We have no father to protect, no mother to guide us.
Dorothy Wordsworth in a letter to Jane Pollard (1787?)
Dorothy en William find a home
We have been endeared to each other by early misfortune. We in the same moment lost a father, a mother, a home (…). These afflictions have all contributed to unite us closer by the bonds of affection, notwithstanding we have been compelled to spend our youth asunder.
Dorothy Wordsworth in het letter to her friend Jane Pollard, 16 Februari 1793
The intimate bond between William and Dorothy Wordsworth can only be fathomed against the background of the personal drama that struck in their early childhood: the death of their mother and father. Dorothy was six, William was seven when their mother Ann died of tuberculosis. Their father deceased of pneumonia six years later.
After Ann Wordsworth's death, Dorothy lived successively with an aunt (nine years), her grandparents (one and a half years) and an uncle (five years), far from the family home and her brothers. During the first nine years of her ‘exile’, she never saw her brothers Richard, William, John, and Christopher. During the sporadic meetings with them in the following years, a close bond grew between her and William. He wrote her long letters. They increasingly sought an opportunity to see each other. Towards the end of 1790 - when Dorothy was nineteen years old - William paid his sister a few weeks' visit. In a letter to her best friend Jane Pollard, she wrote the following four months later:
My brother William was with us six months in the depth of winter. You may recollect that at that time the weather was exceedingly mild. We used to walk every morning about two hours; and every evening we went into the garden, at four of half-past four, and used to pace backwards and forwards till six.
(Dorothy writes ‘six months’, but that is an error and should be six weeks.)
That the daily conversations with William on the garden path had made a deep impression on her is evident from a letter that Dorothy wrote to the same best friend two years later. In it, she recurs to her brother's visit and gives a revealing insight into the feelings she had for him now.
I often hear from my dear brother William. I am very anxious about him just now, as he has not yet got an employment. (…) I cannot describe his attention to me. There was no pleasure that he would not have given up with joy for half an hour’s conversation with me. It was in winter (at Christmas) that he was last in Forncett; and every day, as soon as we rose from dinner, we used to pace the gravel walk in the garden till six o’clock, when we received a summons (which was always welcome) to tea. Nothing but rain or snow prevented our taking this walk. Often I have gone out, when the keenest north wind has been whistling amongst the trees over our heads, and have paced that walk in the garden, which will always be dear to me – from remembrance of those very long conversations I have had upon it supported by my brother’s arm. Ah! I never thought of the cold when he was with me. I am as heretical as yourself in my opinions concerning love and friendship. I am very sure that love will never bind me closer to any human being than friendship binds me to you, my earliest friend, and to William my earliest and my dearest male fiend.
The brother and sister affection grew stronger with each subsequent encounter. The feeling of loss when they were not in each other's company only increased with time. This can also be seen from the letters that William sent to his sister, in which we witness a growing unity:
Now, my dearest friend, how much do I wish that each emotion of pleasure and pain that visits your heart should excite a similar pleasure or a similar pain within me by that sympathy which will almost identify us, when we have stolen to our little cottage.
Brother and sister now dreamed of living together in a humble habitation, ‘the central place of all our joys’, as Dorothy described it.
I see my brother fired with the idea of leading his sister to such a retreat. Our parlour is in a moment furnished; our garden is adorned by magic; the roses and honeysuckles spring at our command; the wood behind the house lifts its head, and furnishes us with a winter's shelter and a summer's noonday shade.
Achieving such an idyll together would fill the void they had felt as orphans from early childhood. Both were looking for a physical and emotional shelter at a time when they had not yet found their destination. Dorothy felt locked into her uncle's family where she acted as a nanny and housekeeper. William had quit his Cambridge studies and spent nine months wandering through France and Switzerland with a friend. He had no idea how to make a living. A shared household would provide many benefits, Dorothy wrote. It would do her brother good if he finally settled in one place for a bit longer, and, as for her:
It will greatly contribute to my happiness and place me in such a situation that I shall be doing something, it is a painful idea that one’s existence is of very little use which I really have always been obliged to feel; above all it is painful when one is living upon the bounty of one’s friends, a resource of which misfortune may deprive one and then how irksome and difficult is it to find out other means of support, the mind is then unfitted, perhaps for any new exertions, and continues always in a state of dependence, perhaps attended with poverty.
In 1795 the time was there. On September 26, Dorothy (24 years old) and William (25 years old) moved into Racedown, the country house in Dorset made available by wealthy friends. ‘It was the first home I had’, Dorothy would say years later. From that September day on, brother and sister would be inseparable for more than half a century, until William's death in 1850. That is even after William's marriage - in 1802 - to their common childhood friend Mary Hutchinson. ►