Dorothy Wordsworth Essay - Critical Essays

Wordsworth, Dorothy


Dorothy Wordsworth 1771-1855

English journal writer, epistler, and poet.

The following entry provides criticism on Wordsworth from 1874 through 1999. For additional information on Wordsworth's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 25.

A prolific writer of journals, poetry, narratives, and letters, Dorothy Wordsworth published few of her works during her lifetime. Since her death, however, nearly all that she wrote has been published. Wordsworth had an ambivalent relationship with her identity as an author, choosing instead to play a supporting role to her famous brother, William. Her reticence and humility notwithstanding, the literary world has recognized her work, and particularly her journals, for their considerable insight into the social, political, and cultural concerns of her community.

Biographical Information

Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, England, on December 25, 1771, to John and Ann Cookson Wordsworth. Her early childhood was financially comfortable, as her father earned money and authority as caretaker of the legal affairs of a wealthy landowner, James Lowther. After her mother's early death, however, Wordsworth was sent, at age six, away from her beloved brothers to live with various relatives—some of whom treated her more as a servant than as family—and eventually to boarding school. When she was twelve, her father's death precipitated a monetary crisis that forced Wordsworth to leave boarding school and live with her mother's cousin Elizabeth Threlkeld for a few years, and then with her maternal grandparents. She continued her schooling while with Threlkeld, then was tutored by her uncle, Reverend William Cookson. This provided her with enough of an academic foundation that she could help establish and run (with her uncle's new wife) a small school at her next residence in Forncett. Wordsworth's living situation was finally resolved as she had hoped when she and William set up their own household in Racedown in 1795. Despite the objections of relatives who both doubted their ability to support themselves and predicted considerable social embarrassment, the Wordsworth siblings essentially remained together for the rest of their lives—even when William Wordsworth married and had children. They moved as an extended family in 1797 to Alfoxden, and, in 1799, to Grasmere. With William's wife, Mary, Wordsworth helped to care for the house and for Mary and William's children. She also made a number of significant journeys throughout the ensuing decades, each of which contributed to her famous journals. In 1812, after the death of William's children Catherine and Thomas, the family moved to Rydal Mount, where Wordsworth remained until her death. For about the last ten years of her life, she suffered ill health, both physical and mental, and she died at age eighty-three, five years after her brother's death.

Major Works

With her brother William and their close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth lived at the center of the literary world of English Romanticism. She wrote her unpublished and privately read (by friends and relatives) journals while William Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote some of the most famous Romantic poetry. Both authors brought Wordsworth's literature to the public eye by making use, sometimes liberally, of her imagery and observations. The Alfoxden Journal, written in 1798 (published in 1958), for example, rich with descriptions of both the natural world and the social world, provided language and metaphor for William Wordsworth's poems “Beggars” and “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” The Grasmere Journals, compiled from 1800 to 1803 (also first published in 1958), detail the complex relationship between the Wordsworth siblings—including a mutual devotion that has resulted in considerable wonderment and commentary. These journals also contain some very evocative depictions of Wordsworth's conflict and consternation regarding her role as a woman in nineteenth-century England, unmarried in another family's home, and committed to her brother's writing above her own. Critics consider her next key work to be Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, A.D. 1803 (1874), a tour Wordsworth made with William and Coleridge (and without Mary and her children). As was not the case with her journals, Wordsworth wrote this meticulous travel journal for an audience of appreciative friends, though this, too, despite the circulation of five manuscripts, was only published posthumously. Other major texts include George and Sarah Green: A Narrative (written around 1808 and published in 1936), a prose meditation describing her community's response to the death of a local couple in a snowstorm and the orphaning of their eight children. Critics have noted how much the narrative reveals about Wordsworth's involvement with the community, as well as the depth of her philosophical ruminations about the nature of community and social responsibility. Wordsworth also wrote poetry throughout her writing career, often around the theme of childhood—her own and that of her brother's children. Three of those poems—“To my Niece Dorothy, a sleepless Baby,” “An address to a Child in a high wind,” and “The Mother's Return”—were published in a collection of her brother's without her name attached; the rest, around thirty, were published posthumously, nearly a century after her death.

Critical Reception

Since the earliest publications of her work, critics have noted their appreciation of Wordsworth's scrupulous attention to detail and her willingness to let that detail evoke broader concerns. Her work is rich with implication rather than overt revelation, but still manages to relate much about her own intellectual, psychological, and emotional development, and, theorists suggest, that of other women in similar situations. Her tendency to include information about women in circumstances other than her own, especially vagrants, many of whom came to her door, has yielded similar insight. Admiration of her unpretentious language, vivid imagery, and musical prose is common to the modern commentary on Wordsworth's work. Since their publication, commentators have scrutinized the relationship between Wordsworth's journals and her brother's poetry, sometimes crediting her as an essential inspiration to his genius. The journals have also offered literary critics and biographers valuable information about William Wordsworth's life and works. In the latter half of the twentieth century, critics have analyzed the journals' relationship to the picturesque and Romantic traditions, arguing for more inquiry into Wordsworth's rhetoric. Critics increasingly read her domestic vignettes as subtle social analyses that explore the role of the individual in his or her various communities. More recently, the journals have led critics to discuss what constitutes a literary text, an author, or an authority, raising questions about the relationship between gender and subjectivity. Throughout, critics remain fascinated by how, despite the scarcity of the first person pronoun in her journals, such a bold portrait of the author emerges from their pages.

Principal Works

Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, A.D. 1803 (journal) 1874

*Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. 2 vols. (journals) 1897; expanded and revised edition, 1941

The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. 6 vols. (letters) 1935-39; revised edition, 1967-93

George and Sarah Green: A Narrative (prose) 1936

The Poetry of Dorothy Wordsworth: Edited from the Journals (poetry) 1940

Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth: The Alfoxden Journal, 1798; The Grasmere Journals, 1800-1803 (journals) 1958; revised edition, 1971

Dove Cottage: The Wordsworths at Grasmere, 1799-1803 (journal and letters) 1966

The Collected Poems of Dorothy Wordsworth (poetry) 1987

*The revised edition contains the most complete version of the Journal of a Tour on the Continent.

†This work includes letters by William Wordsworth.

‡Published as Appendix One of Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism.


Harper's New Monthly Magazine (review date December 1874)

SOURCE: “Editor's Literary Record.” Harper's New Monthly Magazine 50 (December 1874): 137.

[In the following excerpted review, the anonymous author assesses Wordsworth's Recollections of a Tour made in Scotland, making special note of the preface written by the journal's editor.]

Not the least interesting part of Dorothy Wordsworth's Recollections of a Tour made in Scotland, a.d. 1803 (G. P. Putnam's Sons) is the preface by the editor, Principal J. C. Shairp. Those readers who recall De Quincey's graphic and gossipy account of Wordsworth and his sister will read with peculiar zest, heightened by this glimpse of the poet's simple life, Principal...

(The entire section is 284 words.)

The Literary World (review date 19 February 1887)

SOURCE: “Review of Dorothy Wordsworth.The Literary World (19 February 1887): 54-55.

[In the following review, the anonymous author praises Edmund Lee's biography of Dorothy Wordsworth for its unusually full appreciation of Wordsworth's intellect and personality.]


In the literary annals of later England the name of Dorothy Wordsworth holds an honored place, and yet to the majority of readers she who bore the name has been little more than a gracious satellite shining in the glory of her famous brother. Wordsworth himself spoke of her in no doubtful way, likening her to the spring that went before his...

(The entire section is 762 words.)

Robert Con Davis (essay date winter 1978)

SOURCE: Davis, Robert Con. “The Structure of the Picturesque: Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals.” The Wordsworth Circle 9, no. 1 (winter 1978): 45-49.

[In the following essay, Davis finds that Wordsworth's journals investigate some of the philosophical implications of the picturesque.]

Essentially an eighteenth-century aesthetic, the picturesque was eventually rejected by most Romantic poets. Relying heavily on the picturesque in the Alfoxden-Grasmere journals, Dorothy Wordsworth raised two important questions about its meaning. What does the picturesque say about man and nature, about the phenomenal world? And, why does it collide with Romantic...

(The entire section is 2714 words.)

Alan Liu (essay date spring 1984)

SOURCE: Liu, Alan. “On the Autobiographical Present: Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals.Criticism 26, no. 2 (spring 1984): 115-37.

[In the following essay, Liu asserts that Wordsworth is a master at representing the self as part of its present occupation, a relationship he paraphrases as “I work therefore I am.”]

A genius of the journalistic is Dorothy Wordsworth, who in 1801 became the keeper of William's memorial genius. Writes Dorothy to Coleridge on May 22, 1801:

Poor William! his stomach is in bad plight. We have put aside all the manuscript poems and it is agreed between us that I am not to give them up to...

(The entire section is 9549 words.)

James Holt McGavran, Jr. (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: McGavran, James Holt, Jr. “Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals: Putting Herself Down.” In The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings, edited by Shari Benstock, pp. 230-53. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, portions of which were presented in 1982, McGavran explores William Wordsworth's impact on Dorothy's perceptions and representations, especially of herself.]

The “beauteous forms” of the Wye valley, which William Wordsworth simultaneously describes, remembers, and idealizes for his sister Dorothy in “Tintern Abbey,” enable him through sense, emotion, and thought—blood,...

(The entire section is 9697 words.)

Susan J. Wolfson (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Wolfson, Susan J. “Individual in Community: Dorothy Wordsworth in Conversation with William.” In Romanticism and Feminism, edited by Anne K. Mellor, pp. 139-66. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Wolfson asserts that Dorothy Wordsworth's poetry reveals a desire to investigate and, in some cases, reject William Wordsworth's “favored tropes and figures.”]


Dorothy Wordsworth is known primarily as a writer of journals and recollections, and though passages in these works have impressed readers such as Virginia Woolf with “the gift of the poet,” her actual poetry has attracted little critical...

(The entire section is 14443 words.)

Anita Hempill McCormick (essay date fall 1990)

SOURCE: McCormick, Anita Hempill. “‘I shall be beloved—I want no more’: Dorothy Wordsworth's Rhetoric and the Appeal to Feeling in The Grasmere Journals.Philological Quarterly 69, no. 4 (fall 1990): 471-93.

[In the following essay, McCormick argues for a more complex analysis of Wordsworth's rhetoric in the Grasmere Journals.]

Traditionally the readers of Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, from Virginia Woolf to her recent biographers Robert Gittings and Jo Manton, have seen her writing as transparent and Dorothy as transparently selfless. Such influential scholars as Ernest de Selincourt and Mary Moorman portray Dorothy Wordsworth as an ideally...

(The entire section is 10046 words.)

Pamela Woof (essay date summer 1991)

SOURCE: Woof, Pamela. “Dorothy Wordsworth and the Pleasures of Recognition: An Approach to the Travel Journals.” The Wordsworth Circle 22, no. 3 (summer 1991): 150-160.

[In the following excerpt, Woof praises Wordsworth's journals for their “humanness” and unique expressions of pleasure.]

Journals we shall have in number sufficient to fill a Lady's bookshelf,—for all, except my Brother, write a Journal.

(MY, II, 625)

So Dorothy Wordsworth to Catherine Clarkson at the beginning of the Continental Tour on July 23, 1820. A shelf-full of Journals! And Wordsworth, though he refrained...

(The entire section is 9778 words.)

William C. Snyder (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Snyder, William C. “Mother Nature's Other Natures: Landscape in Women's Writing, 1770-1830.” Women's Studies 21, no. 2 (1992): 143-62.

[In the following essay, Snyder contends that the picturesque movement provided particular intellectual opportunity for women artists, Wordsworth among them.]

In the last three decades of the eighteenth century, the merging of two concurrent phenomena—the solidification of picturesque values and the proliferation of women artists—yields an imagery that resists seeing Nature as Mother. Progressive women artists at the end of the century and even through Romanticism tend to limit mothering impulses to human expression,...

(The entire section is 3544 words.)

Pamela Woof (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Woof, Pamela. “Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals and the Engendering of Poetry.” In Wordsworth in Context, edited by Pauline Fletcher and John Murphy, pp. 122-55. Canterbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1992.

[In the following essay, Woof studies the relationships between Dorothy Wordsworth's journals and William Wordsworth's poems.]

The story of how some of Wordsworth's poetry was engendered can be pieced together from Dorothy's Journal, and this will be the subject of the first part of this paper. The second part will be a discussion of some of the characteristics of prose poetry that Dorothy engendered in her own writing. Her accounts...

(The entire section is 13562 words.)

Katherine T. Meiners (essay date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Meiners, Katherine T. “Reading Pain and the Feminine Body in Romantic Writing: The Examples of Dorothy Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge.” The Centennial Review 37, no. 3 (fall 1993): 487-512.

[In the following essay, Meiners considers the role of the experience of suffering in the creation of meaning and selfhood for Romantic writers, including Dorothy Wordsworth.]


Romantic Encounters with illness and pain precipitate crises of intelligibility, moments when intense pain makes a sufferer unintelligible to others as much as to herself. The nineteenth-century witnesses an increased tendency to professionalize such suffering and turn...

(The entire section is 5649 words.)

Lucinda Cole and Richard G. Swartz (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Cole, Lucinda and Richard G. Swartz. “‘Why Should I wish for Words?’: Literacy, Articulation, and the Borders of Literary Culture.” In At the Limits of Romanticism: Essays in Cultural, Feminist, and Materialist Criticism, edited by Mary A. Favret and Nicola J. Watson, pp. 143-69. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, the authors recognize the role that Wordsworth and other women writers of the eighteenth century played in the struggle to “police, protect, and promote the bounds of literariness itself.”]


Near the end of his life William Wordsworth...

(The entire section is 9990 words.)

Kay K. Cook (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Cook, Kay K. “Immersion.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 10, no. 1 (spring 1995): 66-80.

[In the following essay, Cook claims that Wordsworth's journals constitute autobiography despite the absence of the first person pronoun.]

The following passage from Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere journal captures fragments of a day in early autumn. The year is 1800, and Wordsworth and her brother William have recently moved into Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in the English Lake District:

[September] 14th, Sunday Morning. Made bread. A sore thumb from a cut. A lovely day. Read Boswell in the house in the morning, and after dinner...

(The entire section is 6357 words.)

Lisa Tyler (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Tyler, Lisa. “Big Brother Is Watching You: Dorothy Wordsworth's Alfoxden and Grasmere Journals.University of Dayton Review 23, no. 2 (spring 1995): 87-98.

[In the following essay, an abbreviated version of which was presented in 1993, Tyler reads Wordsworth absence from her journals as a narrative strategy of self-protection designed to prevent her brother from appropriating her personal observations.]

The chief observation—and critique—that virtually everyone makes regarding Dorothy Wordsworth's journals is that they display an alarming absence of subjectivity. Critics use almost identical terms to describe this quality in the journals: Bruce...

(The entire section is 5631 words.)

Alexis Easley (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Easley, Alexis. “Wandering Women: Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals and the Discourse on Female Vagrancy.” Women's Writing 3, no. 1 (1996): 63-77.

[In the following essay, Easley scrutinizes Wordsworth's ideological relationship to the vagrant women who are frequently mentioned in her journals.]


During the time that Dorothy Wordsworth was composing the Grasmere Journals (1800-1803), English society was engaged in a heated debate over what to do about the vagrant poor. Industrialization and enclosure laws had produced a large transient population that traveled from parish to parish,...

(The entire section is 7190 words.)

Alan Grob (essay date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Grob, Alan. “William and Dorothy: A Case Study in the Hermeneutics of Disparagement.” ELH 65, no. 1 (spring 1998): 187-221.

[In the following essay, Grob purports that, at the end of the twentieth century, “adversarial tactics of feminism and the New Historicism” have distorted Wordsworth scholarship.]

Of the convulsive changes that have worked their way through the field of Romantic—and especially Wordsworthian—studies during the postmodernity of the past thirty years, none seems more truly ominous than many critics' virtually wholesale adoption in the past decade of those adversarial presuppositions that now seem to shape and govern almost all...

(The entire section is 15124 words.)

Anca Vlasopolos (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Vlasopolos, Anca. “Texted Selves: Dorothy and William Wordsworth in The Grasmere Journals.a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 14, no. 1 (summer 1999): 118-36.

[In the following essay, Vlasopolos considers The Grasmere Journals in the context of late-twentieth-century notions of gender and authorial integrity.]


Anyone undertaking a reading of The Grasmere Journals will be going over much traveled terrain, especially in regard to the relations between Dorothy and William during those crucial years that confirmed Dorothy as William's lifetime companion and William as a poet. To...

(The entire section is 8809 words.)

Jill Ehnnen (essay date winter 1999)

SOURCE: Ehnnen, Jill. “Writing Against, Writing Through: Subjectivity, Vocation, and Authorship in the Work of Dorothy Wordsworth.” South Atlantic Review 64, no. 1 (winter 1999): 72-90.

[In the following essay, Ehnnen considers Dorothy Wordsworth's authority as a writer within the context of the intricate issues of female subjectivity found in the Romantic movement.]

In the past few years I've taught selections from Dorothy Wordsworth's journals to undergraduates several times—both in introductory surveys and in seminars on British Romanticism. This paper is motivated partially by my students' reader responses to Dorothy's work. Each time I assign the texts...

(The entire section is 6690 words.)

Further Reading


Fadem, Richard. “Dorothy Wordsworth: A View from ‘Tintern Abbey.’” The Wordsworth Circle 9, no. 1 (winter 1978): 17-32.

Focuses on the question of Wordsworth's sanity.

Lee, Edmund. Dorothy Wordsworth; the story of a sister's love. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1887, 226 p.

Provides an early discussion of Wordsworth's life.

Willy, Margaret. “Dorothy Wordsworth.” In Three Women Diarists, pp. 19-31. London: Longmans, Green & Company, 1964.

Comments on Wordsworth's life and writings.



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