All Before Me: A Search for Belonging in Wordsworth’s Lake District by Esther Rutter

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Review by Simon Thomas

In the past decade, a trend has developed where the lines between biography and autobiography, between non-fiction and memoir, have collapsed in on themselves. The author of a non-fiction work is no longer expected to keep themselves distant, a Hermione-Lee-esque figure who hides behind a towering pile of research, never revealing anything about their own life and identity. Instead, the process of doing research is increasingly part of the narrative itself. Subject and object will interweave, and the resulting books are – in my opinion – much richer and more satisfying works for it. Among some of the most renowned and successful are H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, and the impressively prolific output of Olivia Laing. Now, we can and should add Esther Rutter to that number.

The first chapter of All Before Me opens like this:

It is the beginning of December 2008 when I travel to Cumbria for an interview at the Wordsworth Trust. In my rucksack are pyjamas, wash things, a sleeping bag, and a towel, squashed underneath a neatly folded dress that I hope will still look smart tomorrow. Though the interview will last only an hour, I need to stay overnight: Suffolk to Grasmere is a journey that takes a day each way by public transport. My mum waves me off at the station, and as the train pulls away I feel my stomach lurch. The giddy nausea that has been a hallmark of my illness is still with me, and I feel shaky in the hope that ahead lies a future preferable to the mess I’ve made at home.

Full disclosure: I knew Esther when she was making this journey. She was – and is – a good friend of mine, having studied English together at Magdalen College, Oxford University. The journey Esther writes about here took place 18 months after we’d finished studying – and the events of the intervening period are the catalyst for All Before Me.

But before we get to that – what is the biography to go alongside this autobiography? All Before Me doesn’t just look at Esther Rutter’s arrival in Grasmere, in the Lake District, but also at the man and woman who arrived there many years earlier: William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy.

I had rather blithely assumed that the Wordsworths were from the Lake District, with which they are so famously associated – but Esther Rutter’s book shows how arriving there was a spiritual homecoming after long years in other parts of the country, often kept apart from each other by the demands and expectations of other relatives. Unsurprisingly, Dorothy has fewer freedoms than her brother – and there is a version of their lives where they never got to live together, so creatively, in Grasmere. 

What the Wordsworths were seeking was not only kin but kith: a sense of being in their rightful place. Kith means one’s own country, one’s individual acreage. It refers not necessarily to land owned, but to somewhere a person feels that they belong, a place which is somehow part of themselves: the metaphorical cosiness of ‘hearth and home’ translated into landscape. 

I’m cutting a long story short, but you can see how easily Esther draws parallels between her own move to Grasmere with the Wordworths’. It is similarly a new start, a new hope. And the reason that Esther needed that new beginning was because of what happened in 2007/08: she had a mental breakdown and was sectioned while working in a school in Japan.

If I may speak personally for a moment – I remember thinking how cool it was that Esther was moving to Japan, doing something so adventurous and unexpected after university. I remember the letters and emails we sent back and forth – and then the radio silence, and the sudden move back to the UK, and piecing together what had happened. It wasn’t until reading All Before Me that I fully understood what Esther had been through – and she is brilliant at immersing us in her life there. In Japan, she was not living in Tokyo or any touristy area, but somewhere remote where her not-fluent Japanese made her more of an outsider. The loneliness and uncertainty are portrayed so well, and if there are lacunae in the descriptions of the breakdown and the experience in the psychiatric institution, that somehow gives a more accurate sense of Esther Rutter’s own dislocation during that time.

Back in England, starting work at the Wordsworth Trust, we are immersed in a whole other world. Over the course of a year there, Esther would find friends, her future husband, a job and community she loved, and a gradual improvement of mental health. Reading it as a friend was a moving experience, but I expect it would be moving for a stranger too. We feel part of this new world so deeply and fully – whether it be a group of 20-somethings getting to know each other in a house overlooking Dove Cottage, or listening to a poetry reading in a church, or going climbing with a local man she could be falling in love with. Many people have written about the idyllic beauty of the Lake District, but this is something different. It’s a beautiful portrayal of the excitement, joy, relief, caution of discovering yourself.

All Before Me leans a bit more to memoir than biography – the Wordsworths are always there, and Esther Rutter draws expertly on their letters, diaries, verse and the quotes and memories of others. Having worked at the Wordsworth Trust for a number of years, she is an expert who can draw confidently and unpretentiously on a great deal of knowledge and research. Alongside this, she draws on her whole life. Yes, the year in the Lake District and the time in Japan – but also many stages before that, from family life across the decades and through her university years. It is sometimes shockingly honest, fully open about painful family crises, deeply felt relationships, and periods of unhappiness. The book never feels self-indulgent or unduly melancholy, because Esther is equally honest and vivid in describing moments of delight, of peace, of love.

All Before Me is an extraordinary book – a page-turner that is also beautifully written, each page feeling somehow like a mixture of diary entry, philosophical reflection, travel writing, and poem. Whether or not you have any pre-existing interest in the Wordsworths, this is a book to rush towards, and to treasure.

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Simon is a co-founder and an editor-at-large of Shiny. His blog is stuckinabook.

Esther Rutter, All Before Me: A Search for Belonging in Wordsworth’s Lake District (Granta, 2024). 978-1783787951. 336pp, hardback

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