The sun shone bright and clear. A deep stillness in the thickest part of the wood, undisturbed except by the occasional dropping of the snow from the holly boughs. no other sound but that of the water, and the slender notes of a redbreast, which sang at intervals on the outskirts of the southern side of the wood.
Dorothy Wordsworth, The Alfoxden Journal, 17 February 1798
Dorothy's search for her own identity
Racedown, the large Dorset manor house, was their 'first home', but it would take five more years before the Wordsworths found their 'lost paradise', as Dorothy called it, in the Lake District. There, on the outskirts of Grasmere, Dorothy wrote the journals that disclose insight into the daily life of brother and sister, and their intensive cooperation. But there is more that the journals - like her letters - reveal. Through the lines shimmers a complicated personality who struggles with her writing and searches for her own personal identity. On the one hand, the journals show an enlightened unconventionality. She feels liberated from limitations that society imposes on women. She enjoys her freedom and has a strong awareness of her individuality and independence. In line with this instinct are the numerous detailed observations of solitary flowers, plants and trees with which Dorothy seems to identify.'I saw one solitary strawberry flower under a hedge,' she writes, for example. And on a rainy November morning in 1801, she notes 'I saw a solitary butter flower in the wood.' Just before that, she and William stopped at their favorite birch on the same walk:
It was yielding to the gusty wind with all its tender twigs, the sun shone upon it, and it glanced in the wind like a flying sunshiny shower. It was a tree in shape, with stem and branches, but it was like a Spirit of water. The sun went in, and it resumed its purple appearance, the twigs still yielding to the wind, but not so visibly to us. The other birch trees that were near it looked bright and cheerful, but it was a creature by its own self among them.
The glancing birch stands out from its peers, from the crowd, just like Dorothy, who prides herself on her own free-spirited life.
Plants in the shade
Deviating from the norm is a recurring theme. 'I can always walk over a moor with a light foot', she writes, 'I seem to be drawn more closely to nature in such places than anywhere else; or rather I feel more strongly the power of nature over me; and am better satisfied with myself for being able to find enjoyment in what unfortunately to many persons is either dismal or insipid'.
Interestingly enough - and contradictory to her cherished independence - we find fragments in Dorothy's journals suggesting that autonomy and personal identity thrive best in a protective environment. On 1 June 1802, a beautiful summer day, she walks through the orchard in her garden.
The columbine was growing upon the rocks; here and there a solitary plant, sheltered and shaded by the tufts and bowers of trees. It is a graceful slender creature, a female seeking retirement, and growing freest and most graceful where it is most alone. I observed that the more shaded plants were always the tallest.
Two days later she notes:
There are, I do believe, a thousand buds on the honeysuckle tree, all small and far from blowing, save one that is retired behind the twigs close to the wall, and as snug as a bird's nest.
Would Dorothy have written these lines, would she have compared the solitary columbine and retired honeysuckle bud to a woman who flourishes in protected seclusion if she had not felt that she would come best into her own in the shadow of her brother? Who can tell. Perhaps we see a meaning that is not there, because we are all too inclined to think that literary expressions - to which we can certainly count Dorothy's journals - expose the author's psyche. On the other hand, passages like these are so common that they actually seem to indicate a partly conscious, partly unconscious examination of the light and dark sides of her idyllic coexistence with William.
In contrast to the many passages that sing praises of freedom and individuality, there are just as many fragments that indicate extreme dependence. That starts immediately with the first note, written on 14 May 1800, the day William takes leave of Dorothy for a visit of a few weeks to Mary Hutchinson, his future wife. Brother and sister then live in Grasmere for more than four months. When her William leaves, Dorothy walks a long way with him, until she 'left them at the turning point of the Lowwood bay under the trees'.
My heart was so full that I could hardly speak to W., when I gave him a farewell kiss. I sate a long time upon a stone at the margin of the lake, and after a flood of tears my heart was easier. The lake looked at me, I knew not why, dull and melancholy, and the weltering on the shores seemed a heavy sound. I walked as long as I could amongst the stones of the shore.
On the way back Dorothy often sits down, 'although it was cold'. She comes home with a severe headache. Her journal entry that same day ends with the sighing 'Oh! That I had a letter from William!'
In the following weeks beautiful nature observations and reports of melancholy alternate. On 16 May, Dorothy rejoices at the sight of two birds skimming over the water.
I was much amused with the business of a pair of stone-chats; their restless voices as they skimmed along the water following each other, their shadows under them, and their returning back to the stones on the shore, chirping with the same unwearied voice.
An instant later, depression strikes her again:
Grasmere was very solemn in the last glimpse of twilight; it calls home the heart of quietness. I had been very melancholy in my walk back. I had many of my saddest thoughts, and I could not keep the tears within me.
The next day it rains continuously, a day to stay indoors. When she does go into the garden, she sees a lonely little bird hiding in anticipation of better times.
The chaffinch sat quietly in its nest, rocked by the wind, and beaten by the rain.
And so it continues throughout the three weeks of William's absence: one depression follows another, interspersed with descriptions of the budding spring. 'The quietness and still seclusion of the valley affected me even to producing the deepest melancholy', she wrote. And elsewhere 'Everything green and overflowing with life, and the streams making a perpetual song'. And many times Dorothy notes that there is still no letter from William. On 20 May, she even walks the four and a half miles to Windermere to meet the postman. In vain: 'No letters!, she sighs. She reports a severe headache almost every day. On 26 May, at dusk, she sits down on the edge of Rydal Water on her way back home and hears two or three different kinds of birds singing at intervals on the opposite shore. 'I sate till I could hardly drag myself away, I grew so sad'.
On the evening of 4 June, Dorothy 'lingered out of doors in the hope of hearing my Brother's tread'. After another three long days, what she was hoping for happened at last. Dorothy works in the garden, weeding and watering the plants. She dares not leave the house, waiting for her brother.
Just after 11 o'clock I heard a foot go to the front of the house, turn round, and open the gate. It was William! After the first joy was over, we got some tea. We did not go to bed till 4 o'clock in the morning.
And then there is Dorothy's detailed observation of a nesting pair of swallows on the eaves of her house. Observation is actually too distant a word here, because Dorothy empathises intensely with the animals and becomes totally upset when they encounter disaster. The following happened when she walked into the garden after an afternoon nap.
When I rose I went just before tea in the garden. I looked up at my swallow's nest, and it was gone. It had fallen down. Poor little creatures, they could not be more distressed than I was. I went upstairs to look at the ruins. They lay in a large heap on the window ledge; these swallows had been ten days employed in building this nest, and it seemed to be almost finished. I had watched them early in the morning, in the day many and many a time, and in the evenings when it was almost dark. I had seen them sitting together side by side in their unfinished nest, both morning and night. When they first came about the window they used to hang against the panes, with their white bellies and their forked tails, looking like fish; but then they fluttered and sang their own little twittering song. As soon as the nest was broad enough, a sort of ledge for them, they sate both mornings and evenings, but they did not pass the night there. Every now and then there was a feeling of motion in their wings, a sort of tremulousness, and they sang a low song to one another.
Fortunately, everything worked out well. The following day Dorothy writes:
It is now 8 o'clock; I will go and see if my swallows are on their nest. Yes! They are, side by side, both looking down into the garden. I have been out on purpose to see their faces.
Dorothy closely follows the nesting of the little birds, it constantly captivates her. In the morning and in the evening she reviews progress, she writes three times. And if things go wrong, she is completely upset. It seems as if she is experiencing the ups and downs of the bird couple as we experience a dream (or nightmare) that expresses our deeply felt fears in encrypted form. In Dorothy's case of her fear that her life with William will collapse and she will lose home again.
Fear of abandonment
Dorothy does not explicitly express her fear of separation, but it cannot be a coincidence that she starts writing her journal on 14 May 1800, the day William leaves their Grasmere home for a lengthy visit to his future wife; that three months before William's marriage to Mary, Dorothy sympathises so intensely with swallows losing their nest; that Dorothy's journal entries are getting shorter after 4 October 1802, the day of the wedding; and that she is skipping more and more days ('Again I have neglected to write my Journal.'); that the journal ends three months later. In the third but last entry Dorothy sketches a cosy scene that seems to celebrate the new domestic situation and her regained peace of mind.
Since tea, Mary has been down stairs copying out Italian poems. William has been working beside me, and here ends this imperfect summary. (...) Now I'm going to take tapioca for my supper, and Mary an egg, William some cold mutton – his poor chest is tired. ►