Dorothy Wordsworth Critical Essays

Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.