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Dorothy Wordsworth and Dove Cottage

This step introduces Dorothy, Dove Cottage and Grasmere - what the place means for her and how she finds a home through writing. It also introduces the role of journals.
I’d like to introduce you properly to Dorothy Wordsworth. She was William’s sister and his companion throughout his adult life. She was also, importantly, a writer in her own right. Though they’d lived together for shorter periods before 1799, Dove Cottage was their first real home. They bought the furniture, they made the curtains, and they were able to live as they wanted to live. It meant a great deal to them to live together independently, following a childhood spent apart after the death of both their parents. Dorothy kept a wonderful journal here between 1800 and 1803, in which she recorded their daily life together. She evokes a sense of place and she creates a sense of home.
Here we are in Dove Cottage itself. This room was called the front parlour or house place. It’s worth thinking for a moment about just what it meant to Dorothy to set up home. At the turn of the 19th century, this was a remarkable opportunity for a woman. Dorothy had already experienced the life of a single woman on her own with no means of her own. She lived with relatives, she helped with the parish work, she ran the local Sunday school, and looked after the family’s children. Instead, this opportunity offered Dorothy a home of her own making. Sitting next to the fire you can really feel the homeliness of the place, I think. This is a portrait of Pepper the dog.
It’s said that Sir Walter Scott, the novelist, gave Pepper to the Wordsworths because Scott bred this particular kind of terrier. This is Dorothy’s bedroom, which was also on the ground floor of Dove Cottage. And here we have a silhouette of Dorothy, and this is the only known image of her as a young woman. These are the small sticks that she would’ve used to clean her teeth, but unfortunately, they weren’t terribly effective. Dorothy had a set of false wooden teeth by the age of 40. When William married Mary Hutchinson, a good friend of Dorothy’s in 1802, Dorothy gave up this bedroom for the newly married couple, because the roof in theirs leaked. I think that really shows us Dorothy’s generous nature.
This is the kitchen. When William and Dorothy arrived in Grasmere in 1799, they employed a neighbour, Molly Fisher, for two shillings a week to come in for two or three hours a day. Molly lit fires for them, she washed dishes, she prepared vegetables, and she cleaned for them. Molly did the small, weekly clothes wash, but she also helped with what was known as the great wash, which happened every five weeks. We also know from her journals that Dorothy sometimes helped Molly with the washing and the ironing. Dorothy also baked, looked after the garden, and mended clothes. This tea caddy belonged to the Wordworths. They were very economical with their household expenses.
For example, tea, which was a great luxury at this time, was used, dried, and then used again. And even after this, Dorothy then dried the leaves again and gave them to her neighbours to make tea with. This is the upstairs sitting room where William would have written some of his most famous poetry. Dorothy’s journals show her considerable skills as a writer too. The journals were a different kind of writing to the poetry that William wrote, but they’re similarly alive to the beauties of the landscape and to the poverty of those who lived around them.
The garden was particularly important to Dorothy Wordsworth. Can you imagine her sitting there writing her journal?
Dove Cottage was made into a home partly by Dorothy’s writings. In an 1802 entry in the journal she remembers their arrival in Grasmere in December 1799 with the following words. “We were left to ourselves and had turned our whole hearts to Grasmere as a home in which we were to rest.” They lived in Dove Cottage for eight and a half years, but even after they left they continued to refer to it as “our cottage.” Their’s was a creative partnership which we’ll continue to explore later in this week. First though, in the next few steps we’re going to look more closely at these journals as remarkable works in their own rights

This step introduces Dorothy, Dove Cottage and Grasmere – what the place means for her and how she finds a home through writing. It also introduces the role of journals.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s Life

Dorothy Wordsworth was born on Christmas Day in 1771, in Cockermouth, in the north of the Lake District. She was the third of five children and the only daughter in the family. Her mother died in 1778, when she was seven years old, and her father died in 1783, when she was twelve. After her mother’s death Dorothy was brought up by a succession of relatives in places like Halifax and Norfolk far away from her brothers. These years were sometimes miserable and sometimes happy for Dorothy but the visits from her brother William were the absolute highlights. He was the closest to her in age – only a year older – and when he came to visit her they would plot their future lives together. They would dream of being able to live together reading, writing and walking, living an ideal existence in the part of the country that they most loved, the Lake District.

The Wordsworths and Dove Cottage

They were able to live together for short periods, such as when they moved to Alfoxden House on the Quantock Hills in Somerset in 1797 to be near to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but their move to Dove Cottage in Grasmere in December 1799 marked the start of their making a real home together.

Dorothy Begins Writing at Dove Cottage

This film takes us into Dove Cottage itself with Professor Sharon Ruston to explore this house as a home. We see various objects associated with Dorothy and think about the experience of living and writing here. Wordsworth later recalled in his autobiographical poem The Prelude that Dorothy, ‘in the midst of all, preserved me still / A Poet’ (1805 edn, x. 919–20). But, we also find out here that Dorothy wrote herself, keeping a journal that recorded their time here. She started writing it on 14 May 1800 after her two brothers, William and John, left her for a trip to Yorkshire. She writes: ‘I resolved to write a journal of the time till W. and J. return, and set about keeping my resolve, because I will not quarrel with myself, and because I shall give Wm. pleasure by it when he comes home again’. Dorothy never intended for the journal to be published, but as will become clear in future steps, she did mean for it to be read by William.

The Move from Dove Cottage

After William married Mary Hutchinson in 1802, Dorothy continued to live with them and to help look after their children. When the family moved house, Dorothy moved with them. Eventually outlasting William by five years, she died on 25 January 1855. Her last illness had confined her to the house and near surroundings for two decades before her death, which must have been hard for someone who in her youth had enjoyed such physical independence. Dorothy’s life was a remarkable one for a woman of her day. Famously, William wrote of Dorothy in one of his poems: ‘She gave me eyes, she gave me ears’.

While you’re watching this film, think about what it would have meant for Dorothy to be given this opportunity, as a young, single woman, to set up home with her brother. What are your impressions of Dove Cottage? Does it seem like a good place to live and to write? How important is place to writing?

The poet and academic Dr Polly Atkin (Strathclyde University) helped in the making of this film as did Kate Ingle (Lancaster University).

If you’d like to read more about the creative partnership of Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Lucy Newlyn’s book, William and Dorothy Wordsworth: ‘All in Each Other’ (Oxford University Press, 2013) is excellent. There is also a very popular biography of Dorothy, written by Frances Wilson, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber and Faber, 2009).

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William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

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