The shadow story of the Wordsworths and Wuthering Heights
Dorothy Wordsworth wrote much and published little, but despite her reticence much has been written about her. Frances Wilson gives us a new and at times startling reading of this enigmatic woman, and does not shy away from discussing what the editor of her letters, Alan G. Hill, described as the “peculiarly insensitive and maladroit” post-Freudian interpretations that have clustered round Dorothy’s relationship with her brother William. Wilson is neither insensitive nor maladroit. She is bold, witty, scholarly and speculative. She is not always respectful, but she is always interesting. She takes on incest, migraines, voyeurism and, at one point, what she describes as a note of “post-coital intensity” in Dorothy’s prose. This gripping narrative presents a character more subtle than the devoted, self-effacing amanuensis of tradition, or the later feminist stereotype. The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth does not claim that Dorothy was a better writer than her brother, or that he repressed her talent by demanding sympathy and giblet pies. What really went on in Dove Cottage remains mysterious, and, as Wilson says, there are parts of the story which we will never know.
Wilson is intrigued by symbiotic literary relationships, by sexual subtexts, and by difficult women. In Literary Seductions (1999) she heroically engaged with the vast oeuvre of two of the most verbose and combative women writers of the twentieth century, Anaïs Nin and Laura Riding, both of whom were passionately involved with famous and prolific authors, the former, incestuously, with her father. Dorothy Wordsworth as a subject offers a different challenge, but demands some of the same literary and psychological skill. Wilson confines her analysis largely to the period leading up to the writing of the Grasmere Journals (1800–03) and to the journals themselves, and she brings her story to an end with an emotional climax and a textual crux. The climax is William’s marriage to his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson; the textual crux is one word in a deleted passage describing the morning of that marriage, and the manner in which William blessed his sister before leaving her on his way to the church – was it “fervently”, as one editor, Helen Darbishire, transcribed, or “softly”, as another, Pamela Woof, proposes? William’s family life and his sister’s decline into what Wilson suggests might now be diagnosed as “depressive pseudodementia” are sketched in briefly, in a closing chapter. The Grasmere Journals are the key text.
The word “text” is inadequate here, for one of Wilson’s achievements is to convey a sense of the journals not simply as texts but as physical objects – four surviving notebooks, bound in different colours, blotted, doodled and with some passages (including that word “fervently/softly”) heavily inked out. We are given the history of their creation and survival, accompanied by illustrations which are both touching and illuminating. The last notebook, which begins on May 4, 1802, is described as small and substantial and “bound in brown leather with a metal clasp”: when Dorothy began to write in it, it already contained drafts of “Michael” and some pages have been cut out from the beginning and end. It is this volume that contains Dorothy’s strangely unsettling account of William’s marriage, which Wilson sees as crucial to an understanding of the intensity of her feelings for her brother.
Wilson is good, throughout, on the physical, and expands on the hints that she is given and some that she is not. She makes us feel the constraints of the living conditions at Dove Cottage: she counts the number of bedrooms and works out who slept where, with whom, and why. She describes the immense walks that Dorothy took, “with mud-encrusted skirts banging against her sturdy legs, her flimsy shoes, her neck and face often wet and cold, her eyes and ears alert to the beauty of every sight” and the disapproving reactions of family and landladies to this bohemian mode of travel. She invokes Miss Bingley’s scorn of Elizabeth Bennet’s three-mile walk to see her sick sister at Netherfield, as well as Thoreau and Bruce Chatwin’s endorsement of revolutionary walking.
Three miles were nothing to the Romantics, as we know, but it is nevertheless startling to be reminded of one long December journey on foot from Keswick to the Clarksons at Eusemere in 1801, past “Saddleback half-covered with snow”, and through “a sharp hail-shower” at the head of Matterdale. The threesome of Mary, Dorothy and William lost its way on the slippery darkening road several times, and Dorothy writes laconically “I was often obliged to crawl upon all fours, and Mary fell many a time”. The Wordsworth wanderings were a strange mixture of defiance, poetry, foolhardiness and bathos: although they spent so much time rambling and sometimes in extreme conditions, both Mary and Dorothy were frightened of cows, and even William preferred to avoid them. It is also surprising to note that, for all their midnight wanderings, they were not very good at astronomy: one of the most endearing of Dorothy’s comments refers to “Jupiter”, seen on a clear night among the many stars in the soft purple sky over Rydale, which she amends – “Jupiter at least we call him, but William says we always call the largest star Jupiter”. The Wordsworth walks were more Brontë than Austen, and Wilson uses Emily Brontë as a key to her understanding of brother and sister:
"When I read Dorothy’s accounts of her love for William in the Grasmere Journals I am moved in the same way as I am by Catherine Earnshaw’s description of her love for Heathcliff . . . and it is through Wuthering Heights that the peculiarity of [their] relationship can best be understood. Powerful in both cases is the elusive, visionary nature of what each woman is straining to define, her hunger for twinship with the one she loves . . . her confusion about where she ends and he begins. "
This comparison makes sense, and it connects with the idea of incest which F. W. Bateson so memorably introduced in 1954 when he suggested that William and Dorothy fell in love in the intimacy of their cold winter in Germany. Bateson, according to Wilson, only pointed out “what was obvious to all”, which is that something odd went on in Goslar. (Wordsworth’s comment that he wrote in Goslar “in self-defence” is intriguing.) The Heathcliff–Catherine relationship has an incestuous element, as they were brought up together as children, and their sexuality is obviously abnormal (though not very unusual in the context of Gothic fiction and Byronic poetry). Emily Brontë could not have read Dorothy’s journals but, Wilson argues, she is more than likely to have read De Quincey’s portraits of the Wordsworths in Tait’s in 1839, which describe her “gipsy tan”, outdoor spirit and impulsive nature. It is intriguing to think that descriptions of the high-minded homely life of Dove Cottage could have prompted the melodramatic tragedy of Wuthering Heights – a shadow story spun from what lay concealed and repressed.
Influence or no, Dorothy and Emily were indisputably and for obvious reasons affected by the same imagery – by solitary flowers and lone birds. I would add to Dorothy’s description of the columbine, “a graceful slender creature, a female seeking retirement”, young Cathy Linton’s response to the last bluebell of summer, which Nelly Dean urges her to pluck for her father: “Cathy stared a long time at the lonely blossom trembling in its earthly shelter, and replied, at length – ‘No, I’ll not touch it: but it looks melancholy, does it not, Ellen?’”. I hadn’t noticed this before, but it now seems pure Dorothy. Emily’s greatest intimacy, like Dorothy’s, was with her siblings, but for Dorothy the sibling relationship with her famous brother was unequal, and became more unequal. Wilson explores the shifting balance between William and Dorothy, and her demotion from the role of the chosen one, the partner swan of the “solitary pair” who inspired “Home at Grasmere”, to that of the “surplus relation” or “perpetual third party”, subsumed by unspoken jealousies. She marks the point at which (with “The Leech Gatherer”) he began to move away from his sister’s way of looking. He ceased to need her insights, her butterflies, her mosses and little birds, though he needed her devotion, her childcare, her cooking. But maybe he needed them only because they were there. Maybe, after the trauma of his marriage to her “dearest sister” Mary, some separation should have taken place, instead of the endlessly loving reassurance that kept her imprisoned in a secondary role and finally, Wilson assumes, drove her into depression and dementia.
Dorothy clearly knew, as the entry for October 4, 1802, indicates, that life would change irrevocably once her brother began to share his bed with Mary. The business of the wedding ring, which she wore on her finger for the night before he was married, and the trance into which she fell, “neither seeing nor hearing anything”, while the ceremony was performed at the church down the road, betray her abnormal state. Wilson disagrees with Dorothy’s biographers Robert Gittings and Jo Manton, who said that her words here are of “transparent truthfulness”: I half suspect that by “transparent” they may have meant “unwittingly revealing”, but were too kind to say so. Wilson is, rightly, more overtly suspicious of double motives and meanings, but I find it impossible to tell whether Dorothy knew how strange her emotion might appear to others, or whether she found it strange herself. Neither Wilson nor Gittings and Manton comment on the fact that Dorothy, in her letters, usually referred to the latest Wordsworth child as “our baby”. One wonders what Mary made of that.
Wilson is excellent on migraines, but I’m sorry that she does not say more about teeth. The most poignant entry in the whole journal is for May 31, 1802, where Dorothy writes “My tooth broke today. They will soon be gone. Let that pass, I shall be beloved – I want no more”. One has to consult Gittings and Manton for an account of the horrors of dentistry at this period: her few painful remaining teeth were removed in 1820, for a fee of fifty guineas, and were replaced by artificial teeth which in those days “consisted of two rigid half-hoops, with carved bone, tusk, or sometimes sheep’s teeth, held in place by a hinged steel spring”. These sound even worse than and, for their day, almost as expensive as implants. Were the bad teeth connected with her migraines? Or with her stammer? Did she grind her teeth in her sleep? We shall never know, but we may guess. Implants are anachronistic, but Wilson does not fear anachronism. She tells us that Mary Hutchinson, the eldest daughter of a large orphaned family, was “a Wendy to a party of Peter Pans”, and that Coleridge’s “Christabel” “takes us through the wardrobe door into a Narnia full of wonders”. These analogies may strike some as curious, but they display an imagination that has liberated itself from critical orthodoxy. Frances Wilson’s book is an excellent and stimulating combination of sensitive attention to text and soaring hypothesis.
THE BALLAD OF DOROTHY WORDSWORTH