Dorothy Wordsworth

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Dorothy Wordsworth (1771—1855), the only sister of William Wordsworth contributed to English literature in two ways, firstly through her influence on William, and the material she provided for his poetry, and secondly, as a writer of vivid journals and letters, none of which were published in her lifetime. The contribution she made to her brother's achievement was acknowledged by him and by contemporaries.

William was the second son of four, with Dorothy being the third child. The affection between them was probably established while the family still lived together in Cockermouth. Following the death of her mother in 1778, she spent the rest of her childhood with a cousin of her mother in Halifax, Yorkshire. In 1787, contact with William was renewed and continued sporadically until 1795 when she was permanently reunited with him, when she went to live with him, first at Racedown in Dorset, then at Alfoxden in Somerset (near Nether Stowey where Coleridge had settled) and afterwards in all of his later homes. Although a great walker, she was seldom in perfect health. In 1829 and again in 1833 she was dangerously ill, and in 1835 she developed a condition which has been identified as dementia. She died five years after William.

Dorothy's relationship with William was extremely intense. According to her own account, in October 1802, on the night before he married Mary Hutchinson, of whom she was very fond, she wore his wedding ring all night. She did not go to the wedding, but lay on her bed until told told that they were coming whereon she ran to meet William and "fell upon his bosom". In descriptions of her, whether in William's in the Tintern Abbey poem, or de Quincey's in Reminiscences of the English Lake Poets, the emphasis is on her "wild eyes" - "startling", de Quincey adds. Yet she also seems to have been very practical and economical.

The reason for her starting her first journal, at Alfoxden, is not known, but she says she started her Grasmere journal because William was away and it would give him pleasure to read it; she continued it on his return. The most elaborate ventures in this field were her Recollections of a Tour made in Scotland, A D 1803 and Journal of a Tour on the Continent (1802), both of which were written up afterwards from notes. The journals show her penetrating powers of observation, her lively mind, and her interest in the extreme difficulties encountered by poor people.

The influence on Wordsworth's poetry, acknowledged in various places but notably in his masterpiece The Prelude, is twofold. She maintained him in his drive to be a poet, restoring him to his communion with Nature; and she provided material. Parallels between her journals and specific poems have been identified, but there were probably other influences in a relationship that was so close.