Hardly Hedgerows

“After Life-Writing: Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal in the Memoirs of William Wordsworth.” by Mary Ellen Bellanca. European Romantic Review 25:2, 201-218.


Digging through early biographies of the Wordsworth, M.E. Bellanca uncovers one by the poet’s nephew Christopher called Memoirs of William Wordsworth, published in 1851. It features, as she notes, heavy quotation (about 45 pgs) from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere and Scotland journals. So, it should be considered an early publication of Dorothy’s, refuting years of scholarship that had claimed that Wordsworth’s talented sister remained unpublished during her life.

Except scholars made no such claim. In the examples Bellanca herself gives, both William Knight and Ernest de Selincourt mention the excerpted passages. For Bellanca, the credit they give diminishes Dorothy’s contribution, by calling them “a few fragments,” and “short extracts.” From there, Bellanca builds a case for Dorothy’s talent, and her womanly victimization at the hands of a masculine society that didn’t appreciate her intellect.

Bollocks. Dorothy was reverenced by her brother, enshrined in his best poems, noted constantly as an inspiration (even a crutch), and respected for her observation and quick wit by his friends. History has treated her very well indeed. Though she was meddlesome, and eventually lost her mind, she is probably the most respected female figure of the Romantic era, apart from Mary Shelley. I can conjure no image of sibling affection stronger than William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Editions of her work abound. College seminars and graduate dissertations interpreting it flourish.

Bellanca’s reading is ideologically driven, but it isn’t a screed. It’s well-written, especially examples from the Memoirs, and command of the Wordsworth’s reception history. But as ideologies do, the feminism blinds her to more logical interpretive possibilities. “Invested in a gender ideology that exalts Dorothy’s devotion to her brother, the Memoirs…casts her in relation to William,” she chirps (204). See the problem? There’s no reason to think that Christopher Wordsworth exalts familial devotion as a consequence of his investment in a gender ideology. We’re talking about his aunt and uncle. The degree to which they are devoted to one another, or are represented as devoted to one another reflects on his immediate heritage and values. “My aunt and uncle were very close,” reads more convincingly as “I come from a good, moral family” than “women are worthless apart from their servile attachment to powerful males.”

Other overstatements diminish the paper’s real import. Recall that Christopher didn’t likely possess the literary trove a modern biographer might, but certainly had access to family papers, such as Dorothy’s journals. Bellanca claims “the extracts reveal [Dorothy’s] centrality to the poet’s work,” which is saying too much by half. (24). “Centrality” is wrong. No matter how important she was for William—and she was quite important— she was in no way central. It isn’t as though he writes exclusively, or even mainly about his sister, though she plays ancillary roles in a few poems. One might claim that she was central to his life, although that would exaggerate too, but that she was central to his work is insupportable. Also, such overstatements cast her in relation to William: exactly the sin of which Bellanca accuses Christopher Wordsworth. Dorothy’s writing is good and worthy of study; she was also a good and helpful sister, even a sometime muse for her more-talented (or simply more productive?) brother. More than this need not be assumed.

Two more points. The paper concludes with the conjecture-cum-accusation that Dorothy may not have been consulted regarding the publication of journal extracts for her brother’s Memoirs. “One must wonder," the article wonders, " whether she consented to, or was even aware of, the printing of…her writing for strangers to read” (214). Bellanca calls this “troubling,” or, since like most of her claims, this one vacillates, “potentially troubling” (214). How so? The first ¾ of the essay contends that Dorothy is an important author in her own right who ought to be respected as such. The last quarter suggests that she may have been scandalized by publication. Which is it? Bellanca doesn’t seem to know, referring to “her desire or non-desire to be read” (214). In what way would it be “troubling,” for her relatives to publish works she intended for publication? Especially a publication that honors her brother’s memory, whom she had spent so much of her own life honoring and encouraging? The conjecture is unhelpful, particularly the air of grievous offense cast over the proceedings, as though the poor woman were taken advantage of.

Worse still, Dorothy may just as well have been consulted and consented to the publication. At the time, Dorothy was 80 years old, and, as Bellanca notes, “often incoherent” (214). Even at that, her family may have asked her, and may have had a positive, coherent response. We simply don’t know. Bellanca doesn’t know. That doesn’t stop her from implying wrongdoing, alas. “It would be highly ironic if this very private writer…had been conscripted into the public visibility of the print market without her knowledge, or permission” (214-5). That’s a big “if.” And if she were senile, it wouldn’t even be that, but due course: we have no moral qualms about publishing good writing, whether intended for publication or not, by persons deceased or otherwise incapacitated, who occupy important roles or historical perspective.

In a last jab, Bellanca wonders in the footnotes (but of course she never wonders; she accuses), “how did literary history forget…that Dorothy Wordsworth was a writer to be taken seriously,” between the publication of the Memoirs in 1851 and the 1970’s, when she was “recovered”? Predictably, and offensively, Bellanca suspects “such factors as…the rise of professional literary studies with a predominately male professorate” (216). That’s absolutely unfounded, and juvenile. It’s small-minded to imagine that no one acts apart from the interests of their group, especially professional scholars, concerned with aesthetics, influence, history, data, among much else. False historically too, since Austen, Sappho, Aphra Behn, the Bronte’s, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, Mary Shelley and other women to numerous to name enjoyed ample (if not equal) attention during the same period of Dorothy’s "neglect."

But she wasn’t even neglected during the interim Bellanca outlines. First, the 1851 Memoirs didn’t vault Dorothy to prominence; they introduced her as an important figure to people who already knew and liked William. Dorothy’s work didn’t achieve prominence will 1884-1902, as Bellanca notes elsewhere. So we’re not talking about a 100+ year gap in attention for whose obvious error we need a scapegoat. If she’s prominent in 1902 and we imagine a gradual, rather than a sudden descent, let’s say interest tapers till the mid-1930’s (counting the number of dissertations and books). That leaves only 40 years till her “revival” in the 1970’s, or not quite half a human life. Assigning that gap a negative valuation, seeking someone to blame for it, and finding that blame in sexism all seem to me intellectually irresponsible. If an explanation were required (again, it is not) more likely culprits emerge.

Genre, for one. What is Dorothy’s writing? They’re not poems (as I see it, and importantly, as most literary scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries saw it, the most important things a person can study), not fiction, not even memoir, quite, but journals whose author may or may not have assented to publication. That’s pretty rarified air. Does one teach them in a History of Poetry class? If there is any sense in which Dorothy’s reputation suffered for a short span in the middle of the twentieth century, it is as likely due to circular needs as anything so nefarious as Bellanca’s Black Shirt New Critics, or Gang of Six, or the Great Satan himself: men.

Source: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10509585.2014.88...