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A Life

by Frances Wilson

Pub Date: Feb. 24th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-374-10867-0
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Wilson continues her examination of the fraught terrain where sex and literature meet (Literary Seductions, 2000, etc.) in a bleak biography of the celebrated poet’s unmarried sister.

Dorothy Wordsworth (1771–1855) shared the home, the vision, the language, the life and—at least upon occasion, it seems—the bed of her brother William (1770–1850), devoting herself to his art and comfort. Wilson begins with one of the oddest moments in literary history, the morning of William’s 1802 marriage, when he went into his sister’s bedroom to retrieve the wedding ring she had worn all night. The author will return to this incident from a new perspective in the final pages, but initially she moves back to proceed in fairly chronological fashion, quoting liberally from the principals’ papers and commenting on the Wordsworths’ relationship with others, principally Samuel Taylor Coleridge. (Wilson sees an almost psychic connection between Coleridge and Dorothy, both of whom William in a sense betrayed.) The text focuses largely on Dorothy’s Grasmere Journals, kept during her sojourn in the Lake Country with William from 1800 to 1803, which Wilson judges as evidence that the poet’s sister was “one of our finest nature writers.” William’s marriage to Mary Hutchinson was traumatic, but Dorothy honeymooned with the couple and lived with them for the rest of her days, which were darkened from the 1830s on by mental illness. Wilson veers occasionally into uncertain terrain. Though it might be wiser to eschew contemporary medical and psychological analyses of 200-year-old somatic illnesses and relationships, the undaunted author quotes Oliver Sacks on migraines and diagnoses elderly Dorothy with “depressive pseudodementia.” Wilson frequently summarizes the research of others, then declares it inadequate, wrong, biased. Scholars will find it difficult to locate documentation for such assertions or simply to check contexts for quotations: The author provides no endnotes, just an appended “bibliographic essay.” Still, much of her well-researched text is graceful, perceptive and poignant.

An often lyrical ballad with some superfluous, unmelodious stanzas.