The Wordsworth family was gentlemanly. John W. Wordsworth, father of the poet and three more sons, as well as a daughter, Dorothy, was an attorney and the agent of a rapacious magnate who, on the father’s early death, declined to pay his children a large sum that had been due to him. Since their mother had also died, the whole family now consisted of orphans. William, the second child, was thirteen years old; Dorothy was twelve. Their poverty did not prevent William from attending a good grammar school and, later, with the support of an uncle, St. John’s College, Cambridge; but it did keep Dorothy on the move from one relative to another. She attended two different schools in Halifax, Yorkshire, lived above a shop in Penrith, and was taken in by a clergyman uncle in Norfolk. She was granted a glimpse of high life when this uncle became a canon of Windsor and lived in Windsor Castle with his family for three months in 1792, when Dorothy was twenty-one.
Meanwhile William was missing classes in Cambridge and walking prodigiously in France, where he experienced a surge of pro-revolutionary excitement and also impregnated Annette Vallon, whom for various reasons, chiefly expressed as shortage of money, he did not marry. Annette became something of a heroine in the royalist cause. It is often argued that the poems Wordsworth was writing on his return to England show how upset he was about deserting Annette, but he seems, characteristically, to have left to Dorothy the task of informing the family of her existence, and that of their daughter Caroline.
Dorothy herself complained that she had so far seen very little of her brothers, but it was above all with William that she wanted to share a home, and a home in their native Lake District. When he returned from France in 1793 they had been parted for three years. Wordsworth then had one of those strokes of luck that Thomas de Quincey later marveled at; without doing much about it himself, William seemed to attract benevolence. A fellow student named Raisley Calvert bequeathed him £900. The will that made the bequest contained a codicil stating that part of this sum should be used for the benefit of Dorothy. Wordsworth celebrated the legacy in the opening lines of his long autobiographical poem The Prelude:
Now I am free, enfranchised and at large,
May fix my habitation where I will….
The earth is all before me….
Long months of ease and undisturbed delight
Are mine in prospect
—and presumably Dorothy’s also.
At this stage of their lives William and Dorothy gave little thought to prospects of future income. The Calvert legacy provided for suitable housing in the Lake District. Meanwhile they had a house in the southwest of the country, provided free, by a Bristol merchant’s…
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