The Group

William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth; drawing by David Levine

p>On the 5th of February 1805, John Wordsworth, William’s sea captain younger brother, drowned at the age of thirty-two when his ship broke up in a gale off the south coast of England. News of the disaster reached London two days later, and Richard Wordsworth, eldest of the five Wordsworth siblings, a lawyer in the city, immediately dispatched a letter to the little cottage at Grasmere in the Lake District in which William and his unmarried sister Dorothy had been living since 1800, joined there toward the end of 1802 by William’s newly acquired wife, the former Mary Hutchinson. It was Mary’s sister Sara Hutchinson, visiting her old school-friend Mrs. Cookson some miles away at Kendal, who intercepted that letter on February 11, after it had got as far as Rydal, and walked on with it to Grasmere. She had probably been alerted to the catastrophe from a newspaper account.
William, as she presumably knew, at this time saw no newspapers, “not even a weekly one, so that I am in utter ignorance of what is doing in the world.” Guessing that there might be a letter from London waiting, and what it would contain, she determined to deliver it personally to the Wordsworths, while offering what comfort she could in what she was aware would be a situation of appalling grief. Certainly she does not seem to have been expected on the 11th at Grasmere. Sara herself may well have been contemplating marriage to John Wordsworth, and her prompt action was not only generous but seems little short of heroic.

The adult inhabitants of the Grasmere cottage at Town End were indeed devastated. Dorothy wept uncontrollably for days, and remained ill for some time. William, distraught, would be blocked creatively for months. Mary (as usual), although also deeply upset, held the household together with, at least for a week, the help of her sister. Wordsworth did, however, manage a letter to his brother Richard on the evening of the 11th: “We wish you were with us,” he wrote. “God keep the rest of us together! the set is now broken. Farewell.” On March 19, more than a month later, in another emotional letter to Richard, he was admitting, “I am sometimes half superstitious, and think that as the number of us is now broken some more of the set will be following him.”

In both letters, Wordsworth clearly intended “the set” to be understood as Dorothy and himself, Richard, Christopher, and John, a family group of five siblings from which one brother was now missing. Beneath this, however, lurked another meaning. unavailable to his lawyer brother, but of great significance to Wordsworth himself: a partially overlapping but different, and even more closely knit, “set” of six. From this group too John had just been brutally subtracted. There was, moreover, one surviving member of it about whom all the others…

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