The Poets’ Daughters: Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge by Katie Waldegrave

Living where I do, having an interest in literature means that you would have to go out of your way to not have at least some knowledge of the ‘Lake Poets’: primarily Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey. I’ll admit that my reading of the latter two has been somewhat lacking, but I did a module of study on Wordsworth and have visited Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount a couple of times. On my most recent visit to Dove Cottage, Katie Waldegrave’s biography of Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge jumped out at me (I wasn’t intending on leaving with another book when my TBR pile is already towering on my desk) and I was intrigued to find out more about the generation that followed these famous poets.

The Poets’ Daughters follows the lives of Dora and Sara from Sara’s first visit to the Wordsworths’ chaotic new home of Allan Bank in 1808 to her death (after Dora’s) in 1852. Between these two moments, Waldegrave weaves together the lives of these two women, bound up in the works of their fathers, as they navigate mental illnesses, romantic relationships, and the disapproval of society as they both sought to become published themselves. Waldegrave draws heavily on the letters and journals of both women, and those of their friends, to put together their fears, hopes, and views of the world; Sara’s sections tend to more detailed than Dora’s since she processed a lot of her thoughts in writing and appears to have been very open in her letters about her mental health. However, for both women Waldegrave has managed to provide a picture that feels complete and balanced.

I will be the first to admit that I am often quite lazy when it comes to non-fiction books: it will usually take me at least twice as long to read a non-fiction book than it would to read a novel. My ‘should-be-reading pile’ (books I have started and not yet finished) is usually exclusively filled with non-fiction works. However, in The Poets’ Daughters, I found something rare: a non-fiction book I was entirely engrossed and engaged with. Waldegrave is writing as a historian but the way she has brought the world of these two women to life engaged me like a novel; as a reader, I was invested in discovering how the stories of Dora and Sara would end.

One main theme of the book is friendship: not only between Dora and Sara, but between Wordsworth and Coleridge; Mary Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, Sara Hutchinson, and Sarah Coleridge; and the Southey, Wordsworth, and Coleridge children. It is easy to see why the lives of these three families have inspired so many biographical works as they appear more like one large family than three separate ones. With any biographical work there is an element of bias, but from Waldegrave’s book it certainly seems that the relationships forged from these families growing up together were relationships that lasted throughout their lifetimes, supporting each other emotionally, physically, and financially.

Another aspect of the book that appealed to me, and one which I felt Waldegrave dealt with sensitively and realistically, was the exploration of both Dora and Sara’s mental health. Sara Coleridge is much more open about her mental illness in her letters and journals than Dora, even going so far as to write an essay entitled ‘On Nervousness’ reflecting on the two sides of herself: the ‘Good Genius’, when she was working and healthy, and the ‘Invalid Self’, who was plagued with nightmares and was unable to leave her bed for months at a time (p.166). She was self-aware enough to recognise moments of depression as opposed to regular sadness and grief. Although Dora was clearly ill much of the time, it is also clear from letters and the journals of others that she kept herself unnaturally thin by controlling her eating; the term ‘anorexia’ was not yet in existence so Waldegrave is hesitant to use it, but she does make links between case studies of those with anorexia and the situation of Dora Wordsworth.

Overall, this was a book which revealed an aspect of the ‘Lake Poets’ that I find infinitely more interesting than the poets themselves: the women who had created a vast community around them. It is clear that the writing and legacy of particularly Wordsworth and Coleridge had a huge impact on their daughters and The Poets’ Daughters has definitely made me want to seek out more books about the families that lived at Greta Hall and Rydal Mount. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Wordsworth and Coleridge, but also for anyone who is interested to see an exploration of how two women struggled to maintain and defend the literary legacy of their fathers.

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