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4.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful double biography, deeply rooted in the original texts., 22 April 2014
This review is from: William and Dorothy Wordsworth: 'All in each other' (Hardcover)
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The exceptionally close relationship between William Wordsworth and Dorothy, his slightly younger sister, has given rise to much speculation. In their own lifetimes, rumours of incest circulated, and Wordsworth's contemporary De Quincy suspected that Dorothy had sacrificed her own literary genius to support her brother's work, a view echoed by feminists since.

Lucy Newlyn does not entirely dismiss such claims, but nor does she sensationalise them. Instead, she concentrates on their combined literary output and gives equal weight to each of them as gifted writers; in fact, she believes that their whose family circle engaged in a free exchange and pooling of their talents, in order to offer the world the therapeutic gift of natural beauty, and the deep relationship between rural people and their environment, memorialised and celebrated through their work.

What is abundantly clear from Newlyn's close reading of the texts attributed to both siblings is the extent of the collaboration between them. This was a life spent delighting in each other's company, a creativity deeply rooted in walking, talking and composing together. William did not take Dorothy for granted, Newlyn argues; his poetry is full of gratitude and devotion to her, and his infinitely patient care for her through her long physical and mental decline speaks for itself. Nor did Dorothy regard Mary Wordsworth as a rival for her brother's affections. Both women were equally engaged in the creative enterprise, and in an age where marriage and childbirth might well have claimed her life, Dorothy found deep fulfilment in nurturing their children.

Another misconception corrected by this account is that the Wordsworths are exclusively associated with the Lake District. In fact, they travelled widely on the Continent and William visited Scotland five times during his lifetime. Such journeys were vital to their creative life. Though primarily concerned by the natural world, they also took a keen interest in the people they met and their stories. Dorothy spoke German fluently and was praised by contemporaries for her adaptability and enthusiasm throughout the arduous travelling conditions demanded by the period. One can only read of her lengthy descent into dementia with profound sadness, but the truth is that both the Wordsworth siblings maintained their health and vitality longer than many of their contemporaries and lived to a remarkable old age. In fact, Newlyn proposes, even in the darkest days of her mental decline, Dorothy must have been greatly comforted by her ability to remember the distant past and share it with her beloved brother through the poetry that they co-authored.

If you are looking for a general, quick introduction to the Wordsworths this may not be the ideal book; it depends on a close reading of the texts, though this should not be beyond the general reader with some understanding of literary criticism. It is particularly valuable for those who are seeking a deeper background to the themes of "The Prelude" and the other great poems, and of course Dorothy's own journals. It is also a remarkably beautiful book as a physical object, printed on good quality paper and illustrated with lovely and appropriate woodcuts as well as a selection of photographs. For those who finish it, it will almost certainly prompt a renewed love of the original works, and a deeper understanding of Wordsworth's more challenging texts. It is a fine suitcase companion for a tour of the Lake District, or indeed any beautiful place.
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