Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Wordsworth, Dorothy
From Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature: The Encyclopedia of Romantic Literature

Her gift was for prose, but she lived among poets. As a writer of journals, a short story, a pamphlet to raise funds after a village tragedy, and numerous travel narratives, Dorothy Wordsworth (1771–1855) defined her world. Her correspondence is voluminous. In setting down precise details of what she sees, her prose takes up intimate personal details and large social issues, the most mundane, domestic concerns and world politics. She shapes forms such as the journal or travel narrative as intensely personal documents constructed through massed details demonstrating the flow of information through the mind. She produces a recording of natural and social phenomena that reveals her own story at the same time as it expresses awareness of new cultural forces and of the revolutionary literature produced by the Romantic writing community.

Despite her insistence that she could not write verse, she wrote at least 27 poems. Her brother published three of them in his collections, but they circulated mainly through the many copies she made for friends and family. Most of her work was so distributed during her lifetime. Several of her texts were conventionally published after her death. Her work receives more attention every year. The Grasmere and Alfoxden journals now appear in numerous editions. An edition of her poems exists as an appendix to Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism. Yet, going into the second decade of the twenty-first century we still have no complete, scholarly edition of her work.

Born in 1771, she was the third child and only daughter of a prosperous Cockermouth family. In 1778 her mother died. Dorothy was sent to live with her mother's cousin, and her brothers were sent away to boarding school. Her father's sudden death in 1783 left his children with scant financial support. Aided by relatives with whom she lived, sometimes almost as a servant, Dorothy was able, in 1795, to carry out her dream of setting up a household with her brother William. They moved to Racedown in Dorset and began a life of reading, writing, and walking. In 1798, they moved to Alfoxden House to be close to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The fragmentary Alfoxden notebook, kept for three months in 1798, begins Dorothy's story of a woman's life in rural England that centres around her brother and his family and around the creation of poetry and prose. In 1799, Dorothy and William moved to Dove Cottage in Grasmere. The four notebooks of the Grasmere Journal begin in May of 1800 as William sets out to court Mary Hutchinson. Concluding in January 1803 with Dorothy and her sister-in-law baking gingerbread in the kitchen they share, the Journal organizes her reactions to her brother's marriage and tells a story about a woman living in England in the early nineteenth century who through her writing reveals both joy and rage at her choice of life. The Journal takes up traditionally female realms of concern in concentrating on the domestic, on family, and on community. Passages such as the description of the daffodils in Gowbarrow Park or of an encounter with a beggar woman form the basis for many of William's poems (Levin 2008: 60–61, 255–256; 30–31, 257–259). Observations recorded in her journals also find their way into the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Her detailing of life in the Lake District finds a complement in the work of such writers as William Gilpin and Mary Russell Mitford who develop scenes from country life in the context of picturesque aesthetic.

In the Alfoxden and Grasmere Journals and in 15 more journal notebooks kept from 1824 to 1825, and in a short story, ‘Mary Jones and her pet lamb’, she sets her personal domestic space against the dislocations occasioned by the changing economy of the early nineteenth century and captures the life of a rural parish. The beggars and vagrants she encounters as well as both destruction and construction in Grasmere point in her descriptions to the effects of industrialization and enclosure on England's agricultural economy. These concerns connect Dorothy's writing to many very different kinds of texts, among them volumes produced by George III's newly established ‘Board or Society for the Encouragement of Agriculture and Internal Improvement’ and ‘CURSORY REMARKS ON ENCLOSURES Shewing the pernicious and destructive consequences of inclosing common fields &c.’ written by A Country Farmer.

Movement of people off the land that had supported them for generations helped destroy a system of parish-based charity that Dorothy explores in A Narrative Concerning George and Sarah Green of the Parish of Grasmere. When George and Sarah Green were killed in a snow storm, the people of Grasmere organized to care for their eight young children. Dorothy composed one of three accounts of these events. Thomas De Quincey wrote a long discursive piece that appeared in various versions, including one in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine. There he includes William's nine-stanza poem on the subject, ‘Elegiac Stanzas Composed in the Churchyard of Grasmere’. Dorothy hoped her work would help to raise money for the orphans. In telling their story, however, she articulates the disruptions, family dynamics, and communal order characterizing her own life in Grasmere.

This life of the English Lake District informs her prose, but Dorothy also writes extensively about her travels. She chronicles her trips in texts of a few to a few hundred pages, beginning with her 1798 visit to Germany with her brother and Coleridge: Journal of Visit to Hamburgh and of Journey from Hamburgh to Goslar (1798), Recollections of a Tour made in Scotland (1803), Excursion on the Banks of Ullswater (November 1805), Excursion up Scawfell Pike (October 1818), Journal of a Tour on the Continent (1820), Journal of my Second Tour in Scotland (1822), and Journal of a Tour in the Isle of Man (1828). Intending to publish her account of the 1803 tour in Scotland, she revised the manuscript at least five times. The work was not finally published until 1874, becoming a huge success and almost immediately going into a second edition.

As she travelled, Dorothy continued her minute observations of the nature she saw and the people she met; simple domestic details, kitchens and family firesides, mothers and children appear in the travel journals alongside grand mountain scenery and the clamour of foreign cities. Her presentation of homes and hearths contrasts with what Dorothy herself undertakes in the journals – movement and travel. In her final years, however, the walking and the writing stopped. Her health, and to some extent her mind, gave way. Her writing remains in its revelations of her power to create her unique myth of the mind, memory, and the natural world.

SEE ALSO: Autobiography and Confession; Children's Literature; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Poetry; De Quincey, Thomas; Diaries and Journals; Domestic Realism; Mitford, Mary Russell, Prose; Montagu, Basil; Social Criticism; Travel Narrative; Wordsworth, William, Poetry.

  • Bohls, E. (1995) Women travel writers and the language of aesthetics, 1716-1818. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Brownstein, R. (1973) The private life: Dorothy Wordsworth's journals. Modern Language Quarterly 34, 48-63.
  • Cervelli, K. (2007) Dorothy Wordsworth's ecology. Routledge, London.
  • Gittings, R.; Manton, J. (1985) Dorothy Wordsworth. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  • Homans, M. (1980) Women writers and poetic identity. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  • Levy, M. (2003) The Wordsworths, the Greens, and the limits of sympathy. Studies in Romanticism 42, 543-563.
  • Liu, A. (1984) On the autobiographical present: Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals. Criticism 26, 115-137.
  • Levin, S. M. (ed.) (2008) Longman cultural edition of Dorothy Wordsworth. Pearson Longman, New York.
  • Levin, S. M. (2009) Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism, 2nd edn. McFarland & Company, Jefferson, NC, and London.
  • Mullane, J.; Wilson, R. (eds.) (1990) Dorothy Wordsworth 1771-1855. In: Nineteenth-century literature criticism. Gale Research, Detroit, vol. 25, pp. 390-431.
  • Wordsworth, D. (1897) Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, 2 vols. Ed. Knight, W.. Macmillan and Co., London.
  • Wordsworth, D. (1970) Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, 2 vols. Ed. Selincourt, E. de. Archon, Hamden, CT.
  • Wordsworth, D. (2008) The Grasmere journals. Ed. Woof, P.. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Wolfson, S. J. (2010) Romantic interactions: Social being and the turns of literary action. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Wiley ©2012

Related Articles

Full text Article WORDSWORTH, DOROTHY 1771-1855
Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850

English journal and travelogue writer; sister of William Wordsworth It is only since the 1970s that the writings of Dorothy Wordsworth have...

Full text Article Wordsworth, Dorothy
Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature

Orphaned early and reared separately, William WORDSWORTH and his sister Dorothy were deeply attached. After living with...

Full text Article Wordsworth, Dorothy 1771 - 1855
The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English

British diarist , letter-writer and poet, she was brought up in a conventional and restricting environment after her mother died...

See more from Credo