Dorothy Wordsworth: Traveling towards Independence
Dorothy Wordsworth’s Continental Journals give the readers an inside look into her travels with her brother William, the famous Romantic poet. The journals were written from 1798-1820 and are a compilation of the Wordsworth siblings embarking on this beautiful and adventurous journey together, portraying everything they see along the way. Dorothy’s journals are well-known for their exceptional use of imagery and their inspiration for her brother’s poetry, but the travel journals show their different perceptions and her growing independence.
Dorothy Wordsworth was a poet and diarist. She was born December 25, 1771 in England. She and her brother William were very close from the day they were born and grew even closer over their rough childhood years. They were split up for a brief period of time as they were shuffled around between family members while they were younger. This was not easy for the siblings to handle, as they were extremely close and liked to be together at all times. When they were finally reunited, Dorothy moved in with William and his wife Mary, and they embarked on this journey together, making them not only brother and sister, but life-long travel partners as well.
After Wordsworth died several of her journals were in fact published which inevitably put her on the map. While her writing was exceptional, as a woman, she faced many hardships. Women’s writing was constantly overlooked, and most of the time, neglected. As Sara Mills states, “Even whilst it must be admitted that the lives of many middle-class women were restricted, it is surprising that it is primarily from the ranks of the middle class that women travel writers sprang.” Was Wordsworth ever recognized for her writing skills? Or was she always hiding behind William’s shadow just because he was a man?
Wordsworth was well-known for her exceptional use of imagery. No matter what she was trying to describe, she perfectly drew a picture in the reader’s head of the exact scene she was looking at as she wrote her journal entry. This skill of hers was so vital in her writing, that William borrowed her imagery for his poems.
Wordsworth’s writing has a way of setting the scene that makes the reader feel as if they are truly right there with her. While she was out in nature, she was inspired by “the landscape around her, marking out its details, selecting and shaping the hills, trees, rocks and lakes of her world into an order that pleased her” (Alexander). Her ‘picturesque eye’ was truly a gift and was especially prevalent in her writing.
She describes a Wednesday afternoon with Mary in Europe, and without thinking twice, you feel as if you are there: “My first entrance into the market-place, brought a shock of cheerful sensation: it was like the bursting into life of a Flemish picture: -such profession of fruit! Such outspreading flowers! And heaps of vegetables!” (33). This gift is something that makes her writing seem much more real, which has a way of relating to more people as well as inspiring them in the process.
Wordsworth always had her brother and friends by her side and nothing seemed to truly affect her. However, she does describe times where William would choose to stay behind on an activity they said they would do together, which often times affected her mood, not enough to make her angry or resentful, but just enough to experience the moment differently than before. She talks about how William sometimes felt ill and chose to stay home: “September 27th, Thursday. A bad headache” (25). This example gives the impression that he was not as excited about things around him as she was.
Dorothy was constantly ready to go on a hike, or see a well-known tourist spot. She often was up and ready by the break of dawn: “July 26th, Wednesday, Frankfort. Rose at six” (58), “July 27th, Thursday, Darmstadt. Rose at quarter past five” (61), “July 28th, Friday, Heidelberg. I rose before six” (64), “July 29th, Saturday, Karlsruhe. 6 o’clock” (71). At times, William wanted nothing to do with it. She seemed to be “waiting for William and Mary” (31), which held her back from great sights and experiences.
Elizabeth Bohls notes “the prevalent image of Wordsworth as something of a homebody, content to cook, clean, and copy poems for her more publicly ambitious brother.” But travel opened her eyes completely to a whole new realm: “Travel forces Wordsworth to confront the mediatedness of the natural world with which she had lived in comfortable intimacy at home.” While at times it was difficult for her to venture out on her own, she had grown to love the freedom that came with it.
Her independence is seen in an encounter with two stubborn women. While one woman did not want to have anything to do with her friend, she continued along on her way, as her friend continued to make a scene: “her friend, unwilling to be seen in that situation at Canterbury, dismounted within a mile of the town, and our companion- very pretty, and superfine in delicacy- exclaimed from the coach-window, ‘what! Walk all the way by yourself! You will have a sad long dreary walk!’ Yet she made no offer to accompany the forlorn pedestrian” (7). The friend’s reaction shows how strange the idea of walking as a woman would be, something Wordsworth did all the time.
Keeping a journal is part of her developing an independent voice. Of all the times she has her journal on her, and is constantly writing, she has been known to lose it here or there. While on her journeys, she gets so lost in the beauty of nature, that she forgets it’s even there. It’s not until after the fact that she realizes that it is missing: “On reaching the inn I discovered I had left my journal; but whether in the boat, upon one of the seats, or scattered by the way I could not guess” (90). This raises the question, are there other journals that Wordsworth had written that were left behind? Are we missing parts of her story?
Alexander, Meena. “Dorothy Wordsworth: The Grounds of Writing.” Women’s Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, Jan. 1998, p. 195.
Bohls, Elizabeth A. Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics 1716-1818. Cambridge UP, 1995.
Mills, Sara. Discourses of Difference: An Analysis of Women’s Travel Writing and Colonialism. Routledge, 2006.
Wordsworth, Dorothy. The Continental Journals. Edited by Helen Boden, Thoemmes, 1995.