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Sister Act: A New Take On Dorothy Wordsworth

Mar 22, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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Imagine living in a "vortex of poetry" — that's how biographer Frances Wilson describes life in England's Lake District. The year was 1800, and William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy Wordsworth were living in Dove Cottage near Grasmere. They spent the days walking the wooded paths and composing poems and — in Dorothy's case — letters and journals.

Wilson's new book, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, chronicles the intense connection between the Wordsworth siblings. Her book centers on Dorothy Wordsworth's "Grasmere Journals" — four small notebooks that detail her relationship with William and their adventures in the Lake District with friend and fellow poet Samuel Coleridge.

The three friends used to take long walks together, during which time they would fall into what Dorothy called "trance states." Once, says Wilson, they lay on the top of the hills and pretended they were dead.

"What the neighbors would think, heavens knows. ... I think [the trance states] must have been drug related," Wilson tells Jacki Lyden, noting that Coleridge was addicted to opium and that Dorothy took the drug for years to treat her migraines.

But Wilson says her book isn't meant to malign Dorothy Wordsworth. Rather, she felt compelled to write the book because she felt that her subject had been "so mistreated by biographers."

"I felt as if there had been something along the lines of a biographical lobotomy taking place on her," she says.

Wilson describes Dorothy as an "extremely powerful and sexual woman." Previous biographies had speculated about the possibility of an incestuous relationship between the siblings, but Wilson describes the connection between Dorothy and William as "something stranger and darker and more complicated than sexual incest."

"I don't think for a moment that there was any sexual relationship between them, because I think their relationship had nothing to do with bodies," explains Wilson. "They were wrapped up in each other's minds in a much complicated and frightening way."

Wilson describes the relationship as "extraordinary." In some ways, she says, it was the most passionate relationship of both of their lives: "For Dorothy there was no other man ever," says Wilson.

To wit: On the night before William's marriage, Dorothy wore the ring he intended to give his bride. She later detailed her brother's wedding in her journal, writing:

On Monday, the 4 of October 1802, my brother William was married to Mary Hutchinson. I slept a good deal of the night and rose fresh and well in the morning. At a little after 8 o'clock, I saw them go down the avenue towards the church. ... I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men coming up the walk coming to tell me it was over, I could bear it no longer and threw myself on the bed, where I lay in stillness, neither hearing, nor seeing anything.

Following her brother's marriage, Dorothy retreated to the top room of the cottage, where she lived for the next 20 years — a sort of mad woman in the attic, according to Wilson. For his part, Wilson says, William felt "fantastically guilty" about what he had done to put his sister in that state.

But Dorothy's voluntary seclusion wasn't permanent; when her brother died she reemerged as her old self: "It was as though William Wordsworth was holding her back," says Wilson. "When he'd gone, she could breathe again."

The sister who had vowed never to leave her brother — and whose brother had promised the same — could not really live her life until she was free of him.

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The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life
By Frances Wilson
Hardcover, 336 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $30

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