Faber £18.99

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, By Frances Wilson

'She gave me eyes, she gave me ears' said Wordsworth of his sister. Is this the key to understanding their relationship?

In writing the life of Dorothy Wordsworth, Frances Wilson has turned a gaze of microscopic intensity on to the life of a woman who is herself best known for the remarkable penetration of her responses to the sights and sounds around her, recorded in her famous Grasmere Journal. Dorothy's journal begins in May 1800, as she watches her brothers William and John set off to Yorkshire with "cold pork in their pockets", and then sits on a stone by the lake, contemplating their departure with "a flood of tears". It ends nearly three years later, by which time William is married, to Mary Hutchinson, and the trio of brother, sister, and brother's wife are settled in at Dove Cottage.

As Wilson points out, the structure and tone of Dorothy's record of these years is a bit like a ballad, perhaps not surprisingly, as this is the period of William Wordsworth's great Lyrical Ballads. Unlike the gossipy voice of her letters, the Journal possesses an overriding simplicity, and the story unfolds with the minimum of authorial intrusion. This private diary is a still-life, written primarily by a sister for her beloved brother. "She gave me eyes, she gave me ears," Wordsworth wrote later, acknowledging his creative debt to Dorothy for her recollection of details of their shared world that he might otherwise have missed or forgotten. She records possible subjects for his poetry: a shore of daffodils in the wind, resting their heads on the mossy stones like a pillow; or an old ragman, wearing a coat made of a thousand scarlet patches. Yet underlying Dorothy's accounts of quietness lies a drama of searing emotional turbulence and acute psychological tension, and it is in her subtle and probing investigation of this situation that Wilson's book really distinguishes itself.

Wilson's Dorothy is miles removed from traditional views of her as the slightly dotty, but otherwise quintessential Victorian virgin – "the perfect, selfless and sexless complement to her self-absorbed and humourless sibling". Even her name seems appropriate for this image. As Thomas De Quincey, who may have been in love with her, once wrote, "Dorothy" is a name we associate with maiden aunts. But the woman portrayed by Wilson has more in common with contemporary descriptions of Dorothy, which comment on the wildness of her character, and the undomesticated "gipsy" side of her nature, aspects of her which leave little impression on the staccato prose of the Journal. The "shooting lights" of her eyes, described by Wordsworth, were also noted by Coleridge, while De Quincey wrote of Dorothy as "all fire... and ardour". Analysing the headaches that Dorothy was prone to, which regularly punctuate the quiet domesticity of the Journal, Wilson ingeniously interprets them as a form of migraine that commonly led to trancelike, hallucinatory states. She further suggests that these states may be responsible for the dramatic disturbances in vision to be found in the Journal, for example in, "the glittering silver line on the ridges of the backs of the sheep" that Dorothy observes as she and William lie side by side in John's Grove, and which she finds strange and otherworldly.

In her account of the emotional climax of Dorothy and William's relationship, his marriage in 1802, and Dorothy's distress on the wedding day which leaves her lying abjectly on her bed, unable to attend the ceremony, Wilson offers both a close reading of Dorothy's Journal account of the day, and a sophisticated interpretation of the love that existed between brother and sister. Gossip at the time spoke of Wordsworth "having been intimate with his own sister", but Wilson dismisses the salacious accusations of some biographers, as well as the prurient revulsion of others, as equally misleading. Wordsworth's bond with Dorothy, she says, was born of his poetry and developed around and through his poetry. In the years before his marriage, she was less a figure of flesh and blood in his life than a poetic idea. Physical expression of their love would therefore have been of no interest to them. Looking for a parallel in literature, Wilson lights on Cathy's description of her love for Heathcliff in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. In her confusion about where she ends and Heathcliff begins, and in her famous assertion that "I am Heathcliff", is the same hunger for twinship that the Wordsworth siblings might have recognised. As Dorothy remarked, "Fraternal Love has been the building up of my being, the light of my path."

Frances Wilson's gifts as a textual critic, and her flair for dramatic storytelling, have delivered a new and potent Dorothy Wordsworth for the 21st century. In its precision and subtlety, her book has the power of a great portrait miniature.

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