I happened to pick up a copy of Dorothy Wordsworth’s selected letters while in London — I have her journals and a biography, so it seemed appropriate to get some letters as well — and on a whim I began reading them while flying back to the U.S. The letters were interesting; I enjoyed the glimpse into Dorothy’s life they gave, and it’s always fun to read about that group of great writers who spent so much time together, Dorothy, William Wordsworth, and Coleridge, with appearances now and then by Thomas De Quincey and Charles and Mary Lamb. The letters are also fairly tame and quiet since Dorothy is being her best social self, although it was fun to see her putting an aunt firmly in her place by insisting that there is nothing improper in going on a long walking tour with her brother:
I cannot pass unnoticed that part of your letter in which you speak of my “rambling about the country on foot.” So far from considering this as a matter of condemnation, I rather thought it would have given my friends pleasure to hear that I had courage to make use of the strength with which nature has endowed me, when it not only procured me infinitely more pleasure than I should have received from sitting in a post-chaise — but was also the means of saving me at least thirty shillings.
As Dorothy is penniless at this point, saving thirty shillings is significant. I love the fact that she is basically running away from home here. She’s not sneaking off exactly, but she has left the aunt and uncle who have taken care of her since her mother died, and her relatives are not particularly pleased with her. This was unconventional behavior. She and William walk for the next two days, the first day to Grasmere, which is where they will live five years later during that famous time William Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote their Lyrical Ballads and she wrote her Grasmere journals, and the second day to Keswick, where they stayed with friends.
This is, perhaps, the point at which she finally grows up. She is 23 at the time, having spent most of her life up to this point separated from her four brothers. Her mother died when she was six, the event that shook up the family and sent her off to live with her aunt and uncle. Her father died when she was 12, but even then, she didn’t see her family. Finally, now that she is in her 20s, she is reunited with her long-lost brothers, and at this point, she is making her dramatic move — leaving her guardians and clinging to William, with whom she will live for decades to come.
She is also establishing her reputation as a serious walker. She will walk miles and miles, most famously in the area around Grasmere. She and William, accompanied sometimes by neighbors and friends, will cover the same ground again and again, getting to know their area intimately, and their walks will inspire the poetry and poetic prose to come. It’s fitting that part of her striking out on her own with William involves a defense of the value of walking: it’s healthy and pleasurable, and it’s using the great gift given to herby nature — her strength.
After reading the letters, I thought I would pick up a recent biography of Dorothy, Frances Wilson’s book The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. I’m nearing the end of it now. I quickly decided that reading the biography meant I needed to reread the Grasmere journals as well, so I’m in the middle of those too. The biography and the journals paint quite a different picture of Dorothy than the letters do. But more on that later.