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The Wordsworths and Letter Writing

In this video, Sharon Ruston and Jeff Cowton look at some the letters written by Dorothy and William Wordsworth held by the Wordsworth Trust.
Hello, I’m Sharon Ruston, a professor of Romanticism at Lancaster University. So far in the course you’ve studied William Wordsworth as a poet. But this week we’re going to broaden that focus, and think about Wordsworth in his wider community. We’re also going to think about other forms of writing such as letters and journals. And I’m particularly going to focus on letter writing today. Letter writing was very important for the Wordsworths. And many of those are preserved here at the Jerwood Centre in Grasmere. I’m going to meet with Jeff Cowton, the curator of the Wordsworth Trust, and take a closer look at one letter in particular.
I’ve asked Jeff to bring out a really interesting letter written by William, which is also known as the Christmas Eve letter. It details the arrival in Grasmere of William and Dorothy in December 1799. And it offers us an important early example of the process of home making through writing. So Jeff, can you tell us why the letters were so important to the Wordsworths’ lives? Well the letters, remembering that we’re living in a time now where there were no text messages, no telephone messages, really letters were the lifeline for information and for news from family. And the letters that they wrote could maintain relationships over many years.
Dorothy, as a young woman separated from her friend from Halifax times, I think kept a correspondence going for maybe eight or nine years. And it was a bond between people who couldn’t otherwise meet. Before we read the letter, could you tell us a little about the way that it was written and stamped? The process involved, of the writing the letter– which was expensive, the paper was expensive, and the postage itself was expensive– it then had to go to a kind of a post office, which was either, perhaps, Kendal in this area or Keswick.
And that could be taken either by foot or passing it to someone, or passing it to the local carrier if you like, the wagoner who would travel up and down the road. Remember, Dove Cottage was built on the main road through the Lake District so they were quite handy in that respect. And then the letter having got to Kendal, it would then go in a coach from there to London. So quite a long business, really. And the letter that we have here in front of us was written by William to Samuel Taylor Coleridge while Dorothy sat next to him suffering with a toothache. It details their journey to Dove Cottage, which they moved into on the 19th of December, 1799.
The letter is written on Christmas Eve and gives us a good description of their house and a sense of their excitement in their new home. Can you tell us something about the way the letter had to be written, and folded, and stamped? Well here is the letter. And you can see it’s on quite a large piece of paper. And when we open it, you realise just what was involved. This was expensive.
And you can see on the reverse of it where the address is written. So before you begin anything, I would suggest they would have worked out just exactly where the address panel is going to do. So maybe you had to practise folding of it, and then unfolded it again. There’s the address. You can see here where this one was posted from. It was from Kendal. And you can see too, that the cost of the postage is handwritten on. And so there’s the eight for the cost of the postage. Coleridge would pay for the letter because it was the recipient who paid for it rather than the sender of the letter.
And you can see too that it’s got a stamp, which was put there by the London post office, and it says that the letter arrived on the 3rd of January. So sent on the 27th, and received on the 3rd of January. So how difficult is Wordsworth’s writing to read? And is it true that there’s a draft of this letter? Yeah that’s what makes this letter really interesting. Because you can see from here that this is fairly good handwriting. It’s Wordsworth taking great care. And to maintain that care over two, or three, or four pages, is really quite something. He would often say that writing letters caused him physical discomfort.
In fact he says at some point here halfway through, that he can’t go on anymore. He’s going to break off for two or three days. But what’s interesting, as you said, is that there’s actually a draft copy of it. So on the 24th of December he not only writes– if you like– half this letter, but he’s already written a version of it in this manuscript here. So for him to say that he’s had enough of writing, you can understand why because he’s written the thing more or less twice over. Which is there, which is astonishing.

In this short film, Professor Sharon Ruston speaks to Jeff Cowton MBE, Curator of the Wordsworth Trust, about the importance of letter writing to Dorothy and William Wordsworth.

They look particularly at the manuscript pages of a letter that will be described in greater detail in future steps. This letter – now known as the Christmas Eve letter – was written by William Wordsworth to Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Christmas Eve in 1799.

William describes their journey to and arrival at their first real home together, Dove Cottage in Grasmere. Dorothy is sitting beside him ‘wracked with a toothache’. (The letter is read aloud in step 4.3.)

After watching this video, think about how important letters have been in your own lives. Are there particular letters that you remember vividly? What role did letter writing have in your life and has this role been taken over now by email and social media? Is there something different about the experience of writing and receiving a letter to these forms of communication?

Professor Sharon Ruston is currently co-editing The Collected Letters of Sir Humphry Davy, the early nineteenth-chemist and inventor of the miners’ safety lamp (see link below).

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William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

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