For this post we have two different reviews of a new biography of Sara Coleridge and Dora Wordsworth: the first by Lynn Roberts, and a second by Will Barber-Taylor. They have slightly different views, so do join in the debate in Twitter or on this page, and let us know what you think!
Katie Waldegrave, The Poets’ Daughters: Dora Wordsworth & Sara Coleridge. Windmill Books, 2014, pp.400, p’back, £9.99
This is a tour de force of an autobiography: 44 years and two women’s lives assembled from a jigsaw of letters, journals, memoirs, books published in the Coleridge-Wordsworth circle, and other reminiscences. All these have been patiently analyzed, interpreted and reassembled so that the reader appears to be eavesdropping on the years as they run through the hands of the poets’ daughters – seeing the landscapes they saw, suffering cold, difficult domesticity and illness with them, and feeling their own discouragement at the obstacles they faced.
Wordsworth and Coleridge – two of our most important Romantic poets (or poet-writer-philosopher, in Coleridge’s case) – but oh, how one would have shrunk from having either as one’s father. The book begins with Coleridge introducing his youngest child and only daughter, Sara, into the spartan, bohemian, smoky household of Wordsworth, in his post-Dove Cottage home at Allan Bank in Grasmere:
‘The Wordsworths had never been renowned for their hospitality: Sir Walter Scott famously used to climb out of the window and escape to the nearest inn when he was fed up with eating nothing but oatmeal.’
The various children who came and went in this household ran wild and often had a glorious time; but the suggestion of underlying pinched circumstances is also an index of the hard domestic work and worry which was the backdrop for the Romantics’ women.
Coleridge and Wordsworth existed in a mutual bond of mingled dependency, irritation, and distrust. Coleridge, as well as heroizing Wordsworth, was deeply in love with another Sara, the sister of Wordsworth’s wife, Mary; he had left his own wife, Sarah-with-an-‘h’, to find what sanctuary she could for herself and her little daughter in the well-ordered neighbouring household of her brother-in-law, Robert Southey. (There are three pages of interwoven family trees at the beginning of the book, which – unless you are completely au fait with the Wordsworths, Coleridges and Southeys – will get quite a lot of wear in the course of reading it).
Southey thought Coleridge a domestic blight, and constituted himself surrogate father to Sara, without there being any concomitant undertaking to ensure her future support; her mother (Mrs STC as she’s called, to cut down on the number of Sara/hs) spent most of her life worrying about the maintenance of herself and her children. Sara in her early years was compared unfavourably by Coleridge with Wordsworth’s daughter, Dora; whereas Wordsworth saw Sara as more intelligent and a superior poet’s daughter to his own Dora (who was ‘too wild and needed to be “tamed”’). Extraordinarily, in view of the tensions around them, and their inability as girls to win the approval of their respective fathers, Dora and Sara became close friends; probably the only relationship which could help them, by taking their mutual unconventional circumstances for granted.
And they needed help. Whilst Sara ‘slaved away at her Latin and Italian, desperate to please her father’, and with the threat of life as a governess haunting her poverty-stricken future, Dora was already being co-opted into life as a vestal virgin, serving at her father’s altar. Waldegrave quotes Wordsworth’s nephew, Christopher:
‘If Providence had not blessed [Wordsworth] with a wife, a sister, a wife’s sister, and a daughter, whose lives were bound up in his life…and who felt that his poems were destined for immortality, and that it was no small privilege to be instrumental in conveying them to posterity, it is probable that many of his verses, muttered by him… would have been scattered to the winds.’
Thus one poet abandoned his womenfolk in all material and emotional respects, whilst the other imprisoned his in an inescapable web, their personalities subsumed by the cult of the poet, and their lives sucked vampirically out into his verse. It seems extraordinary that men who thought so deeply on the state of their fellow man should have been so blind to their treatment of their fellow woman, and such towering monsters of selfishness to their own children.
In December 1821 a local ball was held in Ambleside in celebration of Dora’s and a friend’s leaving school. Dora was by now 17, very attractive and extremely sweet-tempered, while Sara was not only beautiful, but clever enough to have a book on the verge of publication (the translation of a 3-volume work in Latin on a Paraguayan tribe). Edward Quillinan, a married 30-year-old Dragoon and Wordsworth fan, attended, and began to fall for Dora. He was widowed in a few months, but it took an intricate courtship dance of sixteen years before he felt able to propose, and he didn’t marry Dora until 1841. In the intervening period she battled with horrendous weight loss (possibly due to TB, and exacerbated by some form of anorexia), as well as acne; her only really happy and healthy year seems to have been 1823, when she worked as a schoolteacher. This last escape wasn’t at all what Wordsworth wanted; Dora had regained her initial hold on his heart, and was also far too useful to him, transcribing poems, arranging books and urging him to write the poem he had once promised Coleridge – The Recluse.
Sara’s life was equally fraught. After her translation was published (and reviewed only by Southey, anonymously), she retreated back to the latter’s home, Greta Hall, where she and her mother tried to pay for their keep by teaching Southey’s children and housekeeping. This tenuous situation was further strained when Sara’s elder brother, Hartley Coleridge, drank his way out of his Oxford fellowship; Sara used her small translation profits to take herself and her mother away to London, in search of the father she hadn’t seen for eight years.
Waldegrave is good on the difficulties of this confused and broken relationship. Coleridge took to his bed after a while –
‘…In all probability, he simply didn’t know how to respond to this daughter – in his memory a twelve-year-old child and now a beautiful woman – who was desperate for a father. She was a complicated, intelligent adult and, unlike Dora Wordsworth, he had never really known her.’
Fortunately, she was taken up by her cousins, the family of Coleridge’s elder brother, James. Amongst them was Henry, a huge admirer of his poet uncle; like Dora, Sara was to fall in love with one of her father’s greatest fans, and like Dora years were to pass before parental opposition (on both sides) gave way, and she could marry. Sara’s wait for her wedding day was shorter, however: a Biblical seven years, during which she started to take opium to manage her worry over parting from Henry, and latterly over leaving the Lake District and managing a house.
When they finally married she enjoyed a few years of intense happiness; but, with the birth of her second child, darkness set in – post-natal depression, and what was characterized as ‘hysteria’ in the 19th century. Sara took more and more opium – and experienced all the side-effects: constipation, headaches, exhaustion, mood swings, etc. Waldegrave brings vividly alive the trials of being a woman in the 1820s: the very real symptoms of hysteria, which we might see as pointing to epilepsy or anorexia, the continual worries about further pregnancies and belated periods, and the hideous effects of becoming hooked on morphine. Sara seemed to be following her father into his drug-ridden shadows, and it’s a wonder that her husband bore with her so patiently for what became years, punctuated by three more babies, who lived only for days.
She was saved by her father’s death, and the need to defend his life and work against his detractors. Henry wanted to publish a book of his conversations, Table Talk, and Sara was catalyzed by her wish to write an introduction which would interpret and explain his ideas. In the end, Table talk was published without such a defence, which would have overweighted it and been inappropriate; however, Sara became involved with Henry’s next project, The literary remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and brought it to publication after his early death (possibly from syphilis) in 1843. Eventually she also edited Biographia Literaria (second edition, 1847, ‘…a breathtakingly accomplished volume’), and Coleridge’s Essays on his own times (2 vols, 1850). In the last years of her life – she died in 1852 – she edited Coleridge’s poems into chronological order, and rewrote the preface (first drafted by her brother, Derwent). Just as Wordsworth’s voice to a large extent only found issue through the pens of his female relations, so Coleridge’s comes to us filtered through the organizational and interpretive skills of his daughter.
Dora had her own small literary triumph. She enjoyed a brief resurgence of youth and health through a holiday in Portugal in 1843 with the husband who had finally won her after almost twenty years. Even this had had to be fought for through emotional blackmail of Wordsworth and his wife on the grounds of Dora’s parlous health; on her return, Wordsworth had further kittens on discovering that Dora was publishing the journal she had written in Portugal. Despite opposition, she went ahead, and public reaction arrived on her deathbed in the summer of 1847: ‘the book was widely and (mostly) favourably reviewed’.
Sara Coleridge and Dora Wordsworth – although often apart – lived entwined lives, which reflected and echoed each other. These correspondences emphasize the difficulties encountered by both women, whose talents and energies were swallowed up by the work of others, and whose domestic happiness was a hostage to male selfishness. Do read this extraordinary and engrossing book, and thank heaven that you weren’t born either to Wordsworth or to Coleridge.
Lynn Roberts is an art historian specializing in the history of picture
frames. Her poetry has been published in a number of magazines; she won the 2009 Listowel Writers’ Week Poetry Collection, and has reached the longlist for the 2011 & 2012 National Poetry Competitions. In 2011 she published Rosa Mundi and Pandora’s Book; her latest collection, A Brush with Poetry (2014) is published by Oversteps Books.
Margaret Gillies, Dora Wordsworth, 1839, detail: The Wordsworth Trust Grasmere. Also see print after the painting.
George Richmond, Sara Coleridge, 1845, print after the painting: The Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin
And here’s another point of view from Will Barber–Taylor
Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge were life-long friends. They were also the daughters of best friends: William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the two poetic geniuses who shaped the Romantic Age.
Living in the shadow of their fathers’ extraordinary fame brought Sara and Dora great privilege, but at a terrible cost. In different ways, each father almost destroyed his daughter. Growing up in the shadow of genius, each girl made it her life’s ambition to dedicate herself to her father’s writing and reputation. Anorexia, drug addiction and depression were part of the legacy of fame, but so too were great friendship and love.
To lovers of poetry, the lives of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge will be familiar. Wordsworth, the lover of the lakes and the Poet Laureate; Coleridge a man who ran away from his wife and children and became addicted to a drug which would mar the lives of all the people who loved him best. Yet the lives of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s daughters are not as well known. However, it is their lives that had the most impact on the legacy of their fathers.
Waldegrave manages to tell the stories of the two women Sara Coledridge and Dora Wordsworth with skill and passion. The lives of women during the Georgian and Victorian period are not always as well documented as those of men, so it is thankful that so much survives from the period concerning the two women. From the time of their birth to their death Waldegrave has managed to show the inner feelings and thoughts of the two extraordinary women. Waldegrave has clearly done her research; the book is filled to the brim with historical detail relating to the lives of Sara and Dora. Using letters, journals and extracts from Sara and Dora’s published works Waldegrave manages to take old and dusty documents and bring Sara and Dora alive for the reader in a way that a lesser writer wouldn’t be able to.
As the book goes on we feel connected to the two different yet similar women; Dora’s anorexia and her sad and slow end are genuinely heart breaking particularly when it seemed that she had so much more to offer the world. Sara’s own slide into drug addiction is equally depressing and makes the reader feel that they have lost a friend; don’t read this book if you are feeling down.
Waldegrave’s writing is so intense and powerful that you become sucked into the world of the people you are reading about and understand their feelings; their desires and their ultimate flaws. Waldegrave paints vivid pictures of the landscape that Wordsworth and Coleridge lived in. From London’s dingy backstreets to the high mountains of the Lake District, Waldegrave manages to transport her reader exactly into that time and place. The true power of the book is its ability to make the reader feel like they are experiencing the events in real time and thanks to Waldegrave’s excellent research we are. While some historical books tend to jump around while describing the events that happen, Waldegrave keeps to a fairly rigid structure meaning that the book feels more like a novel than a simple history of the period and its people. When Waldegrave talks about Sara’s life with the Southeys it doesn’t feel like we are reading about some far off time disconnected and remote; it feels like we are reading about now.
This immersive ability that the book has is its bestselling point and the thing that will keep readers knowledgeable about Coleridge and Wordsworth. By reading the book we are taken back to a time and place and we feel that we have met the people who are the subject of it. This is not an easy feat but one which Waldegrave pulls off with loving care and finesse. I would highly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in the lake side poets as it is truly a great book.
Will Barber – Taylor is a keen amateur historian with a passion for poetry. He writes and acts professionally and has appeared at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and a number of other theatre
s. He has previously written for Doctor Who Online, What Culture and The Cult Den. He is also a great walker and enjoys the countryside of the Lake District.