Strained Tenderness: Wordsworth, Joanna Hutchinson, and the Anxiety of Sisterly Resistance in "To Joanna"

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JOANNA HUTCHINSON (1780-1843), WILLIAM WORDSWORTH'S YOUNGEST sister-in-law, has been all but forgotten by literary historians of the Wordsworth circle, a fact that has unconsciously reproduced the seeming neglect of Joanna in life by the siblings and in-laws who surrounded Wordsworth from the moment he and Dorothy settled at Dove Cottage, Grasmere in 1799. Yet Joanna Hutchinson presents a unique and important figure in Wordsworth's biography for several reasons, not least of which is the remarkable similarity in her personal history and emotional concerns to Wordsworth's own. This essay will, in its final section, attempt to sketch that history and to explore those emotions, since to do so will be also to shed new light on what G. Kim Blank has recently analyzed as Wordsworth's "inner life," the "drive for self-recognition and self-acceptance" that informs the poetry of the Alfoxden and early Dove Cottage years. (1) Like Wordsworth, Joanna Hutchinson experienced the loss of her parents at an early age and spent much of her life yearning for a secure home and family group that would provide her with a sure sense of belonging. Unlike Wordsworth, Joanna never really found that security, largely because her sisters, Mary and Sara, were drawn away from the Hutchinson circle at Sockburn and Gallow Hill by the Wordsworths at Dove Cottage. Ironically, as Wordsworth found greater and greater stability and affirmation in Grasmere, Joanna Hutchinson found herself more alone and separated from her sisters (though she still lived with her brother): Wordsworth's gain, in effect, turned out to be Joanna's loss. What is remarkable about this fact is the persistence with which Joanna herself appeared to resist becoming a close member of the Grasmere circle, despite her apparent need for belonging. That resistance, I will argue, set itself against Wordsworth's need for sisterly figures of support and inspiration and became inscribed in his poem addressed "To Joanna," which he included in the second volume of the 1800 Lyrical Ballads.

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Wordsworth placed "To Joanna" within the group of five short poems called "Poems on the Naming of Places," which all commemorate, to one degree or another, the friendships and family ties that he had begun rightly to count on by the early Dove Cottage years. The poems all constitute "inscriptions" in Geoffrey Hartman's sense, though "To Joanna" is more overtly fictionalized than any of the others. (2) The poem purports to describe to the Vicar of Grasmere a walk the speaker/Wordsworth took with Joanna some time previously. During the walk, which takes the pair (presumably northward) along the banks of the river Rothay, the speaker is struck by the aspect of a large rock "which looks toward the East" (3) and is filled with "ravishment" (53) at the beauty of the sight. Upon observing the speaker's "ravishment" Joanna laughs aloud, and Wordsworth describes the laughter as echoing back from the rock and from the surrounding fells and distant peaks: Helm Crag, Loughrigg and Silver Howe, Helvellyn, Skiddaw, etc. The Vicar appears astonished at the relation of this echoing phenomenon, and the speaker admits that it might partly be a product of his own "dreams and visionary impulses" (71), though he insists that, for whatever reason, "there was a loud uproar in the hills" (73) that day. He then concludes the story by telling how, a year and a half later, he "chissel'd out in ... rude characters /Joanna's name upon the living stone" (82-83) in commemoration of her laughter and "in memory of affections old and true" (81). He claims that the rock is now known by "all who dwell by my fire-side" as "Joanna's Rock" (84-85).

"To Joanna" reveals a narrative complexity that belies this simple summary and that rather violently displaces both its subject and supposed addressee, as I will discuss in detail below. First, however, it will be helpful to sketch the critical context concerning the role of gender and familial relationships in Wordsworth's poetry in general, which informs my own argument about what I am calling "sisterly resistance" in "To Joanna. …