on 1 November 2013
This is a compelling story of what children inherit and how they live with it. Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge grew up in the shadow of their fathers, and both shaped the legacy each poet left behind. Sara edited Coleridge's unpublished work, while Dora became, in effect, Wordsworth's scribe and secretary--and both lived through the Romantic age with lives every bit as interesting as their fathers'.
The writing of their story has everything you would hope for - whether it's the idyllic landscape of the Lakes, the complex and fascinating relationships between the poets' families, hopeful love and ensuing grief, depression and illness, this is fiercely brilliant storytelling that puts centre stage two women whose own legacies might otherwise have stayed, as Woolf says of Sara's life, `in the light of his sunset.' The author writes with humour, compassion, and the sharpest eye for the smallest dramas that make up the stuff of lives - the resulting read is hard to put down, or forget.
on 11 October 2013
Complicated personal relations among a closely-knit group of related persons with major personality and relationship challenges - - Emmerdale, the Young and the Reckless or some other soap opera? Katie Waldegrave's recently published The Poets' Daughters (describing, as it does, the Wordsworth and Coleridge clans in the Lake District) is in fact far more than a mere soap opera. It is beautifully written, meticulously researched, and enjoyable from start to finish. The subject matter is captivating. In one small section of early nineteenth century England - - indeed, at times and by turns, in the same houses - - lived Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Robert Southey, Poet Laureate of England. While Southey's star has dimmed since that time, the fame and reputations of Wordsworth and Coleridge have not; they were in their time well-known, and Wordsworth, in particular, was a venerated public figure subject to the near-worship of a modern-day celebrity.
The Poets' Daughters presents a roughly chronological, biographical account of the lives of the daughters of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge - - approximate contemporaries who spent their childhoods together in the Lake District households of their famous parents. It describes in great detail the various family relationships, the lives of the poets, and, in particular, the lives of Sara and Dora, and their close, life-long relationship with each other. Inevitably, Sara and Dora lived in the light of their fathers' literary careers, and each participated actively in supporting the career of her father. Dora, who predeceased her father, was a sort of literary and spiritual soulmate and helper to him. Sara, her husband, and her brother, spent years after Coleridge's death re-issuing his works and gallantly striving to rehabilitate and establish both his literary legacy and personal reputation.
Making extensive use of letters to map out the events and issues in the lives it describes, the book deals with and weaves into the story the often rocky relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, two poets who, despite later fallings out, were inspirational to each other in the launch and progression of their literary careers. It also details at length the intertwining relationships between Wordsworth and Coleridge family members and friends.
Perhaps maintaining the reader's interest was not such a challenge given the unique and idiosyncratic nature and eccentricities of the characters and the particular struggles they endured. This book is a moving account of the daughters' efforts to reconcile the conflict between loyalty to their literary fathers and the need to live lives of their own, without, in the process, betraying either themselves or their parents. Apart from their literary fathers, Dora and Sara both had fascinating personal and literary lives, each publishing their own literary works. Both struggled to live a life not merely connected with their fathers. While each stayed faithful to her father's work, each managed to achieve and live out a life of her own. Sara, in particular, possessed an exceptional facility with languages and brilliant intellect, and wrote poetry and a fantasy novel. As with her father, her personal struggles involved the recurring use of opium. And all of the persons in these families had to deal with the recurring loss of loved ones, at all ages, to disease and sudden death - - a feature not uncommon to nineteenth century families, viz, the Brontes, or Natalia Ginsburg's Manzoni Family.
One of the great virtues of this book is that it combines the detail and depth of a serious scholarly work with a simple ability to write well and tell a good story (or, more accurately set of stories). While it would have been easy for the author to become mired in detail and the somewhat complicated threads of the relationships described, she has succeeded in presenting her material in a comprehensible and compelling fashion. As all biographies inevitably seem to, this one ends sadly with the relatively early deaths of its principal subjects. Along the way, however, it paints a fascinating and often touching picture of the lives of its protagonists and of the social mores and conventions of nineteenth century England. In so doing, it touches on various issues of the time - - literary, political, religious. Anyone interested in any of these matters would do well to read this book.