The Grasmere Journals | Study Guide

Dorothy Wordsworth

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The Grasmere Journals | Context


19th-Century Journals and Diaries

Today people often associate keeping a diary with secrecy, but people in the 19th century looked at diary writing much differently. Diaries functioned as family documents. Women recorded information about births and deaths, household accounts, and important events with the intention of sharing it with friends and family. It was not uncommon for people to read a diary aloud to others. The evidence of edits and revisions in many historical diaries attest to an awareness of audience and the journal as an enduring record.

Diaries served many purposes, especially for the women who kept them. Many women kept diaries to record and hold onto their sense of self. Other women wrote in journals to express their thoughts on politics, current events, or other issues they were not permitted to voice their opinions on at the time. An example is the African American educator and abolitionist Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837–1914), who wrote five volumes of diaries (The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké, 1988) that included her experiences on St. Helena Island as a volunteer teacher in a governmental experiment to educate former slaves following the Civil War (1861–65).

Women keeping diaries to record their spiritual practices and reflections began with Puritans and Quakers of the 16th and 17th centuries. Such journals often addressed God directly. Over time, women looked at journal writing as having a conversation with a friend, and some even gave their diaries names. Travel journals were often created explicitly to entertain friends. American colonist Sarah Kemble Knight (1666–1727) kept diaries of her travels, which were published in 1825 as The Journal of Mme Knight. Whatever the purpose, the journals have the same things in common: a desire to keep a record and to capture some aspects of the individual woman's experience. According to Margo Culley, an expert on autobiographical writing by women, "the phrase 'keeping a diary' suggests resistance to [the passage of] time, change, and ultimately, death."

Journals and diaries of the 19th century took on many forms. Consumers would purchase neat, published volumes for women to fill with printed pages for prescribed information and charts. Some women made their diaries from random scraps of paper they bound together by hand. Other women's diaries were an entirely free-form collection in which they included sketches, clippings, and lists as well as narrative entries.

Dorothy Wordsworth recorded The Grasmere Journals in a few volumes, several portions of which are missing. She included sketches and lists on the pages of her journals; however, her words are what have endured. According to Dorothy, her motivation for keeping diaries during her time at Grasmere was to give her brother—the poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850)—pleasure when he came home, although she kept other journals before and after her time living in the village. Dorothy continued writing her journal well after William's trip ended. From 1800–03 Dorothy recorded her everyday observations of nature and the people she encountered in Grasmere as well as her domestic and intellectual occupations. An avid reader and gifted writer in her own right, Dorothy's journal entries formed the basis of a number of her brother's best-known poems. She consulted with him extensively on his work, often helping him to revise, copy, and bind his poetry.

Her detailed observations of nature, a preoccupation she shared with other 19th-century Romantic thinkers, including her brother and their good friend, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), set The Grasmere Journals apart from Dorothy's other diaries. Dorothy also describes the people from all strata of society, including poor and simple folk, whom she encounters on walks, her personal thoughts about reading, efforts to assist her brother, health issues, and domestic chores. Features of English Romanticism inherent in The Grasmere Journals include not only observations of nature and Dorothy's expressions regarding the human condition, but also that they are written in a straightforward and ordinary speaking style. This style brings her observations into a close relationship with the reader, as if she is speaking to a friend, in keeping with her brother's goal "to bring the language of poetry back to that of common speech."

Like most women of the day, Dorothy's identity revolved around nurturing others. She was the manager of the household, and as such, her journals, like those of many women at the time, include information about income and expenditures, the tasks she completed, her correspondences, and charitable acts. But even more so, Dorothy's journals reveal personal observations about the people, events, and things surrounding her.

Romanticism in Poetry

Romanticism is an artistic movement that began in England in the late 18th century as a reaction against the rationalism of Classicism and Neoclassicism—the art, literature, and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome and more recent works inspired by it. Classic and Neoclassic works are characterized by order, calm, harmony, balance, and idealization. The movement was also partially a reaction against the Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason, a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that lauded science and logic over tradition and religion. In contrast to the values of intellect and reason, Romanticism emphasized the senses, emotion, nature, and creativity. Later the movement came to include an interest in folklore and nationalism. Romantic writers often chose exotic or remote settings and indulged audiences in exciting, mysterious subjects like the occult.

English literary Romanticism, a cultural and artistic movement, had begun earlier in Germany, then spread to England during the late 18th to early 19th centuries. Early Romanticism as an artistic movement emphasized an idealization of uncorrupted nature, nostalgia for the past, and the autonomy of the artist possessed of imagination and emotions.

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge ushered in Romanticism with a collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads (1798). In the text's introduction, Wordsworth coined the defining phrase of the genre by calling it "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." Wordsworth also signaled a shift in the diction of the movement, indicating that he and Coleridge wrote Lyrical Ballads in "the language really used by men." Other British poets contributed to the movement, including Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) and John Keats (1795–1821). The genre spread across Europe and lasted through the middle of the 19th century.

Dorothy Wordsworth influenced the creation of the Lyrical Ballads, the seminal work of the genre, through her contributions and encouragements of her brother's work and her close friendship with Coleridge. The detailed observations in her personal journals formed the basis and inspiration for a number of their poems. She often mentions reading the poems from Lyrical Ballads at various points in The Grasmere Journals, and she wrote out much of her brother's work and suggested revisions and acted as his trusted sounding board. In this way, Dorothy was very much a part of the movement of Romantic poetry, although not a published poet herself.

Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Lyrical Ballads

William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, England, in 1770. His sister, Dorothy, who he spent most of his life with, was just 20 months younger. Their mother and father both died by the time Wordsworth turned 13. Wordsworth attended Hawkshead Grammar School in Cumbria where he enjoyed time outside in the surrounding countryside, experiences that instilled in him an intimacy with nature. Although he completed a degree from St. John's College, Cambridge, Wordsworth disliked university life. In the summer of 1790 while on break from school, Wordsworth toured France and became greatly impressed with the radical, revolutionary ideas circulating among intellectuals there. On a subsequent trip to France after earning his degree from Cambridge, he had an affair with a Frenchwoman, Annette Vallon, who later gave birth to his daughter Caroline in 1792. Wordsworth went back to England before his daughter's birth, and when war broke out between the two countries, he was unable to return to France. He did not see his daughter until he visited France in 1802: Caroline was nine years old.

Wordsworth struggled for several years because he lacked employment and held radical political views. Then a friend passed away and left Wordsworth a legacy. With the funds, Wordsworth rented a home with Dorothy in 1797. They enjoyed their independence at Alfoxden House, and it is here they formed a deep, intimate friendship with the lyrical poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In the countryside near Bristol, with the help of his two companions, Wordsworth developed his poetic style, adopting the dramatic, lyrical style for which he is famous, and he continued to write into old age. He and Dorothy rarely separated, and she continued to live with him at Dove Cottage in Grasmere and later at Rydal Mount with his wife—Dorothy's childhood friend Mary Hutchinson—and his five children.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who became a close friend of the Wordsworths, was born into comfort on October 21, 1772, in Devonshire, England. His father was a vicar and a school's headmaster, and as a child, Coleridge was remarkably well read. Like Wordsworth, he also attended a school at Cambridge and was drawn to radical political views. In 1795 Coleridge married Sara Fricker at the urging of his friend, English author Robert Southey (1774–1843), with whom Coleridge had plans of setting up a society in America. When Southey quit the venture, Coleridge found himself wed to a woman he did not love. However, he would never divorce her because of his own religious convictions.

Coleridge befriended William and Dorothy Wordsworth in 1797, and the three became close friends. Coleridge praised Dorothy for her keen skills of observation and excellent taste. It was during their time at Alfoxden House when Coleridge and William Wordsworth composed and published Lyrical Ballads (1798), a collection of poems that included Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey." An 1800 edition included a preface written by Wordsworth and several more poems. The 1802 edition included an appendix on poetic diction, also written by Wordsworth.

Dorothy's journals provided inspiration for many poems, and she contributed to Lyrical Ballads through her conversations with Wordsworth and Coleridge and by providing them with feedback. The poetry in Lyrical Ballads represented a shift in poetic style, rejecting the structure of Neoclassicism. Poems in the collection were written using everyday language, and the subject matter reflected nature and ordinary people. The volume ushered in the era of British Romantic poetry.

Coleridge's loveless marriage and unhappy home life eventually became the source of suffering for himself and the Wordsworth siblings. Their collective misery increased when Coleridge fell in love with the Wordsworths' close friend Sara Hutchinson, who returned his desperate, hopeless feelings. Increasingly addicted to opium, under the influence of which he wrote his famous poem "Kubla Khan" (1816), Coleridge eventually separated from his wife and became estranged from the Wordsworths in 1810.

Life for Women in 18th- and 19th-Century England

During the reign of the United Kingdom's most influential monarch Queen Victoria (1819–1901) from 1837 to 1901, a period known as the Victorian Era, upper- and middle-class women of England became increasingly confined to the domestic sphere. Men thought women were naturally weaker and were created specifically to be mothers. The patriarchal society designated women as "the angel in the house." Strict social etiquette controlled women's lives, including restricting their conversations and movements around men when they were without a chaperone. Women were excluded from the male conversation and retired to a separate room after dining. Women in England also had few legal rights For example, a married woman could not own property or retain custody of children. Women in England ages 21–30 would not have the same voting rights as men until 1928.

Although a law making education compulsory for boys and girls age 5 to 10 passed in 1880, for much of the century nearly half of women were illiterate. Early feminists like English author Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97) criticized the education of girls as preparing them for little more than to be mistresses or perpetual children. She claimed women were trained to be silly and with romantic ambitions alone. Middle-class girls were educated to accumulate "accomplishments" meant to attract a financially supportive husband, like playing musical instruments or speaking foreign languages. Women with intellectual ambitions tended to minimize their interests to avoid being classed as a "bluestocking," a trait often judged to be unfeminine. The term bluestocking came into use in the mid-18th century to derisively describe society women who invited intellectuals, scientists, artists, and scholars to an evening of intellectual discussion. However, women appearing too interested in marriage could be censured for being "forward." It was often the case that an attractive but poor young woman would collude with merchants to purchase on credit the latest fashions to attract a wealthy husband, who, after marriage, was presented with the bill. A young woman taking this risk, as satirized in English poet Lord Byron's (1788–1824) pseudo-epic Don Juan (1819–24), was called a "drapery miss."

In many ways, Dorothy Wordsworth was an unconventional woman. She read voraciously, walked at night alone, talked to beggars, and worked on Sundays. Her relationship with her brother was also unusual, and rumors of incest have never really died out. Although she contributed to domestic duties and took upon herself all the cares that might distract her brother from his poetry, Dorothy devoted herself to intellectual pursuits uncommon to women too. She conversed regularly about all manner of subjects with not only her brother but also Coleridge, and offered them her opinions and suggestions on their poetry. Contrary to Victorian notions of female fragility, Dorothy regularly walked the six-to-eight-mile round trip from Grasmere to collect the mail in nearby towns, and she walked 12 miles to visit Coleridge in Keswick. Consider that her contemporary, English novelist Jane Austen (1775–1817), wrote a scene in her novel Pride and Prejudice (1813) in which Elizabeth Bennet shocks everyone by walking just two miles to visit her sick sister. Dorothy was, as biographer Pamela Woof describes, "robust in mind and body."

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