Books: Washed-up by the bards behaving badly

Life was no bed of daffodils for Romantic womenfolk, as Sue Limb discovers; A Passionate Sisterhood: the sisters, wives and daughters of the Lake Poets by Kathleen Jones, Constable, pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be" Robert Southey sternly warned Charlotte Bronte. I'd better not write this review, then. Silly me. I should stick to shopping lists. Cutlets, not couplets. I've made a living from writing for 20 years and yet, two centuries after Southey's veto, it is still so hard to reconcile the demands of a literary career with the needs of a family and household that I am reduced to tears of exasperation at times.

How much more painful and frustrating were the struggles of these women, in an age when female independence was almost unknown, divorce an aberration, contraception an impossibility, disease mysterious, drugs dangerous, and infant mortality 50 per cent. The Wordsworths, Coleridges and Southeys all lost children. Edith Southey's grief at the death of four of her eight children - one at nine, one at 14 - deprived her of her reason. Dorothy Wordsworth also disintegrated into dementia, worn out by physical drudgery and emotional frustration. The next generation fared no better. Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge struggled with eating disorders and drug dependency.

The female Wordsworths and Coleridges were often more brilliant than their famous menfolk, but the universities were closed to them. They had to be content with the role of handmaidens to the great, copying and editing the works of their fathers or brothers. Dorothy offered up the treasury of her own startlingly original notes and felt honoured when William pillaged them. Coleridge's daughter Sara translated a work of South American anthropology from Latin into English and earned a considerable sum by it. The money was used to send her less gifted brother to university.

Sara was a mere girl. On hearing of her birth, Coleridge had "borne the sex with fortitude" even though he had already fathered sons. He declared "the perfection of every woman is to be characterless: creatures who, although they may not always understand you, always feel with you." He demonstrated the splendour of his own character by deserting his wife while their children were still young. It is evident from her comments that his wife understood him all too well.

Mrs Coleridge was given shelter and support by her brother-in-law Robert Southey, but her dependency meant she had to accept his prejudices and judgements too. He would not offer hospitality to her estranged husband nor, later, to her son.

Wordworth's complacent exploitation of his sister's adoration is well known. Charles Lamb joked that Wordsworth had three wives: Mary, Dorothy and his sister-in-law Sara Hutchinson, whom Coleridge would have liked to recruit as an extra wife also. Wordsworth was particularly tyrannical to his daughter Dora, opposing her marriage until she was in her mid-thirties and already in a consumptive decline.

The fogeyish chauvinism and tyranny of these poets is the more deplorable because in their youth they had fancied themselves the most radical thinkers in a revolutionary age, and espoused Mary Wollstonecraft's feminist ideals. In the enthusiasiam of his honeymoon, Coleridge had even drawn up a schedule of domestic chores, allowing ten minutes at half-past three of washing the dishes. Somehow I feel he was the sort of bloke who would have left egg on the spoons on purpose to demonstrate his romantic incompetence at such work.

Kathleen Jones's loyalty lies entirely with the womenfolk, but she has a rare breadth of sympathy even for the men, noting Wordsworth's tenderness towards his wife, acknowledging Southey's dutiful care of his dependents and pitying Coleridge's disastrous loss of confidence in the face of Wordsworth's criticisms. She handles the mass of diaries and letters with skill and imagination, building up a vivid picture of these extraordinary households and the curious and exotic beings they contained. I feel I have been eavesdropping in Dorothy's scullery and smelt its damp plaster, and watched Sarah Coleridge at her dressing-table banishing despondency with a dab of powder and dash of scent.

Sarah, racy, sexy and smart, has suffered in the eyes of posterity because of bitchy remarks made about her by Dorothy. She emerges from this book as a woman of fortitude, energy and attractive resilience. She had a way with words, playfully inventing a code which has an almost Joycean character. "Has she been in dull company, she describes the conversation of such stupossums as drigdraggery. A brook she calls the running splash."

Kathleen Jones sees a deeper significance in this. The exuberant energies of a confined, dependent and frustrated woman could only be expressed by inventing a new world of words. "By inventing a language no one else could understand, she could say anything she liked." Dorothy and Edith escaped into melancholy madness; Sarah into a carefully-controlled craziness. Indeed, these women's lives seem a kind of crazy paving of fractured personalities over which their menfolk walked serenely into the admiration of posterity. This is a fascinating, marvellous, utterly absorbing book.