Book review: The Poets' Daughters, By Katie Waldegrave

Talented, spirited, the Lake Poets' offspring had mountains of their own to climb

Katie Waldegrave could have shown Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge as mere casualties of their respective fathers' possessiveness and neglect: she has plenty of material. But her parallel lives are about affinity and love as much as bad parenting.

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The Lake Poets favoured romantic wildness, and the gang of little Wordsworths, Coleridges and Southeys waded up the Grasmere watercourses and harassed neighbours unsupervised. In many ways they had a blissful dawn to be alive in, despite the usual long illnesses and shocking deaths of siblings.

All children inherit old jealousies and alliances; theirs were especially sharp and public. The girls might attract the attention of Social Services now. Dora, getting a bit too wild at nine, was sent off to boarding school by her Aunt Dorothy on an outside seat of the coach in the care of two drunken sailors. Wordsworth's sister seems to have disliked her niece, who would displace her.

But Laureate Robert Southey and deserted Mrs Coleridge (he and Coleridge had married sisters) made sure the children at Keswick had some stability and academic education in Latin and Italian as well as "accomplishments". When apart, Sara and Dora corresponded: a "vile Doro, your base neglect of me is intolerable" would get a quick reply back across the mountain.

In Dora's early teens her father's eyesight was failing and he began to make her his amanuensis in the image of Milton's daughters, though he already had a wife and sister in that role. He disliked the physical act of writing and composed aloud. Without secretarial backup, much might have been lost. Was Dora's work a privilege or a trap? Waldegrave traces the lifelong ambiguity and its impact on her health. Wordsworth opposed the only marriage she wanted, capitulating with ill grace when she was 36 - though her husband continued to venerate him.

Coleridge left when Sara was a baby, returned in her childhood to admire her beauty and intelligence, then disappeared in her teens. Wordsworth became her substitute father. At 20 she went to London to rediscover the real one, but the Sage of Highgate was too damaged by opium for family relationships. Perhaps inevitably, both women married "in", Sara to a cousin also devoted to his father-in -law.

The Poets' Daughters lacks the intensity of Frances Wilson's The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, but its scope is wider. Waldegrave traces the literary genetics: the daughters were like the fathers in mind as well as looks. Wordsworth's Lakes reappear in Dora's lyrical evocations of Portuguese scenery, published as A Guide to Portugal against her parents' wishes. "Cerulean" or bluestocking Sara published her translation from the Latin of a learned work on Paraguay at 18. Her magical poem "Phantasmion" creates surreal land and seascapes like Coleridge's.

Both women's lives were darkened by depression, eating disorders and, in Sara's case, the deaths of three babies and many miscarriages. She too relied on opium. But writing revived her. As a widow she engaged in the theological battles of the mid-19th century and brilliantly edited her father's unpublished work, refusing to suppress material the Victorians would find shocking. "She shines with a light of her own," she wrote of Dora, "not merely with a portion of parental radiance". The praise applies equally to herself. Unlike their touchy fathers, they stayed friends all their lives.

Loraine Fletcher's 'Print/Capture: a memoir' is available via Amazon