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No Scribbling Rivalry William and Dorothy Wordsworth: ‘All in Each Other’
By Lucy Newlyn (Oxford University Press 386pp £19.99)
Time was when, if I revealed I taught the poetry of Wordsworth, people would sidle furtively up to me and ask whether I thought the great man slept with his own sister. The correct answer is yes. Two hundred years ago it was completely normal for people to share beds, related or not, if for no reason other than to share bodily warmth on cold Cumbrian nights. Sex did not have to be on the agenda.
Lucy Newlyn’s new book about the famous Wordsworth siblings assumes they were bonded ‘in a sacred non-sexual union’, so relieving itself of the task (usually ignored by incest theorists) of explaining why, if Dorothy really did have sex with her brother, she not only avoided having his child but also dodged the psychological and emotional damage suffered by victims of what is now regarded as sexual abuse. Instead, Newlyn is able to focus on something more compelling: over the course of 300-odd pages, she analyses the roots of the Wordsworths’ ‘intertwined creativity’. The result is deeply perceptive, thoughtful and faithful to the facts.
Oxford University Press calls the book a ‘literary biography’, but it is more a chronicle of a joint spiritual journey. Newlyn leaves to others such matters as whether the poet really was a spy or how his sister received the approaches of that rakish philosopher and atheist William Hazlitt. She is not the first to have understood the siblings’ closeness, but she has envisioned it more accurately, and with greater honesty, than anyone else. Her book embraces the poetic oeuvre of Wordsworth as well as the full range of manuscript works by his sister, including her unpublished Rydal journals (1824–33), which are known only to a handful of scholars.
Newlyn offers a novel view of Dorothy’s Grasmere diaries as ‘a graphic, detailed record of destitution in wartime Grasmere’. This may surprise those who have forgotten (or are unaware) that, among the accounts of Dorothy and her brother in their garden, there are descriptions of throngs of beggars, invalid soldiers, orphans and other itinerants. ‘Such faithful recording of the obscure lives of those around her is as radical in its implications as William’s ballads,’ Newlyn comments. By documenting the hardships of the poor, Dorothy was doing something contemporaries would have regarded as politically radical. Her concern for the destitute is a reminder of her brother’s conviction that ‘men who do not wear fine clothes can feel deeply’.
Newlyn is also the first to connect the thematic layout of Wordsworth’s Poems, in Two Volumes (1807) with his work as a garden designer:
for it is divided into compartments leading into each other. This enables a guided progression from homely lyrics to formal sonnet sequences in Volume One; and from poems composed during the Scottish Tour to ‘Moods of my own Mind’ in Volume Two, with a final compartment of miscellaneous poems, culminating in the great Ode ‘Intimations of Immortality’. Newlyn’s empathy for her subjects is no- where more evident than in her handling of their reaction to the early deaths of their parents (both were dead by the time William was 13): ‘their nesting instinct
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£14 uk (£18 elsewhere) inc. p&p email: firstname.lastname@example.org was connected with the trauma of loss’, she informs us, something that explains their desire to set up house in Grasmere. It is a telling detail in the portrait of two siblings whose intense love is the product of grief. In Newlyn’s view, their loss enabled them to enjoy ‘the satisfaction that grew out of completing projects and repossessing time’. The writing of poems ‘marked a new stage in the Wordsworth family’s communal process of remembering and grieving’.
Newlyn’s most enviable achievement is to have narrated a convincing love story. Against the glum orthodoxy by which biographers have tended to imply that the Wordsworths must have been sexual partners, Newlyn describes a brother and sister who simply loved each other in the way most siblings do. The depth of misunderstanding that surrounds the Wordsworths is evident in the accusation that, when writing ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, a poem based on a walk undertaken by both Wordsworths, William ‘oppressed’ his sister by editing her out of its narrative. Newlyn deals with this by describing his strategy: ‘The “I” of the poem is not literally William the lonely wanderer, or William the pensive poet lying on his couch in the upstairs sitting room at Town End, but the “I” of lyric utterance itself – an “I” that William, Dorothy and Mary [the poet’s wife] can all identify with.’ That observation admits us to the imaginative realm Wordsworth occupied as he conceived the poem.
Newlyn is an accomplished scholar, and she takes her lead from what she finds in her sources, published and unpublished. Yet the danger of making such claims is to imply that William and Dorothy Wordsworth sounds uncompromisingly intellectual. Despite her use of such words as ‘homosocial’, ‘ loco-descriptive’ and ‘defamiliarization’, the book is not composed in occult script. In fact it is beautifully written and contains everything an enthusiast of either or both Wordsworths would wish to know about their lives and work; beginners and more advanced readers alike will prosper by it. Would that it had been available to me when I first began to read Wordsworth. To order this book for £19.99, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 16
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