Wonders of the Everyday – Dorothy Wordsworth

Silhouette of Dorothy as a young woman (The Wordsworth Trust)

Silhouette of Dorothy as a young woman (The Wordsworth Trust)

This blog is yet to look at the life and works of that sometimes under-appreciated but nonetheless literary resident of Dove Cottage, Dorothy Wordsworth. For the first time, the Wordsworth Trust has an exhibition solely dedicated to Dorothy – if you haven’t already seen the ‘Wonders of the Everyday’, it is open until 5th January and contains a huge variety of rarely-seen material. The Journal is contained within four tiny volumes (the fifth has been lost) and has recently been placed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register.

One year younger than her more famous sibling, Dorothy was the only girl in a family of four boys and after her mother died when she was six, she only rarely saw her brothers. Dorothy was a prolific letter-writer and diarist, and it is thanks to her Grasmere Journals that we know what life in Dove Cottage was really like for the Wordsworths. It was not only William (referred to hereafter as ‘Wm’) and Dorothy who lived together in Grasmere; their brother John also spent several weeks and months sharing the small cottage with his siblings, and in 1802 they are joined by Wm’s new wife and childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson (MH).

What we now called the Grasmere Journals were never intended for publication – Dorothy states the reasons for keeping a journal as ‘so that I will not quarrel with myself’ and ‘to give Wm pleasure by it.’ Although she was not celebrated as a writer during her own lifetime, her extraordinary sensitivity and responsiveness to art and nature were remarked upon by those who knew her. Thomas De Quincey, friend of the Wordsworths and subsequent tenant of Dove Cottage, observed that:

Is the young woman in the top corner Dorothy Wordsworth? (The Wordsworth Trust)

Is the young woman in the top corner Dorothy Wordsworth? (The Wordsworth Trust)

‘Her eyes were not soft nor, were they fierce or bold; but they were wild and startling, and hurried in their motion. Her manner was warm and even ardent; her sensibility seemed constitutionally deep; and some subtle fire of impassioned intellect apparently burned within her’.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who perhaps was even a little in love with his close friend’s sister, noted that, whilst she was not startlingly beautiful, ‘her eye watchful in minutest observation of nature’ and ‘her information various.’

In 1897, 52 years after her death at the age of 84, William Angus Knight first published an edited version of Dorothy’s Journal, and it has been a puzzle and a joy to its readers ever since. Here is Dorothy’s entry from this day, 213 years ago:
Friday, 17th October 1800

A very fine grey morning. The swan hunt. Sally working in the garden. I walked round the lake between ¼ past 12, and ½ past one – wrote to MH. After dinner I walked to Lloyds – carried my letters to Miss N and MH. The Lloyds not in – I waited for them. Charles not well. Letters from MH, Biggs & John. In my walk in the morning, I observed Benson’s honey-suckles in flower, & great beauty. It was a very fine mild evening. Lloyd’s servants came with me to Parkes. I found Wm at home, where he had been almost ever since my departure – Coleridge had done nothing for the L. B. Working hard for Stuart. Glow-worms in abundance.

As this is a private diary, Dorothy uses her own shorthand and has the customary 19th century disregard for our modern conventions of capitalisation. A glance at Pamela Woof’s excellent footnotes helps to unlock some of the more obtuse references: ‘The L. B.’ is Lyrical Ballads; ‘The Swan Hunt’ refers to exactly that (cygnets were considered a delicacy); ‘Biggs’ is a reference to Nathaniel Biggs, business partner for Wordsworth’s Bristol publisher Joseph Cottle; the Parkes are a family who lived at Nab Cottage, Rydal.

As Dorothy may have seen Grasmere - William Taylor Longmire, Grasmere 1878

As Dorothy may have seen Grasmere – William Taylor Longmire, Grasmere 1878

The true beauty of the Journal s in the way Dorothy notices the natural world about her: ‘a very fine grey morning’, ‘honey-suckles in flower, & great beauty’ and ‘glow-worms in abundance’. Her eye for the miracles of nature is as fine-tuned as her brother’s, if not more so. In a way, her lasting (if largely unrecognised) contribution to the literary world has been to enable Wordsworth to compose poems such as ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ and ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’, both experiences which she records faithfully and in lively detail months or even years before William creates his poems. It is well worth a quick comparison of Dorothy’s entry from 15th April 1802 with William’s poem of 1804:

15 April 1802 journal

15 April 1802 journal

“When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road.
I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway. “

And again, her influence can be seen in this entry from 31 July 1802:
It was a beautiful morning. The City, St Pauls, with the River & a multitude of little Boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge. The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke & they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of one of nature’s own grand Spectacles.

Having read these, I always have to question who is the true originator of Wordsworth’s famous poems – and if they were published today, would they be co-authored?

You can read the accompanying exhibition catalogue for ‘Wonders of the Everyday’ here – https://wordsworth.org.uk/shop/dorothy-wordsworth-wonders-of-the-everyday.html

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