Hutchinson, £25 Order at a discount from the The Independent Bookshop
Book review: The Poets' Daughters, By Katie Waldegrave
Talented, spirited, the Lake Poets' offspring had mountains of their own to climb
Friday 27 September 2013
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.
Get this book at the discounted rate of £18 from The Independent Bookshop or call 0843 0600 030
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
Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Finland schools: Subjects scrapped and replaced with 'topics' as country reforms its education system
- 2 The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
- 3 #FreeTheNipple: Women in Iceland bare breasts in solidarity with trolled student
- 4 Scientists have discovered a simple way to cook rice that dramatically cuts the calories
- 5 Zayn Malik quits One Direction: Hundreds of workers request compassionate leave following band member's exit
Jeremy Clarkson to host BBC's Have I Got News For You despite Top Gear exit
A historian gave the most British look of despair when someone screwed up Richard III's birthday at his reburial
Zayn Malik already working on solo material, just days after quitting One Direction
Kay Burley 'bias' against Ed Miliband prompts 130 complaints to Ofcom
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Nigel Farage brands LGBT activists 'filth' and 'scum' and accuses them of scaring away his children after they invade his local pub
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
Russia threatens Denmark with nuclear weapons if it tries to join Nato defence shield
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
Germanwings plane crash live: Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz wanted to 'do something people would remember him for'