The Grasmere Journals | Study Guide

Dorothy Wordsworth

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Dorothy Wordsworth | Biography

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Childhood

Dorothy Wordsworth was born on December 25, 1771, just 20 months after her older brother, the poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850). The third of five children and the only girl, Dorothy and her brothers lived by a river in Cockermouth, England, in a house with a large garden. When her mother died, Dorothy, who was only six years old and now the only female in the household, was sent 70 miles away to live with her mother's cousin Elizabeth Threlkeld in Halifax. Although "Aunt Threlkeld"—as Dorothy called her—was kind and allowed young Dorothy to attend school, she was not welcome to visit her father or brothers, not even for her father's funeral in 1783. Orphaned at age 12, Dorothy and her brothers found themselves destitute when their father's unscrupulous employer refused to pay them their father's back wages. At age 15, Dorothy was sent to live with her maternal grandparents, who treated her as a needy dependent, rather than as family. She was, however, able to see her brothers on their school holidays, which they spent with their grandparents.

Dorothy's brothers, who each had the benefit of attending a quality boarding school, made an effort to help her extend her own education and gave her books to read. Mary Hutchinson, a fellow orphan, became Dorothy's closest childhood friend. As her grandparents aged and her brothers left home to attend college, Wordsworth moved in with several extended family members, including her uncle William Cookson in 1788. Over the next five years, she continued her education, did charitable work, and cared for her uncle's children.

Young Adulthood

When Dorothy turned 21 years old, she returned to live with Elizabeth Threlkeld, now Mrs. Rawson, in Halifax. Here she could spend more time with William, who had recently returned from France and had acquired radical political views that were unwelcome in his uncle's home. So Dorothy moved with her brother into a rented house in Dorset, Racedown Lodge, where they lived from 1795–97. To make ends meet, she took care of the motherless child of William's lawyer friend for three years. Their childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson, visited the siblings there for six months.

In 1797 Dorothy and William befriended the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), whom William had met in 1795. The three became such intimate friends that Dorothy and her brother moved to Alfoxden House in Holford, a village of the county of Somerset, to be closer to Coleridge. It was during this time when William and Coleridge, with the inspiration and consultation of Dorothy, jointly composed Lyrical Ballads (1798), which heralded the start of Romanticism, a cultural movement in England during the late 18th century to early 19th century that emphasized imagination and emotions.

Grasmere

Upon returning from a tour of Germany with Coleridge in 1799, Dorothy and her brother moved to Grasmere in the gorgeous Lake District of England and rented Dove Cottage. They kept up their friendship with Coleridge, who lived with his family about six miles away in Keswick, and enjoyed visits from Mary Hutchinson, as well as her sister Sara. Dorothy and William walked daily through the hills and thickets of Grasmere and composed poems and letters recording their observations of nature.

The journals Dorothy wrote at Grasmere, later published as The Grasmere Journals, were not meant to be published. Her intention was to provide William with reading that would lift his spirits. During his time in France, William had a lover, Annette Vallon, and she bore his child, a daughter named Caroline. William left France before the child's birth. In 1792 war broke out between England and France, and this prevented William from returning to the country to meet his daughter. William was bitter and filled with regret over not seeing his infant daughter. Dorothy took special care to comfort her brother during this difficult time and even kept up a correspondence with Annette and later Caroline. In 1802 Dorothy set up a trip to France for her and William to spend time with Annette and Caroline, now age nine. The trip gave William and Annette the opportunity to end their romantic relationship, and shortly after his return to England, he married his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson. Dorothy lived with the couple at Dove Cottage and helped care for their children.

Later Years

Things began to change for the Wordsworths after William's marriage to Mary. Their friendship with Coleridge turned sour, and neither Dorothy nor her brother ever spoke with the poet again. The family outgrew Dove Cottage, and in 1813 they settled at Rydal Mount, a large home in Westmorland. Dorothy continued to live with her brother's family. She became increasingly dependent on opium and suddenly fell ill in 1829. As the years wore on, Dorothy, now in her 60s, became more and more senile and was unable to walk. She made strange, unintelligible sounds; however, she often recited William's poetry. She recovered her senses when William was on his deathbed, so it is said, and nursed him sweetly.

After William died in 1850, Mary cared for Dorothy until she passed away five years later in 1855. Dorothy's diaries were published posthumously in 1897. The Grasmere Journals give today's readers a glimpse of life and nature in the Lake District of England at the turn of the 19th century. The text also offers readers intimate insights about the inspiration and influence Dorothy had on her brother's most famous poems.

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