Time was when, if I revealed I taught the poetry of Wordsworth, people would sidle furtively up to me and ask whether I thought the great man slept with his own sister. The correct answer is yes. Two hundred years ago it was completely normal for people to share beds, related or not, if for no reason other than to share bodily warmth on cold Cumbrian nights. Sex did not have to be on the agenda.
Lucy Newlyn’s new book about the famous Wordsworth siblings assumes they were bonded ‘in a sacred non-sexual union’, so relieving itself of the task (usually ignored by incest theorists) of explaining why, if Dorothy really did have sex with her brother, she not only avoided having his child but also dodged the psychological and emotional damage suffered by victims of what is now regarded as sexual abuse. Instead, Newlyn is able to focus on something more compelling: over the course of 300-odd pages, she analyses the roots of the Wordsworths’ ‘intertwined creativity’. The result is deeply perceptive, thoughtful and faithful to the facts.
Oxford University Press calls the book a ‘literary biography’, but it is more a chronicle of a joint spiritual journey. Newlyn leaves to others such matters as whether the poet really was a spy or how his sister received the approaches of that rakish philosopher and atheist William Hazlitt. She