To an eighteenth century sensibility, the Lake District was not necessarily a desirable place to live in. It's wild, mountainous prospects and great beauty excited the romantic imagination. But the privations of life in so remote and barbaric a region -- its rocks and `torrents roaring' -- could also induce a shudder of horror and offered little to the sophisticated tourist who required both bodily comfort and elegant diversion. It was these extremes that drew Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey north; their friend Charles Lamb preferred to remain in the civilised surroundings of a London Street.
The Wordsworths lived at Grasmere, the Coleridge's and Southey's twelve miles away at Keswick. The two households, linked initially by the friendship of the poets, remained close even after relations between the men deteriorated - bound together by the extraordinary tenacity of their wives and sisters. These six women, two groups of sisters, connected by blood and marriage, formed a series of passionate, triangular relationships. The three Fricker sisters, Sarah Coleridge, Edith Southey and Mary Lovell at Greta Hall, near Keswick, Dorothy Wordsworth and her childhood friends Mary (who married William) and Sara Hutchinson at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, created a kind of extended family that kept the Lake Poets together long after they had ceased to be friends. Inevitably their daughters -- Dora Wordsworth, Sara Coleridge and Edith May southey -- thrown so much upon each others' company, formed close friendships and perpetuated the links.
The modern reader will be astonished by the distances they travelled, often on foot. Coleridge and the Wordsworths thought nothing of walking the twelve or thirteen miles between Grasmere and Keswick to visit each other, sometimes in the dark. The roads were rough and often unmetalled. They were shod either in clogs -- wooden soles with a leather shoe upper for rough walking -- or stout shoes with a double leather sole. The cobbler's bill was one of their biggest expenses.
Sarah Coleridge and her sisters were city girls. Unlike Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth, they had little relish for vigorous exercise and the outdoor hazards of wind, rain and mud. Both Sarah and her sister Mary Lovell became very stout in middle age and found it an effort to walk even short distances. Visits to Grasmere were made either in a borrowed carriage or a `returned chaise'.
Sara Hutchinson too, had little fondness for long walks. A stroll along the garden terraces or the margins of the lake should, she felt, be enough exercise for anyone. Longer journeys were undertaken by coach or on horseback -- sometimes on a `double horse'; a sturdy mount with a double saddle for riders in tandem. Only the rich had their own carriages. For long journeys the better off hired a chaise with post horses and post boys. Others bought a seat on a mail coach, travelling in cramped conditions and much discomfort. Cheaper seats were to be had outside on the roof exposed to the elements. For the poor there were slow rides in a carrier's cart sometimes pulled by oxen.
But horse travel was not without its hazards. Both William and Mary Wordsworth narrowly escaped serious injury when their carriages were overturned, and William was thrown from his horse more than once. Mary's cousin was permanently paralysed by just such an accident, and Sara Hutchinson was almost killed when the horse in front of her was struck by lightning.
It was perhaps inevitable that Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey should meet. They were of a similar age and inclination, aspiring poets and ardent democrats. They were introduced by mutual friends at university. All three men had been orphaned at an early age, and so were the women they married. This sense of loss and abandonment was another common bond. They clung together, not because of youthful ideals of community, but because they sought to recreate the security of family life. Their lives were financially precarious -- all were dependent on the charity of friends to free them from the burden of earning a living in order to write. Wordsworth was left a legacy from his school friend Raisley Calvert to sustain himself and Dorothy; Southey was given an annuity by an Oxford contemporary Wynn, and Coleridge was given a similar annuity by the benevolent Wedgewood brothers, whom he had met in the west country.
To their families and more conventional acquaintances they were spongers -- unwilling to take proper jobs to support themselves, scribbling the odd line of poetry, which paid little or nothing, lying in bed till lunchtime and wandering about the countryside like gypsies at all hours of the day and night, returning with torn, dirty clothes and broken shoes. The women they married had to take their share of the general atmosphere of disapproval.
Drawn together initially by marriage and friendship, forced on each other's society by geographical proximity, the women's relationships were far from harmonious. There was intense jealousy between Sarah Coleridge and Dorothy Wordsworth, the pivotal figures in the group. They had conflicting personalities. Dorothy was tall, lean, `all fire and ardour', eyes `wild and startling in a face of Egyptian brown'. Heedless of appearances, she transmitted intellectual energy to everyone around her and was credited by William with having awakened his senses to the beauties of nature. But this vivid creature, whose neighbours long remembered both her eccentricity and her kindness, had another side to her which she tried very hard to suppress. Her gentleness was paralleled by a ruthless streak that bordered on cruelty, a trait her brother described in an early draft of the poem `Nutting', where he describes her slashing down the hazels `in truth/If I had met thee here with that keen look/Half cruel in its eagerness, those cheeks/Thus [ ] flushed with a tempestuous bloom,/I might have almost deem'd that I had pass'd/A houseless being in a human shape,/An enemy of nature' . Dorothy's love affair with her brother is one of the great literary relationships.
Sarah Coleridge was plump, `in person full and rather below the common height', but always elegantly dressed, something Dorothy scoffed at behind her back. But Sarah was far from the domestic cipher often portrayed. She and her sister Edith were well-educated and followers of Mary Wollstonecraft. It was their emancipated behaviour that caused Byron to remark sarcastically that Coleridge and Southey had `married two milliners from Bath' - milliner being a contemporary euphemism for an immoral woman. Byron was also referring unkindly to the Fricker sisters' unfortunate circumstances, which had forced them to earn their own livings as seamstresses before they married.
Marriage was virtually the only career open to a respectable middle-class woman. It was extremely difficult to earn an independent living. As Mary Wollstonecraft pointed out. `Few are the modes of earning a subsistence, and those very humiliating'. The poor worked on the land, in factories or went into service. For the single middle class woman lucky enough to have some education, the only career was that of the needle-woman, governess or the more limited possibilities of the female author. There was little formal education, and universities and professions were barred to women until the latter part of the nineteenth century.
This situation often trapped women into positions of dependency; either on their husbands or on their families if they failed to marry. For those whose marriages did not turn out well there was no escape. Divorce and separation were rare, expensive and socially ruinous for women, who were usually forced to stay in unhappy, sometimes abusive relationships. It is not surprising to find that such claustrophobic emotional conditions caused considerable stress and adversely affected their general health. The Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth women were no exceptions.
Reading their diaries and letters, you begin to realise how much the issue of health dominated their lives. Minor ailments meriting no more than a course of antibiotic or a couple of paracetamol today, confined them to bed and left them weak and ill. Childhood illnesses such as whooping cough and measles often killed both children and adults. Immunisation was in its infancy. Public hygiene was primitive and cholera and typhoid were one of the realities of everyday British life.
Medical practice killed as often as it cured. Patients, already weakened by disease were often bled to death. Another supposedly beneficial torture was `blistering' where hot cups were applied to the skin producing a superficial burn. The pain and irritation of the wound distracted the patient from whatever other affliction they were suffering and gave them the illusion that the condition had improved.
The only pain killers available were opiates, whose addictive properties were little understood. The most commonly used was Laudanum -- a distillation of opium in alcohol available in a number of different strengths. Large numbers of people became addicted to Laudanum, including Coleridge, his daughter Sara, De Quincey and Dorothy Wordsworth.
By far the greatest scourge for adults and children alike was toothache. Modern dentistry was far in the future and most people suffered torture as their teeth decayed. The only solution was to have the tooth pulled, without anaesthetic, by the feared `tooth drawer'. By the time she was thirty Dorothy Wordsworth had lost most of her teeth and paid large sums of money to have the remaining stumps drawn. Sarah Coleridge and her sisters had rather stronger enamel -- perhaps as a result of having been brought up in a hard water area -- but even so by the time Sarah was forty five her irrepressible smile had a number of gaps in it.
Sara Hutchinson was reduced to only one good tooth, which she wrenched eating a pear and had to masticate her food on the roof of her mouth with her tongue. She debated for quite a while on the pros and cons of false teeth made from porcelain. `There is nothing of disgust can attach to them as there does to the human teeth when set in bone -- the very sight makes your flesh creep -- which was one of the reasons of my reluctance to have anything to do with them . . . the price is awful, two G[uinea]'s!! But they will last longer than I shall'.(3) Apparently Dorothy had already had three sets. Some did not fit and Sara feared that she would be unable to wear them, but thought it worth the risk.
What is striking about the group, is the amount of mental illness suffered by the women. Of them all, only Sarah Coleridge, Mary Wordsworth and her sister Sara Hutchinson were largely free of it, though they too were ill with nervous exhaustion or what we would now refer to as `stress' at certain times of their lives.
Depression and `hysteria' were a prominent feature of nineteenth century women's lives, a phenomenon lucidly discussed in Elaine Showalter's book The Female Malady. Intelligent, creative, full of potential, the women of the Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey families led stifling lives within the four walls of their houses -- their lives bounded by child-rearing and domestic concerns without any prospect of escape. Dorothy Wordsworth found relief in long solitary walks on the hills, but her mind finally gave way under the emotional stresses of her life, the corrosion of opium and a lack of personal fulfilment that left her feeling barren and useless.
For Edith southey, a fearful, pessimistic disposition and a miserable marriage made her depressed and the victim of eating disorders. Her grief at losing four of her children finally eroded the last shreds of her sanity. She became increasingly hostile towards her sisters, her husband and even her remaining children. She was often violent towards them and had to be restrained. When Edith was taken to the Quaker Retreat at York, she showed no desire to go back home at all.
Mary Lovell -- possessed of a fine intellect grounded in the classics and a lively, extrovert disposition that had taken her onto the Bristol stage -- was literally bored out of her mind in the back room at Greta Hall. The knowledge that the future held nothing for her except more of the same, kept her prostrated on the sofa with only Hartshorn and Lavender Water for alleviation.
This blight affected the younger generation too. The beautiful, wilful Dora Wordsworth, whose literary and artistic talents are apparent in her journals, letters and drawings, remained dutifully silent for most of her life. She formed romantic attachments with both men and women -- the most intense and significant being with the novelist Maria Jane Jewsbury. After Jane died she married a life-long friend, Edward Quillinan -- a poet thirteen years her senior, against her father's wishes. William disliked losing what Coleridge called `his petticoats'.
Despite further family opposition, Dora travelled to Portugal with Quillinan and on her return published an account of her experiences which violated yet another family taboo. Dora died at home the following year -- an emaciated skeleton whose tubercular bones protruded through her pressure sores. She withstood the agony with the stoicism that had kept her smiling through all her earlier discouragements and disappointments.
Dora's best friend, Edith May Southey, escaped the family net into a fashionable marriage, bearing the burden of guilt that her departure had precipitated the final crumbling of her mother's mind. Edith May's cousin, Sara Coleridge, determined not to be caught in the same trap, found herself in the double bind of a woman trying to lead two lives. The roles of wife and mother did not fit neatly with those of scholar and author.
Caught between the demands of her body and those of her mind, both were almost wrecked by the conflict. As Adrienne Rich put it `trying to fulfil traditional female functions in a traditional way is in direct conflict with the subversive function of the imagination'. In order to conform to society's notions of what women were supposed to be, much of a woman's real personality -- particularly her longings and expectations -- were suppressed.
The Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey women were very familiar with this subversive female `other' -- a truculent, disobedient, independently minded, creative, sexual being, whose face rose towards them every time they looked in the mirror. It was a vision perfectly evoked by Sara Coleridge's second cousin Mary Coleridge.
I sat before my glass one day,
And conjured up a vision bare,
Unlike the aspects glad and gay,
That erst were found reflected there --
The vision of a woman wild
With more than womanly despair. . .
Her lips were open -- not a sound
Came through the parted lines of red.
Whate'er it was, the hideous wound
In silence and in secret bled.
No sigh relieved her speechless woe,
She had no voice to speak her dread . . .
Shade of a shadow in the glass,
O set the crystal surface free!
Pass -- as the fairer visions pass --
Nor ever more return, to be
The ghost of a distracted hour,
That heard me whisper, `I am she!'
Writing a group biography has the advantage of allowing a multi-faceted view of each individual, seen from a number of different perspectives. As the young Sara Coleridge wrote, `Poor is the portrait that one look pourtrays/It mocks the face on which we loved to gaze' But it also poses a number of technical problems and, with so many people in focus at the same time, the duplication of names can be very confusing to the reader. There are three Saras, two Dorothys, two Marys and two Ediths. In order to simplify, I have adopted the practice of distinguishing one Sara from another by keeping the H for Sarah Coleridge and dropping it for her daughter Sara and -- as Coleridge wished -- for Sara Hutchinson (his beloved Asra). Sarah's sister Mary Lovell is usually referred to by first and second names to distinguish her from Mary Hutchinson (subsequently Wordsworth). Edith Southey is referred to as Edith and her daughter as Edith May, which was the usual practice of the family. Dorothy Wordsworth shared the same name as her niece, who was usually known to family and friends as Dora.
It was usual at this date for men to refer to their peers by their surnames only -- their wives and female relatives would also do this when talking about their husbands and fathers outside the family. Christian names were only used between husband and wife, brother and sister or very close friends. Mary would talk about William within the family but to others he would be `Wordsworth' or `Mr Wordsworth'. Coleridge preferred to be known by his surname or his initials STC (Esteesi), even by his family circle since he hated his christian name. This practice has, where practicable been followed in the book.