Books April 2001

A Year in the Life

A microhistory of an extraordinary literary collaboration

Biographers have many and varied reasons for choosing their subjects, ranging from the high-minded to the simply prurient. For John Worthen it all began with a missing cartload of dung. On March 27, 1802, Dorothy Wordsworth made an entry in what has become known as her Grasmere journal:

Saturday a divine morning—at Breakfast W[illia]m wrote part of an ode—Mr Olliff sent the Dung & W[illia]m went to work in the garden we sate all day in the orchard—

William Knight, the first editor of the journal, considered the arrival of the dung and the poet's subsequent employment to be merely "trivial details" that could legitimately be omitted from his edition because they were not "of any literary or biographical value." As Worthen entertainingly points out, however, in his preface to The Gang, what may seem like a minor editorial decision has important consequences. Knight's version, leaping straight from Wordsworth's composition of "part of an ode" to his sitting with his sister in the orchard, implies that the poet was so exhausted by his literary efforts at breakfast that he was incapable of doing anything else for the rest of the day. It conjures up the perfect image of the Romantic poet, giving his all to his art and suffering in consequence. This seems even more appropriate when we know that the poem Wordsworth was working on was his incomparable Immortality Ode. The rude reality was somewhat different. The full journal entry suggests that the retreat to the orchard was actually a response to the unromantic but necessary physical labor of digging in the newly arrived dung, without which the Wordsworths could not grow the vegetable crops on which they were dependent to eke out their impoverished existence. For them, Worthen observes, the arrival of the dung was in its own way probably as important as that of the poem.

Worthen uses this enjoyably ludicrous example of editorial high-handedness as an argument for the serious thesis that underpins and justifies his book. It would be a good idea, he suggests, for a biography

just for once, to include all that it is possible to include, rather than to start from the point of view that selection and shaping are the biographer's first principles; while it would also be sensible to make the biography, so far as possible, of all the people in the group, not just of a central figure chosen ... for his "literary value."

Because such an approach is impractical for a full-length life, Worthen puts his theory into practice by writing a detailed biography covering a brief period in the lives of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "the Gang"—Coleridge himself, William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, and Mary Hutchinson (Wordsworth's future wife) and her sister, Sara. The year he chooses, 1802, was one that saw momentous events in the creative and personal lives of his subjects: Wordsworth's writing included part of his Immortality Ode and The Leech Gatherer; Coleridge produced Dejection: An Ode; Wordsworth ended his hitherto exclusive partnership with Dorothy by marrying Mary; Coleridge's marriage to the much maligned Sarah Fricker (significantly always excluded from the Gang) fell apart, and his growing infatuation with Sara Hutchinson became a hopeless obsession. It is a period not overburdened with biographical material: There are only about fifty published letters from Coleridge, a mere fifteen from William and Dorothy, and five from their brother John. There are Coleridge's private jottings in his notebooks, which are alternately revelatory and gnomic, and, crucially, there is Dorothy's journal, which—apart from its frustrating reticence on the most intriguing episode (the Wordsworths' meeting in Calais with William's former mistress, Annette Vallon, and their illegitimate daughter)—provides a structure for 1802 that goes beyond the merely chronological.

Illustration by Herve Blondon

Worthen's analysis of this material is acute, critical, and perceptive. He questions accepted readings and datings and argues persuasively for new interpretations. By the simple expedient of comparing extant manuscripts with Dorothy's journal references to copying her brother's poems, he dramatically illustrates how much of her work has been lost—work that, as he emphasizes, was vital to Wordsworth in the creation and revision of his poetry. A similar exercise reveals that very few of the letters Dorothy wrote have survived. Worthen may exaggerate the total number by treating each letter referred to in the journal as if it were a new one rather than perhaps a continuation of a previous one; but even on a more cautious reckoning Dorothy wrote more letters every month than have survived for the entire year. It is therefore all too easy to underestimate the importance of her role in constantly bringing the members of the Gang together through her letters. She acted as a conduit not only for all their news but also—more important—for Wordsworth's and Coleridge's poetry and the responses of the rest of the Gang to it. Wordsworth published reluctantly and infrequently; this was the only audience he wrote for and whose opinion he cared about. Without his sister's letters he could not have functioned so successfully as a poet.

Worthen is able to paint the bigger picture through these and similar small insights: for instance, Wordsworth reverted to poems about childhood and children as his marriage to Mary and the probability of legitimate fatherhood approached; Sarah Coleridge's exclusion from the Gang is tellingly illustrated by the fact that not a single manuscript of a poem that circulated within the group was written in her hand. What emerges most strikingly and effectively from the narrow focus of this biography, however, is the collective creative process engendered by the Coleridge-Wordsworth-Hutchinson relationship. Because Coleridge and Wordsworth quarreled so bitterly from 1810 to 1812, their biographers are generally divided into hostile camps, each determined to establish the intellectual precedence of its subject (as is, for different reasons, the camp of Dorothy's biographers, who are anxious to prove that her journal entries pre-date and therefore inspired her brother's poems).

Worthen, absolutely rightly, denounces such unseemly attempts to claim originality solely for one or another member of the group. He challenges the lazy repetition of the notion that the first four stanzas of the Immortality Ode, together with Dejection and The Leech Gatherer, "form a sequence, provoking and answering each other, and showing in the process a widening gap between the two poets." As he ably demonstrates, all three poems—despite appearing to be "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings"—"actually had a creative history of metaphor, plan, draft version and revision." More important, it was a common history, because the Wordsworths and Coleridge enjoyed what Worthen aptly calls "a shared habit of mind." It is therefore pointless and even misleading to try to identify who thought of what first. It was never a question of debt. A particular image in a poem or a journal entry could just as easily have been coined by Wordsworth, who composed his verse aloud; Coleridge, whose verbal powers were among the wonders of the age; or Dorothy, who gave both men eyes and ears. It then became the public property of the Gang and was discussed, analyzed, and commented on; the resultant poems grew naturally out of the conversation of the people in the group. The Hutchinson sisters—who, like Dorothy, as Worthen says, copied (and freely criticized) hundreds of lines of poetry, wrote vast numbers of letters of their own, and copied pages from other people's letters for wider circulation—were an integral part of this creative group.

One of the most interesting results of Worthen's refreshingly iconoclastic approach is the raising of questions about the wider biographical process. Time and again I found myself cheering his caustic comments, particularly about the interpretation of the troubled relationships among Coleridge, his wife, and Sara Hutchinson. "What biographers and critics treat as biographical source material simply isn't," he says of the so-called Asra poems, after making the equally valid point that biographers "depend on hypothetical dates assigned to poems hypothesized to be written to Sara." "Biographers who scent romance ... will not be put off by a simple lack of evidence," he thunders elsewhere, arguing that they "wish for evidence, seek it where they may, and create it if it does not exist." This is undoubtedly true of some biographers, and Worthen provides a much needed corrective to Richard Holmes's widely acclaimed, seductively written, but fundamentally flawed two-volume biography, Coleridge, Early Visions (1989) and Coleridge, Darker Reflections (1998).

Not unnaturally, I felt more uncomfortable with his occasional criticisms of my own biography, Wordsworth: A Life (2000). Worthen may be right that John Wordsworth's emotional last letter to Mary Hutchinson, written just before she married his brother, was prompted by a message from her that he should regard their home as his own, but he is wrong to say that I base my argument that John was in love with Mary "entirely" on the strength of this single letter.

Do such quibbles matter, except to the aggrieved biographer who objects to being misrepresented? I think they do, if only because Worthen's splendidly pugnacious preface sets up standards of biographical and critical interpretation by which he himself ought to be judged. His strictures against biographers' selective approach to their material ring rather hollow when, for instance, we realize that he has not gone beyond the published sources at his disposal, and that there are at least as many unpublished as there are published letters from this period by members of the Wordsworth and Hutchinson families—not to mention letters from the wider circle of Charles Lamb, Robert Southey, and other friends. Similarly, William and Dorothy may have belonged to the Gang, but not exclusively. They also belonged to "the set," which was their name for the five Wordsworth siblings, and the concerns of the set in 1802 were, if anything, more important than those of the Gang. The death of Sir James Lowther, in May, changed everything for the set. After almost twenty years of his withholding his debt to their father's estate, the Wordsworths were about to receive their inheritance. The portion going to William and Dorothy totaled £137,700 (about $220,000) in today's terms—enough for him to marry and for her to be independent. Worthen only touches on the resolution of this matter, which absorbed much of their time, attention, and correspondence in 1802.

The narrow focus of this biography has its rewards, but it also has its pitfalls, particularly when Worthen offers wider generalizations. It is not true, for instance, that "rather few" people could make Wordsworth laugh, or that he was "never really young"; that the "experiment" of Hartley Coleridge's living with the Wordsworths was "significantly" never repeated after 1801; or that "Going for Mary" is the first poem William addressed to his future wife. Worthen seems unaware that William, like Dorothy, went to the same dame school in Penrith that Mary did, or that the corner of Grasmere churchyard where Hartley Coleridge was to be buried in 1849 included the graves not just of Sara Hutchinson and Wordsworth's young children, Catherine and Thomas, but also of his nephew John Wordsworth and, most important, his beloved daughter Dora, beside whom Wordsworth had already arranged that he himself should lie.

These criticisms aside, The Gang is a fascinating and provocative book. As Wordsworth's poems so often did, it captures a moment in time—and, by putting the moment under a microscope, leads us to new insights into a unique form of literary collaboration. But more than this, it is a book as much about the art of biography as about its nominal subjects. Challenging the orthodoxies, it also forces us to rethink our preconceptions and methodologies. It should be compulsory reading for every biographer.

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