by Nicole Jacobsen
As an intern primarily focused on the curatorial aspects of the Wordsworth Trust, I have the opportunity to work hands-on with many of the Trust’s manuscripts. During the past two months, I have been involved in a project to locate and transcribe all of Mary Wordsworth’s unpublished letters in our collection. The Jerwood Centre’s collection includes over 500 of her manuscripts, so the search has been quite a treasure hunt. I feel much better acquainted with Mary, her life, and personality after having read through and carefully copied over the writing of many of these letters.
In the context of writings about the Wordsworth family, Mary often seems like a secondary character, someone who happened upon the literary genius of William and the passionate perceptiveness of Dorothy and never made a name for herself outside of her husband’s fame. In reading her letters, however, it becomes quite apparent that though her ambition was not to become a well-known figure in the poetic circles of the day, she succeeded as a self-sufficient and capable woman who always kept her family as her first priority.
Mary’s letters reveal much about her concerns and preoccupations. When writing to William, a tender affection and feeling of partnership shines through her even scrawl. Because she only wrote to him while he was away, her longing and the pain of separation is a major theme of these letters. Her willingness to sacrifice for the good of others is evident when she gives William permission to extend his journey: ‘particularly if your keeping to your time is to cost much pain to others, give it up for a short while longer.’ She often writes with tenderness about her children and her concerns for them, this motherly instinct extending to the last decade of her life, when she continues to ask after her grandchildren and influence the family relationships as a whole.
In order to complete a transcription, I first have to locate the letters which haven’t been transcribed, take care while handling them, and then meticulously read over the sometimes quite minuscule handwriting. In order to save on postage, words are crammed in wherever possible, often written in different directions on the same sheet of paper. After the first few letters, I started to notice patterns in her script which helped me decipher the trickier words.
One of the hardest aspects of letter transcription is making out smudged or otherwise difficult-to-read words on the page. As a twenty-first century American student, I live in a completely different frame of reference to Mary’s world in rural England more than two hundred years ago. Context clues are essential in discovering her intended meaning, but sometimes they aren’t enough. I often search several iterations of place names before stumbling across the Lake District landmark referred to in the letters.
For certain phrases, I will confirm my supposed reading through an internet search, sometimes discovering more information that adds richness to my understanding of Mary’s writing and relationships. For example, I recently came across a phrase that I read as ‘Castle of Indolence,’ certainly a dramatic way to refer to the family home! Context clues—her reference to Rydal Mount as ‘Idle Mount,’ and a self-mocking manner that seemed to highlight her insecurities about the lack of recent productivity coming from the poet’s household—made the phrase seem pertinent, but I looked up the phrase to be sure.
It turns out that Castle of Indolence was a poem published in 1748 by the Scottish poet James Thomson. In 1802, William published a poem entitled ‘Stanzas written in my Pocket-Copy of Thomson’s Castle of Indolence,’ confirming that the James Thomson and his poem must have been household names for the Wordsworths.
Discoveries like these fill out an image of Mary as a well-read and knowledgeable woman, able to keep up with her husband’s written work and often serving as his amanuensis—a literary assistant or scribe. Though Mary certainly valued learning and education, she also recognised the importance of balance. In a letter to her grandson Johnnie, she writes, ‘All work & no play makes – You know the Proverb – Besides I fear your too close confinement to your books may tell upon your health.’ The letters reveal a lighter side of Mary than what is portrayed in any of the stern portraits of her. In contrast to the passion and strong emotions of Dorothy, her wit and tenderness set her apart and give her personality that Wordsworth biographies often don’t explore with much depth.
I have enjoyed getting to know Mary Wordsworth as more than just William’s wife—her letters are a great resource to gain insight into her personality and individuality. It’s uncommon to be able to read intimate communications between close friends, and having access to the letters in the Wordsworth Trust collection is a valuable resource. Imagining what my own correspondence would reveal about my personality and character is a little daunting, but as I read and transcribe, I feel like Mary is allowing me a little glimpse into her mind and heart through the words on the page.
The letters that have been transcribed as part of this project are available to search and read at http://collections.wordsworth.org.uk/wtweb/home.asp?page=Letters%20search%20home and the books and letters pictured throughout the post are currently on display in the Jerwood Centre.
Nicole Jacobsen is an intern from Brigham Young University (Utah), a native of California who is living and working in Grasmere for three months. As an intern, she works with the Trust’s main collections, as well as providing visitor services in Dove Cottage, the Wordsworth Museum and the shop. She is pursuing a double major (joint honours) in English Literature and French Studies.