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Susan M. Levin. Dorothy Wordsworth: A Longman Cultural Edition. Pearson/Longman, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-321-27775-6. Price: US$9.80

  • Judith W. Page

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  • Judith W. Page
    University of Florida

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Susan M. Levin’s new edition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s writings marks a welcome addition to our teaching repertoire. Like other Longman Cultural editions, this collection includes a generous sampling of different types of writing—primary literature, historical materials, etc., a format appropriate for Dorothy Wordsworth, whose “primary” works are composed mostly of journals, diaries, and letters. Levin also includes her poems, which Dorothy Wordsworth wrote without the intention of becoming a published author. With its mix of genres and supporting texts, this edition is particularly well suited to students reading Dorothy Wordsworth for the first time.

Levin is well positioned to edit this volume, having written an important critical book on Dorothy Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism, which included a scholarly edition of her poems. Levin’s earlier book places Dorothy Wordsworth in the context of an “ethics of care,” a feminist approach that values community over solitude, in contradistinction to the movement of much of the poetry written by poets such as her brother William. The inclusion of the “Narrative Concerning George and Sarah Green” (124-44) goes a long way to giving a sense of Dorothy Wordsworth as deeply concerned with the community and her role in it. This interpretation of Dorothy Wordsworth as embedded in the community and daily affairs seems implicit throughout this new volume.

In this vein, Levin includes a section devoted to “Life in the Wordsworth Household.” A brief excerpt from the most popular cookbook of the period, Mrs. Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (244-46) is interesting, although I would have liked more of a connection between the book and Dorothy Wordsworth’s practice. Likewise, the letters (247-51) that follow oddly on the rather different topic of William Wordsworth as a possible spy in 1797 would have been more effectively presented with background on both the paranoia of the 1790s and on the episode, in which Wordsworth and Coleridge were overheard talking about Spinoza. Coleridge later immortalized the episode as comedy in Chapter 10 of the Biographia: James Walsh, the agent from the Home Office who checked to see if Wordsworth and Coleridge were French spies, hears “Spinoza” as “Spy Nozy,” and so on (Biographia Literaria, 194). The same wish for more context applies to the section on the alleged incest between William and Dorothy—a topic too fraught and complicated to be easily summarized (251-53).

Whereas the collected poems are based on Levin’s earlier edition, the texts of the journals are generally based on the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century editions of William Knight. In some cases, such as the Alfoxden journal, the manuscript version is missing, but for others it would have perhaps enhanced the collection to consult the manuscripts as well as the first published edition. In some cases, for instance, Knight’s use of ellipses (reproduced in this edition) reflects his own editorial judgment that certain passages were more important or relevant than others. One wonders if his judgment was always impeccable or if there is a pattern to the kinds of omissions we find. Some explanation for why Knight was followed would also have been useful.

From the journals, the most substantial selection comes appropriately from the Grasmere journals. The reader gets a very good sense of the Wordsworths’ lives during this crucial period of their residence at Dove Cottage and of the central role that Dorothy Wordsworth plays in creating the home and the sense of home at Grasmere. The footnotes in this second section make useful connections to William Wordsworth’s poetry and to social and political issues of importance to the Wordsworths and to the time. The volume includes a few of William’s poems, such as “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” tied of course to the famous description of the dancing daffodils at Gowbarrow Park. Levin analyzes this connection suggestively in her earlier book (34-36) as revealing Dorothy’s sense of community and William’s transformation of her communal vision into the sublime solitude of the poem. It is also very good to see William’s poem “Beggars” reproduced here in this volume, because there are so many allusions to beggars in the Grasmere journals. I have found that this is one of the first things that students question in the journals—not just the episode on which beggars is based, but on the larger social and cultural issues that relate to this practice.

I also like the section, “Viewing the World: the Picturesque and Travel” (281-313), which includes the expected selections from Gilpin and Radcliffe, but also the more unexpected pairing of Dorothy Wordsworth with Mary Russell Mitford. The selection from Mitford, “Nutting,” from Our Village, will provide the opportunity for analyzing not only the similarities with the Wordsworths (who cannot think of William’s “Nutting”?), but also the differences. For Mitford, writing this piece 20 or 30 years later than Dorothy Wordsworth, the rural world that Wordsworth celebrates in the Grasmere journals is already a self-conscious rural idyll. Mitford recreates this world in the picturesque descriptions of her prose, but her self-consciousness about the rural project that Wordsworth embraces so fully in Grasmere reveals a world already slipping away.

The selections from such writers as Mitford and Radcliffe also put Dorothy Wordsworth in conversation with other women writers, even though she claims that she never wanted to be a published writer. To get an even fuller sense of Dorothy’s attitude toward women writers and literary culture, it might have been interesting to include some of the letters in which she criticizes bluestockings and rolls her eyes at such figures as Mrs. Hemans. Dorothy was a proponent of what I have in another article referred to as “manuscript culture.” She nonetheless shares concerns and themes with both her male and female contemporaries. It is good to have de Quincey’s description of Dorothy and his assessment of her talent included in this volume: “Now, to me, it appears, upon reflection, that it would have been far better had Miss Wordsworth condescended a little to the ordinary mode of pursuing literature; better for her own happiness if she had been a bluestocking; or at least, if she had been, in good earnest, a writer for the press with the pleasant cares and solicitudes of one who has some little ventures, as it were, on that vast ocean” (241-42). The Wordsworths found de Quincey annoying and disloyal, but in this case he may have identified one of the sources of Dorothy Wordsworth’s frustration that led to her medical and psychological collapse in later life.

One can always quibble with an editor’s choices. Some additional explanation of the poetry would have been helpful, such as a note on the four lines at the top of page 187 preceding “Line Addressed to Joanna H. from Gwerndovennant June 1826.” I also would have preferred to see more of Dorothy’s letters, especially the early ones to Jane Pollard. Nevertheless, this economical edition’s many virtues outweigh these concerns. It highlights not just Dorothy’s marvelous journals and collected poems but the full range of her literary accomplishments in the context of her culture and her times. As such, it will be very useful in the classroom (I have already used it myself) and will contribute to the continuing assessment of Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism.