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Amateurs: Dorothy Wordsworth & Jane Carlyle

Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle do not present clear possibilities for comparison, but it is not out of order to think of them as products of their place in life—side by side with two of the greatest men of nineteenth-century England. The two women seem to have their being and to have their “work”—if that is the proper word for the journals and letters by which they are known—from the dramatic propinquity of William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle. Were they happy or unhappy? Was it enough: the letters, the gatherings at Cheyne Row, the visitors to Grasmere, the household anecdotes, and the walking tours recorded? A sort of insatiability seems to infect our feelings when we look back on women, particularly on those who are highly interesting and yet whose effort at self-definition through works is fitful, casual, that of an amateur. We are inclined to think they could have done more, that we can make retroactive demands upon them for a greater degree of independence and authenticity.

Dorothy Wordsworth is awkward and almost foolishly grand in her love and respect for and utter concentration upon her brother; she lived his life to the full. A dedication like that is an extraordinary circumstance for the one who feels it and for the one who is the object of it; it is especially touching and moving about the possibilities of human relationships when the two have large regions of equality. It is rare and we can only be relieved that Wordsworth understood and valued the intensity of it, did not take his responsibility to it lightly or try to hurt his sister so that his own vanity might be freed of all obligation. (George Lewes, one of the most lovable and brilliant men of his day, gave the same kind of love to George Eliot and to the creation and sustaining of her genius. A genuine dedication has a proper object and grows out of a deep sense of shared values. It is not usual because the arts, more than any other activity, create around them—at home, with those closest, in the world, everywhere—a sense of envy.)

We are no longer allowed such surrenders and absorptions as the Wordsworth brother and sister lived out. The possibilities for this kind of chaste, intense, ambitious, intellectual passion are completely exhausted. Wordsworth would hardly be allowed, or wish, to dream of setting up with Dorothy in a cottage, managing their frugal life, starting out with her help on his great career. Leslie Stephen has him in youth mooning about uselessly on free will, right and wrong, revolution, conscience, and “the mysteries of being.” Godwinism, with its carefree notions about family ties, was a temptation until Dorothy persuaded him of what he wished above all to be persuaded of: that he was a poet, nothing else. “It meant, in brief, that Wordsworth had by his side a woman of high enthusiasm and cognate genius, thoroughly devoted to him and capable of sharing his inspiration…. His sister led him back to nature….”

Wordsworth was not attractive in appearance. Dorothy, walking behind him, said, “Is it possible—can that be William? How very mean he looks!” No doubt she was not thinking of her own vision, but painfully imagining the skeptical, loveless eye of a stranger upon the precious person. De Quincey, discoursing upon the valuable, muchtested Wordsworth legs, says, “But useful as they proved themselves, the Wordsworthian legs were certainly not ornamental; and it was really a pity, as I agreed with a lady in thinking, that he had not another pair for evening dress parties….”

Still, dispiriting as his manner and appearance could be at times, Wordsworth had a surprising, if somewhat dour, gift with women. He established difficult, enduring relationships and kept them going with a pedestrian sort of confidence and trust. His affair in France, when he was young, with Annette Vallon was ended by prudence and a little heartlessness. His money ran out and he was propelled homeward by the firmest sense of destiny. He clearly could not, as a young man, live on in France and he could not support a wife, and he did not need a foreign one. But he kept in touch with Annette, he visited her on his tours, he met his illegitimate daughter—no hard feelings. Respect, instead.

He married a tranquil, retiring, maternal woman who had once to him been “a phantom of delight”—or so we are told. They had five children. Two died very young. A much-loved daughter died before the poet. William, his wife Mary, and Dorothy lived on and on. William was eighty when he died, Dorothy was eighty-four, Mary Wordsworth lived to be ninety. It was a thorough achievement: love, years, and poems. He never lacked the absolute devotion of women. His daughter, Dora, entered the list. There was no reason, even for the abandoned Annette, to fall entirely out of love with the nice, preoccupied genius who meant her no harm, whose pride did not need to inflict pain, plan humiliations. But what did Dorothy signify to him, what do his words really mean? And what did Carlyle actually think about his wife? Did he indeed think about her, seriously?

Dorothy and William Wordsworth were almost the same age. They lived all their long lives together except for a few journeys she made with a friend. They were in their twenties when they visited the Lake Country and decided to settle there. This was one of those decisions, those plot turns of destiny that we cannot question as if they were ahead of us rather than behind us. True it was forevermore narrowing, confining, and defining, but the country seemed to represent Dorothy’s undeviating inclination even more than William’s. Other possibilities had already offered themselves to his mind—the city, the university, abroad, radical groups. Dorothy’s life is overwhelmingly affected by the residence in the country: he becomes her occupation, her destiny, and what is left over goes to his family, to the hard work of living in the early 1800s.

Hiking trips, observations, the local people, Coleridge, poems read over and over each night by the fireside—this was the natural landscape of Dorothy Wordsworth’s interests and talents. Her mother had died before she was eight her father when she was twelve. She was sent to her maternal grandmother who didn’t much like her, then taken to an aunt, finally adopted by an uncle. From her earliest years her situation was close to the dreaded one we find in novels: she was a female orphan. The dearest things mysteriously vanished from her life. She had only her intelligence, her exacerbated sensibilities, and her brother.

There was always something peculiar about Dorothy Wordsworth; she is spoken of as having “wild lights in her eyes,” and is remembered as excitable and intense. There is something about her of a Brontë heroine, a romantic loneliness, a sense of having special powers of little use to the world and from which one tries to extract virtue if not self-esteem. She is said to have received several marriage offers, perhaps even from Hazlitt in one of his manic moods. It is hard to imagine any true sympathy between the austere, trembling Dorothy and the Hazlitt who complained that there were no courtesans in Wordsworth’s “Excursion.”

The enthusiasm for a quiet country life with her brother and his family perhaps cannot be wholly endorsed by contemporary women critics or by female readers given to skeptical wonderings about arrangements and destinies. Still, for Dorothy Wordsworth it was a kind of conquest; lucky, safe, and interesting. It kept her from the horror of “independence” as this condition presented itself to respectable, sensitive young women without sufficient means. The simple, earnest seclusion she had at the beginning with her brother was threatened by Wordsworth’s marriage to Dorothy’s friend, Mary Hutchinson. But again this worked and she found with them a ground of support, duty, reverence she could stand on. What alternatives were there—being a governess? Suitable marriages were almost impossible without money, beauty, or some of the scheming acquisitive nature of the lucky young women in the novels of the period. Perhaps writing could have saved her. She wrote, but it was her brother’s writing that truly became her lifelong work.

Her journals were begun early, spurred on by William. It appears that he realized the need of an “occupation” for Dorothy, an anchor for her free-flying emotions and impressions. The first notes made at Alfoxden in 1798 set the pattern for all of her writing. It is a peculiar one, trapped in the very weather of the days, concentrating upon the bare scenic surface, upon the ineffable and more or less impersonal.

Bright sunshine, went out at 3 o’clock. The sea perfectly calm blue, streaked with deeper colour by the clouds, and tongues or points of sand; on our return a gloomy red. The sun goes down. The crescent moon. Jupiter and Venus.

What rivets the attention in this early journal is not the moon or the mild morning air, but a sudden name. “Walked with Coleridge over the hills,” or “walked to Stowey with Coleridge.” Even in her youth in the lake region, nature is not a sufficient subject for the whole mind. To name it, to paint it with words is indeed a rare gift. But it is a gift almost dangling in the air. It is the final narrowness of the pictorial, the frustration of the quick microscopic brilliance, unroped by generalization.

In “The Grasmere Journal” a few years later, the brief, jagged portraits of country people begin, but there are also desperate hints of vulnerability. When William goes away, loneliness and panic creep in; the time is ruined by the longing for letters, the need for exhausting walks so that one could sleep. William was utterly necessary to give this isolated life meaning; without him the tranquility was a burden; alone it was nothing but waiting, filling time. Still he returned and the three months or so at Grasmere with Coleridge, while William was writing the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, were probably the best of Dorothy Wordsworth’s life.

The journals are not so much an ambition as a sort of offering. Dorothy seems almost to be making a collection of sights, storing away moments and memories for his poetry. Much of what she wrote down is absolutely small, the merest reminder of the sun giving out its rays one moment and withdrawing them the next. She tried later in life to write some poems of her own and they are not good. She did not understand meter and wasn’t, in any case, really happy with formal constructions. Most of all she lacked generalizing power. When Wordsworth says in “Tintern Abbey” that “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her,” he was wrong in every way. For him the wanderings, the hikes, gave a sort of scenery into which he poured meaning, philosophy, morality. For Dorothy they were like moments of love, pure sensation that held the meaning of her life without clearly telling her what that meaning was.

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