The Oxford World’s Classics edition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere and Alfoxden journals is one of the very few books I have read where the notes are as interesting as the text itself. Pamela Woof’s mastery of her material leaves no reference unexplained, but she handles her sources with a light touch, and sympathy for her subject shines through.
Two things that I have brought away from a recent re-reading of this exemplary scholarly work are Dorothy Wordsworth’s wonderful gift for describing the effects of light; and, at a rather different level, the amount of engagement with the wider world which Dorothy and her brother achieved from their ‘unvisited’ corner of the ‘remote and inaccessible’ Lake District.
Their refuge, Dove Cottage, had formerly been an inn, the Dove and Olive Branch, and the road on which it stood was an important one (today the A591) cutting from south-east to north-west through the district. On Monday 9 June 1800, Dorothy was tending the vegetables in the front garden when: ‘A coronetted Landau went by … The ladies (evidently Tourists) turned an eye of interest upon our little garden and cottage.’
Two years after the publication of Lyrical Ballads to a largely indifferent reception, it can safely be assumed that the noble Tourists in the landau were seeking the picturesque in landscape (William Gilpin’s Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, … Particularly the Mountains, and Lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland had been published in 1786), rather than stalking the leading light of the Romantic movement. Indeed, Woof notes that Coleridge had observed ladies reading Gilpin ‘while passing by the very places instead of looking at the place’ – not unlike today’s selfie-takers, one feels…
There was a great deal of traffic past the door, on foot and on horseback: Dorothy records beggars, pedlars, sailors, neighbours coming to drink tea or for a glass of rum, to say nothing of local farmers with their carts and livestock. One unexpected neighbour was William Gell, the classicist and antiquary who brought descriptions of the Troad, Greece, Rome, and later of the excavations at Pompeii. Although born in Derbyshire, he had on graduating from Cambridge in 1798 built a cottage on the other side of Grasmere from Dove Cottage. He visited rarely (and moved permanently to Italy in 1815, after a period as a chamberlain to Princess (later Queen) Caroline), but the Wordsworths were able to make use of his boat for rowing and fishing on the lake.
William and Dorothy are famous for the distances they walked, in all sorts of weather: one of their most frequent destinations was to check if letters or magazines had come in the post, or to despatch their own frequent letters to family and friends. It was three miles to the post-town of Ambleside, though local farmers (or their children) would sometimes act as intermediaries. Dorothy’s correspondents included her friends the Hutchinson sisters (one of whom later became her sister-in-law) and Catherine Clarkson, wife of the abolitionist, whom she had met when Thomas Clarkson bought an estate on Ullswater, seeking rest and quiet during the anti-slavery campaign.
Longman and Rees, who published Lyrical Ballads after Coleridge’s original sponsor, Joseph Cottle, sold his business to them on his retirement, sent Wordsworth a copy of William Withering’s two-volume Botanical Arrangement of All the Vegetables Naturally Growing in Great Britain, and a microscope: Woof suggests that these were the ‘Books’ Dorothy refers to on 16 May 1800, when she ‘walked to Mr Gells … gathered mosses and plants’. Withering (1741–99), also an expert on the foxglove, had first published this reference work, With Descriptions of the Genera and Species, According to the System of the Celebrated Linnaeus, in 1776, and it went into many editions during his lifetime and later: the one sent to Wordsworth was published in 1796.
The breadth of William Wordsworth’s reading at this period has been thoroughly documented by Duncan Wu, but I was intrigued to see from Dorothy’s journal that on 5 May 1802, William ‘went to bed very nervous’, but that she read ‘The Lover’s Complaint’ to him in bed, ‘& left him composed’. Woof notes that the calming effect of the work on William, who had been working on ‘The Leech-gatherer’, ‘must be associated with likenesses between the two poems: the rhyme royal stanza is almost identical …; the situation is similar: the encounter by lonely water … of troubled youth with patient age’.
This is a fantastic piece of scholarship, enhancing one’s reading of the text and massively increasing understanding of the protagonists, their landscape and their lives – a great read!
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