Amateurs: Dorothy Wordsworth & Jane Carlyle

Dorothy Wordsworth
Dorothy Wordsworth; drawing by David Levine

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…

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