‘The child is father to the man,’ Wordsworth famously said, and one of the most peculiar effects of his poetry must be its ability to stand in loco parentis; never have rocks and stones and trees wielded such paternal authority. Wordsworth’s first, and finest, readers – Dorothy, his sister; Thomas De Quincey, his fan; Coleridge, his collaborator; and Mary, his wife – were all fatherless when they threw in their lot with him, and the premature deaths of Shelley, Keats, and Byron meant that Wordsworth also became the Romantic father-figure of the Victorian poets.
But what was it like to have him as a biological father? This is the question asked by Katie Waldegrave in her important and moving book, which begins with Wordsworth’s own assessment, from the Ecclesiastical Sonnets, of the significance of his role: ‘Father! – To God himself we cannot give a holier name.’ He sired six children: the first, Caroline, was born in revolutionary France to a royalist mother, Annette Vallon, whom Wordsworth abandoned during pregnancy. Caroline was given her father’s name, or at least a touching version of it – ‘Wordswodsth’ – but did not meet the holy figure himself until she was ten, when Wordsworth returned to France to announce that he was marrying Mary Hutchinson. Two of his five children born in wedlock, Catharine and Thomas, died in childhood and were consequently idealised by their parents. Wordsworth seems to have had no more than a passing interest in his surviving sons, John and Willy, while his remaining legitimate daughter, Dora, took on the role previously allotted to her aunt, Dorothy, who lived with her brother all her life – that of virgin sacrifice.
Dorothy, who at the age of six had been separated from her siblings after the death of their mother, put her niece through the same misery when she insisted that, at the same age, Dora be dispatched to boarding school in order to cure her of bad habits, such as clicking her tongue. It is curious that neither Wordsworth nor Mary protected their daughter from Aunt Dorothy’s dictates, but they were a curious household. Having deprived Dora of family life as a child, Wordsworth then ensured that, as an adult, she was allowed nothing else. Apart from a brief stint as a schoolmistress, dutiful Dora spent her twenties and thirties
in Rydal Mount (known by its ailing female inhabitants as Idle Mount), growing
spectre thin and consumed by love for
Edward Quillinan, a widowed friend of the family. By the time Wordsworth gave his permission for the pair to marry (he refused to attend her wedding), Dora, aged 37, consumptive and, her father admitted, ‘emaciated to a degree … which it gives me pain to look upon’, had only six years left to live. They were, it is a relief to know, happy years, in general.
The second subject of The Poets’ Daughters is Dora’s friend Sara, child of Coleridge and his estranged wife, Sarah Fricker. It was unclear to Sara Coleridge whether she was named after her mother or Sara Hutchinson, the woman with whom her father, who wandered off soon after she was born, was in love. The father-figure in Sara’s youth was her uncle Robert Southey, with whom she lived, along with her mother and aunts, in organised chaos at Greta Hall in Keswick (known by her brother, Hartley, as the ‘house of bondage’). The friendship between Dora and Sara survived the breakdown of relations between their fathers as well as a childhood in which the two girls were pitched against one another like prize marrows: ‘I wish she were half as studious’, said Aunt Dorothy, indulging her favourite pursuit of comparing docile Dora to sparkling Sara, ‘and perhaps both would be better for a division of property.’ The current division favoured Sara, who was celebrated as thinner, smaller, prettier and cleverer. It is ironic, as Waldegrave makes plain, that Sara’s mother, mocked by the Wordsworths for seeming bourgeois and conventional, raised her daughter to be a scholar while the ‘bohemian’ Wordsworths raised theirs to be a handmaiden. Too much learning in a girl, Wordsworth believed, would prove ‘pernicious’ and lead to ‘want of dignity’. While the teenage Sara read Horace and translated Martin Dobrizhoffer’s three-volume Account of the Abipones, Dora turned ‘yellow and black’ and skipped her meals.
It is tempting to say that Sara’s formidable intelligence was inherited from Coleridge, whose collected works she later edited, but it was more likely to have been the result of her mother’s diligent tutoring and Southey’s outstanding library, which the children of Greta Hall were encouraged to use. What Sara did inherit from Coleridge was his addictive personality: by her thirties, when she was unhappily married to her first cousin Edward, she too had become an opium eater. ‘Her years’, as Virginia Woolf said of Sara’s relationship with her father, ‘were lived in the light of his sunset’; she was a ‘continuation’ of Coleridge’s vast mind, ‘and like so many of her father’s works, remains unfinished’. Sara Coleridge, like Dora Wordsworth, was a fragment.
The story Katie Waldegrave puts together here, from mountains of manuscripts, is quite simply fascinating; the idea of ‘dividing the property’ of each in a joint biography proves a richly rewarding approach to the strange and incomplete lives of Dora and Sara. Born into a world of books, they communicated through their bodies: Waldegrave’s focus is, unstintingly, the drama of the flesh. Dora’s weight, monitored by Aunt Dorothy, yo-yoed, and both girls went on hunger strikes. Sara was also evidently an hysteric of the sort that would have fascinated Freud but, Waldegrave writes, ‘somewhere between the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth’, anorexia and hysteria seem to have blended into one another.
What is striking is how easily Dora and Sara, the spawn of gloomy, self-absorbed middle-class men, albeit imbued with genius, blend into the 21st century. They emerge from these pages as intensely knowable; never has the cost of being a daughter of Romanticism been shown with more sympathy and imagination.