Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

William and Dorothy Wordsworth: All in Each Other: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

William and Dorothy Wordsworth: All in Each Other: Books

Article excerpt

William and Dorothy Wordsworth: All in Each Other

By Lucy Newlyn

Oxford University Press

400pp, Pounds 19.99 ISBN 9780199696390 Published 12 September 2013

The title of Lucy Newlyn's gentle book on William and Dorothy Wordsworth is taken from a letter addressed to the brother-sister pair by their friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. "You have all in each other", he whines, "but I am lonely, and want you." Writing at the end of 1798, the year of publication of Lyrical Ballads, which featured poems by both men, Coleridge's sense of exclusion might have been keenly felt, following that period of close collaboration with William.

Coleridge cuts a plaintive figure here, bobbing up intermittently, pawing at the edges of an intimacy in which he could only minimally share. But as Virginia Woolf, an admirer of William and an early devotee of Dorothy, explains, theirs was "a strange love, profound, almost if brother and sister had grown together and shared not the speech but the mood, so that they hardly knew which felt, which spoke, which saw". Newlyn describes it as a "deep, almost exclusive intimacy" in this nicely companionable book. She is careful, fond, even reverential in delineating this sacred sibling relationship. "Walking, talking, remembering and grieving" together, Dorothy, like Coleridge, makes William's creative process communal. And although the book attends to Dorothy's own writing, Newlyn's primary focus is their concern for each other and the "commerce of spirit" that sustained them both throughout their long lives.

Any suggestion of something improper in this intimacy is given short shrift. Eight lines into the book's preface, Newlyn concedes the circulation of such rumours, but dispatches them rather brusquely. She opts instead for a doggedly sensible exploration of the mutual "intense emotional and spiritual need which arose out of circumstances unique to their family history". The book makes this case persuasively, conscientiously tracking and documenting their early life. Parted as children after the death of their mother, they grew up separately, only fleetingly reuniting as adolescents. Dorothy's was the frustratingly quieter life, sequestered with indifferent relatives, while William studied at the University of Cambridge, travelled Europe, fathered a child, and dabbled in radical politics. In 1799, they set up home together, and Newlyn reads the lifelong intimacy that followed as an extended effort at repairing the damage of that early estrangement.

Newlyn's expertise makes her a confident guide, and her knowledge deepens some familiar ways of understanding William's work. …

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