Guest post: Part III of life-writing and poetry – on love and letters

Hello readers! Today we post the final part of Esther Rutter’s three guest posts reviewing the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry in April. Here Esther reviews presentations on the letters exchanged between the women of the Wordsworth and Coleridge clans.

Part III – Letters and reputations

The Wordsworth Trust’s collection of letters written by the women of the Wordsworth household and their circle provides a fascinating insight into their lives, relationships, and changing roles in this intricately connected family group. The first event of the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry, Women’s Lives through Their Letters, examined some of that correspondence in detail, in particular those by Sarah Coleridge (wife of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), Sara Coleridge (her daughter), and Maria Jane Jewsbury (great friend of Wordsworth’s daughter Dora). The talks were given by current trainees of the Wordsworth Trust, recent graduates who are on a year-long traineeship at the Trust to gain experience of working in museums and with literary archives.

Letters are a curious sub-genre of autobiography and a vital tool and resource for the biographer. As well as being the only means of communicating with someone who lived too far away to speak to in person, they were also a way of maintaining friendships and providing companionship, and to the biographer they are a huge help in deciphering the particulars of events and characters. In a time before telephones and the internet, before newspapers were affordable and widely available, letters were often the only source of information about the world outside your own house, village or town. Although a modern audience may assume that a letter is only for its addressee, letters were often written for whole households, to be read aloud to those family members who might be too blind, illiterate or busy to sit and read them alone. In the words of Maria Jane Jewsbury, whose letters to her sister were published in 1828 as Letters to the Young, ‘letters are a great deal.’

Maria Jane Jewsbury was a gifted writer who befriended both Wordsworth and his daughter Dora, who was almost four years younger than Jewsbury. Dora herself has recently been the subject of a fascinating dual biography with Sara Coleridge, The Poets’ Daughters by Katie Waldegrave, but a solo Jewsbury biography remains unpublished. Trainee Jessie Petheram focused on the letters between Dora and Jewsbury, which show that the friendship has the intensity of a love affair, particularly for Jewsbury. Her handwriting changes as her words to Dora become more passionate, as she struggles to contain her feelings: Dora is ‘enshrined in my heart’ and Jewsbury writes the following when she announcesher engagement to the Reverend William Fletcher: ‘And now dear Dora, prepare for a surprise…I was called on to decide whether I would be married or not. I found it a harder matter than expected – because I was not in love’.

Some of the surviving fragments of their communication still bear the (fortunately unfollowed) legend to ‘burn after reading’, words that both thrill and guilt-trip the reader.

Trainee Adam Lines has been researching the letters of Sarah Fricker Coleridge, the long-suffering wife of the brilliant but opium-addicted Samuel Taylor, who has not been well represented in the surviving letters of those who wrote to and about her. Dorothy Wordsworth described her to Wordsworth’s soon-to-be wife Mary Hutchinson as ‘a sad fiddle-faddler’ and Mary added insult to injury by calling her ‘a stuffed turkey’. She therefore cuts a rather marginalised and unappealing figure, with none of the greatness gifted to her husband or his friends, none of the quickness of Dorothy or the supportive domesticity of Mary. Her biographer Molly Lefebure calls her ‘the most maligned of great men’s wives’, painted as an ‘ill-tempered, unloved ninny’ by biographers of Wordsworth and Coleridge (The Bondage of Love, 1986). As Lefebure notes, biographers have tended to use the published letters of William, Dorothy, Mary and Samuel Taylor when researching their relationships with Sarah Coleridge, as – rather obviously – those letters are published and therefore readily accessible. Sarah’s letters have had no chance to defend her. Those letters are far less easy to access (most of them remain unpublished) and far less numerous. This is not because she wrote any less than other people of her time, but because she enforced a type of self-censorship in an effort to protect her husband’s reputation, destroying many of the letters relating to the early years of their marriage. Of the 200 or so that survive, those that do are often heart-rending in their emotional honesty.

One particular period of Sarah and Samuel’s lives which was brought to light in this talk was the birth and death of their son Berkeley. Before he left for Germany, Sarah and her husband agreed that she would not ‘burden’ him by writing to him about matters which would distract him from the reason he went there – to improve his mind and develop his writing. With the support of their friend and neighbour Thomas Poole, Sarah struggled not to involve her husband in the increasingly serious domestic crisis that had developed – the illness of their second son Berkeley, who was not yet two years old. Following an as-yet imperfect smallpox inoculation, Berkeley became seriously ill and Sarah finally broke the censure of silence to write to her husband: in her own words ‘I am sorry I let my feelings escape me so’. But the mechanics of the 18th-century postal service worked against her (this was a time before the penny stamp and when postage was paid by the recipient of the letter, not the sender): the letter was sent back to Somerset from the port of Yarmouth as the correct fee for sending the letter abroad had not been paid. In the meantime her husband had written to Sarah asking why he had not heard from her. This letter is just one in a cycle of missed communications, and culminates in the sad fact that it was many months before Samuel Taylor Coleridge knew of the death of his son. Sarah Coleridge puts her finger on the problem: writing to her husband, a man whose vivid imagination had produced ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’, she says, “I pray to God that I may never live to behold the death of another child, for O my dear Samuel! it is a suffering beyond your conception!”

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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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Work in Progress Seminar 19th February 2014

Lucinda Fenny here, the final member of the OCLW publicity team, welcome to my first blog post and I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts with you over the coming months.

On Wednesday evening, in the company of an intimate audience, OCLW’s visiting members presented an outline of the work they are conducting whilst in residence in Oxford.  Everyone stuck to their allocated time of 10 minutes which was very impressive, and were able to give us a very succinct view of their, in some cases, vast topics, and the challenges that they face.  The seminar was chaired by Hermione Lee.

First to speak was Sophie Scott-Brown from the Australian National University in Canberra, who is working on a biography of the British radical historian Raphael Samuel.  She began by challenging the view of Samuel as a Marxist historian, instead describing him as a people’s historian, despite the difficulties in defining what that term actually means.  Sophie claimed that biography is key to bringing out Samuel’s architectural type, explaining why and how he did what he did.  She also emphasised Samuel’s relevance to contemporary debates on the social role of the intellectual and historian, he advocated for empowering people to speak for themselves.

Our second speaker was Jeffrey Gutierrez from Boston who talked about the issues that surround the editing of collections of letters, in particular reference to William Carlos Williams.  Jeffrey explained how the first edition of his letters were heavily censored, as the poet was still alive at the time.  An important question is how to transcribe Williams’ letters into print, as he often did something artistic with the form of them and although past editors have argued that his is of no relevance, Jeffrey contested this view.  He showed the audience two letters written only a few months apart.  One had been left uncorrected, and showed the state of Williams’ mind following a series of strokes due to the large number of errors.  The corrected letter gives the impression that Williams had made a miraculous recovery, which was, of course, not the case.

Maria Rita Drumond Viana highlighted the vast resources available in relation to W.B. Yeats and how fortunate she felt to now have access to them here in Oxford.  She put forward the notion of letters as a literary genre in themselves, in contrast to how they are used by other scholars, as documents, evidence and testimony.  This distinguishes what a letter says from how it says it.  She put forward the contested notion that the correspondence of a writer can be considered as part of their work, which is not possible with any other artist.  In the discussion this was further covered, where Maria Rita argued that while letters may not be considered part of a writer’s work, they can be included as examples of the way in which they write.

Finally Tracey Potts our visiting scholar from Nottingham University gave us an insight into the methodology and its problems when writing about the biography of objects.  Her work  focuses on clutter and procrastination, which Tracey was quick to point out was not a reflection on her own life! One of the problems when working with clutter in particular is how we deal with piles of stuff, and how we relate to the material world.  Clutter is a certain challenge as it is a thing that is not a thing. An important part of her work is extending the notion of agency to the non-human world, when at present humans are at the centre of the stories of things.  This counters the idea that humans control things; Tracey posited the fact that perhaps it was the other way around and that things might have designs on us.  To further pique our interest in her work she informed us that penguins and coffee tables are two cast members in the book.

Yours Sincerely: The Rise and Fall of the Letter

Yours Sincerely: The Rise and Fall of the Letter

28-29 June 2013

Manchester, United Kingdom

The tradition of communication through correspondence can be traced far back in the annals of ancient history, but the rise of technology is daily changing the face and format of the letter. This conference will explore forms of correspondence as they have evolved from simple letters between friends and literary personalities and their shared experiences to revelations, through correspondence, of scientists, statesmen and celebrities. It will also look at the language used in the traditional letter, the email, the text message and the tweet as well as the constant change and development in this form of dialogue from the past and into the future, examining related fields and the letter in its historical and literary contexts.

Papers are sought from all disciplines, including but not limited to literature, history, anthropology, psychology, philosophy and other social sciences and arts.
Proposals are sought for 20 minute papers.
Possible themes may include (but are not limited to):

The changing language of digital correspondence

Victorian women writers

Challenges of editing letters

Evidential value for biographers, historians

19th century letter writers

20th century letter writers

21st century letter writers

Use of letters as a device in fiction

The epistolary novel

The lasting value of digital correspondence as an archival or primary source

The future of letter writing

Abstracts of 250-300 words (for a 20 min paper) should be sent via email to librarian@theportico.org.uk or assistant.librarian@theportico.org.uk by 1st April 2013.

Selected papers may be invited for inclusion in an academic collection of essays following the conference.

An exhibition surrounding the theme of the conference will run from 11th June to the 26th of July at The Portico Library and will tie in with Quarry Bank Mill’s ‘Best Wishes’ exhibition which begins in April and extends to the rest of 2013.