Books: The ladies of the Lakes

A PASSIONATE SISTERHOOD: The Sisters, Wives and Daughters of the Lake Poets by Kathleen Jones, Constable pounds 20 Hodder pounds 20

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the achievements of the first-generation Romantic poets depended greatly on the women in their lives. Henry Crabb Robinson said of Wordsworth: "If Providence had not blessed him with a wife, a sister, a wife's sister and a daughter ... it is probable that many of his verses ... would have been scattered to the winds." (He might reasonably have added: "or not have been written at all".) Coleridge's daughter Sara echoed the thought. "Never," she said, "was a Poet so blessed before [as my father] in the ladies of his household." In both remarks, we can hear a note which has stayed true down the years. Admiring but admonishing, proud but piqued, they link the two poets with all those other geniuses in history who demand more or less permanent coddling and obedience.

Kathleen Jones is the latest, and will not be the last, to try and unravel the paradoxes. Beginning her story close to the end of the 18th century with the three Fricker sisters (one of whom married Robert Southey, another Coleridge), and then casting the net of her narrative wide to catch all the Lake poets before throwing it forward again to bring in their children, she works hard to discover abiding themes and recurring patterns. If much of the material in her book is well known, the arrangement usually makes it seem fresh - and it is delivered with a likeably urgent sympathy.

At least, it is when Jones is rescuing her women from obscurity, and exploring the difficulties of their lives. When she turns aside from these aims and starts openly chastising the men, it is hard not to feel put off, no matter how strongly we might share her view of things. (We are told, for instance, about the "unforgiveable" letter Coleridge writes to his wife Sarah, and about Wordsworth's "deplorable act of cruelty" to his daughter Dora.) These censorious outbursts have a long echo, making the book slightly monotonous. For all the fascination of its narratives, and in spite of the justice of its cause, its emphasis returns too routinely to the idea that its heroines are victims, and does not discuss often enough - or illuminatingly enough - their function as collaborators, contributors and originators.

Which is not to say that the victimisation was negligible within the family, and in the world at large. From the moment Jones takes up her story of the three Fricker girls, we are forcibly reminded about the fierce segregations and prejudices of the times. Because the sisters were good needlewomen, and lived briefly in Bath, they were unshakeably associated with "a profession with a dubious reputation". By marrying as they did, Sarah and Edith - and Mary, who married the short-lived Robert Lovell - hoped to escape such things: Southey and Coleridge were radical idealists, planning their utopian Pantisocratic settlement on the banks of the Susquehanna. When the women agreed to go with them, they looked forward to a life based on a firm belief in "the Fraternity of universal Nature", where their own responsibilities as mothers would be bearable because, their husbands assured them, "An infant is almost always sleeping."

There was, of course, no journey to the Susquehanna - just a good deal of trekking from the West Country to London and back, and a simultaneous endorsement and explosion of their original loyalties when Wordsworth burst on the scene. This, in turn, brought more trekking - to the Lake District, which became home to most of the "sisterhood" - and more faces: Sara Hutchinson, Wordsworth's sister Dorothy and (eventually) his wife Mary and daughter Dora. There are times when Jones struggles to keep such a large cast of characters all moving forward together, but if this means that the tone sometimes becomes perfunctory ("In June 1813 George Fricker arrived at Keswick in the last stages of tuberculosis"), it also allows us an appropriate sense of bustle and contradiction. Soon after they were formed, the ideals of Pantisocracy had been eroded by indecision, by poverty, and by the sheer grind of daily events.

Needless to say, this grind hurt the women more than the men. Reading their letters, which Jones quotes well, we can see it building through regular references to headaches, toothaches, and stomach aches, but over the years these comparatively minor ailments coalesced into something continuous and very grim. Take the Coleridge strand of the story. As Coleridge fell in love with Sara Hutchinson and became seriously addicted to opium, his wife bowed under the yoke of her grief: two of her four children died young, her dependence on the Southey household was accepted but felt as a failure, and her contribution to Coleridge's work was suppressed. (He revised a number of early poems to write her out of them.) It is no surprise to find that in middle life Sarah invented a private "nonsense" language, which entertained her family, but was evidence of her instability and isolation. (Sara Hutchinson was soon "reduced to only one good tooth, which she wrenched eating a pear, and had to masticate her food on the roof of her mouth with her tongue".)

Things were hardly less depressing for the Southey family, once they had settled in Greta Hall in the Lakes. Although Robert's wife Edith was generally regarded by his friends - women and men - as not giving him everything he wanted, Jones shows us that she was entitled to a good deal of sympathy. Four of her eight children died young, and she eventually declined from fusspottery into "settled melancholy", unable to tolerate strangers, and sometimes raving in a "mania". When she died, Southey quickly married again, only to lose his own wits soon afterwards. Jones does well to remind us that however richly he deserved the scorn which was poured on his work and his later politics, he died a pitiable man, surrounded by the ghosts of pitiable women.

The Wordsworth story is better known, and anyone telling it is likely to feel that the man himself was more directly responsible for the unhappiness around him than Southey ever was. Jones certainly thinks so, but while her indignation at his self-absorption in middle and old age feels justified, her treatment of other parts of his life is a little disappointing. It does not sufficiently develop the idea that in early adulthood, William's relationship with his sister Dorothy was profoundly enabling, as well as enabled.

On one hand, Dorothy was often co-opted as her brother's poetic eyes as well as ears. She was required to comfort and guide him through his love affair with Annette Vallon. She transcribed many of his greatest poems and inspired others. In return, however, she rejoiced in feeling the enormous electricity of his interest and love, wiring much of it into her daily life, and much into her marvellous journals. Did she really expect that she could control his marriage when it inevitably occurred? Jones is brisk but telling about the terrible decay - first physical, then mental - which it precipitated, and the photograph she gives of the final entries in Dorothy's last journal is desperately sad. Among the broken words we can see: "Torments ... dysmal gloom ... no iron hinges."

In her heyday with her brother, Dorothy wrote brilliantly, and lived on the brink of greatness. Because her fall into frailty took her further than anyone else in her circle, and meant leaving finer work behind, it dominates all the surrounding narratives. Yet thanks in part to their jostling closeness, and in part to the book's diligent assembling and synthesising, we can see what is typical in Dorothy's story, as well as what is exceptional. Like the women around her, she endured - and accepted - a heavy load of frustration before sinking into her final twilight. Unlike them, she briefly fulfilled her immortal longings.

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