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: