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Excerpt: 'The Ballad Of Dorothy Wordsworth'

Crossing the Threshold

"A wedding or a festival, A mourning or a funeral." —WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality"

" our life alone does Nature live— Our's is her Wedding-garment, our's her Shroud!" —SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, "Dejection: An Ode"

She can stand it no longer. When she looks from her window at the two men running up the avenue to tell her that the wedding is over, she throws herself down on the bed, where she lies in a trance, neither hearing nor seeing. Earlier that morning the groom had entered her room and she had removed the ring, which she had been wearing all night, and handed it back to him with a blessing. He had then returned it to her finger, blessing it once more, before leaving for the church to bind himself to another. When she is told by the bride's sister that the newlyweds are coming, she somehow rises from her bed and sends herself flying down the stairs and out the front door, her body moving against her own volition, not stopping until she is in the arms of the groom. Together they cross the threshold of the house, where they wait to greet the bride.

Dorothy Wordsworth's journal entry for October 4, 1802, describes her brother William's marriage to Mary Hutchinson from the perspective of her bedroom at Gallow Hill, the Hutchinsons' Yorkshire farm, where she waited for the couple to return from the local church at Brompton. She was too distraught to attend the ceremony herself. For readers of her journals, Dorothy's account of William's wedding morning comes as a surprise, and not only because of the peculiar early-morning ceremony performed between the brother and the sister and the intensity of her physical response to the event. It strikes a new tone in her writing: after two and a half years of recording what she sees, she now records what she feels about something she has not seen, and it is typical of Dorothy Wordsworth that this long-awaited focus on herself comes just as she is going out of focus, slipping into a semiconscious state as one chapter of her life closes and the next begins.

Following her description of Wordsworth's wedding, Dorothy's journal seems to lose its purpose. One of her final entries, made a few months later in the new year not long after she had turned thirty-one, has her resolving to keep the project going in a fresh notebook bought during the summer in France: I will take a nice Calais Book & will for the future write regularly &, if I can legibly, so much for this my resolution on Tuesday night, January 11 1803. Now I am going to take Tapioca for my supper, & Mary an Egg, William some cold mutton, his poor chest is tired. Six days later, her final entry, headed Monda[y], is left blank. In many cases, people turn to their journals when there is nowhere else to turn, when they need to divide themselves into two in order to talk. But in the case of Dorothy Wordsworth, it was when her life alone with her brother was shattered that she stopped writing, as if writing and William were bound up with one another.

This is the story of four small notebooks whose contents Dorothy Wordsworth never meant to be published, and which have become known as the Grasmere Journals. In tightly compressed entries that are mostly regular and mostly legible, they describe a routine of mutton and moonscapes, walking and headaches, watching and waiting, pie baking and poem making. Their style, at times pellucid, at times opaque, lies somewhere between the rapture of a love letter and the portentousness of a thriller; the tight, economical form they adopt is that of the lyric, but in the grandness of their emotions they are yearning toward the epic. The quickly scribbled pages catch the sights and sounds that other eyes and ears miss: the dancing and reeling of daffodils by the lakeside, the silence of winter frost on bare trees, and the glitter of light on a sheep's fleece. They record the love between a brother and a sister, and climax with Dorothy's "str'nge fits of passion," to use Wordsworth's enigmatic phrase, on the morning of his wedding.

The two and a half years covered by her Grasmere Journals would earn Dorothy Wordsworth the reputation of being, as Ernest de Selincourt, one of her earliest editors and biographers, puts it, "probably the most remarkable and the most distinguished of English prose writers who never wrote a line for the general public." The fact that she is one of our finest nature writers, that her phrases and descriptions were lifted and used by both Wordsworth and Coleridge, and that scholars refer to her for background material on her brother's most creative period directs us away from the startling originality of her voice and the strangeness of the story that reveals itself.

More than any other aspect of her character, it was Dorothy Wordsworth's responsiveness that was valued and praised by all who knew her. As a little girl she burst into tears when she first saw the sea, revealing the sensibility for which she was celebrated by her family. An old woman, she wept at the sight of her garden flowers after an illness had kept her indoors. In the readiness and accuracy of her responses, her taste was, Coleridge said, "a perfect electrometer—it bends, protrudes, and draws in, at subtlest beauties and most recondite faults." An electrometer was a recent invention, consisting of a fragile piece of gold, enclosed in glass, which responded to the most minute fluctuations of electrical charge, and Coleridge's metaphor bestowed in Dorothy his highest possible praise. For the writer and opium eater Thomas De Quincey, who became friends with the Wordsworths after William married, Dorothy was all nervous energy, rather, one imagines, like a highly tuned radio picking up waves. "The pulses of light," De Quincey said, "are not more quick or more inevitable in their flow and undulation, than were the answering and echoing movement of her sympathising attention." Dorothy's responses were immediate, but in her journals—a form of writing we associate with the recording of fresh reactions—she gives no response to the astonishing poems that were pouring out of Wordsworth, many of which she inspired herself and every word of which she stored inside her like charms in a magpie's nest. Nor did she record her response to the conversations she heard between Wordsworth and Coleridge as she wandered with them into the gloaming on the Quantock Hills, or lay with them beneath the shifting skies in Grasmere Vale. The poetic revolution going on around her, to which she contributed on a daily basis and which provides the backdrop to her journal, is the story she chose not to tell, rather as Louis XVI, telling in his diary for July 14, 1789—the day of the storming of the Bastille, following which his own days were numbered—simply wrote, "Rien."

The Grasmere Journals have taken on a curious status since their publication in full in 1958. They have never been out of print and they are regarded as an English national treasure, but their greatness as literature is agreed upon without anyone's being able to say what they are actually about or what type of woman it was who wrote them. In this sense they resemble Wordsworth's Lucy poems, whose poignancy and profundity are increased by the fact that we cannot agree on what their subject might be. Do Dorothy's journals describe her joy or dejection? Are her reactions, observations, and impressions a metaphor for her interior life, or is she simply documenting what she sees? Is her love for her brother that of a rejected mistress, or sisterly devotion of the kind that is hard for a contemporary reader to understand? Does Dorothy cast herself as the heroine of a tragedy or a comedy? Shakespearean comedies close, after all, on a pastoral wedding that anticipates a harmonious future, while the tragedies culminate in death and a new beginning. The Grasmere Journals offer both conclusions.

She was a small woman—under five feet tall—with a wiry frame. She was never beautiful, and the loss of her teeth by the time she was forty, together with her extreme thinness, her weathered skin, and the exhausting nature of her lifestyle, meant that she aged prematurely, looking twenty years older than she was. We have only two likenesses of Dorothy Wordsworth's face: a silhouette taken by an unknown artist in 1806, when the sitter was thirty-four and her lips had not yet begun to fold over her toothless gums, and a portrait painted by a Cumberland artist when Dorothy was sixty-two, showing a Victorian in a frilly cap busy at her writing. It is telling that she is depicted with pen and paper—she spent more time writing than she ever spent at her gardening or out walking. William hated the act of writing, and as his secretary and amanuensis Dorothy wrote out hundreds upon hundreds of his lines; she also kept up a voluminous correspondence with their relatives and friends and, when she found a spare moment, jotted down a few words of her own.

With her low forehead, strong nose, and pronounced chin, Dorothy had the same angular face as William, particularly as he is caught by Henry Edridge in the same year as her silhouette was cut. It seems appropriate that we have only a dark outline of the younger Dorothy, as the finer details of her appearance seem to have eluded her friends. Coleridge's description of Dorothy's face, when he first met her, tells us precisely nothing: "If you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her ordinary—if you expected to find an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty." Nor have any who admired her talk left behind a memorable thing she might have said; we have no record of Dorothy's urgent, excitable voice with its round Yorkshire vowels and its nervous stammer. Dorothy Wordsworth tends to be described in abstract terms, leaving us only with a sense of her energy. Thomas De Quincey, who met her first when she was thirty-six, saw this energy as so overwhelming that it detracted from her sexuality. "Hurry mars and defeats even the most ordinary expression of the feminine character," he said. Her "abruptness and trepidation" came across to him as "rudeness" and lack of grace.

Those who knew Dorothy in her hot youth describe her as possessing all the wildness of the Brontë heroines she helped to inspire. It was the quality of her gaze they noticed first. For John Thelwall, the radical, she was "the maid of ardent eye"; Wordsworth, in "Tintern Abbey," famously praised "the shooting lights" of her "wild eyes," which were a clear and light gray-blue, and Coleridge, taking his cue, wrote of "the wild lights in her eyes." De Quincey described her eyes as "wild and startling" and Dorothy as "all fire, and . . . ardour," the "very wildest (in the sense of the most natural) person I have ever known." She had something of the "gipsy" to her, De Quincey said, which Coleridge catches in his description of the mysterious Christabel, the eponymous heroine of the ballad he wrote when he was at his most enamored of Dorothy.

Her wildness, meaning the unbridled, uncultivated, undomesticated side of her character, is not caught in Dorothy's journals. Despite her turning her back on a predictable life of churchgoing and charity in order to live with her wayward brother, there is nothing uninhibited in her journal entries. Dorothy is in fact markedly restrained in what she says, the very opposite of how she apparently was in her personal relations. In her journal she describes the Grasmere Vale as looking very beautiful, in excessive simplicity yet at the same time in uncommon obscurity, and it is the combination of excessive simplicity and uncommon obscurity that best describes Dorothy herself. She had a neurotic personality, and while we get a strong sense of her anxieties in her writing, she will rarely describe her state of mind. She never recorded an idea of her own, a reaction to a thought, or an explanation of her tears when she was unhappy or moved by a poem or play. What is striking about Dorothy as she appears in her journals, up to the point of the description of her brother's wedding, is how obedient she is, how she does not go beyond what is expected of her, in terms of either her gender or her relationship with William. Where was all this wildness? Her prose is defined by modesty and reserve, by the fear of what might happen were she to let herself go.

Today the name of Dorothy Wordsworth is more likely to inspire pity than to reignite the flash of her former power. Her reputation as one of the casualties of nineteenth-century femininity seems sealed. Dorothy Wordsworth has come down to us as the quintessential Victorian virgin, a little dotty but in general the perfect, selfless, and sexless complement to her self-absorbed and humorless sibling. It is her supposed sexlessness on which her biographers have focused. They have long been fascinated by the fact of her femininity—Dorothy is discussed as a remarkable woman, whereas Wordsworth is discussed as a remarkable person—but it is in relation to questions of her sexuality that the discussion stalls. It was appropriate, wrote De Quincey in 1839, that she was called "Dorothy" because it is a name we associate with maiden aunts; there is a hint in his description that he thought her a lesbian, but there is also a hint that he was half in love with her and that she rejected him. Addressing Dorothy directly in an essay he wrote about Wordsworth for Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, De Quincey admitted that he was not the only man to have "loved and admired you in your fervid prime," the term "admired" being the contemporary equivalent of what we might call "fancied." And yet Dorothy has been described as a "creature apart," an oddball who happily bypassed the needs with which the rest of us are burdened. It is William and not Dorothy who has to deal with the problem of physical desire: "Devoted as brother and sister were to one another, Dorothy seems to have been aware . . . that her brother's morbid moods and illnesses arose from sex-repression and that he should marry," wrote Amanda Ellis in Rebels and Conservatives in 1967, as if sexual repression were not something from which Dorothy might suffer also. "Dorothy, if passionate, was essentially virginal," concludes Elizabeth Gunn in A Passion for the Particular (1981). A recent film, Festival, has as the butt of its joke an earnest actress performing every morning to an empty theater a play about Dorothy in which nothing happens. She looks out her window to admire the daffodils and the swallows; she wails at the mention of William's marriage. Edmund Lee, in the first biography of Dorothy to appear, The Story of a Sister's Love, published in 1886, praises her for the manner in which she "consecrated her life to her brother's good, relinquishing for herself everything outside him in such a way that she became absorbed in his own existence." Dorothy Wordsworth is famous for having lived her brother's life to the full and for being someone about whose independent existence there is precious little to say, and yet it is on the subject of absorption in her brother that Dorothy found, in her journals, so much to say herself.

In 1889, thirty-four years after Dorothy's death, Mrs. Henry Fawcett described her in Some Eminent Women of Our Times as someone who "did not know jealousy in love; her love was so perfect that she rejoiced in every addition to her brother's happiness, and did not, as a meaner woman might have done, wish his heart to be vacant of all affection save what he felt for herself." Mrs. Fawcett had only edited extracts of Dorothy's journals on which to form her judgments, but in their 1985 biography, Dorothy Wordsworth, based on all the sources there are available, both published and unpublished, Robert Gittings and Jo Manton reiterate this myth of Dorothy as not quite human:

Yet, with all her lovable qualities, there is no sign that she ever aroused or experienced physical desire, nor that she felt this as a loss . . . From girlhood she seemed destined to be a creature apart, one of that distinctive company of nineteenth-century women, clinging like sterile buds to the family stem, tight-furled until November withered them.

Perhaps they are right, and Dorothy Wordsworth did go through her entire lifetime responding sensuously to every leaf and stream, falling to pieces with love for her loved ones, living at the mercy of her impulses and emotions, yet never once experienced or aroused physical desire or felt that this was a loss. But what is their evidence for supposing this? De Quincey believed that Dorothy had received "several offers," among them one from the young critic William Hazlitt, a suggestion generally dismissed as too unlikely to be taken seriously. And yet we know from his book Liber Amoris that Hazlitt, like De Quincey himself, was attracted to plain, hardworking women, and if Hazlitt did not go so far as to propose marriage, who is to say that he did not proposition the "wild" and "impassioned" Dorothy? All these "offers," De Quincey said, she "without a moment's hesitation . . . rejected decisively." Because a woman has not, so far as we know, had sexual intercourse does not mean she has never inspired or felt desire.

There is nothing in Dorothy's writing to suggest that from girlhood she seemed destined to live like "a sterile bud"; on the contrary, she comes across as someone who responds to her physical environment with open arms, someone acutely alert to the pleasures of the senses, who wants nothing more than to love and be loved in a home of her own. The problem with Dorothy Wordsworth is not, I suggest, that she did not experience or excite desire but that the idea of her doing so makes her readers so uncomfortable.

Journals, unlike autobiographies or memoirs, do not narrate a life, at least not intentionally so; they inscribe instead what the critic Donald Stauffer called the record of "an existence," the thoughts, feelings, and events of a regular series of days, which only with time begin to take on a specific direction, shape, or pattern. This, apart from her lack of ambition and his excess of it, is the main difference between Dorothy Wordsworth's writing and that of William. They both wrote autobiography, but she recorded the current goings-on in her own circumambient universe while he looked backward, rewriting his past to make sense of the present. They both explored consciousness, but his self is ever evolving, dependent on, yet increasingly distinguished from, the world around him, while hers gradually dissolves into its surroundings. When Dorothy refers to herself, it is usually to inscribe her own effacement: My heart was so full that I could hardly speak. At her most emotionally full, she is at her least expressive. Wordsworth wrote to see his life as a whole, as a grand narrative continuum; his great poem, The Prelude, reworked over fifty years, describes nothing less than the evolution of a poet's mind. He sees his life as a river, flowing from the source to the sea, but Dorothy's Grasmere Journals, like the stone on which she is sitting when they begin, are rocks, occasional, unexpected moments of pause and reflection around which the water eddies.

What purpose did Dorothy's journal serve? In her biography of the diarist Samuel Pepys, The Unequalled Self, Claire Tomalin quotes the politician Tony Benn, for whom writing a diary allows him to experience everything three times: first, as a lived experience; second, in the writing down of it; and third, in the rereading of the entry. Tomalin suggests that for Pepys there was a fourth reason, the offering of the self to posterity. For Dorothy Wordsworth, the case is rather different. Her journal was a way of making something out of nothing. She wrote not to preserve her memories but to give to William what he called in "Ode to Duty" "a repose that ever is the same." Her journal was less about recollecting her life than about collecting together some of its elements while editing the existence of others—such as Mary and Sara Hutchinson, Sarah Coleridge, and Annette Vallon. Dorothy wrote as a way of both pushing back the time when William was absent and holding it still when he was there. The fire flutters, the watch ticks. I hear nothing save the breathing of my Beloved, as he now & then pushes his book forward, & turns over a leaf. Her journal made motionless the world in which she lived, defending it from mutability and change. Daily life, in her hands, becomes elegy: W sowed the Scarlet Beans in the orchard. I read Henry 5th there. W lay on his back on the seat. I wept, For names, sounds, faiths, delights & duties lost. Dorothy fixed what was fluid and marked the passage of the present, writing not for posterity but for Wordsworth himself.

The Grasmere Journals describe a world that is not only still but also silent. The homeless who come to Dove Cottage, or those Dorothy and William meet on the road, have voices—We met near Skelleth a pretty little Boy with a wallet over his shoulder . . . He spoke gently & without complaint—but Dorothy and William do not speak, at least not in her journal. We hear William's voice only once, when Dorothy reports his comment that her tears over Coleridge's opium addiction, hopeless love for Sara Hutchinson, departure for London, and debilitating writer's block are nervous blubbering, and the crudeness of his remark smarts against the fragility of her prose. William and Dorothy talked to each other all the time, of course, as they worked the garden, ate their morning broth, or tramped the road to Ambleside to get their post, and she would stay up with her brother and Coleridge half the night talking. It is unlikely, given their flow of friends and neighbors, that Dove Cottage was ever quiet, but the clatter and sway of these exchanges are not what Dorothy wants to retain of their days. The only sound that breaks the silence of the sympathy she depicts between herself and William is the chanting of his poetry, which he preferred to compose as he walked. William composing in the wood in the morning, she writes; Wm & I walked along the Cockermouth road—he was altering his poems. She is so absorbed in William and his words that she has no sense of how comical these constitutionals appear to those who pass them by: William with what De Quincey described as his "cade"-like stride—"a cade being some sort of insect which advances by an oblique motion"—that would edge his companions off the road, Dorothy with what De Quincey called her "unsexual" gait, bent forward, hurried in her movements. "Mr. Wordsworth went bumming and booing about," one local recalled of Wordsworth's muttering as he paced up and down the path, "and she, Miss Dorothy, kept close behint him, and she picked up the bits as he let 'em fall, and tak 'em down, and put 'em on paper for him."

Her brother's marriage was to be Dorothy's funeral, but for Wordsworth it heralded a new beginning. The ceremony took place at the start of a day, the start of a week, the start of a month, the start of a century, and coincided with the end of a period of immense creativity. On Monday, October 4, 1802, he exchanged the "unchartered freedom" of his life with Dorothy for his next great concern: homage to duty. We might say that he moved from the state of childhood into adulthood. Wordsworth's marriage would last for nearly five contented and uneventful decades, a fact that astonished his friends. "The most interesting circumstance in this marriage," wrote De Quincey, "the one which perplexed us exceedingly, was the very possibility that it should ever have been brought to bear. For we could not conceive of Wordsworth as submitting his faculties to the humilities and devotion of courtship." He appeared emotionally cold, ascetic, almost holy in his reverence for his poetic calling. Wordsworth was now thirty-two, and his most exciting years had been lived: he had been in France during the early years of the Revolution, had fallen in love with a French Royalist and fathered her child, had suffered a profound crisis of self and belief, had built himself up again with the help of Dorothy; the poetry that would secure his reputation had been written; his days as a radical in both politics and literature were behind him; the intensity of his friendship with Coleridge had begun to wane; and he no longer required the receptiveness and recall of his sister's eyes and ears.

It is not unusual to think of this or that moment in the lives of ourselves or of others as representing a beginning, end, or turning point, or to see a certain experience as signaling either a high or a low mark, a peak or a trough. One of the advantages enjoyed by a biographer is the opportunity to plot the pattern of a life as if on a graph—to say with some certainty that this or that year represented either the best or the worst of times for the person being written about. In his poetry, William Wordsworth saw childhood as the highest point for us all; in biography, it is marriage that is usually regarded as a peak in the graph, following which—and this is famously the case with Wordsworth—there is a downward plunge and a plateau. In novels or stories marriage more often serves, as it does in Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals, as an ending in itself. For the groom it betokens the end of restlessness, adventure, selfishness, and folly, while for the bride it is the reward that comes of waiting. So far as the reader is concerned, they lived happily ever after. For those close to the happy couple, the exclusivity enjoyed in marriage can be a violent, rejecting experience: after the wedding feast the front door is firmly closed.

The peak of Dorothy Wordsworth's own life was the time between the Christmas of 1799, when, as she put it, she and William were left to ourselves & had turned our whole hearts to Grasmere, and October 1802, when William married and they were left to themselves no longer. During these years, Dorothy never went farther than a day's journey from Dove Cottage. "A happier life, by far, was hers in youth," recalled De Quincey. "Amongst the loveliest scenes of sylvan England . . . her time fleeted away like some golden age." This period I call her threshold years, the golden age in which she was most happy and most aware of the fleeting temporality of that happiness, when she rested on the threshold between what Wordsworth called the "two natures in me, joy the one / The other melancholy." These were also the years in which, some believe, the relationship between Wordsworth and Dorothy crossed the threshold of brotherly and sisterly love. It was now that Dorothy was most alert to the corrosive effects of time; as William's impending marriage threatened to bring to an end the world they shared, she was positioned uneasily between the realization of paradise and the anticipation of its loss. Here, at the point of change, where one door closes and another opens, we experience life at its most intense, and it is on the threshold between one state and another that we can find Dorothy poised again and again. Whether she is observing the moon sailing along, lying on her bed in stillness, or simply gazing into her sublunary world until she can see no longer, she is endlessly ready to drift over the borders of vision. It was also here that Dorothy discovered that she had what Coleridge calls in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner "strange power of speech" and composed, in the form of her journal, a ballad of her own.

Ballads were everywhere in Dorothy's life. William filled the notebook he began in January 1800 with ballads, such as "The Romance of Robert the Devill" and "The Exile of Erin." This was the year he was putting together the poems for the second volume of his Lyrical Ballads. In the early weeks of keeping her Grasmere Journals Dorothy records spending her time reading ballads, noting on May 17, 1800, three days after her first entry, Worked hard & Read Midsummer nights Dream, Ballads—sauntered a little in the garden, on June 1, Read Ballads, went to church, and on June 4, Walked to the lake side in the morning, took up plants & sat upon a stone reading Ballads. Perhaps she is dipping into William's notebook, or else soaking up his edition of Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. It is typical of Dorothy that she does not say which ones she read or liked the best, but ballads, which form part of the content and structure of her day, also inform the content and structure of her journal. The voice that now emerges from her writing is different from the stylized, impersonal one of her earlier journal, kept when she lived with William in Alfoxden House in Somerset, or the rigid, conventional tone of the journal she had kept in Germany, or from the gossipy, garrulous voice of her many letters. As in a ballad, Dorothy lets her story unfold scene by scene, with structural simplicity and without commentary or authorial intrusion; contained in her accounts of quietness and still time lies a drama of turbulence and psychological tension.

The night before his friend's wedding, Coleridge had a dream. The marriage of Wordsworth and Mary Hutchinson was to take place on the seventh anniversary of his own, disastrous marriage, and he dreamed of William and Mary and the dramatic change their union would mean for himself and Dorothy. So great was to be the alteration of their small group that in his dream Dorothy was unrecognizable. She was no longer the small, slight, lithe, voluble creature he knew, with the gypsy brown face, ardent, fiery, darting eyes, and quick, nimble gestures. Her familiarity was gone, she was "altered in every feature . . . fat, thick-limbed & rather red-haired—[the woman in the dream bore] in short no resemblance to her at all—and I said, if I did not know you to be Dorothy, I never should suppose it. Why, says she, I have not a feature the same."

Nothing was ever again to be the same for Dorothy, whose love of her brother was, she wrote, "the building up of my being, the light of my path." Five days before the great event she confided to her closest friend, Jane Pollard, "I half dread that concentration of all tender feelings, past, present and future which will come upon me on the wedding morning." Dorothy often feels things by "halves." I began this book with a paraphrase of the concentration of feelings that came upon her on the wedding morning; here they are again, but this time in Dorothy's own words:

On Monday 4th October 1802, my Brother William was married to Mary Hutchinson. I slept a good deal of the night & rose fresh & well in the morning—at a little after 8 o'clock I saw them go down the avenue towards the Church. William had parted from me upstairs. I gave him the wedding ring—with how deep a blessing! I took it from my forefinger where I had worn it the whole of the night before—he slipped it again onto my finger & blessed me fervently. When they were absent my dear little Sara [Hutchinson, sister of the bride] prepared the breakfast. I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men running up the walk, coming to tell us it was over, I could stand it no longer & threw myself on the bed where I lay in stillness, neither hearing or seeing anything, till Sara came upstairs to me & said "They are coming." This forced me from the bed where I lay & I moved I knew not how straight forward, faster than my strength could carry me till I met my beloved William & fell upon his bosom. He & John Hutchinson led me to the house & there I stayed to welcome my dear Mary.

"Man survives earthquakes, epidemics, the horrors of disease, and all the agonies of the soul," said Tolstoy, "but for all time his most tormenting tragedy has been, is, and will be the tragedy of the bedroom." Dorothy sets her own tragedy in the bedroom, but the fact that we are peeping through the keyhole at this unhappy scene may make it seem more tragic and more shocking than it really is. There is a degree of suspense involved in the reading of anyone's private diary, but the particular tension that comes from reading Dorothy Wordsworth's journal is not only the result of taking pleasure in an illicit activity. It is born also of the friction between what she does and does not say, between the trauma she describes and the measured, restrained vocabulary in which she couches that description, between what she appears to know and not to know of herself, and the contrast between the self she believes herself to be and the curious creature she was described as being by others. In this sense, the tensions in her writing reflect the conflicts in her personality. The most perceptive account of Dorothy comes from De Quincey, who saw what others missed. Apart from observing that she stammered and stooped, had a clumsy gait, an "unsexual awkwardness," an "organic sensibility," and a twitching, "glancing quickness to her motions," he notes that she was perpetually subject to self-conflict—"the irresistible instincts of her temperament" were checked "in obedience to the decorum of her sex and age." The effect of this struggle was, he says, "distressing to witness." It is an apt comment: Dorothy Wordsworth is often distressing to witness.

Most of her journal entries were written on, or soon after, the day in question, but Dorothy described the occasion of her brother's wedding four days after the event, on Friday, October 8, when she had returned with the bride and groom to Dove Cottage from the honeymoon. It is part of a long entry that took in August and September as well, including a trip to Calais with William to meet his former lover, Annette Vallon, and his nine-year-old daughter. Perhaps Dorothy had been composing in her mind all week how she was going to describe to her journal the wedding day, making the above passage a well-crafted and considered piece of prose. Or perhaps she improvised, the words simply dropping from her pen without apparent thought. The passage might have taken her an hour to write, or it might have taken a matter of minutes. She might have exaggerated her distress, or she might have understated it. William and Mary might have been in the room with her, reading and sewing respectively as her quill scratched the paper, or she might have snatched time alone while they were sleeping or out walking. Whatever the circumstances of its composition, there is an important distance between Dorothy's original experience and her later representation of it here, a distance that Wordsworth described as the effect of "emotion recollected in tranquillity."

This is not the first picture of physical closeness between brother and sister that Dorothy has recorded—the journals are filled with examples of their strange love, depicted by her with tantalizing economy—but one of the most striking aspects of this tableau is what Dorothy holds back from saying. How much does she understand of the intimacy between William and Mary from which she is excluded, and how much do we understand of the intimacy between William and Dorothy? What do their actions actually mean? Is the gesture of the ring symbolic of Wordsworth's continued commitment to Dorothy despite the presence of Mary, or of what he calls elsewhere the "mighty gulf of separation" that is about to take place between himself and his "dear, dear sister"? Is it a marriage or a divorce taking place in the bedroom? Dorothy's record of the wedding concludes with a picture of the bridegroom returning from the church not with his wife but with his sister on his arm. Walking to the house with her brother by her side, Dorothy is back where she belongs. On foot together they have covered hundreds of miles, she with her familiar "stooping attitude," he moving in his oblique fashion, with a wry and twisted gait that would eventually, as De Quincey said, "edge off his companion from the middle to the side of the highroad." Arriving thus back at the house and crossing the threshold with Dorothy by his side, Wordsworth confirms to her that both nothing and everything between them has changed.

What purpose did the recording of Wordsworth's wedding morning serve for Dorothy? "The thoughts of my heart . . . how could I bear to look on them after they were written?" wrote Elizabeth Barrett of her painful feelings for Hugh Stuart Boyd—married, blind, and twice her age. She confided to her journal: "Adam made fig leaves necessary for the mind, as well as for the body." "I can't read it over; and God knows what contradictions it may contain," wrote Byron of his own journal. "If I am sincere with myself (but I fear one lies more to one's self than to anyone else), every page should confute, refute, and utterly abjure its predecessor." We construct the self we can bear to face in our journal writing, but our entries also harbor abjection and shame. Did Dorothy ever reread this passage recalling the day that she was edged off by William, from the middle to the side of his life? Would she have then considered it a successful account of her feelings; would she remember other exchanges and experiences during that morning which she had not recorded; would she have recognized the wretched woman lying there on the bed as a portrait of herself ?

It has been traditional, perhaps as a result of Wordsworth's description of her voice in Home at Grasmere as being "like a hidden bird that sang," to describe Dorothy's writing itself as birdlike. "The words themselves are as unobtrusive as sparrows," one critic says of the Grasmere Journals; "the writing is as natural and unforced as the singing of larks," says another. "We listen to her," says a third, "as we might listen to a thrush singing." William described himself and Dorothy as resembling two swans—birds who mate for life—and in her last, dark years the now inarticulate sounds she made were compared to those of "a partridge or a turkey." But the bird that comes most to mind when I read Dorothy's burdened journals is the albatross draped around the Ancient Mariner's neck in Coleridge's famous Rime. Dorothy Wordsworth emerges from her own ballad both as an image of the great seabird shot down in its prime and as a version of the voyager himself, with the "glittering eye." "I pass, like night, from land to land; / I have strange power of speech," the Mariner explains to the wedding guest. Dorothy, too, chose the day of a wedding on which to tell her tale of crossing the line, and then passed, like night, away.

Excerpted from The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson, published February 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2008 by Frances Wilson. All rights reserved.

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Frances Wilson