Research, Live, Write, Repeat

I’ve not blogged much about the book I’m writing at the moment. Partly because there’s not much to say about it yet, partly because I’m not sure what shape it will finally take. But the process of constructing it (and at the moment it feels very much like the scaffolding’s just been put up) is quite fascinating in its own right – well, to me at least. It’s a little tricky to fit research and writing around the full-time job (and, you know, having a life) but I do find it interesting and absorbing. It also means I can honestly say ‘I’m writing a book’! So this is a little post about what I’ve discovered so far on my quest to become a fully-fledged biographer.

First, there’s the hours spent in the archives, riffling through boxes, reading old letters and trying to decipher generations of family trees.Basically, it’s being legitimately nosy.

Someone should have installed an inergen system (museum nerd joke)

Someone should have installed an inergen system (museum nerd joke)

I’ve absolutely adored it – one big surprise was to discover that the main archives that I’m using had a pretty serious fire in 2009, so several boxes of documents are singed and everything still smells of smoke, even six years later. An earnest archivist has done their best to neaten up the documents by cutting off the worst of the burned bits, but the trouble with this is that it makes any attempt at deciphering the damaged writing impossible, as the top part of each page is often missing entirely.

A little friend in the archives

A little friend in the archives

On the plus side, I’ve discovered some lovely little sketches in the margins of pages: look at this little chap!

Although this is a poet’s archive, a lot of the poet’s early manuscripts were written on medical notepaper or discarded hospital paperwork. Patient lists, notes between doctors, clinic timings: my subject was a medical receptionist so she had a lot of this kind of waste paper to hand to jot down ideas and drafts for her poems. It’s all over 30 years old now, but it does give one that eerie feeling of distant proximity to people’s private lives, even those who are only incidental, tiny players in the story of another life. Man Hat1The hospital she worked at in the 1970s and 1980s specialised in neurology so typed words like hydrocephalus, anosmia, and neurosyphilis show through the page, like ghosts under the drafts of poems. The fascination with the ‘neurologically deficient’ that Oliver Sacks describes (his words, not mine) in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat had a clear effect on my subject too: the first poem she ever wrote is one written in anger at a doctor’s treatment of his patients. [As an aside, you can read a brilliant review of that book over on Stuck In A Book!]

I’m also discovering that you can’t rely on books or newspapers or even obituaries to give you facts. To date, errors and omissions have included:

  • omitting someone’s life-affirming second marriage and mentioning only the first short-lived one, in a national newspaper
  • claiming someone went to a fairly famous school (which in its turn has absolutely no record of them ever having been there)
  • suggesting that someone was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, when the official court transcripts and lists of people present makes no mention of them

It remains to be seen whether I can unearth any truths behind these ‘untruths’, but I  have discovered a few surprises, from unexpected illegitimate children to family feuds spanning over 40 years. Trying to separate what really happened from what people say has happened is time-consuming and I’ll never be 100% certain that I’ve got it right myself, but I love being drawn down the biographical rabbit hole.

That’s about all I can say for now, but I have now at least completed a 5,000 draft of the first chapter: the beginning is begun, now only the remaining 95,000 words of its middle and end to go…

Our house... on our street

Loving the Liebster

The Liebster Awardliebster

My friend over at Melissa’s Compass has nominated me for a Liebster Award – but what is that, I hear you cry? It’s a great way to discover new blogs and to interact with the people who run your favourites, and the rules of the award are:

1. Link and thank the person who nominated you

2. Answer the questions they asked you

3. Pick eleven bloggers with fewer than 3,000 [this number can vary!] followers to nominate them.

4. Ask them eleven questions

5. Let them know by commenting on one of their posts

So my questions from Melissa were:

How did you come up with the name of your blog?

It’s from a quote in Sidney Lee’s Principles of Biography (1911): “Discriminating brevity is a law of the right biographic method.”

Romantic book spines

So many literary figures…

What was your first ever blog post about?

Learning to Love Literature – this was the original name of my blog and it was initially designed as a literary teaching resource. After a couple of posts I realised that my ‘insights’ into classic literature probably weren’t hugely insightful, and that I wasn’t reading enough of it to post on it regularly. But I was reading a lot of auto/biographies – so I decided to write about those instead!


Where is your favourite place to write?

At my laptop, in the armchair in the corner of my living room, when no-one else is in the house.

If you could go anywhere right now, where would you go?

To a polling station in Scotland to feel the mood on this historic day!

What have you been doing today?

Working at this literary museum and historic house in the Lake District. I’ve written a report, answered some emails, tidied my desk… exciting! But it is a very beautiful place  to live and work.

Do you have a favourite author? Roger Deakin's Waterlog

Hmm, more than one! I love Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mary Wesley, Richard Holmes, Roger Deakin, Robert Macfarlane, Joanna Smith Rakoff, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Gwyneth Lewis – my husband always says ‘I don’t do favourites’, which can be sometimes annoying, but I’m with him on this one.

What was the last thing you wrote about?

On this blog? Submitting my work to the Scottish Book Trust to win a competition. Outside of blogworld? 5,000 words of Life Writing for the Mslexia Memoir competition, all about my time living in Japan and first moving to the Lake District.

Would you rather live in a grand castle or a cosy cottage? 

Our house... on our street

Our house, in the middle of our street

Cosy cottage. I actually do live in one of these anyway – here’s a sneaky peak!

What was the first story you remember writing?

The first thing I remember writing was a poem about three witches (green, blue and yellow) which I did once I’d finished my work in year 1 of primary school. My mum still has it! The first full-length story I wrote was when I was in year 7 (aged 12 or 13) about Midgard and the adventures of some fictionalised Vikings. I remember spending ages on it, and then becoming completely convinced it was dreadful, so much so that I didn’t want to show it to my teacher. And I was absolutely gobsmacked when my teacher said it was brilliant.

Do you have favourite letters of the alphabet?

Erm, never thought about it before this question but I do like M (a nice bilabial consonant) and L is beautiful too. And of course E, as it’s my initial.

What is your biggest aspiration?

To be a published biographer. And to run or set up a literary museum or arts organisation!

Now, I don’t think I regularly read 11 blogs so I’m just going to nominate those I do:

Stuck in a Book

Kim Moore Poetry

A Penguin A Week

Grasmere Poetry

Scarlet Pyjamas

I Prefer Reading

And my questions (six for six people) are:

Do you regularly read biographies, autobiographies or anything that comes under the category ‘Life Writing’?

Do you scribble in the margins of your books?

Do you read your books in the bath?

If you could be someone else for a day, who would it be?

Do you keep a diary? If so, how long have you kept it for?

Do you have a favourite sort of weather to read in?

What to do about Dorothy’s Journal

I have been guest-blogging for Oxford Centre for Life Writing to celebrate the third biennial Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry. In each posts I have reviewed an event from the Festival, and looked at events which investigate intersections between life-writing and poetry.

Part I: What to do about Dorothy’s Journal 

Dorothy's Journal copyright the Wordsworth Trust

Dorothy’s Journal copyright the Wordsworth Trust

Incest. Plagiarism. Exploitation. Any biographer of William and/or Dorothy Wordsworth is immediately faced with the challenge of these three hugely controversial matters when talking about the nature of the relationship between these two remarkable siblings. At the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry two Wordsworthian heavyweights, Professor Lucy Newlyn and Dr Pamela Woof, both of whom have published biographies of Dorothy Wordsworth in the last year, tackled these fascinating and thorny issues.

First, what to make of the charges of plagiarism and exploitation? The title of the festival is a nod towards the influence of life-writing on poetry: Dorothy Wordsworth herself is best-known not for her poems (of which there are very few), but for that autobiographical Journal which documented the life of the Wordsworths during the early part of their time at Dove Cottage. This place became the crucible for experiments in life-writing by this unusual and inventive brother and sister: William wrote large parts of his major autobiographical poem the Prelude (‘a poem on the growth of a poet’s mind’) and Dorothy penned her now-famous Grasmere Journal.

However, this journal was never written for public consumption: Dorothy wrote that she kept it ‘so that I will not quarrel with myself’ and ‘to give Wm pleasure by it.’ Yet Dorothy was a skilled diarist: she had already kept an account of their life at Alfoxden and would go on to write Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland in 1803, which she hoped would be published. Her wish never came true within her own lifetime; the Wordsworth scholar Ernest De Selincourt remarked that she was ‘the most distinguished of English prose writers who never wrote a line for the general public.’

However the impact of her writing is undeniable, particularly the impact of her journals on her brother’s poetry. The nature of this creative relationship is a fraught topic of literary debate, as William’s poems seem to draw heavily on Dorothy’s diaries for not only descriptions of specific events (seeing daffodils on the shores of Ullswater, travelling through London at sunrise) but even in their use of metaphors, similes, and the emotional response felt by the viewer. But what was the true nature of that creative relationship – did William stifle Dorothy’s creativity? Worse, did he appropriate her words and ideas and publish them under his own name? Did Dorothy subvert her own creativity in order to support her brother?

Lucy and Pamela’s readings of the creative relationship between the siblings are similar, though not identical, but both believe that this relationship has been wilfully and anachronistically misunderstood by biographers. Lucy began by saying ‘history has made Dorothy William’s acolyte’. Not William, not Dorothy, but the critical reception to their writing has interpreted their relationship thus. Both Pamela and Lucy agree that Dorothy was not an ‘adjunct’ to William, that there was no exploitative element to their relationship. Dorothy, Mary and William all read – or at the very least, heard passages from – the journal, and Lucy paints a picture of the three sitting down together in 1804 reminiscing about the walk by Ullswater in 1802, the siblings’ memories aided by the journal in an (albeit imagined) conversation which drew Mary into their shared history. ‘William later attributed the lines ‘They flash upon the inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude’ to his wife, and said of Dorothy ‘she gave me eyes, she gave me ears’, so this collaborative creativity seems to have been genuine, and in part acknowledged.

Secondly – could their relationship be described as incestuous? The dialogue also focused on interpreting one key episode in the Wordsworths’ lives: what happened between Dorothy and William just before his marriage to Mary Hutchinson in 1802. Dorothy’s journal entry of 4 October of that year details her actions and emotions, but this poses an irresistible challenge to biographers, for several lines of the journal are crossed out and cannot easily be read. Theories abound as to who crossed these out, and why – do they, perhaps, contain the suggestion of an incestuous relationship between the siblings? Pamela Woof relates how, in 1958, an early editor of Dorothy’s Journal, Helen Darbishire, took the manuscript to be examined under infra-red light in an attempt to decipher the words hidden beneath the unknown censor’s scrawl. This confirmed that the ink itself dates from the same time as that which Dorothy used to write the original entry, dispelling theories that a later descendent of Wordsworth, the censorious Gordon Graham Wordsworth, excised passages from the Journals in this way. Pamela’s own reading of the lines is not ‘and blessed me fervently’, but the distinctly less passionate ‘as I blessed the ring gently’. Yet Pamela does not deny the strength of feeling between the siblings: ‘Dorothy certainly was in love with William’, but for her the incest ‘myth’ is just that, not a credible theory about the nature of their relationship.

For Lucy the exchange of the wedding ring by William and Dorothy of the morning of the wedding is without doubt ‘an important ritual at a threshold moment.’ She reminds us that sisters were, at that time when unmarried sisters were often supported by their married siblings, central to the wider family dynamic. But for her, too, the incest theory holds no water.

But Dorothy’s life and writing should not only been looked at in relation to her brother – what about the language of those autobiographical writings? Frances Wilson, author of The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (2008) described it thus: ‘Her prose is defined by modesty and reserve, by the fear of what might happen were she to let herself go.’ This is, however, only one possible interpretation. Pamela Woof, quoting Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’, says that one ‘might see, and notice not’ – but that in contrast, Dorothy always notices. What Wilson sees as ‘modesty and reserve’ Pamela sees as acutely reflective, referencing the image of ‘hawthorn on the mountain like orchards in blossom’ as indicative of Dorothy’s passion for nature and ability to respond sensually and creatively to the world around her. Pamela revels in the ‘less concrete images’ from the Journal, images elusive yet present: ‘a hidden bird, ‘a breath of fragrance independent of the wind’, perhaps allowing them to represent Dorothy herself – someone who is present in both the diaries and her brother’s poems, but only as a fleeting, though inspiring, presence.

Water, water every where

National Poetry Day

Water, water every where...

Water, water every where…

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The theme for this year’s National Poetry Day is ‘Water, Water, Everywhere’, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem of 1798 ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. It’s a gift of a theme for us here at the Wordsworth Trust, where STC and his work feature in our daily tours of Dove Cottage, and also because we live in the wettest part of England, the Lake District. If you’re not already familiar with the poem, you can listen to the mellifluous voice of Ian McKellen in a special recording for the Wordsworth Trust here.

‘Rime’ is not, I must confess, my favourite poem. Although its lines have passed into common idiom (‘an albatross around one’s neck’, along with the aforesaid ‘water, water’) and the images of Life-in-death and the ghostly ship remain with me long after I have closed the book, the rather lengthy preamble is somewhat off-putting, as is the ‘wedding guest’ device.

Coleridge's life mask

Coleridge’s life mask

However, today I performed the entire poem as part of a NPD Poetry Marathon: it took about 25 minutes and it really made me engage with poem’s language. I realised how repetitive it is, but also how effectively that repetition has been deployed. I loved the nightmarish feeling as each new episode loomed into view, more horrific than the last, and felt quite giddy as I recited the final lines (whether from elation or exhaustion, I’m not sure). The audience and performers agreed that one really good outcome of the Marathon was that it gave us the freedom to recite longer poems, which are often overlooked in favour of something sort and snappy which fits in with the usual pigeon-brain poetry-span of people’s attention. In fact, the whole day has been a bit like being tuned into a radio channel playing exclusively poetry, rather than the drone of typing, phone calls, and the whine of the heating system. Huge thanks to everyone who read today – you are all champions of poetry and thoroughly good eggs to boot. You can read the poetry of two of our readers here and here.

Before I go, I just want to mention two of my water-themed favourite poems, ‘Inversnaid’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins  and ‘Amphibians’ by Neil Rollinson, which you can find on page 33 of this anthology. ‘Inversnaid’ is the most evocative of Hopkins’ sound poems, rich in internal rhyme and bubbling with the streams, burns and becks which run through it. The Bodleian Library have the manuscript of the poem (and a wonderful recording to boot) – treat yourself to a listen. Although Inversnaid is in Scotland, the poem feels like an invocation to the Lake District and it often springs to mind when I am out walking.

Neil Rollinson's Amphibians

Neil Rollinson’s Amphibians

‘Amphibians’ was inspired by a long period of persistently wet weather here in the Lakes, when Neil Rollinson was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust. He was one of the first poets I met in person: lying on a sofa, with greasy hair and a leather jacket, smoking a cigarette. The poem describes so accurately the kind of desperation and depression that endless rainy days can induce, yet it is a vibrant poem which is comforting and humorous to read.

One more piece of poetry to send you on your way: the Scottish Poetry Library have produced this beautiful video, incorporating 8 water-themed poems for you to enjoy. Happy National Poetry Day!

Famous Seamus is no more

This late August saw the last days of Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet and playwright who has died aged 74.

The first poem by Heaney I ever read was ‘Blackberry Picking’. In a chaotic classroom with the shame of our former teacher’s breakdown still hanging unspoken in the air, a nervous supply teacher gulped into his beard and read this poem to us:

Blackberry Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

I can’t say that, at thirteen, I loved it. But it did seem hugely real to me – how could he recall something I had done myself, without having been standing there beside me? My best friend and I thrilled and laughed at the ‘rat-grey fungus’, whilst the pathos in the last couplet encapsulates the feeling I love most about autumn: the hope that the last warmth sun will stay forever and the soft sigh of inevitability that it will not.


Studying English at university, I came across Heaney again. This time, he threw me a life raft as I thrashed about in the turbulent seas of Old English Literature, trying to find the whale’s way through the waves of eths and thorns. His beautiful translation of Beowulf allowed me to enjoy the poem, rather than struggling through line after line of painful translation which threatened to rob it of any beauty or descriptive power intended by its initial, unknown, authors.

As I listened to Christopher Ricks’ ‘Many Voices: From the Regional’ lecture, Heaney poked me again. This time he used a proggling stick in The Redress of Poetry, hailing the vernacular poet John Clare as his poetic precursor, linked to him through language.  Having grown up in Suffolk, with a paternal family that spoke Suffolk dialect at home, connecting the vernacular with supposed ‘literary’ language was an eye-opener – or perhaps more correctly, an ear-opener.

This, to me, is Seamus Heaney’s greatest legacy: to open ears to the possibilities of language, not shutting doors to literature and history and people.

William Wordsworth – revolutionary or Turdsworth?

So, we’ll start with William Wordsworth. Rivalled only by Robert Burns in terms of international reputation, this British poet has never been far away from adulation – or condemnation. Wordsworth - revolutionary or Turdsworth?

Named Poet Laureate in 1843, Wordsworth has regularly featured in publications like The Nation’s Favourite Poems and his reputation as the doyen of English poetry has been cemented through events like 2004’s mass recital of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (more commonly known as ‘Daffodils’). However, he has also been lampooned as ‘Turdsworth’ by Byron, been the inspiration (?) behind Francis Jeffrey’s infamous ‘This will never do’ review, and mocked by William Hazlitt as ‘the spoiled child of disappointment.’ Seamus Heaney champions him in this rather retro clip from 1974, but today his popularity seems to be on the wane as he missed out on being included in the BBC’s Top Ten of the Nation’s Favourite Poets in 2009 and he’s in the news again as education specialists and the Department of Education debate the value of studying his poetry, with GCSE examiners urging caution.

Whatever you think about the artistic merit of his poetry or the peculiarities of his temperament, Wordsworth caused a seismic shift in the way poetry was read and written through his assertion that poets should ‘choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men’ (Lyrical Ballads). Together with Coleridge he championed the lives and language of ordinary people for the first time in English literature, writing about a child with learning disabilities in ‘The Idiot Boy’ (‘idiot’ then being a medical term rather than a derogatory one) and a poor leech gatherer in ‘Resolution and Independence’. He also eschewed heavily formulaic Latinate language and his rhymes are peppered with a Northern inflection, rhyming ‘waters’ with ‘chatters’. (For a more in depth look at this, have a look at my blog post for OxfordWords.)
There isn’t time to look at more than one Wordsworth poem in this short blog post, or to go into his life story any further (however, the Poetry Foundation have produced a brilliant potted biography of Wordsworth, along with a list of his best-known poetry.) I have chosen my favourite of his poems, his Valedictory Sonnet to the River Duddon, because it is both beautiful and gives hope for humanity:

I THOUGHT of Thee, my partner and my guide,

As being pass’d away.—Vain sympathies!

For, backward, Duddon! as I cast my eyes,

I see what was, and is, and will abide;

Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide;

The Form remains, the Function never dies;

While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise,

We Men, who in our morn of youth defied

The elements, must vanish;—be it so!

Enough, if something from our hands have power

To live, and act, and serve the future hour;

And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,

Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,

We feel that we are greater than we know.

The subject of this sonnet is not, as is traditional, a lover – instead it is the River Duddon in Cumbria which draws along the full weight of Wordsworth’s sorrow and his hope. The octave deepens into the battle cry of the final sestet half-way through the ninth line – ‘be it so!’ – which is unusual as it breaks the internal rhythm of the line. However, this volta represents the real power of the sonnet, as Wordsworth moves from the past to the future, calling to the hands of every reader that they might have some power therein to change the world. I do not believe there is a more eloquent call to action in the whole of literature.