Faber & Faber £18.99 (286pp) £17.09 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, by Frances Wilson

The true story of the mouse and the turtle dove

Whenever we think of Dorothy Wordsworth, we are aware of two things of which her contemporaries were largely ignorant: the unsisterly fervour of her love for her brother William, and the extent of the debt his poetry owed to her. These aspects of their relationship emerged over years, as editors of her journals became less concerned with maintaining the comforting image of Dorothy as devoted sister and less fearful of engaging with the realities of her relationship with William, and her literary importance in the Romantic canon.

In this intelligent and well-written biography, Frances Wilson unpicks Dorothy's "Grasmere" journals – which suggested so much of the material her brother worked into his poetry – for clues towards a clearer definition of their passionate attachment. Siblings who grow up apart and become reacquainted as adults are known to be more prone to "inappropriate" feelings towards each other than those who develop under the same roof. On the death of their mother in 1778, Dorothy and her four brothers were separated and did not spend any time together until, aged 15 and 16, Dorothy and William were partially reunited.

They quickly established their ideal – to share a home – which they did six years later. They lived together for the rest of their lives and there was no question of Dorothy moving out when her brother married Mary Hutchinson. A woman of unique qualities, Mary sublimated her own needs as a wife more successfully than Dorothy sublimated her own as William's no longer exclusive partner.

Wilson poses many questions about the nature of William and Dorothy's intimacy, some of which could doubtless be answered by the restoration of lost journals, missing pages and excised lines. One famous passage which has been deciphered records how, the night before William's marriage, Dorothy slept with the wedding ring on her finger, returning it in the morning. The image remains troubling yet inscrutable: is this a divorce before a marriage or does it mark the sealing of a trinity? Is there a sexual aspect and, if so, what is it? The more one learns about Dorothy and her "Beloved", the less one seems to know.

Wilson sees symbols everywhere in Dorothy's descriptive writing, in the solitary flower, in the relationship between the moon and the stars, in the landscape and the light upon it. She also wonders how much the mind supplied what Dorothy saw, suggesting that some of the peculiar qualities of light Dorothy reported could have been due to symptoms of migraine.

We don't know what caused Dorothy's many headaches. It could have been the stress of repressing her feelings for her brother – or repressing her feelings for others in order to preserve the unassailability of the bond between William and herself.

Her headaches could have been related to the mental illness that blighted the latter part of her life, during which she became infantile, tyrannical, violent, incoherent and terrifying to strangers. They could have just been headaches, or merely an excuse to escape what she could not express.

Dorothy had a soft spot for true stories and collected the tales of the vagrants who passed her door with the same interest with which she gathered images from nature. One of the stories she recorded, that of Barbara Wilson's Turtle Dove, she wrote down at her brother's request, shortly before his marriage. "She had 2 turtle doves. One of them died the first year I think. The other bird continued to live alone in its cage for 9 years, but for one whole year it had a companion & daily visitor, a little mouse that used to come & feed with it, & the Dove would caress it, & cower over it with its wings, & make a loving noise to it. The mouse though it did not testify equal delight in the Dove's company yet it was at perfect ease. The poor mouse disappeared & the Dove was left solitary till its Death."

For Wilson, this anecdote is pregnant with meaning, but we have no way of knowing why Dorothy and William were drawn to it. What we do know is that the mouse was an inappropriate object of the dove's affection and that, however it ended, it couldn't last.



Sarah Burton's biography of Charles and Mary Lamb, 'A Double Life', is published by Penguin

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam