Washed-up by the bards

behaving badly



Review of "A Passionate Sisterhood" by Sue Limb
THE INDEPENDENT LONG WEEKEND FRIDAY 14 JUNE 1997 •

Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be-' Robert Southey sternly warned Charlotte, Bronte. I'd better not write this review.; then. Silly me. I should stick to shopping lists,' Cutlets, not couplets. I've made a living from writing for 20 years and yet, two centuries after Southey's veto, it is still so hard to reconcile the demands of a literary career with the needs of a family and household that I am reduced to tears of exasperation at times.

How much more painful and frustrating were the struggles of these women, in an age when female independence was almost unknown, divorce an aberration, contraception an impossibility, disease mysterious, drugs dangerous, and infant mortality 50 per cent. The Wordsworths, Coleridges and Southeys all lost children. Edith Southey's grief at the death of four of her eight children - one at nine, one at 14 - deprived her of her reason. Dorothy Wordsworth also disintegrated into dementia, worn out by physical drudgery and emotional frustration. The next generation fared no better. Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge struggled with eating disorders and drug dependency.

The female Wordsworths and Coleridges were often more brilliant than their famous menfolk, but the universities were closed to them. They had to be content with the role of handmaidens to the great, copying and editing the works of their fathers or brothers. Dorothy offered up the treasury of her own startlingly unginai iiuies ana icn nunuuieu wncn William pillaged them. Coleridge's daughter Sara translated a work of South American anthropology from Latin into English and earned a considerable sum by it. The money was used fo send her less gifted brother to university.

Sara was a mere girl. On hearing of her birth, Coleridge had "borne the sex with fortitude" even though he had already fathered sons. He declared "the perfection of every woman is to be characterless: creatures who, although they may not always understand you, always feel with you." He demonstrated the splendour of his own character by deserting his wife while their children were still young. It is evident from her comments that his wife understood him all too well.

Mrs Coleridge was given shelter and support by her brother-in-law Robert Southey, but her dependency meant she had to accept his prejudices and judgements too. He would not offer hospitality to her estranged husband nor, later, to her son.