Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Fifth tutorial: from Whores to Virgins

The title of this post is also that of the hand-out given to us at the colloquium we had yesterday with Frances Wilson, subtitled Writing the Lives of Harriette Wilson and Dorothy Wordsworth.

Let's start, though, with the Virgin: Dorothy, younger sister of William Wordsworth, arch-Romantic, doyen of the Lakeland Poets and later Poet Laureate of Great Britain.

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth has as its pivot the entry in her Grasmere journal for the day that her brother William marries Mary Hutchinson.

Flashing back from this point is the story of a young woman who was orphaned and impoverished early, then separated for a decade from her brothers. Living the life of a poor relation here and there, she craved familial security which she found when she set up house with William, a young man just back from Revolutionary France where he had fathered a child and who, unlike his three brothers, had no clear idea about what career to pursue.

Dorothy and William live in several houses, lent by friends or rented cheaply, settling at Dove Cottage in a picturesque vale in the Lake District. They walk much, they talk much, they read and write much: she records, at times in microscopic detail, what she sees in sun and rain, what flowers are blooming, what birds are flying. These entries in her journal act as the stimulus for her brother's developing poetical muse. This intimate relationship will change when her brother marries. He chooses as his wife not the pining mistress he abandoned in France but a sister in a family of similarly-orphaned siblings. Dorothy describes the dawn ceremony she and her brother performed on the wedding day.

I gave him the wedding ring – with how deep a blessing! I took it from my forefinger where I had worn it the whole of the night before – he slipped it again onto my finger and blessed me ???ly.

In the manuscript of the Grasmere journal these lines have been crossed out. Fifty years ago they were read with the aid of infra-red light and the adverb interpreted then as fervently. The whole passage, but especially the closing adverb, was for some scholars further if not final proof that the relationship between brother and sister had been incestuous. Frances had examined the journal herself when researching her book and agreed with the most recent editor of the journal that the word is softly.

After the wedding Dorothy, with her brother William and his bride Mary, returns to Grasmere where all three live contentedly together in Dove Cottage for years, until increased income and a growing family led to a move to a larger home nearby. Meanwhile nearby William's friend the poet Coleridge is falling out of love with his wife Sarah, the sister of the poet Southey, and falling in love with Mary's sister Sarah Hutchinson, thenceforward referred to as Sara. All this is the stuff of scandal.

Frances discussed the nature of the brother-sister bond as viewed at that time, being as strong if not stronger than the marital bond.

She explained to us that she had wanted to rebut those Wordsworth scholars who had sought to shield William's reputation from the slur of incest by making Dorothy a sexless and dull figure. On the contrary, young men such as the writer de Quincey fancied her as "All fire and ardour", while at the same time strong brother-sister attachments were then viewed as nothing abnormal or incestuous. Earlier biographers make much of the fact that her journals and letters report nothing of the conversations all these Romantics would have had and that they are banal and boring.

Banal and boring they indeed are, if perused as some of us did without a full awareness of all the circumstances. Banal the journals may seem until it is understood that Dorothy was writing her entries as a stimulus to William. "Dorothy had a better poetic ear", claimed Frances; two people, "Dorothy and William, make one poet." William himself said "She gave me ears, she gave me eyes".

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth is as gripping as a novel but with the merit of being as close to what actually happened as it may be possible to get. Read the Spectator review of it by clicking here or the one in The Times by clicking here, then borrow it or buy it.

Let's conclude, briefly, with the Whore: Harriette Wilson, appropriately born in Shepherd Market, Mayfair, in 1786 and 15 years later mistress to the first of many an unbelted earl.

Time in our colloquium was too limited to do more than hear why Frances' first biography, The Courtesan's Revenge: The Life of Harriette Wilson, had such a radically different subject from her second one. She explained that the first was based on researching in archives and gave little scope for ruminations on the inner woman. At the end of her researches Frances had no more idea than she had had at the beginning about what Harriette dreamed about or was afraid of: indeed, she had not even been able to find out whether Harriette had ever born a child.

So her pendulum swung to the other end of its arc, to a place where relevant material has been published and is easily accessible in libraries so that it is reflection and not archival research which is needed. It may be that the topic of her next book, the chairman of the shipping line which built the SS Titanic, will swing the pendulum (who knows how briefly?) back to the vertical.

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