Finding Mary Wordsworth's voice

by Erica Pratt
A tour of Dove Cottage always starts in the ‘Houseplace’. Guests enter, blinking against the darkness, and are invited to take a seat by the glowing fire or read extracts from Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal. The Houseplace is a warm, homely place and it isn’t hard to imagine food cooking on the fire, a dining table, children playing, and women reading or sewing on the window seat. In the next room, a silhouette of Dorothy Wordsworth and a painting of Mary Wordsworth hang over a simple washstand.
In a tour, it can be easy to over-emphasise Dorothy and briefly gloss over Mary. Dorothy is the passionate one, with her dramatic stories and endearing journal entries. She adds a spark to the story of the country poet, and through the publication of her Grasmere Journal, Dorothy has been given a voice.
Mary’s voice, by contrast, is a little harder to access. She not known for having written any particular works of literature. She, along with Dorothy, served as William’s amanuensis, and although the work the Wordsworth women accomplished is remarkable, it was a work which expressed William’s voice and not their own.
When I was given the opportunity to transcribe some of Mary’s letters, I was quite excited because I really wanted to understand Mary. I wanted to hear her voice, get a sense for her role in Wordsworth’s circle, and find out who she was.
At the time, I had recently finished transcribing the letters of George Ticknor, an American correspondent with William Wordsworth. Many of his letters are letters of introduction, so they are focused on others, but through them it is easy to get a sense of who Ticknor was. His letters were often meticulously written with a strong, measured hand. They are full of conventional courtesies, classical allusions, and travel notes and his style gives the impression that he is well-educated, well-connected, and confident. Although I felt that I was able to paint an accurate mental picture of Ticknor and his relationship with Wordsworth, I didn’t feel quite at home.
Ticknor letter
Mary’s letters make you feel at home. Her letters are littered with terms of endearment and sweet imagery. She talks about the health of her daughter-in-law Isabella, the weather, people who have come to visit, and the latest news from those she cares about.

Silver box

A silver box containing plaited strands of William and Mary’s hair

She tends to focus on other people throughout her letters, but it is easy to see how important these people are to her. In a letter to her friend Mary Stanger, Mary Wordsworth writes, ‘cannot you contrive to pass a night here on your way- at any rate you must not pass by without calling. We wish much to see you.’ Many of her letters record visitors and express the wish that others will visit her. Mary’s household was a bustling one, and she seemed to enjoy the company.
A handkerchief owned by Mary Wordsworth

A handkerchief owned by Mary Wordsworth

Equally important to Mary were the letters which were received at Rydal Mount. In a letter, Mary notes the ‘delightful letter from Dora,’ and then delightfully passes on information regarding Dora’s health. She is a connector, and whether she is connecting Isabella, Dora, Sara Hutchinson, or Mary Stanger, Mary seems to enjoy bringing people together.
MW and WW
The cameo brooch Mary is wearing in the portait above

The cameo brooch Mary is wearing in the portait above

Ticknor was the type of person I could turn to for debating philosophical points. Mary Wordsworth, in contrast, was the type of person who would carry on an intelligent and deeply meaningful conversation whilst bringing you tea. Her stories are full of warmth and humour. She doesn’t put herself into the limelight –even in writing a blog post about Mary I have used a lot of roundabout methods of reaching her, but she makes herself known. She cares for others, but that doesn’t mean her voice is silenced. In fact, quite the contrary. The sheer number of letters she writes attest to her strong voice.
A letter from Mary to William

A letter from Mary to William

There is something about the charm of Dove Cottage. It is warm and welcoming. On a nice day, the colours on the wall dance as the sunlight streams through the window. One can imagine Wordsworth lying on his couch in ‘vacant or in pensive mood,’ or dictating to Mary or Dorothy the latest changes in his poem, or walking back and forth composing poetry outside in the garden. Either way you choose to imagine Wordsworth, it is hard to fully and correctly imagine him without the cottage and the women who made this place a home.
A great deal of letters in the Wordsworth Trust’s collection have been transcribed and are available to research online here.
Erica Pratt is a student from Brigham Young University interning at the Wordsworth Trust. She is from Salem, Utah, but has been living and Ericaworking in Grasmere for the past four months. She is majoring in English Literature with a minor in European Studies.  Erica has been working on transcribing a series of manuscript letters in the Wordsworth Trust’s collection, including those by Mary Wordsworth.