The Grasmere Journals | Study Guide

Dorothy Wordsworth

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The Grasmere Journals | Book 1, 1800 (May–July) | Summary

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Summary

On May 14, 1800, Dorothy Wordsworth walks with her brothers John and William as far as Low-Wood Bay and bids them farewell as they leave for Yorkshire. She resolves to write a journal "to give William pleasure by it when he comes home again." As she sits by the lake, she is overcome with melancholy and cries, wishing already for a letter from William.

In her journal, Dorothy records her domestic duties, which include establishing a vegetable garden. Inside the cottage she keeps busy mending, ironing, and baking, assisted by Molly, a servant. She records the details of her domestic transactions, including 1 pound 10 shillings paid to the carpet man and the many plants she purchased from a blind man. She notes what she read, including Richard II and Macbeth by Shakespeare.

Dorothy walks almost daily, most often to neighboring villages to collect the mail, always hoping for a letter from William or their close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She describes the early blossoms of spring and the beauty of the lakes she witnesses on her walks, but she often notes how sad the nature around her makes her feel. Nighttime walks were a favorite of hers, and although a neighbor goes part of the way with her one evening, Dorothy notes "God be thanked I want not society by a moonlight lake." Neighbors often stop by, and Dorothy notes visits and meals with Mr. and Mrs. Simpson in particular.

Beggars often came to the cottage to ask for assistance, and Dorothy described many of them and their stories. One woman who had come from Manchester on May 14 had lost her husband and three children in a short amount of time and could only afford to bury them together in one grave. On May 27, although Dorothy wrote the description on June 10, a particularly tall woman came to the cottage to beg. Her face was tanned, and she had a barefoot toddler with her. She said her husband and other children were behind her. Later that day Dorothy came across the older children, who closely resembled their mother. They claimed their mother was dead, but Dorothy told them she had already given their mother help and would give them nothing.

By June 3 Dorothy notes nearly daily that William had not yet returned and she had no letter from him. When he surprises her on the evening of June 7, they stay up talking until four in the morning. Reunited, the two spend much of their time outdoors catching fish in the lake, walking, and tending the garden.

Dorothy makes notes of ill health, both her own and William's, whenever they are unwell. Most often she mentions headaches. William has a bad toothache and has a tooth pulled on June 21. Dorothy cares for William as he recovers.

On June 29 Coleridge and his wife come to the area for a visit and stay for three weeks. They make the most of the hot weather and go sailing and rowing on the lake. Coleridge returns for another visit on his own on July 31. Dorothy describes the idyllic day they spend reading poetry together on the lake.

Analysis

In her first entry of The Grasmere Journals, Dorothy states her reason for writing it, which is chiefly to bring her brother, the poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850), pleasure. Writing a journal for another person's benefit is not a common way to think about journals or diaries nowadays when diaries are mainly thought to be repositories of private thoughts and emotions. However, in the 19th century, journals were commonly public documents, meant to be read by others. Women often used their journals to record family births, deaths, and household accounts. Friends shared their diaries as a way of catching up after being separated. Some religious journals made note of spiritual practices and charitable acts. In this way, Dorothy's journal is very much in keeping with the practices of her day. She makes notes of domestic chores, as well as payments to various merchants and donations to the destitute. What sets Dorothy's journals apart are the detailed, vivid descriptions of nature and the people around her.

It is also important to note that the journals she kept while she lived in Grasmere were neither Dorothy's first nor last. She began keeping a journal in 1778 when she and William rented a home together called Alfoxden House. Dorothy would write many more journals throughout her life, including travel journals chronicling trips to Scotland and Europe.

Although time spent outside in nature usually brings Dorothy tremendous joy and solace, it is interesting that during the period when William is away at the start of the journal, she describes the beauty of the Lake District of England around Grasmere as making her unbearably sad. The almost spiritual tranquility of the setting makes her miss William, and she associates her enjoyment of nature with his presence. The two siblings were very close, having been separated for most of their childhood and lost both their parents at a young age. Dorothy, in particular, was never happier than when she and William created their own home and family together. The reason for Dorothy's melancholy may also have been anxiety over the reason for William's trip. He had gone to visit Mary Hutchinson in Yorkshire. Mary was Dorothy's childhood friend, and she and William would marry a few years later. Perhaps Dorothy worried a growing relationship with Mary would threaten her intimacy with her brother.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) was a close friend of both William and Dorothy. The three had met in 1795. The siblings moved to Alfoxden to be close to Coleridge, and it was there that the trio shared walks and ideas, resulting in William and Coleridge's jointly authored collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads (1798). Although William and Dorothy cherished their time with Coleridge, they did not have a close relationship with his wife. The visit was probably less enjoyable because of her presence than the second trip Coleridge made at the end of July on his own.

Dorothy often describes the vagrants or wandering tinkers she encounters. The information she records shows she took the time to speak to beggars, at some length, about their stories. She often records she gave them food or money, showing her compassionate nature. The 19th century was a time of increasing poverty, and without social safety nets, there was little institutional help for the destitute who relied on begging to survive, save the workhouse system that was no better than prison.

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