Magazine article The Spectator

A Household Name

Magazine article The Spectator

A Household Name

Article excerpt


by Juliet Barker

Viking, L25, pp. 992

When Juliet Barker published her biography The Brontes in 1995 she might have rested on her laurels as a Bronte scholar for life. Only five years on she has moved with happy ease, like Mary Hutchinson, across the Pennines to the Lake District to complete this immense biography of Wordsworth.

This book may have been the greater challenge. There were four writing Brontes but their lives were short. There are in effect four writing Wordsworths, for his indecipherable hand and heavily over-- scored manuscripts which he was loathe to part with would never have reached the printer without the family toil of his wife, sister, sister-in-law and in time his brilliant, irreverent daughter, Dora. Wordsworth lived to be 80, and never stopped writing. The result is nearly 1,000 pages of closely annotated, cross-referenced, indexed biography embracing the lives of crowds of the Wordsworth family and many of their friends. There is the occasional editorial slip - Mary Queen of Scot's, Richard II for Richard III - but nothing slapdash in thought or content and, as in The Brontes, she is uncommonly entertaining. Her own writing responds to landscape and weather with a lovely lyrical style not unlike Dorothy Wordsworth's journal.

This is the more welcome because she has chosen to research particularly the end of Wordsworth's life, usually treated as the afterglow; the time of heavy sonnets, high Toryism, reactionary laureate years, the poet looming like an immovable crag above his Lake District domain. She doesn't disregard all this or the curious bees that got caught in the ancient bonnet- the fury at the Roman Catholic Emancipation Act, universal suffrage, the probable mercifulness of the death penalty - but she has, for the common reader anyway, changed the accepted portrait.

First she shows that these years at Rydal Mount ('Idle Mount') were not idle and that the mocked house was not bourgeois. It was a necessary move for the ramshackle family, and it was never owned by Wordsworth who was for many years threatened by his mad landlord with eviction. `Rydal Mount is a lovely house,' says Barker.

She also shows that Wordsworth was always taking breaks from it. Like so many orphaned children who have had to leave a beloved childhood home, he and his sister Dorothy were restless all their lives, explaining perhaps the habit of almost manic walking which William taught her, bringing her health and rapture. Like him she was to walk all her life, highly eccentric in a woman. She even trudged for hours about the London streets. In the supposed twilight years at Rydal Mount Wordsworth made tours of Ireland, Scotland, the Ionian isles, the Isle of Man, the Low Countries, France, the Rhineland and a last, longed-- for tour of Italy which he regretted having left so late as the radiance was now dim. Given his itinerary, the Italian roads and conveyances and his punishing social diary, it is a wonder it didn't kill him. But at over 60 Wordsworth could still climb three mountains in a day and walk on an hour and a half to supper `without feeling in the least tired'.

He was also forever on the road from Grasmere to London, always complaining that he hated London life, always cheering up when he arrived and staying longer than intended. He needed London society and his publishing life, but also, as Barker points out, London was where he experienced two ' of his mystical visions: as a young man at dawn on Westminster Bridge and much later looking down Fleet Street at St Paul's rising above Ludgate Hill. London seems to have intensified the tramp in Wordsworth, sending him ever further. Once he decided to take off on a spree down the Rhine with Dora, without mentioning the fact to his wife at home, and then back again in London decided to return to Grasmere by easy stages, calling on a string of hospitable friends.

How these penniless writers got about! …

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