A Pensive Young Lady
Unlike her brother William, Dorothy Wordsworth appears today in no authentic portrait. Keats, who visited her at Rydal Mount in 1818, claimed to have seen one; but if he did, that likeness was lost long ago. The most famous written description of her is probably found in a letter that Samuel Taylor Coleridge mailed to his publisher, Joseph Cottle, on 3 July 1797:
Wordsworth and his exquisite sister are with me, -- She is a woman indeed! -- in mind, I mean, & heart -- for her person is such, that if you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her ordinary -- if you expected to see an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty! -- But her manners are simple, ardent, impressive --
In every motion her most innocent soul Outbeams so brightly, that who would say, Guilt was a thing impossible in her. 1
As compelling as Coleridge's memorable passage is, it unfortunately does no more than Keats to supply the twentieth-century historian with verifiable details about its subject's image. Yet if her physical characteristics may never be known precisely, there is no doubt that the actions of her eventful life and the ideals which motivated them make the personality of Dorothy Wordsworth stand out as one of the truest portraits of the British Romantic Age.
Dorothy was born on Christmas Day of 1771, the third child and only daughter of John Wordsworth and Ann Cookson. 2 Unlike Mary Lamb, who was born in the historic Middle Temple district of the City of London, Dorothy spent her earliest years in the unremarkable little West Country town of Cockermouth, Cumberlandshire, a few miles inland from the Irish Sea. In a period so dominated by the class system, however, this lack of a historic birthplace was