All their Washing

Up Kept in the Family

A Passionate Sisterhood: The Sisters, Wives and Daughters of the Lake Poets

By Kathleen Jones (Constable)

Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotlandbr> By Dorothy Wordsworth (Introduction by Carol Kyros Walker) (Yale University Press)

Reviewed by Kathryn Hughes

When Dorothy Wordsworth set out for Scotland in 1803 she made the third point in a triangle. Travelling with her in the odd, little Irish gig was her brother William and his best friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. While the two poets talked metre, rhyme and Romantic sensibility, it was thirty-one-year-old Dorothy's job to look out for likely inns and make sure their scrappy horse was fed and watered.

In the midst of this detail she managed to register her reactions to the social and physical landscape unfolding around her. With Europe still in Napoleon's grip, and grand tours suspended, Scotland had become the place where mystery and romance temporarily resided. Armed with tips and introductions from her brother's friend Walter Scott, Dorothy Wordsworth crisscrossed a country which was already halfway to myth. Her stories of bonny highland girls, lone reapers and proud clansmen set out a Scotland that was to end eventually in the tartan nonsense of the Victorian court.

Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland was not published until 1874, nearly twenty years after Dorothy's death in 1855. Although many friends had admired it in manuscript form, Dorothy's post-Scotland life became so buried in the small dramas of life at Dove Cottage that it was hard to think of her voice as significant. For, as Kathleen Jones shows in her brilliant study of the women who fussed and tended Wordsworth,

Robert Southey and Coleridge, there was not a great deal of psychic space left over for developing oneself.

It was a convention of the time for Christian names to run in families. All the same, there is something spooky about the way the Lake women doubled and tripled themselves. There were three Saras, two Dorothys, two Marys and two Ediths. Sisters blurred with wives and daughters with mothers. Triangles abounded. Wordsworth conducted a passionate, though probably chaste, love affair with his sister Dorothy while managing to get married to her childhood friend Mary Hutchinson. Coleridge wedded Sarah Fricker before falling hopelessly in love with Mary's sister, Sara. Even Southey, who always seemed to be the sensible one, married Coleridge's sister-in-law.