Spring shoots and green peas: the Wordsworths and their kitchen garden

by Gareth Evans
Following six months of settled living with his sister Dorothy, one May morning William Wordsworth left Dove Cottage with his brother John to walk through Yorkshire.  Separated from her brothers in early childhood only to be permanently reunited as adults, an understandably emotional Dorothy found ways of coping with what was clearly an acute sense of loss on their departure.  That day, 14 May 1800, she resolved to start writing what was to become The Grasmere Journal.  The following morning she went out into the garden and hoed that season’s first row of peas, an activity that was both a distraction and a necessity.
DC garden
Away from the steeply-rising pleasure garden at Dove Cottage, Dorothy chiefly organised and tended the productive kitchen garden as part of her housekeeping tasks.  This she undertook with the help of the out-living day servants Molly, Aggy and John, who with William, helped perform heavy tasks: ‘Sauntered a good deal in the garden, bound carpets, mended old clothes.  Read Timon of Athens.  Dried linen – Molly weeded the turnips, John stuck the peas’ (19 May 1800).  Garden peas were a nutritious staple of the cottage economy they appear to be a long-time constituent of the Wordsworths’ plain diet, as was a wide range of other garden produce.
That first row of peas that Dorothy tended on 15 May 1800 had probably been sown from the end of March to the beginning of April, which suggests they were growing an ‘early’ variety bred to give especially quick results.  To plant each row the seeds were placed at regular intervals in a drill drawn across the ground.  Not fully above the ground in May, they were still vulnerable to competition from ramping weeds.  As Abercombie’s plain-speaking Every Man His Own Gardener (1767 onwards) advises in his entry for May, ‘There is no work in the kitchen garden that requires more attention than this; for weeds are at no time more dangerous to crops than the present.’  A week later the reward of Dorothy’s vigilance was recorded in the journal with the satisfied comment ‘all peas up’; a feat, along with the success of the whole plot, we should take too much for granted.   Peas are known for their rapid development, so soon shoots of that first row of peas at Dove Cottage would have vined, the point when the first tendrils appear.  Straggling on the ground, they would have required somebody to provide them with support, or to ‘stick’ them as Dorothy refers to it using a now obsolete term:

Stick: ‘to furnish (a plant) with a stick as a support’, (OED 3rd ed. 1972).

Stickings: ‘sticks used to support garden pea plants.’, (OED 3rd ed. 2017).

Pea sticks can be cut from such trees as hazel, beech or hornbeam, the previous winter.  The broom-like, prepared twiggy branches are placed in the ground like small leafless trees for the pea tendrils to bind to as the plant grows up into the supporting matrix.  In an alternative practice, tent-like frames were created from straight pollarded poles of hazel or birch.  As William was still making more pea sticks in June it appears he was, in fact, utilising the trees in the woods around Grasmere.  Most suitable for full-sized variety of peas, as opposed to the dwarf type, these unwieldy pea sticks could be over two metres long.  Whichever system was actually used, the pea and the support together created an intimately entwined and productive structure.

A man trims cuttings from a hedge on his farm in the Pennines, to re-use them as pea sticks in the garden. 1945

A man trims cuttings from a hedge on his farm in the Pennines, to re-use them as pea sticks in the garden. 1945

However, this is not the story of the simple cultivation of a single crop of peas.  The pea is most frequently mentioned vegetable in the Journal in 1800.  This was a consequence of the demanding horticultural procedure the Wordsworths had planned which prolonged the season of this quick growing crop.  Dorothy’s pea plot was not completely sown at once, in line with the established practice, the successive rows would have been sown at intervals to give a ‘constant supply of young peas for the table’.  The poorest cottager might be able to sow a single row of peas, or perhaps two rows in succession for an extended harvest.  The Wordsworths confidently planned at least six rows in succession, probably more.  If they had bought a pint of an established garden variety such as ‘Prussian Blue’, contemporary horticultural sources state confidently that it would have contained 1860 seeds, enough for 8 rows each 4 yards long.
John Constable, 'Golding Constable's Kitchen Garden', c. 1815, detail

John Constable, ‘Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden’, c. 1815, detail

Although Dorothy’s journal starts too late in the year to record that first sowing of peas, nevertheless we can detect the rhythm of the Dove Cottage pea plot from the records of ‘sticking’.  If each reference to this essential task from 19 May to 13 June represents a complete row of peas, it would suggest that, at its height, the rows had been originally sown at the horticulturally approved interval of a fortnight.

19th May.  ‘Molly weeded the turnips, John stuck the peas’

2nd June.   ‘John Fisher stuck the peas.  Molly weeded and washed’

9th, 11th  & 13th June.  ‘In the evening I stuck peas, watered the garden & planted Brocoli [sic]’; ‘William stuck peas, after dinner he lay down – John not at home – I stuck peas alone – Molly washing.’; ‘Molly stuck peas.  I weeded a little.’

William had to make more pea sticks on 20 June so the cultivation cycle must still have been rolling on into the summer.  The first mention of a pea crop appears in an entry for Tuesday, 29 July; ‘still very hot, We gathered peas for dinner’.  After an evening walk Dorothy ‘was sick & weary’.
A new tempo now began as it was necessary to keep harvesting pods that were ready to pick.  By doing so the plants were stimulated into further flowering and pod production.  Each promising pod would have been carefully judged as picking too early was wasteful, but leaving the peas bulk up too much meant they were losing their tender sweetness.  From now on the consecutive rows of plants would be developing in steady sequence from seedlings to, finally, podding plants.

Pea cultivation. Dorothy Hartley's, 'Food in England'. 1954

Pea cultivation. Dorothy Hartley’s, ‘Food in England’. 1954

The many analogies between the organic growth and the creative process have the danger of being too glib.  Caught up in a laborious sequence of imperative tasks, the Wordsworths were probably too weary to care.  In spite of this it must be said that the figurative possibilities of the entire pea plot are too tempting to completely ignore, constructed as it is in the form of a metrical store of peas with its own tuneless prosody.  A creative idea or poem may be said to develop ‘organically’, that is as a single organism.  As we shall see there is a greater potential for structure, if not form, when they are considered collectively. When you next have an opportunity, consider a vegetable garden or allotment. As verse manipulates words and the ideas of language, the individual plots can be seen as imposing an order on the otherwise feral plants such as the unruly pea.  Both variously create something sustained, productive and, in some way, potentially nourishing.
Dorothy could now afford to be generous.  The day after the first peas were picked more pods were ready, this time they were to be a gift for neighbours.  Dorothy spent the following Sunday morning in the kitchen, that evening there were ‘peas for dinner’.  Considering the customary frugality of the household we might take this last statement literally.  The following Monday she ‘pulled a large basket of peas & sent to Keswick by a return chaise’.  The sugar content decreases sharply after picking, hence the need for urgency.  No doubt the Coleridges at Greta Hall relished the sweet, fresh peas which were presumably sent at some expense.
Bags and baskets of peas continued to be pulled over the coming weeks until, a month later, the season was turning and the longer rhythm of year was making itself felt.  It was time to let the peas that remained on the plants completely mature into viable seed.  When dried these would be stored to be the source of the follow year’s crop.  Stripped of all that was useful, the remaining unproductive plants could then be unearthed.  ‘Very cold – baking in the morning – gathered pea seeds & took up’ (22 August).
If the pea plot can be seen fancifully as a sort of horticultural verse form, then, as the final pods are left on the plants to mature into viable seed, we can see it as a some sort of sonnet.  In the course of the last few rows there is an abrupt change of focus and tempo from the immediacy of harvest to an anticipation of the coming year.  Certainly, insights of maturity and expectation are suitable subjects for a sonnet’s closing stanza.  William, of course, admired the sonnet form, in Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room (1807) he does refer to ‘the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground’.
Do gardeners feel the experience of cultivating in some way the same as being inside a tight verse form, either a creator or consumer?  I do not know.  If it is then to some degree it is in the maintenance of integrity and the creation of form and structure.
As far-fetched as the poetical analogy of the pea plot might be, there is one aspect that is authentic to the Wordsworths’ life and creative work, that is its embodiment and representation of order.   As with many vegetables in the kitchen garden, the cultivation of peas was an exercise in painstaking care, but in maintaining this horticultural order one was rewarded with abundance.  These gardening virtues feature by their absence in ‘The Ruined Cottage’ (The Excursion, 1814).  The humbleness of the cottager is indicated by the modest length of the rows of peas.  Her ‘peculiar pains’ have been applied to the cultivation of the carnation, a ‘fancy’ flower of the labouring classes, but also the sowing the two rows of peas, no doubt in succession.  The consequences of poverty brought on by political and economic forces are reflected in the ‘silent overgrowings’ of the neglected garden, which climaxes in the pea plot.  Here William invokes bindweed, one of the most nightmarish of garden weeds.  Described with funereal imagery, the overwhelming weight of its unimpeded growth pulls down anthropomorphically the whole structure, both the crop and its support.

              carnations, once
Prized for surpassing beauty, and no less
For the peculiar pains they had required,
Declined their languid heads, wanting support.
The cumbrous bind-weed, with its wreaths and bells,
Had twined about her two small rows of peas,
And dragged them to the earth.

Away from its use in imagery, the physical act of creating and maintaining the vegetable plot no doubt had its therapeutic effects on both brother and sister. The concentrated cycles of the kitchen garden are one of the most intimate everyday relationships between humanity and the plant world.  William formulated a joke on the sort of mental diversion that work in the kitchen garden can bring about, no doubt at times both necessary and welcome.

We plant cabbages … and if retirement in its full perfection be as powerful in working transformations as one of Ovid’s gods, you may perhaps suspect that into cabbages we shall be transformed. 

Wordsworth to William Matthews, Racedown Lodge, 21st March 1796.

Summer in the kitchen garden imposed an exacting external order on the Wordsworths, a mind-emptying physical exertion that helped support both their corporeal existence and creative lives.
Gareth Evans writes articles on the history and culture of plants and their use (garethhevans.com).   He worked in, and with, botanic gardens for 16 years, specialising in the history of plants and medicine.  Recent Highlights include: ‘Seeds of Inspiration’, Linder Memorial Lecture, Beatrix Potter Society, March 2018, and  ‘Keats’s Flight from the Vegetable Monster’, a paper at the 4th Bicentennial John Keats Conference 1817.

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.

Women behind the words

Melissa Mitchell, Assistant Curator at the Wordsworth Trust, talks about a new digital exhibition at Grasmere
William Wordsworth was a lucky man. In his sister Dorothy, his wife Mary, and his daughter Dora, he had an endless supply of encouragement and love. Together, they were homemakers, a support network – but perhaps more remarkably, they were an industrious force of pen and paper quite unlike any other.

‘We have transcribed all William’s smaller Poems for you, and have begun the Poem on his Life and the Pedlar, but before we send them off we mean to take another Copy for ourselves, for they are scattered about here and there in this book and in that, one Stanza on one leaf, another on another which makes the transcribing more than twice the trouble.’

So wrote Dorothy, to Samuel Taylor Coleridge from Dove Cottage in March 1804. Together with Mary, William’s wife, she was busy bringing together a mass of her brother’s works, intended to accompany Coleridge on a journey overseas. The women faithfully copied thousands of lines on hundreds of pages, pulling together the ‘scattered’ drafts into beautiful, handwritten volumes.
This is just one example of work that spanned a lifetime. Many years later, when Dorothy was no longer able to act as her brother’s chief amanuensis, his daughter, Dora Wordsworth, inherited the role. In a household where poetry, writing and words were everything, the women also took care of everything else. The washing, cooking, cleaning, raising children, crafting and mending, hosting, caring for and loving – together they created a home and family that worked in unison to help William succeed.

When studying the manuscript drafts of Wordsworth’s poetry today, we often see the words from his mind shaped on paper in Dorothy, Mary or Dora’s hand. It is hard not to wonder just how far their involvement extended: did they ever suggest another word, rephrasing of a line, movement of a stanza? It is also possible to consider how the home they built, the world they created and most importantly, their own personalities, emotions and actions shaped the words on the page. How might things have been different if these women were not in Wordsworth’s life? By exploring their original journals and letters, their own words will help to build a picture of what their lives were like, and how they individually and collectively created the world in which the poems were written.

A fair copy in Mary's handwriting

A fair copy in Mary’s handwriting

A fair copy in Dorothy's hand

A fair copy in Dorothy’s hand

In these manuscripts, we catch fleeting glimpses of a household at work. In Dorothy’s Grasmere journal, for example (written in the first few years at Dove Cottage), writing and the making of poetry blends seamlessly with domestic chores, with accounts of conversations, with gardening, with walks to Ambleside to collect letters. For example:

Wednesday 17th [February 1802]. A miserable clashy snowy morning. We did not walk. But the old man from the Hill brought us a short letter from Mary H. I copied the second part of Peter Bell. William pretty well.

But then, Dorothy’s journal itself contributes to the creation of poetry, with her descriptions of ‘an old man almost double’, whose trade was ‘to gather leeches’ and the daffodils that ‘tossed & reeled & danced and seemed as though they verily laughed with the wind’ by Ullswater.
In Mary, we find another key supporter. Her contribution is perhaps more quietly represented in letters and journals, but there is no doubt that she was a constant and steadying force behind the scenes. She formally joined the household in 1802 as William’s wife, but had known William and Dorothy for many years, and was well prepared for her new life as part of this unique literary household.

Portrait of William and Mary Wordsworth, Margaret Gillies, 1839. (Replica on display in Dove Cottage.)

Portrait of William and Mary Wordsworth, Margaret Gillies, 1839. (Replica on display in Dove Cottage.)

With Mary, came her sister, Sara Hutchinson, who also gave her time, thoughts and energy to William’s poetry. Sara has the most beautiful hand, and her fair copies of William’s poems are a pleasure to read and study.
Sarah Hutchinson
Dora Wordsworth stepped into the role of chief amanuensis as Dorothy’s health failed, as did William’s eyesight, many years later at Rydal Mount. ‘I hold the pen for father’, she writes in a letter, October 1833. She is setting her father’s words down on paper, in this instance simply to help him write a letter, and to distinguish his voice from her own. Yet, like her mother and aunts before her, holding the pen became a central part of Dora’s life.
All of these women held the pen for William Wordsworth, but the hands that operated it belonged to individuals with their own thoughts, emotions and motivations. They are the women behind the words.
Between November 2017 and March 2018, Melissa  will be posting a series of short films exploring the manuscript letters and journals of these women, held at the Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, in Grasmere. Melissa will also show behind the scenes glimpses into daily life in the Jerwood Centre, the Wordsworth Trust’s library and archive, and the planning of the project’s exhibition, which will be open from 1 February 2018 to 18 March 2018.
Follow the story here:

Green grows the Grasmere – the Wordsworthians' blogger weekend

by Allen Ashley
This part of the Lake District – Grasmere and its environs – has lately rebranded itself as “Wordsworth Country”. And we are told literacy is dying out! Not while there is culture to be gleaned. So, here we all are: writers for The Wordsworth Trust’s Romanticism Blog, gathered for a weekend to celebrate Wordsworth, his poetry, his life, his associates, his dwelling places and, yes, his blasted weather. I wandered lonely as a cloud? There are no lonely clouds in Rydal: they gather in nebulous hordes, descend from the mountain and cloak us in wet mist and, at times, a solid downpour akin to an aerial Rydal Falls.
Clouds over Lake Windermere
But precipitation brings lushness, the green and the growth of gardens and landscape that continues to inspire.
My wife Sarah Doyle has bagged the two of us a fabulous first floor room at Rydal Hall with stunning, stately home level views… as well as a sloping floor, resulting in an inclining bed and sloping writing desk that at first I take for an optical illusion. On our final morning we video a 1p coin rolling un-pushed across the table’s surface as scientific proof.
View from Rydal Hall
Over the course of the weekend, we are treated to talks by Professor Stephen Gill – undoubtedly the world’s leading authority on Wordsworth and an avuncular and genial orator. There is also a presentation by Giuseppe Albano, the personable curator of Rome’s Keats-Shelley House, drawing the circle somewhat wider to encompass other greats of the Romantic Age. Don’t tell anybody but – even though Composed Upon Westminster Bridge is one of my favourite poems and was somewhat in my thoughts after recent terrible events in my home city – to date I have tended to favour the works of Coleridge, Byron and Shelley ahead of dear William. But that may be about to change. Professor Gill told us that Wordsworth wrote some of Ode: Intimations of Immortality over breakfast so advised us to (re)acquaint ourselves with it before next day’s breakfast; and I duly did.
Between visits to Rydal Mount and Dove Cottage, we had the privilege of a session at the Jerwood Centre led by Jeff Cowton where we could study first editions of Lyrical Ballads and original manuscripts and handwritten letters from the early nineteenth century.
With paper in short supply, these latter were written in what we would now term a small, “difficult” font. And then turned through ninety degrees to be cross-written with further family news or, touchingly, amorous outpourings between William and wife Mary. I was first in the queue to utilise the quill and alchemically created ink but, try as I might, I could only write large hand in an untidy scrawl that I blame variously upon A Level note-taking and a tendency to edit manuscripts on bumpy buses and tube trains. God bless Laszlo Biro and, latterly, Microsoft Word.
This was a lovely weekend in the esteemed company of so many experts and academics, where the literary table talk was only occasionally peppered with observations on the messy outcome of the General Election as well as a touch of football banter. Guilty as charged.
And the sun shone brilliantly on the knot garden during Saturday evening….
Now, I wonder what our collective noun might be. Perhaps: a charisma of bloggers?
Allen Ashley works as a creative writing tutor with five groups currently running across north London. He is the author or editor of eleven published books, the most recent of which is the poetry collection Dreaming Spheres: Poems of the Solar System written in collaboration with Sarah Doyle and published by PS Publishing (UK) in 2014. www.allenashley.com.
If you’d like to become a blogger for us please do get in touch.

‘Homes at Grasmere’: The inspiration behind a new play about William Wordsworth

by David Ward

If you are going to stage a play about Wordsworth, it has to be in the Lake District. And if you are going to stage it in the Lake District, it has to be at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick which is roughly half way between Cockermouth, where Wordsworth was born, and Grasmere where, if you bend the rules to include Rydal, he lived for more than 50 years.

Which is a rambling way of explaining that Theatre by the Lake will present the world première of William Wordsworth by Nicholas Pierpan in a co-production with English Touring Theatre from 1 April to 22 April.
The play is set in 1812, not a happy year for the poet but it would give away too much of the plot away to say why. But it won’t spoil things too much to say that he was hard up that year.  With little cash coming in, his desire to be free to write, but not sell, his poetry is at odds with his need to provide for his extended family.  Part of my job at Theatre by the Lake is to write programme notes. After some time spent footling around and staring into space (I’m glad to see, Alan Bennett does quite a bit of staring too), I chanced upon a reference to Allan Bank, where the Wordsworths lived from 1808 to 1810. Allan Bank? I thought. Where’s that? I’d never heard of the house; didn’t know the National Trust owned it; didn’t know about the fire that gutted it in 2011. Please excuse my ignorance.
Separate footling led me to Dorothy’s letters, which again I didn’t know, although I know and love the journals, and which I found in the New York Public Library; not that I was in New York, though I once sat in Bryant Park above the library’s stacks to watch an open-air showing of High Noon.
The library has very helpfully digitised the two volumes of Wordsworth family letters published in 1907 and they gave many hours of happy serendipity. When I started to concentrate on the task in hand, I found that Dorothy had written often about her homes and I needed to look no further for a programme note.
William and Dorothy moved into Dove Cottage in Grasmere late in 1799 and ten months later Dorothy told her friend Jane Marshall it was now “neat and comfortable” though very small. She also refers to “a small low unceiled room which I have papered with newspapers”, a space that fascinates anyone who squeezes into it today.


Conservation work on the ‘newspaper room’

Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson in 1802 and three of their five children, John, Dora and Thomas (who appears in Nicholas Pierpan’s play) were born in Dove Cottage. Mary’s sister Sara also lived with the family and the writer Thomas de Quincy became a permanent guest; the small 17th century home eventually became too crowded for comfort.
So off they went in 1808 to Allan Bank, which William had described as “a temple of abomination” when it was being built on a fellside outside Grasmere. Late that year, Dorothy told Catherine Clarkson that the house, with smoky chimneys and wet cellars, was giving them “grievous troubles”. It was apparently overrun by builders trying to sort out “these evils”.

Allan Bank, sketched by Sarah Hutchinson in 1857

Allan Bank, sketched by Sarah Hutchinson in 1857

“This house is at present literally not habitable,” she complained. “You can have no idea of the inconvenience we have suffered. There was one stormy day in which we could have no fire but in my brother’s study, and that chimney smoked so much that we were obliged to go to bed.”
How familiar, how ordinary, this sounds; my heart went out to Dorothy. I wanted to tell her that as I writing about her troubles, I was confronting my own: a plumber who came to inspect a leak in our bathroom told me the only, and rather drastic, way to get at the problem was to cut a hole in my kitchen ceiling.
In 1810, the Wordsworths (William and Mary now had two more children) decided to move to the Old Rectory in Grasmere, where William Wordsworth is set. But the house needed a lot of work and in a letter to Mrs Clarkson Dorothy was sceptical about her brother’s skills as a project manager.

“William has undertaken the whole charge of getting the business done, and you know how unfit he is for any task of this kind. Mary and I are, however, determined not to enter upon it till it is finished completely; for we were thoroughly sickened of workmen when we first came hither.”

At once I bonded with William; I have a long history of being baffled by builders who instantly recognise my incompetence.
The family did not stop long at the Old Rectory and were on the move again in 1813, this time to Rydal Mount a couple of miles down the road to Ambleside. Dorothy told Mrs Clarkson it was “a paradise” and in another letter explained that she had been shopping. Like many of us, she tries to justify a bit of extravagance:

“Now I must tell you of our grandeur. We are going to have a Turkey carpet in the dining-room, and a Brussels in William’s study…The Turkey carpet (it is a large room) will cost twenty-two guineas, and a Scotch carpet would cost nine or ten. The Turkey will last out four Scotch, therefore will be the cheaper, and will never be shabby…The house is very comfortable, and most convenient, though far from being as good a house as we expected.”

Room at Rydal Mount
Rydal Mount may not have lived up to Dorothy’s hopes but there were no more moves. William died at Rydal Mount in 1850, Dorothy, free at last of builders and smoking chimneys, in 1855 and Mary in 1859.

William Wordsworth runs at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick from 1-22 April. For tickets phone 017687 74411 or book online at www.theatrebythelake.com
Wordsworth play banner
David Ward is Theatre by the Lake’s literary consultant.

  • Dove Cottage, Grasmere,
    Cumbria, LA22 9SH


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