Getting to know Dorothy Wordsworth

By Pamela Woof
Dorothy Wordsworth was a poet’s sister but she only became truly aware of the significance of that relationship when it burst on her when she was fifteen and a half. She had been separated from her four brothers and father when she was six at the death of her mother. Her girl-hood, in many ways  very happy, was in Halifax. The boys meanwhile were at school in Hawkshead. Dorothy met her brothers as adolescents in Penrith at their grand-mother’s. She came from Halifax to make and mend shirts for her next elder brother, William, the future poet, who was soon to become a student at Cambridge. That was in 1787. The children’s father had died unexpectedly in 1783.
The children met as orphans, and only, at first, for a short time in the school holidays. Dorothy was in rapturous joy; she wrote about it to her school friend in Halifax. The boys seemed like a gift to their sister, and she to them. But there was also grief, because of the knowledge of loss. So much had been lost by the five children of John and Ann Wordsworth of Cockermouth that should have been shared. They had few common memories and experiences; they had no home. Nor was there financial security; their father’s employer, Sir James Lowther, did not pay the arrears owing to his late law-agent John Wordsworth. Relations and guardians were not always generous.
The grief was as sharp as the joy; the mourning for the death of parents and the delight in new shared experiences were particularly important for the only girl, Dorothy, and her nearest brother, Wordsworth. They found each other sympathetic. Dorothy of course had not had the freedom of the fells as her brother had had, but she had wandered the moors about Halifax with Jane Pollard and her sisters, gathering bilberries. Nor had she had her brother’s education but she liked reading; she had read and enjoyed the longest novel in the eighteenth century, Clarissa by Richardson when she was fourteen, and she and Jane Pollard sent letters between Halifax and Penrith expressing their views about a modern poet called Robert Burns. She eagerly discussed poetry with Wordsworth, encouraged him to write – and offered criticism. The boys encouraged her to read, with Homer (in translation) and Milton to start with. At fifteen she began her education in English Literature.
Wordsworth became more and more important to Dorothy emotionally, as well as intellectually. He was an adventurous, perhaps rash young man, and Dorothy from her grandparents’ and from her uncle’s, watched over him rather as a parent might. Without parents the two were warmly protective of each other. Wordsworth did not disappoint his sister when he learnt Italian (not part of the course) at Cambridge, or neglected to work at mathematics and so make it impossible to obtain a fellowship. She completely understood. When, instead of working for his examinations, her brother took a whole summer vacation to walk through France and across the Alps in order to experience the sublime, Dorothy with admiration followed his progress on the map. She accepted his radicalism and fervour for the French Revolution and spent more time learning French when she learnt about Annette and her brother’s child born at the end of 1792.
Viewed with some asperity by his uncles, Wordsworth was fully supported by his sister and when Dorothy herself was over twenty-one and old enough to leave her uncle’s guardianship, she chose, as soon as it was possible, to share her brother’s problems and life. It was not easy: the war, the impossibility of helping Annette, the failure of the Revolution, the rise of French aggression and Napoleon, the lack of money, and all the time Wordsworth’s efforts to write and be published, to change the world.
But Dorothy believed her brother was a true poet, and he knew that she was the most sensitive reader he could possibly have as a daily companion. The two of them talked together, discussed words and feelings, examined the memories that should have been shared, learnt about each other. Wordsworth told her, for instance, that as a school boy, like other school boys, he would catch and kill white butterflies because they were Frenchmen! Dorothy told him that she would not catch butterflies because she feared to brush the dust off their wings. Out of their talking about childhood butterfly memories, learning about each other, Wordsworth wrote a fine poem: a small example of their sympathetic communication. Dorothy, so excited by coming to live in the heart of the Lake District kept a journal of their life in Grasmere for a short time; Wordsworth knew she could write, and she knew he would have pleasure in her writing.
And so we have, in all Dorothy’s writing, journals and letters, a vivid portrayal of trees and plants and birds in their seasons, of hills and lakes and rivers, of wind and weather, of the beggars and poor who walked the roads that Dorothy and Wordsworth walked, of the friends who came and talked in the garden they created on the fell-side. The world that Dorothy made for her brother and herself was one of loving activity, and he with her and she with him had an everyday peace in which both could think and write and feel.
When marriage and children came to Wordsworth, his sister, with some real tremors at first, knew that that was good, and loved the new family that in some ways brought consolation for the lost family of her own childhood.
In later life when Dorothy became ill, her brother and Mary his wife cared for her with absolute devotion. She was, for him, a perfect sister, and more than that, a muse for his poetry; he felt she understood; and Dorothy felt that he understood and loved her.
They were, as we say, totally ‘sympathique’.
Pamela Woof is a former Lecturer in Literature in the Department of Lifelong Learning, Newcastle University and is President of The Wordsworth Trust. In 2013, she wrote and published ‘Dorothy Wordsworth: Wonders of the Everyday’ to accompany the exhibition of the same name.