Reviewed by Harriet
She who dwells with me, with whom I’ve lived
With such communion, that no place on earth
Can ever seem a solitude to me.
So wrote William Wordsworth in one of a great many tributes in his poetry to his beloved sister Dorothy. Separated in childhood after the death first of their mother and then their father, they lived apart for a number of years until in their early twenties they were finally reunited and spent an idyllic summer together in a remote cottage near Keswick in the Lake District. The closeness they established there would remain undiminished throughout their long lives. Both of them were writers, but while William’s poems became gradually better known and finally celebrated before his death and have remained so ever since, Dorothy eschewed publication and is generally viewed simply as a sweet, natural writer of diaries which her brother sometimes plundered for his own work. Lucy Newlyn’s important book does much to reverse this view, and to show how importantly reciprocal the work of both siblings really was.
In reassessing this important relationship, Newlyn focuses on the trauma suffered by the orphaned William and Dorothy, and the pain of their separation, and argues that through their intensely close and loving bond they strove to rebuild their lost family and to recover their communal identity. In her analysis she draws on an impressive body of scholarship – not just literary studies of the Romantic period, but also life-writing, psychology, literary theory and other disciplines. All this is fascinating, but of course the writings of both the central figures form the core of this immensely readable book. It’s impossible not to be moved by the many examples from William’s poetry in which he expresses his love and gratitude to Dorothy for all she has done for him. It seems clear that the first real indication, in an early poem, of one his primary subjects, the interaction between man and nature, came into being under her influence. ‘She gave me eyes, she gave me ears’, he wrote in another early poem. She rescued him from what sounds very like a breakdown and ‘preserved me still a poet’. And, though he was clearly devoted to his wife Mary, the greatest love poetry he wrote was about his sister, as in his poem ‘Home at Grasmere’, written soon after they took up residence in Dove Cottage:
Mine eyes did ne’er
Rest on a lovely object, nor my mind
Take pleasure in the midst of happy thoughts,
But either She whom now I have, who now
Divides with me this loved abode was there,
Or not far off. Where’er my footsteps turned
Her Voice was like a hidden Bird that sang;
The thought of her was like a flash of light
Or an unseen companionship, a breath
Or fragrance independent of the wind.
As for Dorothy, her Grasmere Journal clearly shows her deep devotion to her brother, and the great closeness that existed between them (‘Oh the darling! Here is one of his half-bitten apples…’), and it’s impossible to read her account of her feelings on the day when her brother married Mary and brought her home without great sympathy for her pain. While Newlyn does not deny that there are definite erotic overtones in the relationship, however, she refuses to go down the sometimes rather well-trodden path of suggesting incest.
Newlyn’s book follows the siblings through the whole extent of their long lives, detailing towards the conclusion Dorothy’s sad decline into Alzheimer’s. The devotion and sacrifice of her brother and his wife were exemplary – refusing to put her into any outside care, they nursed her at home, and her only quiet and happy moments were when William read her extracts from poetry she loved – mostly his, sometimes her own, occasionally Milton. Indeed he noted that even when she seemed beyond the reach of any understanding, if he paused in his reading she would finish the poem herself from memory.
All this makes the book an invaluable joint biography and a wonderful resource for teachers and scholars of these two important writers. But what makes it stand out even more is Newlyn’s demonstration of the close collaboration that existed between them when it came to their writing. It’s always been almost too easy to pick on passages from Dorothy’s journals and show how they were transmuted into William’s poems – ‘Daffodils’ is a supreme example, but there are several others. The suggestion has always been that William read the journals and chose extracts to put into verse, but Newlyn argues that this is too simplistic a view. Indeed, she suggests that they may well have been writing side by side, each using their preferred medium to express their feelings and reactions. She looks closely at all Dorothy’s writings – the early journals were only the beginning of a lifetime of recording experiences and travels, mainly in prose but sometimes in poetry – and shows how significant her perspective is, both viewed as and in itself and read in conjunction with her brother’s.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone interested in this fascinating creative partnership. It manages to be both scholarly and immensely readable, with, of course, the exemplary notes and bibliography we always expect from Oxford University Press.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and spent many years studying Wordsworth and his circle. She was particularly chuffed to find an essay in the bibliography that she had written herself (under a former name) and completely forgotten about.
Lucy Newlyn, William and Dorothy Wordsworth: All in Each Other (Oxford University Press, 2016). 978-0198728146, 386pp., paperback.
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