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Introduction to Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal

In this video, Sharon Ruston and Jeff Cowton introduce the journals written by Dorothy Wordsworth in Grasmere between 1800 and 1803.
Dorothy Wordsworth is now recognised as one of the greatest journal writers in literary history, and these journals are held here at the Jerwood Centre. We’re going to take a close look at these very special manuscripts. I’m going to meet with Jeff again. I’m going to find out why Dorothy wrote these journals and the process of writing them. This is going to help us in later steps when we look at a particularly important passage in the journals, but today, we’re going to look at the actual journals themselves, we’re going to see Dorothy’s handwriting and the evidence in the manuscript of her revisions and writing process. So, Jeff, tell us about the physical condition of the notebooks.
This is one of the four notebooks that Dorothy used. Is that right? That’s right. Yeah, so this little notebook, was one of a number they bought in 1798 when they went into Germany. And you can see, it’s worn a little around the edges, and you can see that the spine is wearing a little. But given its age and given that it’s been in the family and passed down, I think they survived remarkably well. The paper is handmade paper and so that gives it a real strength right from the word “go.” And how do you keep the manuscript in the best possible condition? Well, as you’ve seen, we keep it in a box.
And the box protects it from dust and from light and from getting knocked. And then in the building all around us, we’ve got air conditioning systems, security systems, fire systems. We have strict rules on handling, so we try to take all those reasonable precautions that we can. And how often did Dorothy write in her journal? What was the purpose of the notebook, and what kind of things did she write? Well she says at the very beginning of her first notebook, these, as you said, there are four of these, and in the first one, she begins when Wordsworth leaves Dove Cottage for the first time.
And she says that she’s going to keep a journal so that she can give William pleasure by it when he returns, but also she says so that I will not argue with myself. So to just sort of keep her mind on the straight and narrow almost. And so what it records, it continues, obviously, when William returns, but it records the things they’ve done together. It records domestic things like meals. It records people’s conversations. It records particularly conversations she’s had with William, things that they’ve seen together.
And it records wonderful sights, just sort of fleeting moments of the sky or the rain or the lake, so it’s a wonderful variety, and it really reflects the kind of energy of Dorothy I think. Sometimes she would write for a few days, and you can tell that because she’ll often, say, get the date or the day wrong. So she’d maybe know it’s Saturday, but she’ll get whatever the day of the month was wrong. And then sometimes there can be whole periods where she’s catching up, so when she goes to France in 1802, she starts writing again towards the end of October.
I think she has a toothache, so she has to rest, and she writes months worth of entries in one long, careful narrative. And yet the day when she leaves to go to France, she’s actually recording incidents as they happen at the moment. We’re about set off. The horses arrived. It’s a different kind of language, and the other time where it’s really very nice is when, say, William’s sleeping. So William’s sleeping and Dorothy’s sitting beside him, and she’ll be writing about events, and you can tell she’s kind of more relaxed at that moment. She’s got time to prepare and think about it. And did she revise it at all? She did. She was really very careful.
And the best way, probably, is to look at it and just to see. And you can see from the journal, I think, sometimes the speed with which she writes, you now, there are dashes rather than other punctuation and very hasty ampersands. And then there are instances like that. You see at the bottom of the page where she squeezed in an extra thought at the end. And each day, each entry, she seems to close with a horizontal rule across, and then sometimes you’ll find that she squeezed something in, in a place like that.
If we look at something like this, where she’s written, “crows at a distance from us become white to silver as they flew in the sunshine,” and she’s corrected that to alter the distance as you can see. “Crows at a little distance from us become white to silver.” She revises because she wants to be a good writer, but she revises also so that she can be factually accurate. There’s an instance somewhere else where she says, “William has read, is it ‘Peter Bell?’” And then she changes it to, “William has begun to read ‘Peter Bell.’” It’s got to be accurate. The journal, which as you can see here, describes a walk that she and William took in April, 1802.
And she describes how they left their friend, the Clarkson’s house. They walked along Ullswater on a very windy day, and they were surprised to come across this belt of daffodils. And she talks about the wind on the daffodils, how they danced, how some of the daffodils rested their heads on the stones there. And she no doubt records the conversations that she and William had at that moment. Now two years later, William returns to that subject, whether he read the journal entry, we’ll never know. But it was there to remind him. And it’s from that incident that this poem comes. Now the poem isn’t what really happened on the day. It’s not what was described in the journal.
And the journal isn’t the poem they are two separate things of the same moment in time. And so if you like the influence of William and Dorothy on each other comes through in both.

Dorothy Wordsworth wrote a journal in Grasmere between 1800 and 1803. In it she records her and William’s life in Dove Cottage, their home. She also writes about the natural world, the people she meets and those who live in the village, and about William’s poetry.

In this video, Professor Sharon Ruston joins Jeff Cowton MBE, the Curator of the Wordsworth Trust, to look at the journals themselves, which are held in the Jerwood Centre. You’ll get to see Dorothy’s handwriting, the notebooks in which she wrote the journal, and gain some sense of her writing process.

Do you keep a journal or diary yourself? Did you when you were younger? What is the purpose of this kind of writing?

If you’d like to read the whole journal, the best version is the Oxford World Classics’ edition, which is edited by Pamela Woof, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals (Oxford University Press, 2008).

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