|Rydal Mount, near Ambleside, in the Lake District, Cumbria. Home of Dorothy and William Wordsworth.|
The journals of Dorothy Wordsworth are so beautiful they could make you weep. They are, of course, the diaries of the sister of one of England's finest poets William Wordsworth. Dorothy was born on Christmas Day in 1771 (a year after William) in Cockermouth, Cumbria (then Cumberland). After their mother died they lived apart for a period but eventually they were reunited and lived together, first in Alfoxton House in Somerset where the journals begin in 1798, then to Grasmere in Cumbria, and then to Rydal Mount, Ambleside, pictured above.
What's so remarkable about Dorothy's diaries is the fact that they are by a woman who was more or less independent, that is she was not guided by an older woman or man, marriage and children was not her goal, and she was not limited by how the life a woman ought to live in the late 18th, early 19th Century. She and William lived how they wanted to live (though of course within their means) and she defined her own life and expectations. She wrote, mainly, on nature, often in quite brief notes, but, as Virginia Woolf wrote in Four Figures (from The Common Reader Second Series, 1932),
"Even in such brief notes one feels the suggestive power which is the gift of the poet rather than of the naturalist, the power which, taking only the simplest facts, so orders them that the whole scene comes before us, heightened and composed, the lake in its quiet, the hills in their splendour. Yet she was no descriptive writer in the usual sense. Her first concern was to be truthful — grace and symmetry must be made subordinate to truth. But then truth is sought because to falsify the look of the stir of the breeze on the lake is to tamper with the spirit which inspires appearances. It is that spirit which goads her and urges her and keeps her faculties for ever on the stretch. A sight or a sound would not let her be till she had traced her perception along its course and fixed it in words, though they might be bald, or in an image, though it might be angular."
Other than nature notes, a glimpse into her life as a woman of this era, as a sister of the future Poet Laureate (William Wordsworth is notable for, despite being a great and prolific poet, being the only Laureate who didn't actually write 'official' poetry at the time) who she loved very much indeed, and as a friend of the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. We see, for example, a hint of the Wordsworth's fears of his opium addiction when she notes on 19th March 1802,
"... Coleridge came in. His eyes were a little swollen with the wind. I was very much affected with the sight of him - he seemed half stupefied.... My spirits were agitated very much."
|1897 edition of Journals of|
The best part of the journals though is the nature notes, and even the shortest observations are stunning. For example:
"21st [January, 1798]. Walked on the hill-tops—a warm day. Sate under the firs in the park. The tops of the beeches of a brown-red, or crimson. Those oaks, fanned by the sea breeze, thick with feathery sea-green moss, as a grove not stripped of its leaves. Moss cups more proper than acorns for fairy goblets."
"Saturday [23rd June 1800].—Walked up the hill to Rydale lake. Grasmere looked so beautiful that my heart was almost melted away. It was quite calm, only spotted with sparkles of light; the church visible. On our return all distant objects had faded away, all but the hills. The reflection of the light bright sky above Black Quarter was very solemn...."And she's not afraid to be dull, either, yet it's intriguing:
"17th [March 1798].—I do not remember this day."
I don't think it's unreasonable to say that Dorothy Wordsworth is one of the finest diarists in England. The Journals, as you can no doubt tell, is one of my most favourite reads. Her keen observation and simplicity is charming and evocative, and it's such a pleasure to read about the flora and fauna of the area and about the changing seasons. This is a great work.
|Holdford, Somerset by Jason Pittock.|
|Dove Cottage, Grasmere, Cumbria.|