January 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life by Frances Wilson

As a preteen, I was always intrigued by the idea of brother-sister incest -- the consensual kind, of course, the kind where the siblings are roughly the same age, and their natural closeness turns into something else. Friends have assured me that I never would have been into the idea if I’d actually had a brother. And, it’s true -- I think the part that appealed to me was being trapped with a (really hot) guy two years older, who sort of looked like me (except tall and very male, with broad shoulders, flannel shirts and a lean, panther-like grace), and was deeply protective of me, and understood my inner thoughts in an intense, spiritual way, without me having to get over my shyness and get to know him. The part about breaking ancient taboos, hiding in the darkness, and having babies with three arms wasn’t ever as alluring. I’ll always have a lingering fondness for the genre, though, from the cringe-worthy and trashy (Flowers in the Attic; The Blue Lagoon) to the darkly compelling (The Cement Garden; Olivier, Olivier), to everything in between (The Hotel New Hampshire, Hansel and Gretel, Brenda and Billy on Six Feet Under). The stories are best when they’re ambiguous -- you aren’t sure whether the siblings are really siblings, and/or, you aren’t sure whether they’re actually incestuous.

The story of Dorothy and William Wordsworth is fascinating in terms of the aesthetic development of British Romanticism, the history of literary movements and their intersection with social forces, the expression and suppression of intimacy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, women’s history, and the problems and rewards of literary biography and scholarship. It’s also, of course, if understood in a certain guilty way, the most luridly compelling of ambiguous sibling incest stories. People who pick up Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life for any one of these reasons won’t be disappointed, but some of them might, like me, dive in for one reason and come up for air with an entirely new obsession.

The titular “ballad” centers around four small, paltry-looking notebooks, now known as the Grasmere Journals, written by Dorothy after her brother got married. The night before the wedding, Coleridge had a dream that Dorothy had transformed from herself -- an insightful, fiery, wild girl -- into an unrecognizable, fat woman with thick limbs. (“If I did not know you to be Dorothy,” says Coleridge in his dream, “I never should suppose it.” Dorothy responds, “Why, I have not a feature the same.”) It was true. She wore William’s ring the night before he got married, and when he came to collect it, to take it to her friend Mary, who was about to become his wife, “He slipped it again onto my finger & blessed me fervently.” Later, she tries to keep it together as her brother is off saying his vows, but once the thing is over, she can’t stand it anymore, and throws herself on the bed in a kind of coma, “neither hearing nor seeing anything.”  

Dorothy was separated from her brothers as a child, and sent to live with relatives. After she was reunited with them as a teen, her mutual attachment to William was fierce. Dorothy was sitting around caring for babies and teaching Sunday school, while William (a year older) was off walking through the Alps and enjoying a political awakening and knocking up a Frenchwoman and going to Cambridge. He wrote her passionate letters, wishing he could share his experiences of nature with her, and it’s no wonder that she fled her current life in order to set off, on foot, with her brother at the first opportunity. Their years of separation gave them a hungry need to make up for lost time.

In the history of women in literature, the line between collaborator and muse is often so thin that it dissolves into nothing. What was Dorothy? She scuttled about after William, recording his beautiful poetry, because William disliked the actual process of writing. She suffered from migraines, and found solace in her garden. She punished herself excessively for her own attempts at poetry or prose, protesting so viciously that it becomes almost impossible not to see her as a closeted poet, fighting herself. (“I have no command of language, no power of expressing my ideas, and no one was ever more inept at moulding words into a regular metre,” she wrote. And, “I did try one story, but failed so sadly that I was completely discouraged.” And, “I should detest the idea of setting myself up as an author.”) She was a fierce, dazzling and accurate critic of her brother’s work, and he tended to take all of her suggestions and use them.

“Dorothy’s comments on [William’s] early poetry,” notes Wilson rather drolly, “reveal that somewhere between picking berries in Halifax, stitching sheets in Penrith, and bathing babies in Forncett she has developed a rather strong and independent poetic sense.”

It’s even trickier to see when and how a man in literary history was a woman’s muse, but that’s where Wilson seems to be subtly headed with Dorothy and William. Wilson writes in her introduction that “in the case of Dorothy Wordsworth, it was when her life alone with her brother was shattered that she stopped writing, as if writing and William were bound up in one another.” For William, according to Wilson, writing was a vocation like skin-shedding for a snake -- words were a space where he explored self-conflict and the battle between pain and pleasure. Dorothy, in contrast, never allowed herself to use writing for anything so “vertiginous.”

Wilson tartly explodes the most common myths that haunt other biographical accounts of Dorothy -- her childhood cheeriness and her total lack of any sexual feelings or urges, ever. Her irritation with previous biographers is palpable, and a pleasure to read. “It is remarkable,” she writes, “in the light of the cataclysmic losses Dorothy sustained at seven years old and the many remarks she would later make as to her general worthlessness, that biographers insist so heartily on her childhood happiness, but then she is rarely credited with having a psychological or unconscious life.” On the sexual front, she mentions that, “It is Wordsworth, and not his sister who comes across as having never experienced or aroused a physical feeling. His poetry is startlingly without sexuality, his landscapes are peopled by children, old men, widows and idiots; there is not a sexually active creature among them.”    

We will never know whether Dorothy and William crossed the line into incest. Wilson concludes with some malarkey about “Romantic incest.” The idea is from Camille Paglia, and in adopting it, Wilson takes up the same kind of assessment that has annoyed her in other scholars: “An incestuous relationship is specifically one in which sexual relations have taken place between members of the same family… and there is no taboo about an all-consuming sibling passion in which the sexual feelings are repressed, even if the effects of such a relationship are equally or more confusing than if sex had been involved… They were more concerned with the effects of pen on paper than with anything expressed by the body…” This may be true, but, if Dorothy was to William, as Wilson suggests, “less a figure of flesh and blood in his life than a poetic idea,” why did friends see them kissing in a way brothers and sisters normally did not? Wilson, I think, skims the surface of the sexual spectrum. If there’s no intercourse, but one or both siblings consciously want to nail each other, and they fantasize about it, is that Romantic or sexual? What if the siblings have consciously repressed their sexual feelings, but they lie close together all the time, stroke each other’s hair, and kiss lengthily and full-on-the-lips, when they are English rather than Italian, to the shock and bewilderment of friends? What if they do things, physically, that aren’t sexual intercourse, but fall somewhere into most definitions of foreplay? Meanwhile, Dorothy looked at William’s discarded apple core with longing (because he had bitten it), noticed the coldness of his lips and breath, slept in his wedding ring, had a “strange fit of passion” when he got married, and fell upon his bosom in some sort of intense display that was not of the mind and the pen alone.

Still, whether the incest was symbolic, subliminal, or fully expressed, readers like me, lured in by the promise of some prurient gossip, will leave Wilson’s biography instead with fascinating questions (and a few answers) about literary and poetic collaboration. What if Dorothy Wordsworth had taken up the pen, herself, not for the solace of journals or to send her brother a passive-aggressive missive on the eve of his betrayal (the notebook she keeps for his “pleasure” is actually all about her misery in his absence), but to record her poetic vision? There’s a moment, after an intense vision of the night sky, when Dorothy describes feeling like “more than half a poet.” Does this mean that usually, she was half a poet? When she gets home, she writes that she’s tired, but it sounds more like she’s restless, itching, for once, to channel her natural poetic frenzy, her natural kinship with poetry, into her own work. “I could not sit down to reading & tried to write verses but alas! I gave up expecting William and soon went to bed.”

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life by Frances Wilson
Farrar Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0374108676
336 Pages