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The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life Hardcover – February 17, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This sensitive and elegantly written life of Dorothy Wordsworth (1771–1855), sister of the poet William Wordsworth, centers on four small notebooks, her so-called Grasmere Journals. These journals reveal how William functioned as Dorothy's male muse and how she, more traditionally, was his. What is most untraditional, and certainly peculiar, is the not-quite-stated true relationship between brother and sister. Commentators and biographers describe Dorothy Wordsworth as having virtually no inner life, existing solely for and through her brother. Yet, Wilson relates, the opium-eater De Quincey found her a most sensuous creature; she was a big part of William's friendship with Coleridge as well. First teasing out Dorothy's truly rich interior life through careful examination of the journals and other writings, Wilson (Literary Seductions) then uncovers the nature of Dorothy's emotional connections to William, his work, his wife and even the French mistress he had as a younger man. Most controversial in the Grasmere Journals are several blotted lines regarding William's wedding ring—which Dorothy wore to sleep the night before the wedding. These lines, as well as Dorothy's visionary tendencies, her migraines and trances, almost of an epileptic nature, and a long depressive decline are scrupulously analyzed. 31 illus. (Feb. 24)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Wilson investigated such intimate writerly alliances as the marriage of Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley in Literary Seductions (2000) and now returns to the realm of the Romantic poets in this highly charged and forthright biography of Dorothy Wordsworth, sister and muse to William. Speculation runs high regarding the true nature of the intense bond between these unconventional siblings known for their epic country walks during which William composed the poetry Dorothy put to paper. Reunited after a harsh childhood separation in the wake of their mother’s early death, they lived and traveled together even after William married Mary Hutchinson (Dorothy even accompanied them on their honeymoon). Wilson emphasizes Dorothy’s heightened response to nature in her writing, especially the oft-studied Grasmere Journals, analyzing both her rhapsodic passages and “crisp forensic objectivity,” and surmises that Dorothy suffered from migraines and anorexia. Wilson then squarely addresses the incest question, arguing that Dorothy and William’s closeness was spiritual, not carnal, and that the two writers needed each other to feel whole. A “perpetual third party,” Dorothy Wordsworth finally steps out of the shadows in this assured and involving reclamation of an intriguing, literary figure. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 17, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374108676
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374108670
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #592,858 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Philadelphia Reader on March 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This biography was by turns acute, impressionistic, and provocative. I am still musing on it days later. I thoroughly enjoyed Wilson's teasing out of Dorothy Wordsworth's interior life, which takes a lot of concentrated study, I would guess, judging by the fragments of Wordsworth's journals that are reproduced here. She seems to be a writer whose prime interest was in containment and re-direction. I wish I had read a more conventional biography of her first, however, as The Ballad does not make a claim to be a cradle to grave re-telling; rather it is concerned with the psychological reality of a high point in Wordsworth's life, the three years she spent with her brother in the Lake District. Coming to her life a relative innocent, thus, it was hard for me to put some of the incidents in context.

As much richness as Wilson is able to bring out of her material, however, I did wish that at some places she had pushed for more. A few times in the book we're given tantalizing glimpses of how William Wordsworth might have been a controlling presence -- he tried to prevent his daughter from marrying, for instance, and seemed to have used up all the emotional intensity of two women, his sister and his wife, as his due. How would that characteristic have played out in the intimate confines of Dove Cottage before his marriage? Conversely, how did Dorothy manipulate those around her? She seems to have had a magnetic effect not only on her brother but on the other writers of that group, Coleridge and de Quincy, for instance. How was that accomplished? And how was this played out with relatively powerless people? Wilson mentions that Dorothy wanted to control the behavior of William's oldest daughter because the little girl's energetic personality was recognized as too wild and in need of subjection. But might Dorothy also have wanted little Dora out of the way (she was sent to boarding school at the more than tender age of 4) because she recognized a rival to herself?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Barbara Stoner on December 16, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Liked this book very much. It was a friendly companion on my recent trip - I finished it in the village of Grasmere, not a block from where Dorothy and William Wordsworth are buried. It would be easy to call her life tragic, but in view of the times in which she lived, she was able to live at least some semblance of a life she chose.
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1 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Jack Peachum/ Milton G. Crocker on June 22, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There are folks to whom excitement doesn't come easy-- & there are others to whom it never comes at all.
The only problem w/ this book-- & one I was half-expecting when I bought it-- is the subject matter. Wordsworth was the dullest human being who ever walked the face of the earth-- & his sister ain't far behind him.
If he ever had an exciting thought, he didn't write it down.
A democratic-revolutionary in France? That's just not possible!
Wordsworth's poetry is dull, his life is dull, his sister is dull-- dull dull DULL! If the author could've proved some incest-- but between you & me, I think even incest between these two would've been boring! The kind of BJ where you nod off even before the action gets going.
On the other hand, the writing of this biographer is good-- better than the Fraud of the Lakes. I can't say enough about the biographer-- she almost manages to lift the snooze-powder out of the life here portrayed.
I'd pass this tome along to someone who's got an evening to kill & a PHD to earn.
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