VIRGINIA WOOLF is describing the Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855), sister of the romantic poet William Wordsworth. She and Jane Austen (1775-1817) never met. Yet they had much in common: both were the daughters of gentlemen, a rector and an attorney, but both lived lives of relative poverty. Neither
ever married, so were categorised as ‘spinsters’, whose chastity was believed to accelerate physical decay. Both suffered the fate deplored by the early feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, of being dependent on the generosity of their brothers for survival, and were looked on as a source of cheap labour by their families.
Dorothy’s father died when she was 12, and she was billeted on various relations, attending two mediocre schools, while somehow money was found to send William to a good grammar school and Cambridge. Jane was mainly home-educated, though she did also attend two boarding schools briefly.
The author, Marian Veevers, works for The Wordsworth Trust, so she is sound on Dorothy. She is also the author of historical novels set in the period, so knows both the historical context and Austen’s work well. Like the Dashwood sisters, heroines of Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, Veevers proposes that her two heroines represent sense — Jane, with her calmness and the ability to govern her feelings — and sensibility — Dorothy, being, like Marianne Dashwood, “eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys could have no moderation”.
Veevers tries hard to make Jane’s life interesting, but it is an impossible challenge. The few facts are well known: Jane fell in love once, with an Irishman, Tom Lefroy, who needed to marry someone richer than Jane, who had no fortune at all.
She had a breakdown when her parents decided to leave her childhood home, a country rectory, for Bath, and wrote nothing for eight years. Settled again in Chawton Cottage, supported by her brothers, she published four novels, in spite of being constantly called on to help running the home: “Compostion seems to me Impossible, with a head full of Joints of Mutton and doses of rhubarb.” She lived to see her work acclaimed by Walter Scott and the Prince of Wales, before dying of Addison’s Disease, aged 41.
It was a sad, sheltered life compared to the more unconventional Dorothy, who fell in love with her brother, William, when they were reunited in her 22nd year. In what Veevers calls “a fraternal elopement” they chose, unconventionally, to live together simply in a cottage of their own. Soon after, the poet Coleridge arrived at their door, the three began to talk, and one of the greatest collaborations in English literature was underway.
Referred to by Veevers as “a triangular love affair”, the three were infatuated with each other. Coleridge wrote: “Tho’ we were three persons, it was but one God.”
The Wordsworths moved to Somerset to be nearer Coleridge, and rambled the hills, talking non-stop. While Dorothy wrote her closely-observed journals, the men used her record to create a new kind of poetry, published as Lyrical Ballads, which revolutionised the literary scene.
Ever since the publication of Dorothy’s journals in 1897, the burning question has been whether or not she and William were physically intimate. Veevers argues convincingly that they were not, as did their friend and contemporary, Thomas de Quincey. All agreed that Dorothy’s best feature was her “wild eyes”, De Quincey calling her “the very wildest (in the sense of the most natural) person I have ever known”.
Jane Austen’s more conventional domesticity cannot compete, though Veever plods dutifully through every available incident.