Released: July 2014
‘She shines with a light of her own’, wrote Sara Coleridge in 1847 of her oldest friend, Dora Wordsworth, in whom she discerned a ‘merit’ that was entirely her own and not ‘a mere portion of parental radiance’. As the daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth’s friend and co-creator of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads that launched both men to fame, Sara must have been sympathetic to Dora’s situation.
Inevitably, the two fathers loom large in Katie Waldegrave’s biography of their daughters, but the author nonetheless pays careful attention both to Sara and Dora’s struggles to define an identity for themselves that was distinct from their fathers’ reputation, even while they accepted gladly the management of their literary legacy.
The most striking feature of the early part of Waldegrave’s book is the contrast between Wordsworth and Coleridge’s well-documented youthful radicalism, and the much more bourgeois sensibilities which are shown to have crept in with domesticity.
At times the contradictions between these very different sets of values are startlingly apparent, as when Wordsworth at first insists that his children exhibit a (properly cultivated, and even artificial) sort of ‘wildness’, only to change his mind in Dora’s case when she reaches her teens and begin, confusingly, to demand ‘elegance’ as well.
Sara’s relationship with Coleridge was equally strained, due to his opium addiction and the continual absences from home that made him almost a stranger to his children.
Later in life, the two women would suffer additional hardship in the form of poverty, sickness, depression, bereavement, addiction and eating disorders, but each would also produce her own body of work, both creative and critical.
Sara in particular, in her careful engagement with her father’s writing after his death, would do much to re-establish Coleridge’s reputation in the wake of accusations of plagiarism and immorality, and would simultaneously establish herself as a gifted writer and thinker on subjects including poetry, philosophy, religion and politics.
Dora, meanwhile, was acknowledged by an ageing Wordsworth as his ‘living staff’ for her tireless work transcribing and editing his poems, besides which she found the time to produce writing of her own, including a travel journal of a year spent in Portugal.
However, the parallels between the lives of Dora and Sara do not erase the considerable differences between them in terms of disposition, and the personalities of both women are conveyed with skill by Waldegrave using extracts from their letters.
We see Dora caught between the various demands of her family and the man she will eventually marry, seeking to appease the people around her while never quite letting go of the passion and wildness praised and nurtured by her parents in her youth. Sara is keenly aware of the poor state of her physical and mental health, but in spite of her ‘nervous’ disposition is determined to make use of her considerable talents to make her mark on a world that still perceived women academics as ‘bluestockings’.
Although there are some gaps and flaws in Waldegrave’s coverage of the Wordsworth and Coleridge families (most notably in the scant attention paid to either of her subjects’ mothers and in the somewhat insensitive references to Dora’s ‘mad aunt Dorothy’), for the most part this is a well-researched and thoughtful account of two women who responded each in her own way to the pressures of descending from literary greatness and who formed along the way a lifelong friendship no less important to either than that which had formerly existed between their fathers.
In identifying Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge as worthy subjects for a biography, Waldegrave has not only found a new angle from which to examine two poets whose place in the literary canon is already assured. She has also, and perhaps more importantly, been able to shed a light on the lives of two women who might otherwise be overlooked, or rather to draw attention to an existing light that is entirely their own.