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Dorothy Wordsworth and the Hidden Histories of Women
Dove Cottage - external view.

GRASMERE, ENGLAND.- The Wordsworth Trust has published a new pocket-sized anthology of Dorothy Wordsworth’s writings. Based in Grasmere, Cumbria, the Trust owns and cares for Dove Cottage, the home of the poet, William Wordsworth between 1799 and 1808. The Cottage receives more than 70,000 visitors each year.

The new anthology includes excerpts from Dorothy Wordsworth’s correspondence and from her Alfoxden and Grasmere Journals. Sister of the poet, Dorothy lived with him at Dove Cottage and not only acted as Wordsworth’s amanuensis, recording many of his great poems for him, but also provided the inspiration for some of his great works. Her own description of the Daffodils alongside Ullswater in 1802 was the source material for arguably Wordsworth’s most famous poem, I wandered lonely as a cloud, which was probably written by him two years later, but not published until 1807. There are marked differences between Dorothy Wordsworth’s delicately vibrant and intelligent prose description of the scene witnessed by her and William, and Wordsworth’s poem, but the parallels between the two accounts are very evident. In broad outlines, though not in the detail employed by his sister, the poet re-creates the scene, but then produces in his three verses a quiet meditation on the mind’s reaction to experience, from its possible indifference to its awareness over time of the experience’s deepening value. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal, kept while at Grasmere, also describes the daily lives of her brother and herself as well as the folk who lived around them and came into contact with them, and of course their friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is an indispensable source of reference and a great commentary on the social history of the day, and as a result of the Grasmere Journal, Dorothy Wordsworth has come to be accepted as a very important writer in her own right.

The Wordsworth Trust’s publication of the new anthology is in response to growing demands from visitors to its site, many of whom buy the Trust’s pocket-sized anthology of William Wordsworth’s poems, but are curious to read the work of his sister, about whom much is said during the guided tour of Dove Cottage. The new anthology (which retails at £5.50) is expected to be very popular with visitors, and accompanies the current exhibition of the Wordsworth Trust on the letter writing of women two hundred years ago, which opened at Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum last month. The exhibition, entitled Telling our own Story, uses surviving manuscripts and artefacts from women linked to the Lake Poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey) and drawn from the Collection of the Wordsworth Trust. It explores the lives of women as revealed in the letters they wrote, with a particular focus on health and relationships. Visitors are able to read about the women’s lives through their own words, in the original documents, and to discover the significance of their letter and journal writing two hundred years ago, which enables the modern- day reader to compare life then and now.

Although the words of Dorothy Wordsworth are available in published form, much of the original manuscript material on show in the new exhibition is not the published words of authors, but the private stories of women such as Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, daughters of the poets, who poured their experiences, hopes and fears into hundreds of letters. The Director of the Wordsworth Trust, David Wilson, said: “200 years ago, the post wasn’t delivered to its recipients; they had to collect it from the post office, paying for it before it was handed over. Paper was taxed and very expensive, yet still people communicated through letters, on which the text was written with a quill and ink and, to minimise the cost, letters were sometimes written at right-angles over an old letter.” A letter written by Sara Coleridge is of particular interest because of this form of cross-writing, and a long love letter written by Mary Wordsworth to her husband the poet William (written eight years after they were married) is interesting for the different inks it employs. Dorothy Wordsworth’s last letter is remarkable, not only for its sparsity of content, but also for its layout, and the change it reflects in her handwriting over time. The exhibition prompts visitors to ask themselves: is the world of two hundred years ago really a completely alien one; or can we understand, empathise and share feelings and experiences over time? Are we the same people just living in a different time? The exhibition will be accompanied through the summer by school workshops and a series of talks and lectures, not only addressing aspects of the art of letter writing, but also looking at the historical framework in which these letters were written. The activities will include practical workshops exploring letter writing during the Regency period, a discussion about how letters were posted and how the postal service operated at that time; and lectures about the daughters of the Lake Poets.

The Director of the Wordsworth Trust, David Wilson, said: “The art of letter writing has largely disappeared in modern culture, with the advent of new technologies such as the internet and mobile telephones. Much of what we communicate in writing is in abbreviated form and is often reduced to acronym, as if we have created a whole new language for communication. It must be questioned, however, whether, in a hundred or two hundred years from now, much of what is sent by email or recorded in mobile telephone text messages will be decipherable by future generations or will give us anything like the insight into the lives of the senders and recipients that we can glean from the beautifully composed and written letters that form the basis of our exhibition. What is fascinating about some of these letters is that they were written over many days, only being sent when a full piece of paper or parchment had been covered in script. The letters cover all manner of subjects, including what we would now term post-natal depression and the terrible impact of infant mortality. They reflect the progression of the feelings of their writers, often in great detail, helping the modern-day reader to understand not only the lives they led, but also their emotions. That may be the reason why in this day and age, and despite our obsession with abbreviated electronic communication, we are greatly exited when we do receive a handwritten letter, often tearing open the envelope in an eager rush to get at its contents.”

Included in the new anthology of Dorothy Wordsworth is the last letter she wrote in, in 1853, some three years after the death of her brother William. The manuscript of the letter is also displayed in the exhibition.

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