Editing Dorothy Wordsworth

By Tomlinson, Bernard | Contemporary Review, January 1993 | Go to article overview
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Editing Dorothy Wordsworth


Tomlinson, Bernard, Contemporary Review


IN this latest edition of Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals, (Oxford University Press, |pounds~30), the editor, Pamela Woof has set about restoring the integrity of the original text. However well-intentioned editors are, the process of editing invariably results in distracting the reader from the inspired original. The text becomes clinically correct and much of the author's original inspiration becomes lost to the reader. When I asked Pamela Woof why Oxford University Press had accepted the necessity for yet another edition -- there have already been three editions this century -- she explained how the idea had grown out of a talk she gave in 1985 at the Wordsworth Summer Conference in Grasmere, 'Dorothy Wordsworth, Writer', in response to the request for a few notes to make the Journals more accessible to American readers.

The Wordsworth Trust was at that time preparing an exhibition, 'Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism' in collaboration with Rutgers University to be shown to celebrated acclaim in Chicago, New York and Bloomington, Indiana, during the winter of 1987-1988. The exercise had begun modestly enough with Pamela Woof adding here and there to Mary Moorman's notes to the 1971 edition. It soon became apparent that there were many more questions to be answered, matters of identification to be explained, incorrect adjustments to the original text to be rectified, and a surplus of extraneous punctuation to be removed. Eventually, although it had not been their original intention, Oxford University Press, to their credit, decided to re-set the type of the original text. Many of these variations to Dorothy's original manuscript may seem individually minute but taken as a whole they detract from its freshness and beauty, the hand-writing which is so individual to Dorothy, changing its meaning however slightly, upsetting the rhythm of her unique prose style and so reducing the reader's anticipation and pleasure of discovery. Pamela Woof has in a large measure brought us nearer to the heart of the Journals and in so doing placed them in a Grasmere which was dear to the heart of Dorothy and her much-loved poet brother.

As the notes accumulated -- and they are very ample -- Pamela Woof noticed editorial deductions which could not be sustained. She asks the question, for example, why Dorothy Wordsworth should according to the 1971 notes be receiving a letter from Peggy Ashburner, who lived opposite Dove Cottage. Thomas Ashburner, Peggy's husband, delivered coals to Dove Cottage. The date was 26 April 1802. Peggy was not likely to correspond with Wordsworth, or be away. The Ashburners had been so poor that they had been forced to sell their land. Pamela Woof disputes that this was Peggy Ashburner. Much more likely, she deduces it to be Peggy Marsh, Dorothy's 'good and dear Peggy', the servant of Racedown and Alfoxden days who 'would have gone to the world's end with us'. Peggy Marsh had married James Marsh, a blacksmith, followed by a life of tragedy, sickness, deaths in the family, and a house burned down as well as a cruel husband. Peggy Marsh was wont to beg for money to which Dorothy always responded. Again, an entry for 24 March 1802 notes 'William walked out and wrote Peggy Ashburner'. The note in the 1971 edition explains incorrectly that Peggy Ashburner was 'at present away from Grasmere'. Dorothy had noted the loss of the land so dear to Peggy, how she would 'gang out upon a hill and look o'er t'fields and see' the sheep grazing. Dorothy refers to William walking out and composing the poem, 'Repentance' and this according to Pamela Woof tells us precisely when the poem was composed.

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