This is an exemplary biography. Firstly, because it matters: before we perform the instinctive genuflection ‘Wordsworth’n’Coleridge! All hail!’ we can pause a moment and reflect on the extent to which these wonderful poems could nothave come into existence without the selfless support of the sisterhood – the three Fricker sisters (Sarah Coleridge, Mary Lovell, Edith Southey), Mary Hutchinson (Wordsworth) and her sister Sara (Coleridge’s ‘Asra’), Dorothy Wordsworth and the daughters of the next generation (Sara Coleridge, Dora Wordsworth and Edith May Southey) – who nurtured their male relatives at a terrible cost to their own happiness and sanity.
Dorothy Wordsworth’s role in her brother’s achievement has, to some extent, been recognised with the increased critical attention paid to her Journals. Kathleen Jones does not labour the point but her analysis of the ‘fundamental’ difference that Dorothy’s gifts of observation and evocation made to William’s poetry is unarguable. Dorothy ‘made it possible for him to see nature in a different way’. It’s a staggering claim if one believes that it is precisely seeing nature ‘in a different way’ that constitutes the greatness of Wordsworth’s earliest (and greatest) poetry. The evidence for Dorothy’s unique visual gift is overwhelming and when Jones describes the period leading up to the publication of the Lyrical Ballads as a ‘collaboration’ between brother And sister one does not feel inclined to argue. In addition Dorothy bolstered William’s self-belief, offered constructive criticism and acted as his amanuensis. She sometimes felt her self to be ‘more than half a poet’ and wished she had been ‘taught to exercise a pencil’ but when, occasionally, an opportunity arose – to present a Journal for publication, for instance – she shrank back. Worse, when her niece Dora Wordsworth displayed signs of a lively intelligence and creativity, Dorothy was foremost among the influential adults who sought to squash these unfeminine characteristics. Later, her beloved William did his best to deny Dorothy’s contribution to his success. ‘I have hardly know anyone but myself who had a true eye for nature,’ he wrote.
A Passionate Sisterhood is a distressing portrayal of the situation of women in the early years of the nineteenth century, even women, like the subjects of this group portrait, who were living unconventional and potentially intellectual lives. Or, perhaps, especially those women … I remain haunted by a glimpse of the beautiful and brilliant Sara Coleridge, married (eventually) to the man she loved, mother of children (living and dead) whom she also loved, yet thwarted (specifically by those whom she loved) from achieving her own potential. Sara became an invalid and a laudanum addict. There was just a moment when she spent six months in an inn, away from her loving husband and beloved children, away from endless exhausting domestic chores, when she could be alone and write poetry. She begged to be allowed to remain in that room of her own. But of course she could not – the loving husband demanded her return.
Kathleen Jones does not sensationalise; she doesn’t need to. The appalling catalogue of physical and mental ill-health, of mind-numbing drudgery and the deaths of children, of affection and oppression, speaks for itself. At least that’s how it feels with the unobtrusive structuring and the self-effacing eloquence of this skilled biographer.
A Passionate Sisterhood is a deeply human document. Jones keeps her narrative flowing – the nine women take their turn at the forefront of her narrative as their interconnected lives move onwards, together or apart. Occasionally she steps in to underline a telling point ‘For anorexics control over their own bodies is the only power they feel they have,’ she comments when the hapless Dora Wordsworth is being ticked off by her poet husband, Edward Quillinan, for her refusal to eat. This may have been an unrecognised symptom of Dora’s tuberculosis but the point remains valid.
The single outstanding portrait, to my mind, is that of Sarah Fricker Coleridge, the deeply wronged wife of the poet. Jones understands why Coleridge was as he was: ‘at first spoilt and then abandoned (he) was looking for unconditional love and the kind of emotional support that might be expected to come from a mother. Sarah, on the other hand, was looking for emotional and financial security and the companionship of a husband.’ STC was away in Germany when their second child, Berkeley, died. ‘Oh my dear Samuel! It is a suffering beyond your conception!’ wrote Sarah. She begged him not to delay his return, ‘for oh! I am so tired of this cruel absence.’ Instead he set off on a walking tour.
A Passionate Sisterhood combines the emotional engagement of a first class novel coupled with profound insight into a different historical and a timeless understanding of human relationships. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Julia Jones
Available in Kindle format
Find out more about Kathleen Jones