Slavish passion for poets

Val Hennesy

Oh dear, oh dear — yet more shattered illusions. Remember 'doing' the Lake Poets — Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey — at school? Remember all that stuff about daffodils, rapture, long walks and living the harmonious rustic idyll? Actually, it wasn't quite like that, as Kathleen Jones's book makes clear.

She urges us to spare a thought for the poets' long-suffering wives. It was they who had to slave away in the background, - keeping children quiet, eking out their meagre budgets, rustling up meals, putting up with artistic tantrums and pandering to their menfolk's monstrous egos.

It was they who had to subdue their own personalities so that the poets could be free to mooch moodily about, banging fist against forehead and contemplating the wonders of nature until they felt their poems coming on.

It is the stories of these women, gleaned from their letters and journals, that Jones tells with such enthralling vividness. The Wordsworths lived at Grasmere in Cumbria, the Coleridges and Southeys 12 miles away at Keswick.
The women evolved a kind of mutually supportive family network that retained sympathetic links long after the men had squabbled and stopped speaking to one another.
The most bizarre setup was Wordsworth's household. His sister, Dorothy, never moved out. Her all-consuming love for her brother (possibly incestuous) forced Mary, his eventual wife, to compete for her husband's affection for more than 40 years. On the day of Words-worth's wedding, Dorothy — devastated by grief — took to her bed. Then she accompanied the newlyweds on honeymoon, which poor Mary spent ministering to Dorothy as she suffered one of her frequent bouts of illness.

Your heart goes out to Mary, who put up with and nursed Dorothy long after she started hitting the opium bottle and eventually lapsed into senile dementia. Both women, naturally, hushed up the fact that Wordsworth — a pompous paragon of respectability — fathered an
Illegitimate daughter in France.

Meanwhile, Coleridge's neglect of his wife, Sarah, brings tears to your eyes. Once he had chummed up with the Wordsworths and begun to relish their literary chit-chat, he abandoned Sarah and developed a hopeless infatuation for Mary Wordsworth's sister.

Whenever Sarah was about to give birth he skedaddled, for months at a time, scrounging off friends and indulging his opium habit.

Insanely envious of Wordsworth, who was pampered by three 'wives' (Dorothy, Mary and her sister), Coleridge sneered that he had 'even the minutest thing, almost his very eating and drinking done for him'.

Southey was the best of the bunch, delighting in his own and others' children. His tragic wife Edith lost several babies, suffered postnatal breakdown and eventually succumbed to mania.

One visitor who further enlivened their already chaotic household was the writer Hazlitt. As Dorothy reported, he had to flee to avoid

'being ducked by a mob and probably sent to prison for gross attacks on women who had refused to gratify his abominable and devilish propensities'.