When not writing some of the greatest poetry and criticism in the English language, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were having families. (Well, Wordsworth was: Coleridge was mainly avoiding his.) Each had one surviving daughter, whose double biography Katie Waldegrave has written in The Poets’ Daughters, and each daughter was acutely aware of her father’s genius, to the extent that much of her life was shaped by it, for both good and ill.
Sara was two years the elder of the girls: both grew up in the Lake District and remained lifelong friends despite the bitter quarrel which parted their fathers. Coleridge, or STC as he’s known in this book, first walked out of Sara’s life when she was just a year old, and thereafter he would be absent for years at a time. Early on, her love of books earned her the label ‘bluestocking’, and there’s a sad account of her, aged nine, straining to impress her father in the hope that he won’t leave again. Of course he does. Dora Wordsworth was not scholarly and as a child inclined to tantrums, which were repressed by those around her. Her aunt Dorothy also noted that she was a bit plump. Poor Dora then spent the rest of her life trying hard to please everyone and to eat as little as possible.
STC died when Sara was 32. Horrified by the material then published about him, which was inaccurate even when affectionate, she set to work editing his papers. Rigorous, learned and scrupulous, she is now being recognised by many scholars as one of STC’s best editors. While editing was to consume much of her intellectual and creative energies, she also wrote a sort of fantasy novel called Phantasmion and poetry which is also now receiving more attention (a collection has recently been published by Carcanet). You might already know one of her rhymes for children, which begins:
January brings the snow
Makes our feet and fingers glow.
It isn’t characteristic of her other work though, some of which Waldegrave quotes in the book and which I enjoyed (a review of which is here).
(Sara Coleridge, print from a portrait by George Richmond, 1845, when she was aged 43; the portrait was commissioned by her brother-in-law before she descended ‘into the vale of a certain age’; from here)
Sara wrote many letters and kept a diary; Dora is a more elusive character. She was horrifically thin, prone to weakness, coughs and colds. However, Dora’s correspondence is, Waldegrave remarks, always cheerful and does not reveal the strains which exerted such a toll on her body, and no diaries seem to have survived. She lived with her parents until her marriage at the age of 38: a marriage which Wordsworth vehemently opposed both because he was so deeply attached to Dora and because he was concerned about the prospective husband’s ability to support Dora financially. Within a year of the marriage, Dora’s husband was accused of fraud and subsequently lost all his money: Dora, ill, went to stay with her parents and never really left again. For her whole life she supported her father as his secretary, scribe, reader, proof-checker and general amanuensis. She also wrote pretty much the first travel book in English on Portugal, Journal of a Few Months Residence in Portugal, which Waldegrave argues should be considered as much fiction as fact (but I did feel she was stretching her case a bit here). It too has been recently republished by several electronic and paper publishers.
(Dora Wordsworth, portrait by Margaret Gillies, 1839, when she was aged 35; apparently the artist was asked to alter it twice, once to reduce the size of Dora’s nose, then, after her death, to make it more spiritual and holy; from here)
In chronicling Sara’s and Dora’s lives, Waldegrave touches on the magic of being part of that literary circle but also the grittiness of much of nineteenth-century life: the heart-breaking infant mortality, the circumscribed lives of women. It is also touching and impressive that Dora and Sara loved their fathers so much, despite their behaviour. And then there is the very interesting question of illness, which may in part and sometimes have been a response to almost unbearable pressures placed upon the two women. Dora, perpetually starving herself while under her father’s roof, seemed to recover a little while travelling in Portugal with her husband, only to succumb at the age of 43 to – what? TB? Kidney disease? Or complications from anorexia? Her physicians struggled to find a cause, but those around her throughout her life seemed to feel that an element of her suffering was somehow willed. And while Sara died of the all-too-clearly physical trauma of breast cancer, she suffered a serious bout of a more mysterious illness after the birth of her second child, perhaps a form of postpartum depression or even psychosis exacerbated by opium use and STC’s death, characterised by despair, fits, insomnia, loss of appetite and exhaustion. We tend to think of disease as mental or physical, but the distinction between the two, if indeed this can always be made, seems to have been much less clear in the nineteenth century. Waldegrave includes a very interesting discussion on hysteria while emphasising the impossibility of making a diagnosis more than 150 years after the fact. Certainly there is something stifled about Dora’s life, and it is clear that Sara struggled at times with domesticity, motherhood and the relinquishing of her literary pursuits in favour of housekeeping. Sara did wonder whether both of them had sacrificed by subsuming themselves so much in their fathers’ work.
This is just such a terrific biography. Katie Waldegrave writes sympathetically and sensitively about everyone, when it might have been easy to condemn Wordsworth and STC for their sometimes jaw-droppingly poor parenting, or Dorothy Wordsworth for her occasional unkindnesses. She has a real gift for drawing in the reader and making the narratives of her subjects’ lives so fresh and compelling one has the same feeling of reading a well-plotted novel, really wanting to find out what happens next. To do this she must have read and organised an immense amount of material and one of the great strengths of the book is its constant quotation of the people involved, their letters, diaries and articles, so that one feels much closer to them. Yet the detail is always enlightening and never overwhelming. If you are at all interested in the Romantic poets and their environment, I urge you to read this; and if you are not but would like to read about the lives of two very different nineteenth-century women, I urge you to read it too. It really is an excellent piece of work.