Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Dorothy Wordsworth: Story-Teller

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Dorothy Wordsworth: Story-Teller

Article excerpt

Dorothy Wordsworth's way of telling a story was to relate what happened, to tell it how it was. As a young girl, she did not put together a "History of England" by a "partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian" as Jane Austen did; she wrote no "Tales of Love and Friendship," no unfinished novels in letters, had no rejected heroine who "could scarcely support the disappointment - She flew to her Bottle & it was soon forgot" (Jack and Alice, ch. 7). Nor, like the youthful Charlotte Bronte, did she practice composition by launching into such narratives as the "Legends of Angria," chronicles of dark passion and military heroism. She wrote only when she had to. The first writings we know of are letters to Jane Pollard in Halifax, someone she had known since she was about six-years-old, someone who kept her in touch with her childhood after her mother died, and she moved, at age fifteen, to her grandparents in Penrith. Dorothy told Jane how much she missed her, and how grim it was in Penrith, and portrays herself as if she were a character in a story: "My Grandmother is now gone to bed and I am quite alone. Imagine me sitting in my bed-gown, my hair out of curl and hanging about my face, with a small candle beside me, and my whole person the picture of poverty (as it always is in a bed-gown) and you will then see your friend Dorothy. It is after eleven o'clock. I begin to find myself very sleepy and I have my Hair to curl ..." (August 6, 1787).

When Jane recommends a novel to Dorothy, which she does not get, she replies, "but I will endeavour to get it in the Norwich Library, at present we are reading Hume's history of England" (December 28, 1788), a reminder that Dorothy was a serious reader. Her regular reading included the poetry of Cowper, sermons, biblical commentary, Addison's Spectator, Shakespeare. She did after all live with a clergyman and had been brought up in Yorkshire Halifax in a serious Dissenting household. She did read novels, however: Richardson's painful study of sex and avarice, Clarissa, when she was fourteen; Fielding and Smollett, and occasional fashionable French novels like Bernardin de St Pierre's Paul et Virginie. And, after moving to Rydal Mount, in 1813, although they had "no time to read Newspapers," she reports to Catherine Clarkson "Murders we do read": "[we] were horror struck with that of Mr. and Mrs. Brown and the confession of the murderer--Good God! If the thought of murder is to come in that way into the head of a person apparently not insane, nobody seems to be safe...." And, in the same letter, she begged Mrs. Clarkson, "Pray tell us anything further that you know, which is not in the papers, respecting Mr. and Mrs. Brown their family and the Murderer. What you have told us affected us very much. William is decidedly against the Catholics ..." (September 14, 1813), and there Dorothy leaves thoughts of Murder and Catholic emancipation, and tries to persuade Mrs. Clarkson to undertake the long journey to Rydal Mount and see the garden terrace and the seat at the end of it.

But murders, deaths and disasters did interest Dorothy and she wrote several accounts of catastrophe. As De Quincey points out in "On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts," writers have always been fascinated by murders, from the biblical telling of that first murder by Cain through to Chaucer, whose fastidious Prioress offers a murder in the tale of a little Christian boy killed by Jews, then on to Shakespeare-murders everywhere-and to Wordsworth in Salisbury Plain, the Somersetshire Tragedy and The Borderers. Dorothy is interested in the extremes of human behavior, as people are, especially when they are comfortable and secure in the everyday.

Drawn to the catastrophe that is not fiction, her strength as a writer is instinctively to take the world she has seen, touched, or heard of at first hand, and write of it, often imaginatively. To Mary and Sara Hutchinson, for instance, she writes, "in the evening Coleridge came over Grisdale Hawes with a wallet of books - he had had a furious wind to struggle with, and had been attacked by a vicious cow, luckily without horns, so he was no worse . …

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