The Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth offer surprising dividends to the reader who turns to them in search of information about the author’s famous brother William, for Miss Wordsworth was herself a remarkably sensitive and perceptive observer of man and nature, as well as a gifted prose writer. Her surviving works are of two kinds. She left daily notes about her life at Alfoxden and Grasmere, where she lived with her brother between 1798 and 1803, and about holiday excursions in the Lake Country, Germany, and on the Isle of Man. Working from notes taken on two other trips, she composed long accounts of her tour of Scotland with Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1803 and of her travels on the Continent with her brother, his wife, and several friends in 1820. These journals were written simply for the entertainment of friends, but Dorothy’s smooth narrative style and her gift for conveying local color make her pages worthy of comparison with Johnson’s and Boswell’s more famous accounts of their trip to the western isles of Scotland.
The journals of the years at Alfoxden and Grasmere inevitably have the greatest interest for the modern reader, for they reveal most clearly Dorothy’s own personality and her relationship to her poet brother during the years in which he produced many of his finest works. Her description of her life during this period gives a vivid impression of her as a modest, self-effacing woman who dedicated herself to caring for her family and friends. The dominant force in her life was her passionate affection for William; at times she speaks of him in terms more applicable to a lover than to a brother. She kept house for him until his marriage to Mary Hutchinson, and she remained a beloved member of their household, helping rear several nieces and nephews and caring for the many friends who paid extended visits, among them Thomas De Quincey, Sir Walter Scott, and William Hazlitt.
Dorothy had boundless faith in William Wordsworth’s genius, and she took upon herself the task of removing all the inconveniences, distractions, and practical matters that were obstacles in the way of his writing. She spent many evenings copying the poetry he had composed on his daily walks, and she indicates that she sometimes suggested improvements. Comments like these appear on almost every page of her journals: “William composing in the wood in the morning,” or, “William worked all the morning at the sheepfold, but in vain,” or, “William was afterwards only partly successful in composition.”
Her concern for William’s health and poetic powers was extended to his friend and colleague, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was an almost constant visitor at Alfoxden and Grasmere. Dorothy and William watched with great distress Coleridge’s increasing lassitude, his dependence on opium and alcohol, his despair over his uncongenial marriage that sapped his creativity. Among the saddest of Dorothy’s comments are her resigned statements about his work; more than once she notes, “Coleridge had done nothing for the Lyrical Ballads.”
Dorothy’s aid to William did not end with cooking and copying. She had a fine mind, kept alert by wide reading; she mentions at various times enjoying Henry Fielding’s AMELIA, Boswell’s work, Shakespeare, and the poetry of Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson. She shared her brother’s feeling for the natural world. Often, immediately following a prosaic account of a domestic errand, will come a description of a scene she and William enjoyed on an evening walk: “A deep stillness in the thickest part of the wood, undisturbed except by the occasional dropping of the snow from the holly boughs.” On another occasion she tells how they first observed the crescent moon, a silvery...
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