Riffle Backstory: Q&A with Lucy Newlyn, author of William & Dorothy Wordsworth

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Lucy Newlyn is a scholar-critic, a poet, a literary biographer, an editor, and an anthologist -- but above all else a teacher. She has published widely on English Romantic Literature, and especially on the communal aspects of creativity. She is a Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, and a Fellow of St Edmund Hall. Her new biography William and Dorothy Wordsworth: All in Each Other will be released in the United States on December 1st!

Virginia Woolf once said of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: "One could not act without the other." The siblings clearly had a very strong bond; can you tell us a little about their relationship? How did it affect their creative processes?

There has been some speculation about incest, but the idea seems highly implausible. The intensity of William and Dorothy’s affection for each other arose out of emotional and spiritual need. If they felt physical attraction, there’s no evidence that this was ever consummated. The siblings were close during early childhood, but separated when Dorothy was six by the death of their mother. Dorothy was raised by an aunt, and didn’t see her brothers for many years – not even when their father died, leaving the family destitute. Once reunited in adolescence, she and William discovered deep affinities, and determined that they would make a permanent home together. Their return to the Lake District was fulfilling and reparative; but the experience of being orphaned never left them. They spent their lives repairing the trauma of early separation by building up a store of shared experiences and memories.

The closely intertwined nature of the Wordsworths’ writings arose out of the habits of co-observing and conversation which were part of their shared daily life. Each wrote to and for the other -- Dorothy mainly in prose, William mainly in poetry. Their writings were like gifts, healing the wounds of grief and compensating them for the damage of early separation. In old age, they reaped the dividends of their long closeness. During the twenty years during which Dorothy suffered from dementia, William cared for her at home -- reading his poetry aloud to her as a form of therapy.

Readers are less likely to be familiar with Dorothy's work, but your biography shows that she was very much her brother's equal. What is her writing style like?

In her diaries Dorothy did not write for publication; and although she wrote a great deal across her lifetime she didn’t like the idea of setting herself up as an author. In her Grasmere Journal (1800-1803) she wrote about daily life – the natural world around her, the familiar mountains and lakes that she and William observed on their walks; the trials and sufferings of local people they knew; and their brief meetings with vagrants, beggars, discharged soldiers. Dorothy’s prose in the journal is full of tiny domestic details; these are jumbled up with passages of descriptive prose. Later, in her travel journals about Scotland and the Continent, Dorothy wrote a different kind of journal, much more polished and crafted -- recollecting places and people rather than capturing them freshly. (She wrote poetry as well, but her poetic output was much less prolific and impressive than her prose.) In all her prose writings, she reveals a highly developed poetic sensibility, an astonishingly observant eye, and a quick sympathy with those less fortunate than herself.

What is the strangest thing you learned while researching this book?

I don’t think that I will ever get over the ‘strangeness’ (if that’s the right word) of the following passage in Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal, in which she describes events and feelings on the morning of William’s marriage to Mary Hutchinson in 1802: “William had parted from me up stairs. I gave him the wedding ring – with how deep a blessing! I took it from my forefinger where I had worn it the whole of the night before – he slipped it again onto my finger and blessed me tenderly.…” It is an extraordinary ritual. No-one reading these words – which were later heavily deleted – can avoid the conclusion that this was an unusually intense relationship.

If you could sit down with William and Dorothy and ask them one question, what would that be?

"Did you ever stop feeling homesick for the house where you were born, and did you ever come to terms with the trauma of your mother’s death or your separation in childhood?"

What other books and authors are you raving about right now?

I am beginning work on a new research project, co-editing a volume of prose by Edward Thomas. (He is best known as a poet of the First World War, but before he became a poet he wrote a great deal of prose.) At the moment I am looking at his best book, In Pursuit of Spring, which is all about a long bike ride he took from London to the West Country just before the outbreak of the war. He was a great writer, who learned much from William and Dorothy Wordsworth’s collaboration – it’s a good project to move on to.

And finally, finish this sentence: You should check out William & Dorothy Wordsworth: All in Each Other because…

.... it tells a moving love story about a brother and sister who devoted their lives to looking after each other; and it builds a detailed picture of one of the most significant creative collaborations in the history of literature.

  • William and Dorothy Wordsworth: 'All in each other'

  • William Wordsworth - The Major Works: including The Prelude (Oxford World's Classics)

  • The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals (Oxford World's Classics)

  • In Pursuit of Spring (Special Centenary Edition)