The Poets' Daughters by Katie Waldegrave: A tale of two women obscured by their fathers

Sara Coleridge and Dora Wordsworth are finally emerging from their fathers' shadows in this insightful and compassionate book.

Dora Wordsworth, circa 1825. Image: Getty
About halfway through The Poets’ Daughters, the book takes a step back from its gripping narrative to recount the historical and literary significance of 1834 and 1835. It was a time of momentous endings and beginnings: the end of the Georgian era and the emergence of the Victorian age; the demise of the Romantic period in art; the death of Samuel Taylor Coleridge; the burning down of the Houses of Parliament on 16 October 1834 – a night whose “apocalyptic splendour” was caught on canvas by Turner. It was also, Katie Waldegrave suggests, the moment when two lifelong friends, Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, began to step out of the shadows cast by their fathers.
The young Dora had frequently fallen short of the mark. When she was eight, she returned from boarding school to her home in Grasmere to discover that her three-yearold sister, Cate, had died. After that, Aunt Dorothy made unfavourable comparisons between Dora and her angelic younger sister, and Wordsworth wrote for Cate what Waldegrave suggests is one of his finest poems, “Surprised by Joy”.
Four years later, in 1816, Dora found herself the subject of a very different poem. The 55-line “To Dora” begins with a quotation from the opening of Milton’s Samson Agonistes: “A little onward lend thy guiding hand/To these dark steps, a little further on!” Wordsworth suffered from eye infections for much of his adult life and at times they left him temporarily blind. The reference to Milton carries uncomfortable connotations: he famously depended on his own daughters to complete his work after his own eyesight failed, and at some point Dora obligingly decided that her duty lay in helping her father in his work.
Sara Coleridge, two years Dora’s senior, grew up in Greta Hall, the home of her aunt and uncle Edith and Robert Southey in Keswick. Her mother also lived at Greta but her father, Samuel, was largely absent. When Sara was ten, Samuel returned home after more than a year’s absence and was suitably amazed by his daughter’s proficiency in Latin and Italian. Sara had hoped that her achievements would be enough to persuade him to stay. But after only six weeks at home, he left without warning. Sara did not see him again for another ten years.
Given the troubled childhood both girls had, it is not surprising that, as adults, they experienced persistent illness. Sara suffered with her nerves. In order to cope, she took opium – and, like her father, she bore the consequences: sleeplessness, constipation, lack of appetite, exhaustion . . . Meanwhile, Dora, who as a girl had been “stout and tall”, was worryingly underweight in her adult years. Waldegrave convincingly proposes that she was suffering from anorexia. Certainly, letters she received from her husband support this theory. “I, long, long ago, perceived that you were destroying your health by that pernicious system of starvation,” he wrote: “but you were always so wilful on the subject . . .”
Beyond the schoolroom, Sara continued to prove an exceptional scholar. She published her first book anonymously at the age of 20 – a translation from the Latin of Martin Dobrizhoffer’s Account of the Abipones – and although it was hardly a runaway success it did at least turn a profit. She used the money to visit her father, who was then living with friends in London. During the visit a cousin, Henry Nelson Coleridge, came to call on Sara and a fuse was lit. She had travelled up from the Lakes in search of a father; she returned home having gained a fiancé.
The path to Dora’s engagement to Edward Quillinan was altogether more tortuous. When she finally found the courage to write to her father to tell him about her feelings, she and Edward had been in love for 14 years. Wordsworth strongly objected to the match and an infuriated Edward told Dora that she was “the best poetry he ever produced: a bright spark out of two flints”. Dora was 37 when her father at last withdrew his opposition to the marriage; by that time she was so emaciated that Wordsworth feared for her well-being.
It is distressing to realise that it was only after her father had died that Sara managed to forge a connection with him. Negative articles began to appear after his death, and for the rest of her life Sara battled to defend his reputation. When she was 45, her comprehensive Biographia Literaria (an annotated edition of her father’s account of his literary life) was published to indifferent reviews. However, in recent years her reputation has grown among Coleridge scholars.
Dora’s death in 1847 caused Sara deep grief: “at night, in my sleepless hours, I am ever with her, or dwelling on my own future deathbed”, she wrote. She did not have to wait long. Three years later she discovered a lump in her breast and, after a brief reprieve, she died in 1852, aged 49.
Towards the end of Dora’s life, Sara discovered that her friend was publishing a journal of a trip abroad that she had recently taken. On hearing the news, Sara wrote to a mutual acquaintance that it was “a great proof of sterling merit in her, that she shines with a light of her own & is more than a mere portion of parental radiance”. That assertion might very well serve as a testament to both women. Like Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics and Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman, this insightful and compassionate book by Katie Waldegrave is a powerful addition to the recent literature that has enlarged our understanding of women whose lives – until now – have remained obscured by those of the dominant male writers of their time.
Julia Copus is a poet and children’s writer. Her book for children “Harry & Lil” will be published next year by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt