Peter Heinegg

The fate of the sisters of brilliant men has been a sad one. The miseries of the fictional Judith Shakespeare, as depicted by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, have all-too-factual parallels in the lives of women like Caroline Herschel, Nannerl Mozart, Fanny Mendelssohn, Alice James (Henry and William’s sister) and, of course, Dorothy Wordsworth. We will never know—they themselves may have barely guessed—what they might have achieved if given the opportunities that their famous brothers had. In this illuminating study, the critic and biographer Frances Wilson examines the career of the companion, copyist, social secretary, inspirer, therapist and victim of that sublime narcissist William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

Dorothy (1771-1856) has enjoyed a modest place in the canon ever since the publication of her Grasmere Journals (1800-3) in 1897, although even before then she was known from various tributes to her in William’s poetry, and from comments about her by the galaxy of writers—Coleridge, De Quincey, Hazlitt—who lived with or visited the Wordsworths. She penned gentle, keen-eyed, self-effacing (naturally) miniatures of the Lake District, some of which reappeared in her brother’s poems, like the endlessly quoted “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”

After losing her mother at six years of age, Dorothy was sent away from home to her mother’s relatives and was not reunited with her four brothers until she turned 15. She soon developed a symbiotic relationship with William (their father had died when she was 12, leaving them in utter poverty) based on their rapturous, pantheistic immersion in nature.

William saw in Dorothy, Wilson says, “a bottomless source of sensibility”; and they were more or less inseparable until the fateful October day in 1802 when he married Mary Hutchinson and essentially left his sister behind. Thereafter, her creative spirits flagged; she never married, and spent the last 20 years of her life in dementia (or at least profound depression, with a few lucid intervals). Coincidentally or otherwise, as brother William’s family life flourished, as he grew more and more rich, adulated and conservative, his poetic vein ran out. By 1840, on the verge of being crowned poet laureate and with nothing valuable left to say, he would pontificate to an astonished Thomas Carlyle that, compared with himself, Milton, Pope and even Shakespeare had their “limitations.”

But what, in fact, were the dynamics of this brother-sister pair? Dorothy called William “Beloved” and “my darling,” and spent countless hours lying beside him out in the meadows, gazing dreamily up at the sky. Though she survived into her 80s, she was, like him, a lifelong sufferer from quasi-paralyzing psychosomatic ailments, notably migraines and “bowel troubles.” And when she was not waiting on William hand and foot, she was huddled in her own bed of pain. In the most traumatic (and ecstatic) moment of her life, early on the morning of his marriage, he came to collect Mary’s wedding ring, which (for reasons unexplained) Dorothy had been wearing. When she removed it and handed it to the groom, “he slipped it again on my finger & ...” And what? At this point the blacked-out lines in her diary (made almost legible a century and a half later by infrared light) read either “blessed me fervently” or “I blessed the ring softly.” In any event, the ring eventually made its way to Mary’s finger. But what was going on here?

Even in Wordsworth’s day there were rumors of incest, but Wilson plausibly rejects anything of the sort. Instead, for over a decade (beginning in late 1790) the siblings experienced an intense platonic fusion of heart and brain. At times, for example during the long trip to Germany in 1798-99, this expanded into a spiritual ménage à trois with Coleridge. It ultimately left William, who had been battered by his experience of the French Revolution and torn by his interrupted love affair with the Catholic royalist Annette Vallon, restored and brimming with confidence; but it drained Dorothy—for all her gratitude—of her “visionary gleam.” And whereas the devastated ex-poet Coleridge eventually moved on to become a major critic and an oracular public intellectual, poor Dorothy, after years of servitude to William’s family as nanny, nurse and caretaker, just faded away. She had already lost all her teeth before reaching middle age.

Powerful and important as her story is, Wilson does not pretend that Dorothy was an appealing character. She was narrow-minded and conventional, a sort of faithless small-town evangelical (though she later resumed her churchgoing ways), interested in neither her own mind nor the wide world of politics and society. Like her brother, she had absolutely no sense of humor. Placed alongside a vibrant, flesh-and-blood person like Annette Vallon (whom Wordsworth conveniently excised from his life, along with their daughter Caroline), she looks downright drab.

Still, her place as one of the founding mothers of Romanticism is secure (even if she did not have a feminist bone in her body); and in Wilson’s spirited, shrewd treatment Dorothy’s rather melancholic biography takes on the charm of literary mystery (where does Dorothy end and William begin?) and Freudian intrigue (how to comprehend the desires of two eloquent writers who never discussed desire?). Wilson deftly sifts through and summarizes a large body of not-very-amusing secondary material, so that a wide range of readers, from casual to academic, can explore the world of the woman who rescued William Wordsworth from near-suicidal despair, and whom he called “My dear, dear Sister” and “my dearest Friend”—only to brush her aside and move on to better things. Many of Dorothy’s gifted sisters, past and present, have seen that routine before.

Peter Heinegg, a frequent reviewer, is professor of English at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.