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The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth
A Life

by Frances Wilson


In this detailed analysis of Dorothy Wordsworth’s famous Grasmere Journals, Frances Wilson examines how the sister of Romantic poet William Wordsworth lived, loved, and worked with her brother.  Combining research from previous biographers of Dorothy’s life with writings from journals and lines from William’s poems (and those of good friend and fellow Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge), readers get an idea of what her life was like.  Wilson provides an overview of Dorothy’s childhood, but the focus of The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth is her years in the Lake District during the early nineteenth century, during which William produced some of his finest poems.

The strange details of their symbiotic relationship are presented without sensationalism.  Dorothy, who never married or had any romantic involvements, acted as the eyes, ears, hands, and muse of her brother, taking in the natural settings with him, helping him process his thoughts during their lengthy walks together, and writing down the freshly conceived poems as William recited them.  They lived together, ate together, worked together, relaxed together, and displayed a physical and emotional attachment for each other far beyond the usual brother and sister bond.

An entire chapter devotes itself to Dorothy’s headaches and other illnesses, ranging from depression (when William traveled, and most especially when he married Mary Hutchinson) to irregular bowels.  The chapter that follows, "To Forsake All Others: Incest" suggests that the migraines and other physical ailments that affected both sister and brother may have been related to their thwarted romantic love and repressed sexual desire for each other. Wilson explains that journal entries never specifically mention a sexual relationship between Dorothy and William, but offer enough hints at impropriety that scholars still debate this issue.

A scholarly book written in an easily readable style, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth  will be of particular interest to poetry lovers and students of literature, although a general audience also may find this an enjoyable book. Helpful back matter includes A Note on the Publication History of the Grasmere Journals, a Bibliographic Essay, and an Index.

The Book

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
February 2009
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The Reviewer

Leslie Halpern
Reviewed 2009
NOTE: Reviewer Leslie Halpern is the author of Reel Romance: The Lovers' Guide to the 100 Best Date Movies, Dreams on Film, A Writer's Guide to Fearless Interviews, and the co-author of Connections: A Collection of Poems. Coming Soon: Passionate About Their Work: Celebrities, Artists, and Experts Discuss Creativity.
© 2009