I was amused some years back to find that the distinguished head of my college used to play the same game as I did when bored by meetings of the Governing Body. He would let his eye move round the table, and try to imagine what each of our decorous colleagues in turn would look like in bed. Transferring the game to a literary scene, one would have no trouble at all with the later Romantics – Byron, Shelley, Keats. Among the older generation, Blake and Coleridge might be a little more difficult. Wordsworth for most would be impossible. To Shelley he seemed ‘a solemn and unsexual man’ (‘Peter Bell the Third’), and even the revelation early in this century that he had a French girlfriend, and French illegitimate daughter, has not altered the stuffy public image of Victorian Poet Laureate and sage of Rydal Mount.
If anything can change this image, it will be the newly discovered Wordsworth correspondence of 1810, published by the Trustees of Dove Cottage.As Chairman of the Trust, I must declare my interest. My Dearest Love is being sold to make money. Proceeds will go towards modernising the Wordsworth Library at Grasmere (which contains 90 per cent of the poet’s extant manuscripts, but lacks air-conditioning and a good deal else). No expense has been spared on My Dearest Love. The Scolar Press were asked to make the best facsimiles that have ever been made, and I think they have done so. The facing transcripts are elegantly printed, and contain no editorial intrusion; the paper throughout is hand-made Italian. Binding comes according to one’s pocket. The edition is limited to 300 copies, of which 35 are chastely bound in vellum, the rest in quarter green morocco.
Very often, of course, private-press books are nice to look at, but contain nothing that is new. My Dearest Love is an exception. It contains indeed a new Wordsworth. ‘I love you,’ he writes, ‘with a passion of love that grows till I tremble to think of its strength’: ‘I am never instructed, never delighted, never touchd by a tender feeling, but my heart turns instinctively to you. I never see a flower that pleases me but I wish for you.’ One recalls the famous ending of ‘Intimations’:
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
But for once the poet’s thoughts are entirely on someone else. The flower, instead of leading him back into his own inner depths (‘whatso’er is dim/Or vast in his own being’), this time releases a generous love such as no one would have expected him to feel: ‘Every day, every hour, every moment, makes me feel more deeply how blessed we are in each other, how purely, how faithfully, how ardently, and how tenderly, we love each other ...’
The new letters are part of a large collection of Wordsworth papers that came suddenly on the market three years ago, as ‘The Property of a Gentleman’. Sotheby’s quite correctly refused to give their client’s name, and there was a period of dark speculations and long telephone-calls as members of the family tried to work out where the collection came from, who could have a right to it, who was double-crossing whom. Better sleuths were on the job, however. The papers were traced by the Sunday Times to Carlisle and a dealer in postal stamps, who had a poor memory and a shed at the bottom of his garden full of unconsidered trifles. The Wordsworth material (so the story went) had been brought to the door in a salvage sack, and sold for a fiver. It had then waited its turn to be sifted, and by now it was too late even to guess who brought it along. The mystery remained; and to some extent it still remains. There were more speculations, and more telephone-calls – coming very often from people who didn’t want to say who they were, but making again and again the same point. The trade in postal stamps (markings on letters that precede 1840 and the modern attachable stamp) depends on the willingness of family solicitors to clear out their cellars. Archives that were deposited for safe keeping are now dispersed for the value that is set upon the franks.
Fortunately in the case of the Wordsworth papers, the literary value was recognised very soon. The collection was sold by Sotheby’s as a single unit, and a year later (after a successful public Appeal) it was bought by the Trustees of Dove Cottage. It is now at the Wordsworth Library, and once more a part of the archive from which it seems to have become separated at the death of the poet’s grandson Reginald in 1916. At its centre are the private papers of Mary, the poet’s wife, and very surprisingly it is to her that the passionate letters of 1810 are addressed. De Quincey praised Mary for her ‘sunny benignity’ and ‘graceful radiance’, and even referred to her as ‘a second self of the poet’, but biographers have until now had little to put beside the colourful relationships with Annette and Dorothy. Mary, it is true, was credited by Wordsworth with the two best lines of his best-known poem –
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude
– and she was also the original ‘phantom of delight’ : but against this had to be set the unromantic fact that she and the poet had known each other since childhood, yet didn’t get married till they were 32. It seemed to be, if not a marriage of convenience, certainly one that had more to do with affection and esteem than ‘a passion of love’.
The story of Mary’s relationship with the poet can now be told with much greater confidence, but cannot of course be separated entirely from those of Annette and Dorothy. Annette and Wordsworth knew each other for a little under a year, in 1791-2, when he was 21 and she was 25 : they were then kept apart by the French War until the Peace of Amiens in 1803 (by which time the poet was engaged to Mary Hutchinson). Their child was baptised in Orleans Cathedral on 15 December 1792, and it is significant that she took her father’s name – or something like it: Anne-Caroline Wordswodsth. Annette’s two surviving letters (confiscated by the French police in March 1793, and rediscovered in 1922) are garrulous, loving, illiterate, and plead again and again for her ‘cher Williams’ to come back soon and marry her. Interestingly, she not only addresses the longer and more emotional of the two to Dorothy, but looks forward to a future that is remarkably like the scene at Dove Cottage ten years later: ‘Quand tu sera environéz de ta soeur, ta femme, ta fille, qui ne respirerons que pour toi, nous naurons qu’un même sentiment, qu’un coeur, qu’une âme, et tout sera reportée à mon cher Williams.’ One is reminded of Coleridge’s sour comment in 1803 that Wordsworth is ‘living wholly among Devotees – having every the minutest Thing, almost his very Eating – Drinking, done for him by his Sister, or Wife’.
The dream cottage of the future had probably existed first in Dorothy’s head. To suit William’s new circumstances in 1793, she had no difficulty in peopling it with Annette and Caroline, but earlier still there is no doubt that Mary had been an occupant. The pattern of the ménage-à-trois– Dorothy, William, and William’s girlfriend/wife – goes back to the summer of 1787 when Dorothy, who had been living with an aunt in Halifax since her mother’s death nine years before, returned to the Lakes. In the holidays between leaving Hawkshead Grammar School and going up to Cambridge, Wordsworth met both Mary and his own sister for the first time since childhood. The strange fact of coming to know them at the same time surely added a great deal to the closeness of their later triple relationship. Looking back in the 1805 Prelude, Wordsworth regards this summer at Penrith as ‘the blessed time of early love’, and sees nothing but appropriateness in its having been spent ‘With those two dear ones, to my heart so dear’ (Book XI). Dorothy for her part seems to have chosen William at once as her favourite brother; she doesn’t appear ever to think of getting married herself, and it seems never to have occurred to her that she might be excluded when he did.
‘Yes, Mary,’ Wordsworth writes in 1790 or 91,
to some lowly door
In that delicious spot obscure
Our happy feet shall tend;
And there for many a golden year
Fair Hope shall steal thy voice to chear
Thy poet and thy friend.
It is not great poetry, but it suggests that just before meeting Annette, Wordsworth (aged 20) was indulging in dreams that he and Mary would get married. In fact, the lines are prophetic: the cottage that he dreamed of was to be one of
The lone grey cots [mid] pastoral steeps
That shine inverted in the deeps
Of Grasmere’s quiet vale.
One is forced to ask how soon did the dream of Mary return. Annette’s letters of March 1793 suggest a reciprocated love, and there can be little doubt that but for the war the poet would have married her – despite his lack of money, and family opposition. But the war dragged on. Letters in March ’93 were passing freely: Annette complains that William’s take six days from London to Blois (with horses, sailing-boats, and a war on!) but she doesn’t complain that they are infrequent. By 30 November 1795, when we next have news of her, the situation has changed. Dorothy comments to Jane Marshall, ‘William has had a letter from France since we came here,’ and adds: ‘Annette mentions having despatched half a dozen, none of which he has received.’ Perhaps the English police, too, were intercepting mail, or the French had taken to destroying what they confiscated. Either way, a single letter in the nine weeks that Wordsworth and Dorothy had been at Racedown was an event worth commenting on. What we cannot know is how much he minded about the half-dozen that didn’t get through.
Perhaps the answer is not very much. It was more than three years since he had seen Annette, and even if regular letters had been possible, the relationship would have been under strain. While the war went on no decisions had to be made, but it is difficult to think that after setting up house with Dorothy at Racedown (in Dorset) in September 1795 Wordsworth would actually have welcomed a marriage to someone whose way of life was so different from theirs. It is noticeable that Dorothy no longer seems to think of herself as taking part in the correspondence with Annette; and, whether she wished it to do so or not, her influence must surely have tended to strengthen in her brother all the things (love of the English countryside, the bonds of childhood, consciousness of a poetic vocation) which Annette was unable to share. It was Dorothy who helped her brother through the breakdown of Spring 1796 which is so vividly described in Prelude Book X –
Now disbelieving, endlessly perplexed
With impulse, motive, right and wrong
– and it was Dorothy too, one suspects, who reintroduced Mary into his life.
After a long and significant gap, Dorothy had been to visit the Hutchinsons at Sockburn, near Darlington, in April 1795; and at the end of the following year, Mary took advantage of her brother Henry’s having to join his ship at Plymouth, and made the long journey south to stay at Racedown. For the sake of propriety, she would have to come as Dorothy’s friend, and it has been assumed that she and the poet (though later to be married when it proved convenient) had, in fact, outgrown their period of early love. The longest of Wordsworth’s letters in My Dearest Love gives a very different impression. Riding in 1810 past the Malvern Hills, he indulges in an extremely personal fantasy about what would have happened if in June 1797 he had accompanied Mary on her way home at the end of her stay: ‘you would have walked on Northwards with me at your side, till, unable to part from each other, we might have come in sight of those hills which skirt the road for so many miles, and thus continuing our journey ... I fancied that we should have seen so deeply into each others hearts, and been so fondly locked in each others arms, that we should have braved the worst and parted no more.’ ‘Under that tree,’ he continues, his language becoming at once more particular and more highly charged, ‘we might have rested, of that stream we might have drank, in that thicket we might have hidden ourselves from the sun, and from the eyes of the passenger – and thus did I feed on the thought of bliss that might have been ... ’ It hardly needs the reminiscence of Paradise Lost (Adam and Eve hiding in the thicket from the eye of God, after the Fall) to tell us that Wordsworth is half-guiltily thinking how enjoyable it would have been to make love. Shelley might have been surprised at the day-dreams of his ‘solemn and unsexual man’.
There was, however, an undeniable prudence about Wordsworth. After all, he could have married Annette before he left France, instead of letting himself be cut off by the war when he returned home to make arrangements. And, much as they may have wished to do so, he and Mary did not in 1797 become lovers. Instead of braving the worst together, they parted. There were more long visits to each other’s homes – William (and Dorothy) went to Sockburn, Mary came several times to Dove Cottage – but over the next five years their feelings and hopes were concealed. For the poet they were of course great creative years, in which Dorothy’s vivid perceptions were frequently an inspiration. To use another of Shelley’s memorable phrases, Nature kissed Wordsworth ‘with a sister’s kiss’. There must presumably be a sense in which the companionship of Dorothy and her brother could be said to have a sexual basis, but Wordsworth was not Byron, and to talk of incest as some critics have done seems lurid and inappropriate. In the Lucy Poems, and especially in ‘Home at Grasmere’ (1800), William wrote for Dorothy some of the most beautiful love-poetry in the language, but it was neither erotic nor seemingly repressed:
Where’er my footsteps turned
Her voice was like a hidden bird that sang;
The thought of her was like a flash of light
Or an unseen companionship, a breath
Or fragrance independent of the wind.
It is strange to think of Dorothy as replaced – and obviously there are ways in which she never could be – but quite soon after William’s marriage in 1802 we begin to see her in a new role as second mother to the children. Without apparently knowing or resenting it, she has ceased to be her brother’s companion. The letters of My Dearest Love show clearly that Mary now is at the centre of the poet’s emotional life. Nor, reading Mary’s own half of the correspondence, is one surprised that this should be so. She is too grateful for modern tastes, but emerges as very much her own woman – surprised and delighted by Wordsworth’s letters, but also self-possessed, shrewd, quite sharp at times (about De Quincey’s plan to buy a house, for instance: ‘he would be so conceited, and make such calculations – his trees he would reckon upon as he does upon his books’), and with a nice turn of phrase: she writes ‘from Sara’s little table, retired from the window, which looks upon the lasses strewing hay to an uncertain sun’. As one would expect, the letters contain a good deal that now seems trivial – ailments, servants’ behaviour, village gossip (Aggy Ashburner is not only pregnant, but so half-witted as not to mind) – but the correspondence has a special importance to both writers. They haven’t been apart before for any length of time, and this is their chance to tell each other what marriage has meant to them. ‘O My William,’ Mary begins in answer to the poet’s opening letter: ‘it is not in my power to tell thee how I have been affected by this dearest of all letters – it was so unexpected – so new a thing to see the breathing of thy inmost heart upon paper ... ’.
It is a new thing for us too to see the inmost breathings of Wordsworth’s heart – and, be it said, one that he would very much have disapproved of. No literary correspondence that has come down to us is more personal. Though not as solitary as one had thought, the poet is utterly private. The letters were written in what Mary terms ‘the loneliness and depth of that love which unites us’. In one sense alone they were for the future: they were to be ‘deposited side by side’ – made that is into the sequence that we have – for the sake of whichever of the writers should be so unlucky as to survive the other. Reading them would in any case be a moving experience: it is that much more so because the beautiful facsimiles of My Dearest Love take one back to the struggles and dashes and crossings-out of the writers that are lost on the printed page.