Wordsworth, Dorothy (1771–1855)

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Wordsworth, Dorothy (1771–1855)

English diarist and natural historian who was companion to—and caretaker of—her brother William, and friends with other influential British Romantics. Born on December 25, 1771, in Cockermouth, England; died on January 25, 1855, at Rydal Mount after 20 years of mental and physical illness; daughter of John Wordsworth and Anne (Cookson) Wordsworth; sister of William Wordsworth (the poet); never married; no children.

Caretaker and companion of her brother William, even after his marriage to Mary Hutchinson, a childhood friend (1802); published nothing during her lifetime, with the exception of a few poems included by her brother in a collection Poems by William Wordsworth, Including Lyrical Ballads, and the Miscellaneous Pieces of the Author (1815); died (1855), five years after William.

Selected writings:

her work is in various collections and editions of her journals, correspondence, poetry and short fiction; these include Recollections of a

Tour Made in Scotland, A.D. 1803 (1874); Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth (first complete edition 1941, ed. by Ernest de Selincourt); George & Sarah Green: A Narrative by Dorothy Wordsworth (1936, ed. by de Selincourt); The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth (1967–82, 6 vols., ed. by Alan G. Hill, Mary Moorman, and Chester L. Shaver); "The Collected Poems of Dorothy Wordsworth," in Susan M. Levin's Dorothy Wordsworth & Romanticism (Rutgers University Press, 1987, pp. 175–237).

Like so many women of the 18th and 19th centuries, Dorothy Wordsworth focused her attention and energies on local concerns: her family and the home she shared with them. Until comparatively recently, most women who wrote did so in private, and their literary production revolved around correspondence, diaries, poetry and fiction never intended for eyes other than those of family and friends. Thus the diary-journal forms an especially fertile area in which to recapture not only women's history but also women's writing as literary production. For this reason, many scholars now turn their attention to women's diaries, letters, and other forms of autobiography as a source of women's literature, no longer brushing aside such forms as somehow lesser because they were private and sometimes, as in the case of much of what Dorothy Wordsworth wrote, intended for an audience of one, herself, or two, herself and her brother William Wordsworth. That Wordsworth did not seek public acclaim through the validation that publication affords should not be taken to mean that she had nothing of value to say: her writings, like those of so many women working in these modes, tell us differently. And, her reticence aside, Wordsworth's ideas, perceptions, and very language were appreciated by at least two monuments of the British Romantic period: her brother William and their friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In fact, Dorothy Wordsworth noted on several occasions that she kept her records in large part as an aid to her prestigious brother's memory; he, in turn, delved into them, borrowing events, descriptions, and even close turns of phrase in such poems as "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," "Beggars," and "Resolution and Independence."

Dorothy and her four brothers (of whom William was one year her senior) led a happy early childhood in Cockermouth, Westmoreland, with their parents John and Ann Wordsworth . John was steward and agent (lawyer) for wealthy landowner Sir James Lowther. But in 1778, when Dorothy was six, her mother died and the children were separated. Until 1795, she lived with a succession of relatives and was never brought back to her father's home, even though her brothers frequently visited there from boarding school. Her experiences were not the happiest ones for a child suffering the loss of a parent; after her mother's death, in 1778 she stayed with her mother's cousin, Elizabeth Threlkeld , in Halifax, along with five other orphan cousins; from her accounts, this was a pleasant home. She attended boarding school beginning in 1781, but was forced to switch to a Halifax day school owing to the sudden death of her father in December 1783 and the resulting lack of funds for private schooling. At 15, Dorothy was sent to live with her maternal grandparents, the William Cooksons, in Penrith, where her mother's cleric brother, William, tutored her in geography, math, and French. Her schooling in Halifax was the only truly formal education that Wordsworth would receive.

Her stay in Penrith was unhappy: her grandparents were cold to her and would not allow her brothers to visit. By October 1788, however, her uncle William married Dorothy Cowper and brought Dorothy Wordsworth to live with them at his new parish in Forncett, Norfolk, a happier situation. While at Forncett, Dorothy helped start and run a small school for local country girls. She remained there until 1794; for the next year, she moved from relative to relative. But, in 1795, she achieved her fondest wish and moved into a house at Racedown, Dorsetshire, with her brother William, something made possible by a small legacy from one of his friends. Until her death in 1855, five years after William's own demise, Dorothy remained a welcomed part of her brother's household. At Racedown, she undertook the business of managing their domestic affairs, cooking, cleaning, helping William with his work, and corresponding with friends. Throughout her life, Dorothy Wordsworth devoted herself to the well being of William, tending to the mundane so that he could write; accompanying him on walking trips; keeping journals of these trips and of her local observations, to which both he and Coleridge would refer for information; and, later, minding the children of William and his wife, Mary Hutchinson Wordsworth , whom he married on October 4, 1802.

It was at their first home at Racedown in 1797 that Dorothy and William made the acquaintance of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with whom William had previously corresponded. Subsequently that year, they moved closer to Coleridge, living in Alfoxden House in Nether Stowey. From this initial friendship came the intense intellectual engagement that produced some of British Romanticism's most powerful poetry: the Lyrical Ballads. Additionally, from their stay at Alfoxden House came Dorothy's own Alfoxden Journal, a record of the natural world and the people of the area—work to which both men allude and for which they praise her for her artistic ability. While Coleridge and William wrote and talked, not only was Dorothy writing in her journal, but she was also tending to the multitude of household responsibilities so that the men could have the luxury of time to think, talk, and write. It is no surprise that her brother remarks in Book IX of his autobiographical poem, The Prelude, that Dorothy, "in the midst of all, preserved me still/ A Poet."

In 1798, Dorothy, William, Coleridge and his student John Chester traveled to Germany; an account recorded in her journal, Journal of Visit to Hamburgh and of Journey from Hamburgh to Goslar, was not published in full until 1941. After this at times unpleasant trip, owing in part to the weather, the unfriendliness of the locals, and the isolation, Dorothy and William settled in Dove Cottage in Grasmere in December 1799. It was this home that provided Dorothy with the source of some of her most critically acclaimed observations, now referred to as the Grasmere Journals, covering May 1800 through January 1803. Like the Alfoxden Journal, the Grasmere Journal was not published in its entirety until 1941, although excerpts had been printed in 1897. It is clear from Dorothy's recorded material and William's poetry that he owed her more than a debt of gratitude for her painstaking record of local detail and natural events; Dorothy herself remarks that, at times in his poetry, her words had become William's, yet she seems not to begrudge him the borrowing.

Dorothy Wordsworth never separated herself from her beloved brother, and as she records in the Grasmere Journals, on the night prior to William and Mary's wedding, she slept with the wedding ring on her forefinger and that, when she gave it to him privately the day of the wedding, he slipped it again on her hand before taking it with him to the church. Understandably, particularly considering the bleak prospects open to an unmarried woman in the 18th—or 19th—century, Dorothy was distressed at this shift in circumstances. In fact, she did not attend the wedding. After this initially difficult adjustment, however, she continued as a faithful and devoted member of William's household until her death, and, by all accounts, deeply loved and was loved by Mary and the children.

Throughout much of her adult life, until illness made it no longer possible, Dorothy continued to travel with her brother and with friends, while he often left his wife and children at home. Dorothy and William were keen walkers, as were the other Romantics, and her journals record her observations of nature, local custom, and the day-to-day business that contributes significantly—as do other women's diaries—to our understanding of domestic and personal life during these times. In 1803, she began a recounting of a six-week trip that she, William, and Samuel Coleridge made to Scotland; totaling over 300 pages and existing in at least five manuscripts, Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, A.D. 1803 is a brilliantly rendered example of the travel writing of her day. Although friends urged her to publish it, it did not see print until 1874 as a posthumous edition. Of particular interest to scholars of women's history are Wordsworth's accounts of the domestic scenes she observed on her travels. Throughout her adult life, she continued to record her travel experiences and observations of domestic life and natural history. "Excursion on the Banks of Ullswater" was an account of a November 1805 trip with William (not published until 1941). In her Journal of a Tour on the Continent 1820, she recounts finally seeing Mont Blanc, but as a woman well past youth, her narrative reflects the disappointment of time and choices past and passed by (not published in its entirety until 1941). Her Journal of my Second Tour in Scotland (also not published in its entirety until 1941) is an account of her 1822 trip with Joanna Hutchinson in which she looks at herself now as an older, less sturdy woman than the one who accompanied William on the same journey in 1803—needless to say, she expresses regrets. Lastly, her Journal of a Tour in the Isle of Man, an account of an 1828 trip, is filled with negative images (published for the first time in 1941).

I should detest setting myself up as an Author.

—Dorothy Wordsworth

Although Dorothy Wordsworth did write several dozen poems and a few short stories, only a handful were available to the public while she was alive—those being the ones William included in the 1815 edition of his Poetical Works. As in her journals, her poems and stories have much to do with children and mothering; some critics suppose that her focus on these issues stems from the early loss of her own mother. Loss affects much of Dorothy Wordsworth's life on many levels: not only was she orphaned early in life, but her beloved brother John drowned in 1805, and two of Mary and William's children also died. This same concern reflects itself in A Narrative Concerning George & Sarah Green of the Parish of Grasmere, an account she wrote in part to raise money for the support of the eight children orphaned by the 1808 death by drowning of a local couple. Yet, when friends urged her to publish it, she declined.

In April 1829, while keeping house for her nephew John Wordsworth in Whitlock, Dorothy grew seriously ill—perhaps with dysentery—and for a time there was concern that she might not recover. For the rest of her life, her physical health deteriorated, confining her to a wheelchair. More tragically, her mental capacity diminished, perhaps from arteriosclerosis, and she entered a private world from which she was less and less able to emerge. In 1850, however, she did respond when told of her brother William's death; it was not until five years later that Dorothy Wordsworth died, a month after her 83rd birthday.


de Selincourt, Ernest. Dorothy Wordsworth: A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon, 1933.

Gittings, Robert, and Jo Manton. Dorothy Wordsworth. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985.

Levin, Susan M. Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Maclean, Catherine Macdonald. Dorothy Wordsworth: The Early Years. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1932, rep. 1970.

Mullane, Janet, and Robert Thomas Wilson, eds. "Dorothy Wordsworth," in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticisms. Vol. 25. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1990.

Taylor, Elisabeth Russell. "Dorothy Wordsworth: Primary and Secondary Sources," in Bulletin of Bibliography. Vol. 40, no. 4, 1983, pp. 252–255.

suggested reading:

Bond, Alec. "Reconsidering Dorothy Wordsworth," in Charles Lamb Society Bulletin. July–October 1984, pp. 194–207.

de Selincourt, Ernest, ed. Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. 2 vols. NY: Macmillan, 1941.

Ellis, Amanda M. Rebels and Conservatives: Dorothy and William Wordsworth and Their Circle. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1967.

Greenfield, John R., ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 107: British Romantic Prose Writers, 1789–1832. 1st series. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1991.

Jones, Kathleen. A Passionate Sisterhood: Women of the Wordsworth Circle. St. Martin's, 2000.

Levin, Susan. "Subtle Fire: Dorothy Wordsworth's Prose and Poetry," in Massachusetts Review. Vol. 21, 1980, pp. 345–363.

McGavran, James Holt, Jr. "Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals: Putting Herself Down," in The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings. Ed. by Shari Benstock. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 230–253.

Moorman, Mary, ed. Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Wolfson, Susan J. "Individual in Community: Dorothy Wordsworth in Conversation with William," in Romanticism and Feminism. Ed. by Anne K. Mellor. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988, pp. 139–166.

Woof, Pamela, ed. The Grasmere Journal. London: Joseph, 1989.


Dove Cottage Library, Grasmere, England, houses most of Wordsworth's manuscripts; Cornell University Library holds photocopies of this material and other original manuscripts. The following libraries hold holographs: Bristol Central Library, Bristol, England; Ashley Collection, British Museum; Brown University Library; Lilly Library, Indiana University; Pierpont Morgan Library; Swarthmore College Library; Coleridge Collection, Victoria University Library, Toronto.

Melissa E. Barth , Coordinator of the Office of Women's Concerns and Women's Studies and Professor of English, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina