And here’s my final post from the Dorothy Wordsworth Women’s Poetry Festival, as published on the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing blog. Enjoy!
The Wordsworth Trust’s collection of letters written by the women of the Wordsworth household and their circle provides a fascinating insight into their lives, relationships, and changing roles in this intricately connected family group. The first event of the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry, Women’s Lives through Their Letters, examined some of that correspondence in detail, in particular those by Sarah Coleridge (wife of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), Sara Coleridge (her daughter), and Maria Jane Jewsbury (great friend of Wordsworth’s daughter Dora).
The talks were given by current trainees of the Wordsworth Trust, recent graduates who are on a year-long traineeship at the Trust to gain experience of working in museums and with literary archives.
Letters are a curious sub-genre of autobiography and a vital tool and resource for the biographer. As well as being the only means of communicating with someone who lived too far away from you to speak to in person, they were also a way of maintaining friendships and providing companionship, and to the biographer they are a huge help is deciphering the particulars of events and characters. In a time before telephones and the internet, before newspapers were affordable and widely available, letters were often the only source of information about the world outside your own house, village or town. Although a modern audience may assume that a letter is only for its addressee, letters were often written for consumption by whole households, to be read aloud to those family members who might be too blind, illiterate or busy to sit and read them alone. In the words of Maria Jane Jewsbury, whose letters to her sister were published in 1828 as Letters to the Young, ‘letters are a great deal.’
Maria Jane Jewsbury was a gifted writer who befriended both Wordsworth and his daughter Dora, who was almost four years younger than Jewsbury. Dora herself has recently been the subject of a fascinating dual biography with Sara Coleridge, The Poets’ Daughters by Katie Waldegrave, but a solo Jewsbury biography remains unpublished. Trainee Jessie Petheram focused on the letters between Dora and Jewsbury, which show that the friendship has the intensity of a love affair, particularly for Jewsbury. Her handwriting changes as her words to Dora become more passionate, as she struggles to contain her feelings: Dora is ‘enshrined in my heart’ and Jewsbury writes the following when she announces her engagement to the Reverend William Fletcher: ‘[a]nd now dear Dora, prepare for a surprise…I was called on to decide whether I would be married or not. I found it a harder matter than expected – because I was not in love.’ Some of the surviving fragments of their communication still bear the (fortunately unheeded) legend to ‘burn after reading’, words that both thrill and guilt-trip the reader.
Trainee Adam Lines has been researching the letters of Sarah Fricker Coleridge, the long-suffering wife of the brilliant but opium-addicted Samuel Taylor, who has not been well represented in the surviving letters of those who wrote to and about her. Dorothy Wordsworth described her to Wordsworth’s soon-to-be wife Mary Hutchinson as ‘a sad fiddle-faddler’ and Mary added insult to injury by calling her ‘a stuffed turkey’. She therefore cuts a rather marginalised and unappealing figure, with none of the greatness gifted to her husband or his friends, none of the quickness of Dorothy or the supportive domesticity of Mary. Her biographer Molly Lefebure calls her ‘the most maligned of great men’s wives’, painted as an ‘ill-tempered, unloved ninny’ by biographers of Wordsworth and Coleridge (The Bondage of Love, 1986). As Lefebure notes, biographers have tended to use the published letters of William, Dorothy, Mary and Samuel Taylor when researching their relationships with Sarah Coleridge, as – rather obviously – those letters are published and therefore readily accessible. Sarah’s letters have had no chance to defend her. Those letters are far less easy to access (most of them remain unpublished), but also far less numerous. This is not because she wrote any less than other people of her time, but because she enforced a type of self-censorship in an effort to protect her husband’s reputation, destroying many of the letters relating to the years early of their marriage, Of the 200 or so that survive, those that do are often heart-rending in their emotional honesty.
One particular period of Sarah and Samuel’s lives which was brought to light in this talk was the birth and death of their son Berkeley. Before he left for Germany, Sarah and her husband agreed that she would not ‘burden’ him by writing to him about matters which would distract him from the reason he went there – to improve his mind and develop his writing. With the support of their friend and neighbour Thomas Poole, Sarah struggled not to involve her husband in the increasingly serious domestic crisis that had developed – the illness of their second son Berkeley, who was not yet two years old. Following an as-yet imperfect smallpox inoculation, Berkeley became seriously ill and Sarah finally broke the censure of silence to write to her husband: in her own words ‘I am sorry I let my feelings escape me so’. But the mechanics of the 18th-century postal service worked against her (this was a time before the penny stamp and when postage was paid by the recipient of the letter, not the sender): the letter was sent back to Somerset from the port of Yarmouth as the correct fee for sending the letter abroad had not been paid. In the meantime her husband had written to Sarah asking why he had not heard from her. This letter is just one in a cycle of missed communications, and culminates in the sad fact that it was many months before Samuel Taylor Coleridge knew of the death of his son. Sarah Coleridge puts her finger on the problem: writing to her husband, a man whose vivid imagination had produced ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’, she says, “I pray to God that I may never live to behold the death of another child, for O my dear Samuel! it is a suffering beyond your conception!”