’s poems, notably the famous ‘Daffodils’ vision which Dorothy describes in some detail.


Reading between the lines of the Grasmere Journal, we perceive the developing relationship between William and Mary Hutchinson – and the parallel attraction between Sara Hutchison and Coleridge who could not pursue it because he was already married. Dorothy’s often matter-of-fact comments often reveal anxieties that were, perhaps, not fully on the surface. Her simple “poor Coleridge” is easy enough to put in context in retrospect, as the nature of the relationship with Sara is now well-known. Her feelings about William’s attraction to Mary emerge more subtly in images of domestic dislocation which display less obviously what must have been uncertainties about her own continuing close relationship with her brother after his marriage. These reached a culmination in the entry where she notes, following the positive comments on their arrival at the Hutchinson’s house, that she was ill for most of her stay.

Further on she records

“On Monday 4th October 1802 my brother William was married to Mary Hutchinson.”

A little further on in the same extended entry she writes:

“William had parted from me upstairs. I gave him the wedding ring – with how deep a blessing! I took it from my forefinger where I had worn it the whole of the night before – he slipped it again onto my finger and blessed me fervently. When they were absent my dear little Sara prepared the breakfast. I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men running up the walk, coming to tell us it was over, I could stand it no longer & threw myself on the bed where I lay in stillness, neither hearing nor seeing anything, till Sara came upstairs and said ‘They are coming’.”

These words are heavily scored through in the Journal and have been restored for publication. After this the tension eases and there is a detailed account of the several days the three of them took travelling back to Grasmere. Dorothy clearly felt in retrospect that her expression here was best hidden perhaps even from William’s eyes. The Journal continues in more relaxed manner for the rest of the year, then ends when the notebook runs out in January 1803. There are later diaries of trips to Scotland and the Continent. But here the Journal ends.

Should Dorothy’s private words, whether scored out or not, be revealed to the public gaze? Perhaps not. But I would not be without them. The Wordsworths have by now become an industry. Dove Cottage itself is visited by hordes of tourists annually “To sink their eyes into a room/Filled with the unused and unworn.” in Geoffrey Hill’s distanced view of the proceedings. It might be thought to say much about modern cultural fetishism, but the cottage was purchased for this purpose in 1890. The Wordsworths moved out in 1809 to a larger house at Rydal Mount and it was subsequently occupied by Thomas De Quincy. Leaving it temporarily before his marriage in 1802 William had written “Farewell thou little nook of mountain-ground” and described it as “The loveliest spot that man has ever found”. If it is hard to recover that loveliness as a modern visitor jostling others around the tiny spaces within the cottage, it can be intimately recreated in a quiet reading of Dorothy’s Journal.


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