Guest Post: Part I of life-writing and poetry at the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry

Hello life-writers! Over the next three weeks we’ll have a series of three guest posts from Esther Rutter, who works for the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. In each of her posts Esther reviews an event from the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry and muses on the intersections between life-writing and poetry.

Part I: What to do about Dorothy’s Journal 

Incest. Plagiarism. Exploitation. Any biographer of William and/or Dorothy Wordsworth is immediately faced with the challenge of these three hugely controversial matters when talking about the nature of the relationship between these two remarkable siblings. At the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry two Wordsworthian heavyweights, Professor Lucy Newlyn and Dr Pamela Woof, both of whom have published biographies of Dorothy Wordsworth in the last year, tackled these fascinating and thorny issues.

First, what to make of the charges of plagiarism and exploitation? The title of the festival is a nod towards the influence of life-writing on poetry: Dorothy Wordsworth herself is best-known not for her poems (of which there are very few), but for that autobiographical Journal which documented the life of the Wordsworths during the early part of their time at Dove Cottage. This place became the crucible for experiments in life-writing by this unusual and inventive brother and sister: William wrote large parts of his major autobiographical poem the Prelude (‘a poem on the growth of a poet’s mind’) and Dorothy penned her now-famous Grasmere Journal.

However, this journal was never written for public consumption: Dorothy wrote that she kept it ‘so that I will not quarrel with myself’ and ‘to give Wm pleasure by it.’ Yet Dorothy was a skilled diarist: she had already kept an account of their life at Alfoxden and would go on to write Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland in 1803, which she hoped would be published. Her wish never came true within her own lifetime; the Wordsworth scholar Ernest De Selincourt remarked that she was ‘the most distinguished of English prose writers who never wrote a line for the general public.’

However the impact of her writing is undeniable, particularly the impact of her journals on her brother’s poetry. The nature of this creative relationship is a fraught topic of literary debate, as William’s poems seem to draw heavily on Dorothy’s diaries for not only descriptions of specific events (seeing daffodils on the shores of Ullswater, travelling through London at sunrise) but even in their use of metaphors, similes, and the emotional response felt by the viewer. But what was the true nature of that creative relationship – did William stifle Dorothy’s creativity? Worse, did he appropriate her words and ideas and publish them under his own name? Did Dorothy subvert her own creativity in order to support her brother?

Lucy and Pamela’s readings of the creative relationship between the siblings are similar, though not identical, but both believe that this relationship has been wilfully and anachronistically misunderstood by biographers. Lucy began by saying ‘history has made Dorothy William’s acolyte’. Not William, not Dorothy, but the critical reception to their writing has interpreted their relationship thus. Both Pamela and Lucy agree that Dorothy was not an ‘adjunct’ to William, that there was no exploitative element to their relationship. Dorothy, Mary and William all read – or at the very least, heard passages from – the journal, and Lucy paints a picture of the three sitting down together in 1804 reminiscing about the walk by Ullswater in 1802, the siblings’ memories aided by the journal in an (albeit imagined) conversation which drew Mary into their shared history. ‘William later attributed the lines ‘They flash upon the inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude’ to his wife, and said of Dorothy ‘she gave me eyes, she gave me ears’, so this collaborative creativity seems to have been genuine, and in part acknowledged.

Secondly – could their relationship be described as incestuous? The dialogue also focused on interpreting one key episode in the Wordsworths’ lives: what happened between Dorothy and William just before his marriage to Mary Hutchinson in 1802. Dorothy’s journal entry of 4 October of that year details her actions and emotions, but this poses an irresistible challenge to biographers, for several lines of the journal are crossed out and cannot easily be read. Theories abound as to who crossed these out, and why – do they, perhaps, contain the suggestion of an incestuous relationship between the siblings? Pamela Woof relates how, in 1958, an early editor of Dorothy’s Journal, Helen Darbishire, took the manuscript to be examined under infra-red light in an attempt to decipher the words hidden beneath the unknown censor’s scrawl. This confirmed that the ink itself dates from the same time as that which Dorothy used to write the original entry, dispelling theories that a later descendent of Wordsworth, the censorious Gordon Graham Wordsworth, excised passages from the Journals in this way. Pamela’s own reading of the lines is not ‘and blessed me fervently’, but the distinctly less passionate ‘as I blessed the ring gently’. Yet Pamela does not deny the strength of feeling between the siblings: ‘Dorothy certainly was in love with William’, but for her the incest ‘myth’ is just that, not a credible theory about the nature of their relationship.

For Lucy the exchange of the wedding ring by William and Dorothy of the morning of the wedding is without doubt ‘an important ritual at a threshold moment.’ She reminds us that sisters were, at that time when unmarried sisters were often supported by their married siblings, central to the wider family dynamic. But for her, too, the incest theory holds no water.

But Dorothy’s life and writing should not only been looked at in relation to her brother – what about the language of those autobiographical writings? Frances Wilson, author of The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (2008) described it thus: ‘Her prose is defined by modesty and reserve, by the fear of what might happen were she to let herself go.’ This is, however, only one possible interpretation. Pamela Woof, quoting Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’, says that one ‘might see, and notice not’ – but that in contrast, Dorothy always notices. What Wilson sees as ‘modesty and reserve’ Pamela sees as acutely reflective, referencing the image of ‘hawthorn on the mountain like orchards in blossom’ as indicative of Dorothy’s passion for nature and ability to respond sensually and creatively to the world around her. Pamela revels in the ‘less concrete images’ from the Journal, images elusive yet present: ‘a hidden bird, ‘a breath of fragrance independent of the wind’, perhaps allowing them to represent Dorothy herself – someone who is present in both the diaries and her brother’s poems, but only as a fleeting, though inspiring, presence.

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Esther Rutter labours daily at the Wordsworth Trust in an effort to convince people of all ages that William Wordsworth is not only an interesting poet but also a relevant one. She has a soft spot for Coleridge, De Quincey and other literary ne’er-do-wells. When not in the company of dead poets she can be found fell walking, singing, and playing the violin. She also edits Discriminating Brevity, reviews events for Grasmere Poetry, and is a guest blogger for Oxford Dictionaries.

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The OCLW blog is accepting guest submissions! If you would like to submit a guest post, please click here for details.

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OCLW Events: Trinity Term 2014

Hello life-writers! Trinity begins next week, and OCLW has some great events on this term: two conferences, a talk by OCLW director Hermione Lee on her new biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, a colloquium on Coetzee’s Lives following his public reading, and much more.  Hope to see many of you there.  Details below.

Oxford Centre for Life-writing Events: Trinity Term 2014

All OCLW members are very welcome to attend the Wolfson Public Lecture Series in Trinity Term 2014. On 8, 15, 20 and 29 May respectively, Romesh Gunesekera, Michael Ondaatje, Kamile Shamsie, and Anita and Kiran Desai will discuss aspects of the Series’ theme: New Challenges for South Asian Writing in the Twenty-First Century.

OCLW members are also welcome to attend a special event: novelist J.M. Coetzee will give a rare public reading at Wolfson’s Leonard Wolfson Auditorium on 12 June. Please arrive early to avoid disappointment. 

OCLW Events

19 May (Week 4), 5.30-7pm, Haldane Room, Wolfson College:

Seminar: ‘Writing Family Memoir’ with Lyndall Gordon. This year’s Wolfson Public Lecture Series, themed around South Asian writing, articulates a clear interest in family memoir. This OCLW seminar, featuring the biographer Lyndall Gordon (biographer of Emily Dickinson, Mary Wollstonecraft, Henry James, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf), will build on the theme of family memoir.

3 June (Week 6), 5.30-8pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Lecture: Hermione Lee on Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. OCLW’s director, Hermione Lee, will be discussing and reading from her recent acclaimed biography of the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. This special event will be followed by a celebratory drinks reception in the Haldane Room, Wolfson College.

13 June (Week 7), 2-6pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Workshop: ‘Coetzee’s Lives’. Featuring David Attwell, Professor of Modern Literature at the University of York, this afternoon workshop will build on themes raised by the preceding day’s reading by the acclaimed author J.M. Coetzee. No registration is required; all are welcome. Convened by Elleke Boehmer; Please direct queries to erica.lombard@hertford.ox.ac.uk 

17 June (Week 8), 1-2pm, Haldane Room, Wolfson College:

Life-Writing Lunch Seminar: Mark Thompson will be speaking on his biography of the Serbian and Yugoslavian novelist Danilo Kis, Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kis, and questioning, ‘how do you write a literary biography?’ The Life-Writing Lunch is a termly seminar series, in which auto/biographers discuss their work in an informal, friendly setting over a sandwich lunch. There is no charge, but you must register well in advance, by following the link on http://www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing/events/lwlunch

2 July (Week 10), 9-6pm, Radcliffe Humanities Building, Oxford:

Conference: Procrastination – Cultural Explorations. Winners of the OCLW-TORCH Postgraduate Conference Award, Danielle Yardy and Elizabeth Chatterjee are the convenors of a one-day conference exploring the phenomenon of procrastination, and the fraught moral and political claims it provokes. For more information, please see http://procrastinationoxford.org, follow the conference on Twitter (@ProcrastinOx), or email the convenors at ProcrastinationOx@gmail.com

Hosted Events Taking Place at OCLW

8 May (Week 2), 10-6pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Conference: ‘Genius for Sale! Artistic Production and Economic Context in the Long Nineteenth Century’. This one-day conference will bring together scholars from a number of disciplines to examine the relationship between creative output and economic forces in the long nineteenth century, a period that saw a radical transformation in the economic circumstances facing artists. It will feature scholars who have produced detailed qualitative studies of the impact of economic context on artistic production and those who have turned to quantitative methods to study cultural output. Speakers will include economists, historians, economic historians, art historians, and modern linguists who work on different kinds of cultural production (art, music and literature) in diverse geographic settings. Convenors: Jonathan Paine and Diana Greenwald. Please see www.artsandecon.com for more information, or email diana.greenwald@wadh.ox.ac.uk

Guest post: Searching for the ‘real story’ behind 18th century autobiography and conversion narrative

We have an early Easter treat for you with another guest post! Here, Bristol-based writer Lucienne Boyce considers the autobiography/conversion narrative of the eighteenth century figure Silas Told. As always, we look forward to reading your thoughts and responses in the comment section below.

“Instantly I felt it in my soul”: some thoughts on interpreting the life of Silas Told

Silas Told (1711-1779), Bristol-born sailor, slave-trader, teacher and Methodist, published his autobiography in 1786. A second (or possibly third; sources differ) edition appeared in 1790 entitled The Life of Mr Silas Told: Written by Himself. It is a fascinating tale. That, however, is the problem. As I read it, I became more and more convinced that it was a tale and not a true story at all. This was in spite of the fact that the book contains a great deal of detail, much of which is capable of corroboration, such as the names of streets, institutions, and ships. Furthermore, John Wesley has provided a “note to the reader” in which he recalls Told’s work, and there are references to Told in Wesley’s Journals.

Why was it so hard for me to believe that Silas Told’s were real experiences? The reason is that his book is so formulaic. It is a conversion narrative which so rigidly adheres to the rules of the genre it is difficult not to suspect its veracity. It also put me in mind of Daniel Defoe’s fictional Robinson Crusoe, with which it has much in common (in particular, the theme of Providence), and which in its turn was influenced by the conversion narrative.

These narratives, popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, followed a set pattern: the subject has an innocent childhood, a sinful youth/adulthood, suffers, repents, has a religious conversation and is saved. Such are the experiences of Told. After a childhood spent in “the bliss of the ever-blessed…Jesus”, he is apprenticed on a slave ship where, thrown into bad company, he is soon participating in the slave trade, “one of the basest practices under the sun”, swearing, drinking, and “overcome with…lewdness”. This causes him agonies: “I never was without fear of death, hell and judgement”. He quits the sea, vowing to live a better life.

Sometimes the narratives contain more than one conversion: an earlier one which lacks conviction, followed by a genuine conversion. Accordingly, Told spends some time amongst orthodox churchmen – “dead Christians” – before becoming a Methodist. Even then he has to wait several years before he attains true belief in his redemption. He spends the rest of his life teaching in Wesley’s school and ministering to condemned criminals at Newgate. This leads him into another form of conversion narrative, the Newgate narrative, where the criminal is brought to a sense of his or her guilt, confesses the crime, and dies knowing their sins are forgiven. Indeed, the last three chapters of The Life of Mr Silas Told are mostly taken up with Newgate narratives.

One of the major influences in Told’s narrative was Wesley himself. Wesley commissioned and published numerous spiritual autobiographies, and his ideology shaped them. Wesley’s tale of being rescued from a fire as a child is mirrored by Told in several accounts of his own childhood brushes with death, and these continue throughout his adulthood. Told also shares Wesley’s belief in the supernatural. One of his stories features a mysterious dog which disappears after leading Told and his siblings out of Kingswood Forest. Many of Told’s religious experiences involve supernatural events – twice he is touched on the head by invisible hands.

The result is that though Wesley encouraged, even required, his followers to share their personal experiences, the narratives are so structured that the personal seems to be lost. Told’s life is written in the language of Methodism and his interpretation of his experience is Methodistical. When he undergoes his first conversion on hearing Wesley preach “a still, small voice entered my heart with these words, ‘This is the truth!’ and instantly I felt it in my soul”.

What did this mean to Told? What are we to make of his experience when it is articulated within such strict guidelines it appears as if Told is simply writing what he thinks he ought to write – and feeling what he thinks he ought to feel? Yet we know there was a real, human experience behind these formulaic words, there was a Silas Told. The issue, then, for the modern reader and biographer is how to find it. This is particularly problematic in an age that does not routinely discourse of the soul, and to which Told’s language is archaic and alien. Indeed, if belief in the soul has been rejected, can we accept that the sort of experience Told relates was even possible? We may dismiss it as delusion, or an undiagnosed medical condition, or the result of stress.

Perhaps the subject could be explored thematically, by studying the cultural and social background to Told’s life and trying to place him in it. This could consider areas such as education, charity, slavery, Methodism, the criminal justice system and so on. A major theme could be an exploration of the conversion narrative itself, looking at how and where it originated, what influenced it, how Methodist narratives fit into the genre, and how people responded to it. Since men and women wrote conversion narratives there are gender issues to consider too. It has, for example, been suggested that Wesley planned to publish Hester Rogers’s autobiography as a female counterpart to Silas Told’s.

Another possibility is to focus on the action. Told’s was an exciting life, full of adventure, with sex, danger, violence and death aplenty in his voyages and Newgate stories. On these lines, it would be possible to portray his religion as heroic, in terms not only of the struggle with his internal demons, but the battles with hostile jailers who tried to prevent his Newgate ministry.

Which of these approaches (which need not be mutually exclusive), if any, would tell the story of Silas Told? Of course, this question leads into wider issues of whether it is even possible to convey someone else’s experience, to “tell” a life. These are important matters that need to be addressed, but my focus here is on Silas Told and his life. I am still pondering how to interpret “instantly I felt it in my soul”.

Bibliography

Bristol MShed, Silas Told, Sailor, http://mshed.org/explore-contribute/themes/transatlantic-slave-trade/workers-in-enslavement/silas-told,-sailor/

Burton, Vicki Tolar, ‘John Wesley and the Liberty to Speak: The Rhetorical and Literacy Practices of Early Methodism’, College Composition and Communication, Vol 53, No 1 (Sep 2001), pp 65-91, National Council of Teachers of English, http://www.jstor.org/stable/359063

Collins, Vicki Tolar, ‘Walking in Light, Walking in Darkness: The Story of Women’s Changing Rhetorical Space in Early Methodism’, Rhetoric Review, Vol 14, No 2 (Spring, 1996), pp 336-354, http://www.jstor.org/stable/465860

Defoe, Daniel, Robinson Crusoe, (London: Penguin, 1994, first published 1719)

Hindmarsh, Bruce, D., ‘ “My Chains Fell off, My Heart Was Free”: Early Methodist Conversion Narrative in England’, Church History, Vol 68, No 4 (Dec 1999), pp 910-929, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3170209

Rack, Henry D., ‘Wesley , John (1703–1791)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2012 [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.londonlibrary.co.uk/view/article/29069, accessed 10 April 2014]

Told, Silas, The Life of Mr Silas Told: Written by Himself (London: the Epworth Press, 1954, first published 1786)

Vickers, John A., ‘Told, Silas (1711–1778)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.londonlibrary.co.uk/view/article/40215, accessed 10 April 2014]

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Lucienne Boyce is a Bristol-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. In 2012 she published To The Fair Land, a historical novel set in the eighteenth century about a fictitious voyage of discovery to the South Seas. In 2013 she published The Bristol Suffragettes (non-fiction), a history of the Bristol militant suffragette movement. She was brought up a Methodist, but ceased to have any connection with the church many years ago. http://www.lucienneboyce.com/

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The OCLW blog is accepting guest submissions! If you would like to submit a guest post, please click here for details.