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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Harry Potter didn’t cure my depression – but for an hour a day, it helped

These books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But at my lowest moments, Harry Potter was the only thing I enjoyed.

Just over a year ago, I was on a plane to Japan being violently sick. I had filled exactly two-and-a-quarter sick bags with my half-digested ginger-chicken-and-bread-roll before I decided to think about Neville Longbottom. As the plane rocked from side to side with turbulence, I sat completely stiff in my seat, clutching my armrests, and thinking of Neville. I told my boyfriend to shut up. In an effort to abate my nausea, I distracted myself for the remaining hour of the flight by picturing the peaceful plant-lover over and over again, like a visual mantra. I wasn’t sick again.

I’m telling you this anecdote because this was the only time in my life that Harry Potter acted as some strange and magical cure (even then, the fact there was no inflight meal left in my stomach to throw up had more to do with it). And yet, a few years before this, Harry Potter did help me through my depression. When we talk of Harry Potter and depression – which we do, a lot – we imagine that the lessons of the book can teach us, in a Don’t let the Dementors get you down! way, to not be depressed anymore. What do you mean you want to kill yourself? Banish that beast to Azkaban with your silvery kitty cat Patronus!! For me, it wasn’t like that at all.

In 2013 I was depressed. And Harry Potter helped me through. But it wasn’t magical, and it wasn’t wonderful, and there was no lie-back-and-think-of-Neville instant fix. When I closed the cracked spine of the last book, my depression didn’t go away.

Here’s some context, as plain and painlessly as I can put it. I had just graduated from university and ended my four year long relationship. I was living at home and working three jobs a day to be able to save up to do a six-month journalism course in London (the course was free, but eating is a thing).

Early in the morning, my mum would drive me to the local hospital where I would print out sticky labels and put them on patients' folders, in between sobbing in the disabled toilets. Around lunch, I’d go to work in a catering department, where I printed yet more labels and made sure to order the correct amount of gravy granules and beef. At five, my mum would pick me up and drive me home (thanks mum), and I’d have an hour or so to eat something before going to work in the local steak restaurant for the rest of the night. (On weekends, I had a fourth job - I would wake up early to scrub the restaraunt's toilets. Yay!) 

It sucked – even though there was, at least, a woman in the hospital who liked to do an impression of a Big Mouth Billy Bass fish.

“You’re not just depressed, you’re depressing to be around,” said the boy I was not-dating, two weeks after I said we should stop not-dating and a week after I begged him to start not-dating me again. If I was being dramatic and poetic, I’d say he was the kind of boy who stopped at nothing to make you feel unloved, but if I was being honest I’d say: he was really bad at texting back. Still, tip for anyone wondering what to say to someone who is depressed: Not This.

This wasn’t, exactly, the moment I realised I was depressed. (For a little extra context, note that it was Christmas Eve eve!) For a few months, my tongue had felt constantly burnt. Every moment of every day, my mouth felt like I had just bitten into the chewiest, gooiest molten pizza and burned off all my taste buds. Except I hadn’t. Eventually, Google told me this was a little-known symptom of depression called “burning mouth syndrome”. After ignoring clues such as constant crying, and knowing-the-exact-number-of-storeys-you-have-to-jump-from-to-ensure-you-die, I realised what I was. You know, depressed.

And round about here was when Harry came in. I’d always been obsessed with Potty Wee Potter, from the lilac HP branded M&S fleece I wore as a child, to making my brand new uni mates don pillowcases and bin bags to dress up for a screening of Deathly Hallows, Part 1. But by 2013, I hadn’t read the books for a while. So I started again.

I can’t emphasise enough that these books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But one of the worst parts of my depression was my anhedonia – which is the inability to feel pleasure in things you previously found enjoyable. I would spend (literally) all day at work, dreaming of the moment I could crawl into bed with a cheese sandwich and watch my favourite show. But the first bite of the sandwich tasted like dust, and I couldn’t concentrate on watching anything for more than thirty seconds. I lost a lot of weight incredibly fast, and there was no respite from any of my thoughts.

Except: Goblet of Fire. Harry needs a date! And Hermione wants a House Elf revolution! Wait, does Ron fancy her? Harry can’t manage Accio and THERE’S AN ACTUAL DRAGON ON THE WAY. The fourth Harry Potter book is now my favourite, because its episodic and addictive structure meant I couldn’t put it down even when I knew what happened next. I couldn’t enjoy anything in my life at that time, and I’m not even sure I “enjoyed” Harry. But the books were a total and complete distraction, like slipping into a Pensieve and floating down into another world where you could lose track of the time before being yanked, painfully, up and out.

I didn’t learn any lessons from the Dementors. I didn’t learn that love would get me through. As valuable as these messages in Harry Potter are, none of them helped me with my depression. What helped me was – and I can say it and you can say it, because 450 million sold copies have said it – insanely good writing. Addictive, un-put-downable writing. All-consuming, time-consuming, just-a-second-mum-put-mine-back-in-the-oven writing. Writing that allows you to lose yourself in the moments you most want to be lost.

That’s not to say, of course, that the messages of Harry Potter can’t help people through dark times – they have and will continue to do so for many years. There is no right way to be depressed, and there’s no right way to stop. But for me, Potter helped me through my anhedonia when nothing else at all could. It wasn’t magic. It was something ordinary in a world where everything had changed.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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