William and Dorothy Wordsworth: All In Each Other

The story of a brother and sister walking, talking, remembering, grieving and writing together...

William and Dorothy Wordsworth: All In Each Other

Published by Oxford University Press in Hardback, 2013. Second edition in Paperback, 2016

William Wordsworth's creative collaboration with his 'beloved Sister' spanned nearly fifty years, from their first reunion in 1787 until her premature decline in 1835. Rumours of incest have surrounded the siblings since the 19th century, but Lucy Newlyn sees their cohabitation as an expression of deep emotional need, arising from circumstances peculiar to their family history. Born in Cockermouth and parted when Dorothy was six by the death of their mother, the siblings grew up separately and were only reunited four years after their father had died, leaving them destitute. How did their orphaned consciousness shape their understanding of each other? What part did traumatic memories of separation play in their longing for a home? How fully did their re-settlement in the Lake District recompense them for the loss of a shared childhood?

Newlyn shows how William and Dorothy's writings - closely intertwined with their regional affiliations - were part of the lifelong work of jointly re-building their family and re-claiming their communal identity. Walking, talking, remembering, and grieving were as important to their companionship as writing; and at every stage of their adult lives they drew nourishment from their immediate surroundings.

This is the first book to bring the full range of Dorothy's writings into the foreground alongside her brother's, and to give each sibling the same level of detailed attention. Newlyn explores the symbiotic nature of their creative processes through close reading of journals, letters and poems - sometimes drawing on material that is in manuscript. She uncovers detailed interminglings in their work, approaching these as evidence of their deep affinity. The book offers a spirited rebuttal of the myth that the Romantic writer was a 'solitary genius', and that William Wordsworth was a poet of the 'egotistical sublime' - arguing instead that he was a poet of community, 'carrying everywhere with him relationship and love'. Dorothy is not presented as an undervalued or exploited member of the Wordsworth household, but as the poet's equal in a literary partnership of outstanding importance.

Newlyn's book is deeply researched, drawing on a wide range of recent scholarship - not just in Romantic studies, but in psychology, literary theory, anthropology and life-writing. Yet it is a personal book, written with passion by a scholar-poet and intended to be of some practical use and inspirational value to non-specialist readers. Adopting a holistic approach to mental and spiritual health, human relationships, and the environment, Newlyn provides a timely reminder that creativity thrives best in a gift economy.


PD Smith in The Guardian

This biographical study is the first to compare the full range of Dorothy Wordsworth’s writings with those of her brother, William. A poet as well as a scholar, Lucy Newlyn proves to be the ideal reader of their works, as well as offering a superbly revealing portrait of the siblings who were joined “in a sacred non-sexual union”. Parted after the death of their mother when Dorothy was only six, they were not reunited until their teenage years. They became inseparable and William referred to her as one of “the two Beings to whom my intellect is most indebted”. She was his muse, the first reader of his poems, an attentive editor, amanuensis, critic and, as William said, “the dear companion of my lonely walk”. But more than this, Newlyn argues, the two were equal partners in writing and their intense love of the Lake District resulted in a “distinctively symbiotic contribution to Romantic environmentalism”. A fascinating mix of literary criticism and biography that celebrates sibling love and the nurturing power of the natural world.

Chosen as a TLS 'Book of the Year' by Kathryn Sutherland

My choice is William and Dorothy Wordsworth: All in each other (Oxford), Lucy Newlyn’s subtle study of an unusual and intense literary partnership. Refusing to set poetry against prose, brother against sister, Newlyn argues for a holistic reassessment of the structures of a shared imagination. She sees an environmental ethics at work in the Wordsworths’ joint reattachment to the Lake District after years of separation from each other. They walked and talked their poetry and prose into existence within specific landscapes and forged ties that bound them to places and to memory as collaborative acts of home-building. Precious physical clues to how this worked are found in the four small notebooks Dorothy used for her Grasmere Journal. Previously written into by brother (the beginnings of the “Two-Part Prelude”) and sister (her Hamburg Journal) and now recycled, the notebooks provided a space in which ideas cohabit and furnish further prompts to memory.
Kathryn Sutherland, TLS

Duncan Wu in The Literary Review

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.

Alan Massie in The Sunday Telegraph

Nobody interested in the Wordsworths should fail to read the book.

Brian P Kelly, Critic’s Notebook, The New Criterion

This literary biography of William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, is the most thorough review of the artistic siblings’ lives yet.

Publishers Weekly

Newlyn offers a valuable corrective to existing Wordsworth criticism and a moving testimonial to the power of creativity and community


"The Best Books on William and Dorothy Wordsworth" with Five Books

"Wordsworth's power to think into the human heart" A Q and A with Priscilla Gilman

Riffle Backstory: A Q and A session

Survey of work in this field

Only some of Dorothy Wordsworth’s writing was intended for publication, and very small amounts appeared in print during her lifetime. Thanks to Pamela Woof’s edition of the Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, two of her most important pieces of writing now reach a wide popular readership, as well as receiving the critical attention they deserve. Readers can also access selections from the full range of her works, in the useful Longman Cultural Edition, edited by Susan M. Levin, which appeared in 2009.

Many of her journals are currently in print – though not in annotated editions, and to the best of my belief there is no plan for a Collected Works. Amongst her less well known writings, the Journal of Days spent in Hamburgh (1798), Recollections of a Tour made in Scotland (1803), A Narrative concerning George and Sarah Green (1808) and Journal of a Tour on the Continent (1820), My Second Tour in Scotland (1822) and A Tour on the Isle of Man (1828) deserve to be studied closely. Most of her letters (some written jointly with William) are readily available in De Selincourt’s edition. Her later journals – in fifteen notebooks, covering the years 1824-1835 – are known to a small handful of scholars. Her collected poems were first published by Susan Levin in 1987, with full scholarly apparatus.

Dorothy’s role in William’s life and work has received attention in biographies of the poet, from Mary Moorman (1957) through Stephen Gill (1989) and Kenneth Johnston (1998) to Juliet Barker (2001), Duncan Wu (2002) and John Worthen (2015). An additional mass of scholarly material has accumulated in critical books and articles focused on him, often showing how Dorothy’s journals are ‘sources’ for his poems. Dorothy, in her own right, has been the subject of four major biographies: Edmund Lee’s (1894) offered a sentimental account of her relationship with William; De Selincourt’s fully informed account (1933) drew extensively on her letters; Robert Gittings and Jo Manton’s (1985) contained much useful material, and is still the authoritative work on this subject. It has not been supplanted by Frances Wilson’s study (2009) which focused on the years 1800-3. The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth has re-opened some of the questions originally raised by F. W Bateson (1954) about a possible incestuous component in the siblings’ intense emotional bond. Wilson dealt imaginatively with a matter which, to my mind, will always tease the speculative reader. Her book, alongside Kenneth Johnston’s biography of the poet (1998), offers food for thought; but I regard incest as highly unlikely.

Since the 1980s, much criticism and scholarship on Dorothy Wordsworth has been of a recuperative nature, championing her as a neglected female writer who presented an alternative to ‘the great Western myths of masculine power, of authority and fulfilment’. In the important work of reconfiguring the canon, she has mostly been seen in terms of opposition to her brother. But this approach is fundamentally flawed, because of the incalculable contribution Dorothy made to his writing. The Wordsworths’ creative processes were bound up in joint activities – preeminently, walking, talking, observing, remembering, and grieving. Whether they saw things alone or together, they discussed what they wrote. This was a context where much material remained unpublished, where work was read aloud, and some composition may have been done together, orally. The boundaries separating one writer’s work from another’s become blurred under these conditions.

There are, furthermore, considerable problems with any approach which depends on generalisations about ‘male’ and ‘female’ Romanticism. Every writer has a unique subject-position, and interactions between writers deserve to be considered on an individual basis. The monolithic, egocentric model of genius that is still all too commonly associated with the name of William Wordsworth has come into being partly because of oppositional paradigms. It has for some time been customary to associate the poet with the ‘egotistical sublime’, in order to celebrate its alternative – the ‘ethic of care’. But the gender difference between the siblings did not cause ideological divisions, any more than their use of different media expressed competitive aims. My own book offered an altogether different reading of William Wordsworth – as a poet of community, receptive to many kinds of intellectual and emotional influence.

Feminist readings of Dorothy’s work (Susan Levin 1987, Ann Mellor 1988) were important in putting her independent achievement on the map, but they suggested that her ability was under-valued by the poet, and that her domestic role circumscribed her creativity. John Barrell’s essay ‘The Uses of Dorothy’ (1988, but still immensely influential) went further, accusing William of using Dorothy’s material while dismissing her as intellectually inferior. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although she was, in an economic sense, dependent – playing a conventionally subservient role in the domestic routines of family life – she was a greatly valued participant in its creative activities. William acknowledged her importance, paying tribute to her explicitly on numerous occasions. He also used subtle devices of allusion and figurative language to express his admiration of her creative qualities. These devices are not always accessible to a modern audience – they belong partly to literary conventions of compliment and tribute; partly to a private discourse of grieving, devotion, and reparation. William’s idiosyncratic use of them needs to be carefully explained and evaluated, in order to appreciate the unspoken non-hierarchical contract between siblings which was the basis for their creative partnership.

Dorothy’s role in William’s writing was always complex. Not only was she his muse, collaborator and addressee, but she also featured in his poetry – sometimes as an object of devotion, sometimes as a speaking subject. Her perspective often shaped poems, and she was also the person through whom experiences were sometimes reconstructed. When she initiated one of William’s poems by suggesting its subject-matter in conversation, or when a poem drew on material from her journal, she may well have imagined herself as its speaker. William continued to experiment with dramatic lyrics throughout his life, as he had done in the Lyrical Ballads of 1798 and 1800, so there was no automatic expectation that the personal pronoun ‘I’ signified himself exclusively. The Wordsworths’ regular habit of reading aloud to each other, and Dorothy’s role as copyist of William’s poems, may also have contributed to a blurring of boundaries between subject-positions. We should think of the lyric ‘I’ in their writing as a mobile signifier, capable of shifting between voices.

Group biographies, especially of writers in the Romantic period, have recently become popular; but Elizabeth Fay’s book, Becoming Wordsworthian: A Performative Aesthetic (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995) has been the only full length critical study of Dorothy’s writing alongside her brother’s. Fay argued that ‘the Wordsworthian world view’ was a product of William’s and Dorothy’s imaginations working together: ‘not her subservience to him or, the opposite, his exploitation of her abilities but a team collaboration to which Wordsworth affixed the name “Wordsworth” and claimed as his own.’ The proposition was intriguing; but her method was driven by Kristevan theory, which made it hard to access the human story. There was not enough close textual analysis; her selection of materials was not sufficiently wide-ranging (Dorothy’s prose was very largely represented by the Grasmere Journal); and her treatment of the formal relationship between poetry and prose was sketchy.

Pamela Woof’s Dorothy Wordsworth, Writer, her Wordsworth Trust booklets, and a sequence of scholarly articles, have made a signal contribution to understanding the nature of the Wordsworths’ relationship. A careful mapping of their mutual influence in 1798 and 1800 – 1803 was greatly helped by her edition of the Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, with its scrupulous attention in editorial notes to the circumstances and chronology of composition. There is also useful material in the following studies, which do not focus exclusively on William and Dorothy, but consider them within a larger group, or as an example of a larger trend: Kathleen Jones’ A Passionate Sisterhood: The Sisters, Wives and Daughters of the Lake Poets (Virago, 1998); John Worthen’s The Gang: Coleridge, the Hutchinsons & the Wordsworths in 1802 (Yale University Press, 2001); and Scott Krawczyck’s Romantic Literary Families (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).


How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee
O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the wood,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!

In the shadow of a sycamore I stand
as they once did, a few miles upstream
from the abbey – hearing the Wye's sweet inland
murmur as I watch its rippling body gleam
through the green valley, with no sign
of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
no plumes of nearby factory-smoke malign.
‘He should have mentioned that’. Why should?
His mind was always far from here – at home,
remembering the way they all five lay
together in the nursery, lulled by the lone
voice of a river that sang to them all day,
all night – a soothing, calm, maternal sound.
I wonder what it was that made him turn,
thanking her again for what they'd found --
after all she’d lost and given, all he'd learned.

Lucy Newlyn