Three in the marriage

<strong>The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth</strong>

Frances Wilson <em>Faber & Faber, 304pp, £18.99

Dorothy Wordsworth did not attend her brother William's wedding to her friend Mary Hutchinson in October 1802 but neither could she keep her distance. She spent the ceremony in an upstairs bedroom at the bride's home, where she fainted when a messenger came to the house to say that "it was over". Still, she recovered in time to run out of the house to meet her brother, and arrive at the wedding breakfast on his arm with his bride following after. After breakfast, all three set off on a short honeymoon, Dorothy sitting between the couple in the carriage. When she wrote up the day in her journal, she recalled of the journey that William fell "asleep, lying upon my breast and I upon Mary. I lay motionless for a long time, but I was at last obliged to move."

This, in Wilson's version, is the story of Dorothy Wordsworth's life, or at least the story of the two and a half years on which Wilson concentrates her gaze. For this book is less a biography of Wordsworth's wild-eyed sister than a pacy monograph about the four small notebooks that Dorothy filled with accounts of her life with William in and around Dove Cottage. They commence in Christmas 1799, when she was 28 years old, and terminate after his marriage 30 months later. These notebooks contain most of the startling nature writing for which Dorothy is known, not least because of the way her descriptions and phrases resurfaced in the poetry of both Wordsworth and Coleridge in the second volume of Lyrical Ballads.

The notes describe "a routine of mutton and moonscapes, walking and headaches, watching and waiting, pie-baking and poem-making". Dorothy accompanied the poets on their tramps, seeing what they missed. She would spend the rest of her life missing what they saw. Even when she had lost her mind and she was more or less confined to the attic of her brother's house for the last 20 years of her life, she still knew his poems by heart.

But Wilson's primary interest is in exploring not so much the textual connections between the journals and the poetry, as the relationship that fed the poetry, and the emotional landscapes hidden behind the accounts of turbulent weather. William, determined on marriage but with his discarded French mistress to settle - as well as a sister to reassure - is described, on a solitary walk, as being "surprised and terrified by a sudden rushing of winds, which seemed to bring earth and sky & lake together, as if the whole were going to enclose him in; he was glad he was in a high road".

William's experience might be literal or metaphorical, concedes Wilson, hedging her bets as she leads us on through her quietly exhilarating narrative. I particularly enjoyed the decoding of a blotting-paper doodle, in which Dorothy the great list-maker of birds and flowers is glimpsed playing with the names of people closest to her, putting them in arrangements of twos and threes and pulling them apart again, looking for a pattern to hold the present still.

On the question of incest, Wilson suggests that the bond between the Wordsworths was deeper than desire, and darker. "They were more concerned with the effects of pen on paper than with anything expressed by the body," she writes, but is far from suggesting that theirs was a sober working companionship. Instead, she finds a model for their closeness in the love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Emily Brontë could not have read Dorothy's journals but Wilson makes a persuasive case for her having been familiar with Thomas De Quincey's essays about the Wordsworths. These essays, first published in 1839, gave a moving picture of brother and sister as careless pagans in a Romantic landscape, before one marriage gave way to another: her fire dampened by desertion, his vision clouded by celebrity.

Coleridge wrote of Dorothy: "If you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her ordinary - if you expected to find an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty." Wilson says this description "tells us precisely nothing". I think it gives a more exact sense of her quality than could be derived from such tangibles as her clumsy gait and missing teeth, or by trying to imagine the "shooting lights" of her eyes, which William recorded in "Tintern Abbey".

Dorothy Wordsworth remains a mysterious figure but this book rescues her from the shadow of her later, sadder self. Her decline is despatched in a few pages by Wilson, who makes little distinction between the narrow spinster aunt, who played a centrally marginal part in the Words worth household until 1829, and the laudanum-addicted invalid, who lost her mind in the mid-1830s but lived on for two decades. She outlived her brother by five years and predeceased his wife by only four.

There are no accounts of cross words between any of them, and no more writing to match the Grasmere notebooks. It is over, said the messenger, and so it was.

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet