Sister Act: A New Take On Dorothy Wordsworth Biographer Frances Wilson discusses the intense connection between William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy — and the "vortex of poetry" in which they lived.
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Sister Act: A New Take On Dorothy Wordsworth

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Sister Act: A New Take On Dorothy Wordsworth

Sister Act: A New Take On Dorothy Wordsworth

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Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And I'm standing just outside the new, freshly dug kitchen garden on the South Lawn of the White House.

Just a couple of days ago, Michelle Obama and her chefs were inspired by the start of spring to lay out this plot, and that inspired us to take our own garden tour today, from the way nature's inspired literature, given to the kitchen and given to us.

One of the best gardens I ever saw wasn't a garden at all but a poem, "Daffodils," written in 1804 and set in England's Lake District.

Wordsworth's poem begins: I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats high o'er vales and hills when all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils.

I visited the Lake District as a college student. Wordsworth moved there in 1799 with his sister, Dorothy, and here's something she wrote about the same place.

Ms. FRANCES WILSON (Author, "The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth"): (Reading) We heard a strange sound in the Bainriggs wood as we were floating on the water. It seemed in the woods, but it must have been above it for presently, we saw a raven very high above us. It called out, and a dome of the sky seemed to echo the sound.

LYDEN: William Wordsworth's relationship with his sister was as interwoven and complicated as any two siblings could share. And Dorothy's journals about that time, called the "Grasmere Journals," are considered a British literary treasure.

Writer Frances Wilson has analyzed those journals, and the result is her new book, "The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth." She says Dorothy and William were separated at a young age after their mother died. And when they were reunited?

Ms. WILSON: They made a vow that they would never be without each other again, and Dorothy would never be homeless again. And they began a very extraordinary relationship, which is in some ways, it was the most passionate relationship of both of their lives.

In some ways, it was a very incestuous relationship because for Dorothy, there was no ever man ever. And as far as William was concerned, Dorothy became his muse.

LYDEN: I want to pick up on a couple of the themes that you just expressed in a moment, but let's talk about William Wordsworth's poem, "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey," a beautiful abbey in England.

It gives us a sense of Dorothy's importance to him. Would you read a few of the lines, beginning with the words: For thou art with me?

Ms. WILSON: Yes, of course.

(Reading) For thou art with me here upon the banks of this fair river, thou my dearest friend, my dear, dear friend. And in thy voice, I catch the language of my former heart and read my former pleasures in the shooting lights of thy wild eyes. Oh yet a little while may I behold in thee what I was once, my dear, dear sister.

LYDEN: Wild eyes. How would you describe the Dorothy Wordsworth of the "Grasmere Journals"?

Ms. WILSON: She's, as you saw from that passage, Wordsworth described her as having wild eyes. Everyone described her as being wild. Now, in the "Grasmere Journals," she comes across as someone who was rather the opposite of this, and it's a very interesting contrast.

Dorothy Wordsworth seems to be someone who was almost not there. She focuses her attention on the outside world all the time rather than talking about herself. These are the least egocentric journals I've ever read.

LYDEN: To Wordsworth, of course, she's a great inspiration, and not just to him, but they have frequent visits from the poet, Samuel Coleridge. There's one journal entry I love that have Dorothy and William pretending to lie in a grave. Would you tell us that story?

Ms. WILSON: Well, this is something that they used to do quite often, the three of them, that Dorothy and Wordsworth and Coleridge would go for these astonishing walks, and I think they must have been in some way drug related. Coleridge was already addicted to opium and Dorothy used to take a lot of opium for these terrible migraines she had all the time.

But they liked to fall into what they called trance states. And at this point, they're lying on the top of these hills, imagining that they're dead. Now, Dorothy's lying there thinking about Wordsworth, and he's there lying there thinking about himself, probably. And what the neighbors would think, heaven only knows when they saw them lying there.

LYDEN: Now, you have a chapter in your book called, "To Forsake All Others: Incest."

Ms. WILSON: Yes.

LYDEN: We should just say here for the record that there's absolutely no evidence of physical incest between them.

Ms. WILSON: What we have with Dorothy and William is something stranger and darker and more complicated than sexual incest. I don't think for a moment, actually, that there was any sexual relationship between them because I think their relationship had nothing to do with bodies. They were wrapped up in each other's minds in a much complicated and, if you like, much more threatening and much more frightening way.

LYDEN: The moment you emphasize is the morning of William Wordsworth's wedding…

Ms. WILSON: Yes.

LYDEN: …to one of her best friends, Mary Hutchinson, and she does sleep with William's wedding ring on her finger the night before. Would you describe what you think is going on?

Ms. WILSON: I don't really know what is going on, but this is what Dorothy writes.

(Reading) On Monday, the 4th of October, 1802, my brother William was married to Mary Hutchinson. At a little after eight o'clock, I saw them go down the avenue towards the church. William had parted from me upstairs. 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 fervently.

When they were absent, my dear little Sara prepared the breakfast. I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men running up the walk coming to tell me it was over, I could stand it no longer and threw myself on the bed where I lay in stillness, neither hearing nor seeing anything.

LYDEN: Are we to cast that as excessive emotional intimacy, or was that the mores of the day, or were they simply eccentric?

Ms. WILSON: Well, I think, I mean, I think it's important to get this in the right context. The important thing about this journal is that really, it was a letter to William. It was a way in which she could document her emotional life and had it over to him.

But it seems to me very clear that, of course, this was a woman who was extremely depressed, you know, who'd lived for and through her brother. And when he no longer had need of her, you know, there wasn't any point to her life anymore, and her madness seemed to me to be a very aggressive madness.

It was as if she was saying to him, I looked after you, and I nurtured you, and I made you a poet, and now you can look after me, and you can nurture me.

And so for 20 years, she lived in the top of the house like the mad woman in the attic in "Jane Eyre," raging around the top of the house while William, feeling fantastically guilty about what he could possibly have done to her to have put her in this state, tried to - you know, tried to nurse her.

LYDEN: And yet, they lived elbow to elbow…

Ms. WILSON: Yes.

LYDEN: …for the rest of their lives with Mary Hutchinson. I was able to visit Dove Cottage when I was a student, and I remember being told, look how small it is, and these people…

Mss. WILSON: Oh, yeah.

LYDEN: …were all here together, these three people.

Ms. WILSON: Yes.

LYDEN: Interesting that as Wordsworth is failing - she actually survives him despite her ill health…

Ms. WILSON: Yeah.

LYDEN: …she rallies and is her old self, according to the letters of others.

Ms. WILSON: Yes. It's very interesting. After he dies, she suddenly becomes her old self again, as you say, having been unrecognizable for 20 years.

She stops being a child because a part of her madness was just a childlike behavior. She became an adult again and became beautiful, wild, amazing, fascinating Dorothy again.

So it's as if William was kind of holding her back, as if his happiness was throttling her and when he'd gone, she could breathe again.

LYDEN: Frances Wilson. Her new book is called "The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life." Frances Wilson, thank you very much for your time.

Ms. WILSON: My pleasure. Thank you.

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