The Grasmere Journal 1800-1803

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Read 19/07/2020-27/07/2020

Rating 5 stars

Book 8 of my 10 Books of Summer reading challenge

This beautiful Folio Society edition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal was part of my 10th wedding anniversary present from my husband last year. It’s illustrated by Georgie Bennett and has an introduction by Wordsworth scholar Lucy Newlyn.

Bennett’s illustrations are subtly included in the text, almost as though Dorothy Wordsworth had drawn them there herself. They depict the Lake District landscape beautifully.

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This being a Folio book, it is of course beautifully bound, with a dust jacket of onion skin paper printed in gold with lines from the Journal.

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The book cover shows a view of Dove Cottage and the end papers have a view across Grasmere lake with key landmarks indicated. It was a joy to hold in the hand and feel the pages under my fingers as I read.

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The Journal itself is a window into Dorothy’s life with her poet brother William, and the friends and neighbours from their Grasmere community. It begins with William and another Wordsworth brother, John, heading out to Yorkshire to visit the Hutchinson family. William eventually married Mary Hutchinson, with whom he and Dorothy had long been friends.

Dorothy documents how much she misses her brother, and how keenly she feels the loneliness of his absence. Her journal entries are not effusive, but her concise way of expressing herself leaves no doubt about the strength of her feeling.

We visited Dove Cottage in November 2018, and I was struck then by the life the Wordsworths led, how different to ours, how governed by and embracing of nature. The Grasmere Journal reinforces this, with Dorothy’s references to her almost daily walks between Grasmere and Rydal to collect the post, her gardening by moonlight, and her walks around the lake and fells, collecting plants and enjoying the wildlife. Georgie Bennett’s illustrations that show the interior of the cottage were a lovely reminder of our visit there.

The notes at the back of the book link Dorothy’s entries to some of her brother’s poems. It’s interesting to see how Dorothy absorbed his verse, recalling lines that express her feelings in moments of reflection, and also how closely her journal observations are mirrored in her brother’s poetry. I haven’t read much Wordsworth, just the two obvious ones, and I enjoyed tracking down those mentioned in the notes and reading them online.

Dorothy observes rural life in her journal and brings a sense of what it was to live in a remote location at the start of the 19th century. She records encounters with the many beggars and tramps that travel the country, some of whom ended up the subject of her brother’s poetry. Her conversations with people passing from one place to another reveal something of the world at that time – the soldiers home from the wars in France, the sailor who served on a slave ship. There are glimpses, too, of the community of village life – the sounds of the fair reaching Dove Cottage, attendance at a pauper’s funeral with a description of the coffin and the way the villagers sang as they accompanied it to the church. She writes eloquently about the natural world around her, capturing the beauty of birds, trees and flowers, the changing light on Grasmere lake, the sunlight across the fields. After so many days and weeks spent indoors, it was refreshing to visit Dorothy’s corner of the Lake District in her company.

The everyday doesn’t escape her eye, either. Dorothy’s domestic chores cycle around each other. There’s a lot of ironing to be done, and mattresses and chemises to sew, sometimes sitting on a wall outside the cottage as she stitches, plus pies and bread to bake each day. She even makes herself a pair of shoes. She has help around the house and garden from a neighbour, but Dorothy’s days are certainly full.

She gives little away, her journal entries are so brief at times. An evening spent with Samuel Taylor Coleridge is covered in a few lines. They stay up until 3.30am, he reads from his poem Christabel, Dorothy offers no opinion, though she must have had one. The next day Coleridge has to go to bed after tea and Dorothy takes him a supper of broiled mutton chop in bed. Then she, Coleridge and John Wordsworth stay up talking again until midnight. It’s a tantalising glimpse of life among poets that allows the imagination to stretch away. The rooms would be dark, lit by rushes or, more rarely, candlelight. Would Coleridge have been in a nightshirt and nightcap? Was Dorothy so removed from society that she didn’t know how scandalised others would have been by her lifestyle? It’s nothing to us now, a very modern way of living, but in 1800 for a woman to be in the company of men until the small hours would have been frowned on by many.

Her friendship with Coleridge develops over the period he is living in the Lake District. By the time of his return to London in the autumn of 1801, Dorothy’s journal entries about him are affectionate and concerned, much to her brother’s disapproval.

Poor C. left us … [He] had a sweet day for his ride. Every sight and every sound reminded me of him – dear, dear fellow, of his many walks to us by day and by night, of all dear things. I was melancholy, and could not talk, but at last I eased my heart by weeping – nervous blubbering, says William. It is not so. O! how many, many reasons I have to be anxious for him.

Dorothy is plagued with headaches, sometimes so bad she needs to go to bed in the middle of the day. As someone who endures migraines, I felt for her. I wondered about her lifestyle, staying up until the early hours of the morning, talking with her brothers and the friends who called by, discussing poetry and local news. I get headaches when I haven’t slept well, and when I’m stressed, something that Dorothy seems to feel, particularly when those she cares for deeply are away from her. Even if her headaches weren’t migraines, she wouldn’t have had paracetamol or aspirin, and even a simple headache can ruin a day without treatment. Dorothy doesn’t mention natural remedies, either, but later begins to record her use of laudanum – perhaps under Coleridge’s influence, as this habit of Dorothy’s begins while Coleridge is staying nearby and visiting regularly.

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The first mention of laudanum is on 24 November 1800, when Dorothy takes it for toothache. The next day she writes

Very ill – in bed all day – better in the evening – read Tom Jones – very sleepy – slept all night.

There’s a journal missing between December 1800 and October 1801. By the time the next journal starts, Dorothy’s laudanum use seems to have taken hold, to the extent that one journal entry reads simply “I have forgotten.”

Once Coleridge leaves for London, the mentions of laudanum disappear. It’s difficult not to read between the lines. Laudanum was a typical remedy for minor ailments at the time. It’s likely that Dorothy would have taken laudanum anyway, but the concentration of references to it that coincide with the frequency of Coleridge’s visits made me wonder.

The later Grasmere Journals are richly descriptive and Dorothy talks about reading entries to William when he is composing poems. Dorothy’s writing is so good that it made me a little sad that she gave up her creative expression to her brother. I understand why – William was only free to write because of a legacy from the brother of his friend William Calvert. Dorothy had neither the station in life nor the support of a benefactor to enable the development of her creative talent. She seems content in her journal writing to be supporting her brother’s work. She describes a walk in March 1802 and the moonlight over Grasmere Island.

… as I climbed the Moss, the moon came out from behind a mountain mass of black clouds. O, the unutterable darkness of the sky, and the earth below the moon! and the glorious brightness of the moon itself! … The moon retired again, and appeared and disappeared several times before I reached home. Once there was no moonlight to be seen but upon the island-house and the promontory of the island where it stands. … I had many very exquisite feelings, and when I saw this lowly Building in the waters, among the dark and lofty hills, with that bright, soft light upon it, it made me more than half a poet. I was tired when I reached home, and could not sit down to reading, and tried to write verses, but alas! I gave up expecting William, and went soon to bed.

Towards the end of the Journal, change is on the horizon. Coleridge’s marriage is in crisis, he is in love with Mary Hutchinson’s sister Sara and the stress is making them all ill. William is about to marry Mary Hutchinson and goes on a poem writing spree on subjects that are dear to his sister, perhaps as a way of thanking her for her support of him and a way of softening the change to her place in his life. The siblings travel to France to settle things with Annette, a former lover of William’s, and the child they have together. There are hints that Mary is involved in the arrangements, with Annette’s letters travelling via the Yorkshire farm where the Hutchinsons are living.

Dorothy doesn’t attend the wedding, at the church near the Hutchinson siblings’ farm, and is overwhelmed with emotion when her brother returns from the church. The newlyweds and Dorothy set off back to Grasmere from Yorkshire the same day. It’s a long journey with multiple stops to change horses and rest overnight, and Dorothy’s journal entries are full of her memories of when she visited these places with her brother. It’s quite poignant.

I really enjoyed spending time with Dorothy Wordsworth and gaining some insight into life in rural England during the late Georgian period. It was interesting to think about how soft we have become, with our cars, central heating, and other modern comforts, and how we have perhaps lost something as a result of our separation from the natural rhythms of life. I wouldn’t trade it, of course. Constant toothache and having to walk in all weathers just to get the post and run errands isn’t for me.

I have another illustrated edition of the Grasmere Journal, which has reproductions of contemporary paintings and engravings, as well as some of William Wordsworth’s shorter poems referred to by Dorothy in the Journal. It’s nice, but not as lovely as this Folio Society edition. I’m glad I chose to read the Journal in its Folio form.

9 thoughts on “The Grasmere Journal 1800-1803

  1. I clicked on the image as soon as I read your comment to Dipika – without reading further down the chain. What a pityit’s sold out! Not surprised though; a real bargain at that price. This sounds a wonderful read, Jan, and in the Folio edition, a beautiful thing to own and handle. I shall certainly look out for a copy in some form.

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