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Met Mr Clarkson with a Calf’s head in a Basket.
29 December 1801
Made bread – a sore thumb from a cut – a lovely day – read Boswell in the house in the morning & after dinner under the bright yellow leaves of the orchard – the pear trees a bright yellow, the apple trees green still, a sweet lovely afternoon.
14 September 1800
Sauntered a good deal in the garden, bound carpets, mended old clothes. Read Timon of Athens. Dried linen – Molly weeded the turnips, John stuck the peas.
19 May 1800
We sowed the Scarlet Beans in the orchard I read Henry 5th there – William lay on his back on the seat.
8 May 1802
The road was often very slippery, the wind high, & it was nearly dark before we got into the right Road. I was often obliged to crawl upon all fours, & Mary fell many a time.
29 December 1801
Baking bread apple pies, & Giblet pie – a bad giblet pie – it was a most beautiful morning.
29 November 1801
The swallows have completed their beautiful nest. I baked bread & pies.
5 July 1802
I broiled Coleridge a mutton chop which he ate in bed.
1 September 1800
We sauntered about & read the Grave-stones.
O how comfortable & happy we felt ourselves sitting by our own fire when we had got off our wet clothes & had dressed ourselves fresh & clean.
3 January 1802
Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, ed. and introduction by Pamela Woof (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008)
Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855), born on Christmas Day, was the sister of the poet William. They shared a home for most of their lives, after having been separated for some years while growing up. I’ve long had an appetite for reading the ‘letters of…’, but hadn’t seriously looked at journals until I read Dorothy’s. She changed that and spurred me to finish a 700 page abridgement of thousands of journal pages by Thoreau. The editor of Dorothy’s journals tells us that:
There are no rules and structures for diary writing, as there are not for living. We take the fast and the slow of it as it comes. (Pamela Woof, introduction)
What is a journal but a letter to the future? It may be written for oneself, as a memory prompt a year, a decade or a lifetime from now, or it may be written for unknown readers; friends, family, or strangers. Whoever the audience, intended or eventual, it captures moments, impressions and details that are otherwise lost in the hubbub of living. And it can capture – at least in a snapshot – entire human lives which might vanish unrecorded. Here are two girls, quite different in mien and circumstance, of whom Dorothy’s entries may be the only memory of them as living beings.
… a little Lass about 10 years of age … She was a beautiful Creature & there was something uncommonly impressive in the lightness & joyousness of her manner. Her business seemed to be all pleasure – pleasure in her own motions – & the man looked at her as if he too was pleased & spoke to her in the same tone in which he spoke to his horses. There was a wildness in her whole figure, not the wildness of a Mountain lass but a Road lass, a traveller from her Birth, who had wanted neither food nor clothes. Sunday 14th February 1802. (69)
Mr Graham took her into the Chaise & the cloak was released from the wheel but the Childs misery did not cease for her Cloak was torn to rags; it had been a miserable cloak before, but she had no other & it was the greatest sorrow that could befal her. Her name was Alice Fell. She had no parents, & belonged to the next Town. At the next Town Mr G left money with some respectable people in the Town to buy her a new cloak. Tuesday 16th February 1802. (70)
What became of Alice Fell, and the girl who took such pleasure in her own motions?
Having started an intermittent journal a few years ago, it has astonished me to realize how much of the richness and texture of life one forgets. One touching detail of Dorothy’s journal is the occasional admission that she can’t remember much of what happened in the last day or two, or only in the briefest sense:
I have neglected to set down the occurrences of this week, so I do not recollect how we disposed of ourselves to-day. 15th March 1798 (149)
Hung out the linen. 28 March 1798. (150)
Walked I know not where. 30 March 1798. (150)
Walked by moonlight. 1 April 1798. (150)
I have forgotten. Sunday 18 October 1801. (36)
These lapses and lacunae reassure me that a journal can be as imperfect as its writer and still worth writing (and reading). Her journals wrap around the end of the 18th and the start of the 19th centuries, with the ‘Alfoxden Journal’ of 1798 and the ‘Grasmere Journal’ from May 1800 to January 1803. They are dew-fresh delightful, alert to beauty and happy moments and all-embracingly alive.
It was a sweet morning – Everything green & overflowing with life, & the streams making a perpetual song with the thrushes & all little birds, not forgetting the Stone chats. Tuesday 20 May 1800. (4)
I sate upon a rock & observed a flight of swallows gathering together high above my head they flew towards Rydale. Friday evening 29th August 1800. (18)
A beautiful mild morning – the sun shone, the lake was still, & all the shores reflected in it. Tuesday 26 January 1802. (58)
Full spectrum living from the height of literature to baking, gardening, fetching the post, sewing and mending, ironing and sorting (‘clapping’) linen, and dealing with headaches. Dorothy rolls them all up into balls of life-joy and blithely tosses them over the honeysuckle wall of two centuries like a shuttlecock of affirmation and friendship. It feels like reading a letter from someone close, in the detail of whose life you are interested:
Incessant rain from morning till night. T. Ashburner brought us coals. Worked hard & Read Midsummer night’s dream, Ballads – sauntered a little in the garden. Saturday 17 May 1800. (3)
A very rainy day – I made a shoe. Wednesday 25 June 1800. (13)
Miss Simpson came to colour the Rooms. I began with white-washing the ceiling. I worked with them (William was very busy) till dinner time but after dinner I went to bed & fell asleep. Friday 25th June 1802. (114-15)
There is a lot of gardening too. Dorothy mentions getting hold of plants from what seems to be a nursery, or she goes and finds them in wild places, digs them up and brings them home.
Went to the blind man’s for plants. I got such a load that I was obliged to leave my Basket in the Road & send Molly for it. Planted &c. Saturday 31 May 1800. (6)
I brought home lemon thyme & several other plants, & planted them by moonlight. Wednesday 4 June 1800. (7-8)
I rambled on the hill above the house gathered wild thyme & took up roots of wild Columbine. Thursday 5 June 1800. (8)
We pulled apples after dinner, a large basket full. Sunday 12 October 1800. (26)
I have set Molly on to clear the garden a little, & I myself have helped. I transplanted some snowdrops – The Bees are busy – Wm has a rich bright day – It was a hard frost in the night – The Robins are singing sweetly – Now for my walk… Thursday 4th March 1802. (74)
I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. 15th April 1802. (85)
I dined at Mr Simpsons & helped Aggy Fleming to quilt a petticoat … I ground paint when I reached home, & was tired. Wm came in just when Molly had left me. It was a mild rainy Evening he was cool & fresh, & smelt sweetly – his clothes were wet. We sate together talking till the first dawning of Day – a happy time. 24 June 1802. (114)
Occasionally, there is a pang of guilt about uprooting wild plants. In one case she puts it back, and in another, she resists digging it up in the first place.
I found a strawberry blossom in a rock, the little slender flower had more courage than the green leaves, for they were but half expanded & half grown, but the blossom was spread full out. I uprooted it rashly, & I felt as if I had been committing an outrage, so I planted it again – it will have a stormy life of it, but let it live if it can. We found Calvert here. I brought a handkerchief full of mosses which I placed on the chimneypiece when C was gone … Sunday 31st January 1802. (61)
We stopped our horse close to the ledge opposite a tuft of primroses three flowers in full blossom & a Bud, they reared themselves up among the green moss. We debated long whether we should pluck & last left them to live out their day, which I was right glad of at my return the Sunday following for there they remained uninjured either by cold or wet. Tuesday 11th January 1803. (135-36)
And she faces the never-ending nature of tending a garden:
The Roses in the garden are fretted & battered & quite spoiled the honey suckle though in its glory is sadly teazed. The peas are beaten down. The Scarlet Beans want sticking. The Garden is overrun with weeds. Monday 4th July 1802. (117)
The journals reveal details of the rhythm and practicalities of life which kick into touch the notion of an early 19th century genteel woman, with her china-cup tea-sipping, delicate diaphanous clothing and silk ballet pumps, as being somehow fragile. These women work and walk in all weathers.
Went for eggs into the Coombe, and to the baker’s; a hail shower; brought home large burthens of sticks, a starlight evening, the sky closed in, and the ground white with snow before we went to bed. 16th February 1798. (146)
Mary walked to Ambleside for letters, it was a wearisome walk for the snow lay deep upon the Roads & it was beginning to thaw. I stayed at home & clapped the small linen. Monday 21 December 1801. (49)
Wms Birthday. Wm went to Middleham – I walked 6 miles with him – it rained a little but a fine day. Broth to supper & went soon to bed. Wednesday 7th April 1802. (83)
Dorothy often mentions baking bread and pies (including a ‘bad’ one), part of a range of household chores, and going for long walks either for their own sake, or to pick up the post before the advent of last-mile delivery. Bear with me and this layer-cake of baking notes, there is something in the accretion that engages. And the effortless switch from baking or other domestic tasks to celebrating a singing thrush or a beautiful morning.
Baked bread & giblet pie put books in order – mended stockings, put aside dearest C’s letters & now at about 7 o’clock we are all sitting by a nice fire – W with his book & a candle & Mary writing to Sara. Wednesday 11 November 1801. (37)
I baked bread & pies. Before dinner worked a little at Wm’s waistcoat – after dinner read German Grammar … That Dear thrush was singing upon the topmost of the smooth branches of the Ash tree at the top of the orchard. How long it had been perched on that same tree I cannot tell but we had heard its dear voice in the orchard the day through, along with a chearful undersong made by our winter friends the Robins. Tuesday 23rd February 1802. (71-72)
I breakfasted in bed, being not very well. Aggy Ashburner helped Molly with the Linen. I made veal & Gooseberry pies. It was very cold. Thomas Ashburner went for coals for us. There was snow upon the mountain tops. Letters from MH. & Annette… Saturday 3rd July 1802. (117)
She records the reading and writing of letters, and the correspondence with their friend Coleridge seems regular and enticing: I am now on the look out for a good edition. The ease and naturalness of the friendship also shines through, including some down to earth details:
In the evening we walked for letters. No letters, no news of Coleridge. Jimmy Benson came home drunk beside us. Sunday 22 June 1800. (12-13)
After dinner it was agreed that w should walk, when I had finished a letter to C, part of which I had written in the morning by the kitchen-fire while the mutton was roasting. Wednesday 9 December 1801. (47)
Coleridge’s were very melancholy letters, he had been very ill in his bowels. Monday 21 December 1801. (50)
I got tea when I reached home & read German till about 9 o clock. Then Molly went away & I wrote to Coleridge. Sunday 14th February 1802. (69)
Coleridge’s Bowels bad, mine also. Wednesday 19th May 1802. (101)
She fits in a good deal of reading, to herself and out loud, including Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Smollett, Ben Jonson, Spenser, Fielding and Richardson. While learning German and generally supporting her brother: reading his poems back to him, hearing him read them, copying them out, and furnishing him with themes and anecdotes from her life and her journal.
We had a deal to do… pens to make – poems to put in order for writing… Thursday 4th March 1802. (74)
I have been beside him ever since tea running the heel of a stocking, repeating some of his sonnets to him, listening to his own repeating, reading some of Milton’s & the Allegro & Penseroso. 24th December 1802. (134-35)
Dorothy comes across as a happy, self-effacing person, focused on and tender towards the world around her. There is practically no introspection, and much generosity of spirit.
She seems to have moved in a social milieu that was fluid, open and relatively informal, with people dropping in for tea or supper, and mutual help and support. It lacks the protocol and stiffness we sometimes assume was ‘de rigueur’ for someone of her class and time. She was mindful before ‘mindfulness’ and had a strong degree of grattitude:
When the woman was gone, I could not help thinking that we are not half thankful enough that we are placed in that condition of life in which we are. Friday 12th February 1802. (67)
Yes, the woman is gone, but she leaves a strong impression of a lively and fully alive person, and a warm reminder to be ‘half thankful enough that we are placed in that condition of life in which we are’. I just wish I could drop in on her for some tea and talk in the orchard, and a slice of her apple or gooseberry pie. Or accompany her on one of her walks to pick up the post.
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