The Wordsworths and Forncett
Forncett is justifiably proud of its link to William Wordsworth, the radical poet acknowledged as the poet of nature, who awakened consciousness within his readers of the beauties and harmonies of the natural world. He will be forever associated with The Lake District, where, living with his sister Dorothy and close to Coleridge, he changed the course of poetry, introducing and refining what is now called 'Romantic poetry' as part of the movement of Romanticism in literature and art.
William, his sister Dorothy and 3 brothers were born in Cockermouth, (William in 1770 and Dorothy a year later on Christmas Day), into an impressive spacious house with a garden bordering the river Derwent. They were baptised together and went to school together as young children. Their garden seems to have allowed early lessons in nature study. Dorothy's name for the tiger moth caterpillar was "woolly boy." We have an early clue to Dorothy's tender sensibility; we are told that on her first sight of the sea as a small child, she burst into tears. William makes references to these happy early years together in several poems:
'The blessing of my later years
Was with me when a boy:
She gave me eyes, she gave me ears
And love and thought and joy.'
When Dorothy was 6, their mother died. Three months later she was sent to Halifax to live with a second cousin of her mother, Elizabeth Threlkeld, and was not to see her beloved brother again for 9 years. (It is possible that a psychologist would be able to comment on this separation in the light of the pair's later intense and dependent relationship). Indeed, Dorothy was not again to return home; her father failed to send for her, although her 4 brothers returned home regularly from their boarding school. Her foster-mother, (always called aunt), was loving and warm however, and Dorothy spent happy years in the heart of this family, making too, a deep friendship with Jane Pollard, a girl of her own age with whom she later became a prolific correspondent. Her brothers though, were not forgotten, especially William. She told Jane, "We have been endeared to each other by early misfortune." Her upbringing in Halifax was grounded in the values of honesty, kindness, optimism, thrift and hard work and shaped her life-long dedication to family and service. She continued to write to Jane for many years.
Dorothy Wordsworth Photo Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=717043
The connection with Forncett was to begin in 1788. By the age of 17, Dorothy, had been removed from the home she had shared so happily with her aunt, to live with her Grandparents. Here, she was not happy, but the intervention of a kindly uncle, The Reverend William Cookson altered the course of her life. He took an interest in Dorothy, (she was of course living with his parents), tutored her and then invited this 17 year old niece to live with him and his new wife at the living in Forncett he had been offered. Dorothy's reaction is recorded in a letter to Jane, "To live in the country and with such kind friends!..I was almost mad with joy..." She was not disappointed..."That Uncle whom I so much love...every day gives me new proofs of his affection and every day I like him better than I did before."
Her first impression of the handsome Georgian rectory was of "grace and beauty" and "the little church called the heart to meditation and peace." She wrote to Jane: "We are now happily settled at Forncett - my room is one of the pleasantest in the house. I intend to be a great gardener and promise myself great pleasure in taking care of the poultry which we are to have in abundance."
Forncett is proud of course of its connection with William Wordsworth but we have to admit the time he spent here was brief, often little more than a footnote in biographies of the great man. His younger sister though spent formative years here, five of them. These were happy times for Dorothy, (setting aside her perpetual longing to be close to William); we know this from letters written by her and accounts of her busy practical life. Here she learnt many useful domestic skills and opened a little school, undertaken with the greatest dedication, taking pride in her pupils' achievements. We can imagine how the pupils would have loved this kind, sensitive, lively teacher. It is possible too, to picture her from written descriptions, a slight lithe figure, dark hair flying, full of joy and enthusiasm, loving her surrounds, and her duties. John Thelwall described her as "...the maid of ardent eye." She quickly became imbued with the evangelical philosophy of her uncle and his friend William Wilberforce, who was "struck by the vitality of this young girl, her words tumbling from her mouth with an almost stammering intensity." He gave Dorothy 10 guineas a year to distribute to the poor of Forncett.
These Forncett years seem to have passed in deep contentment and letters from Dorothy at the time confirm how agreeable she found her home. We are told that: She looked on "meadows scarlet with poppies, most beautiful to see". Every morning she "heard the singing of a great choir of birds, thrush and bullfinch and blackbird and yellowhammer. The larks soared singing from among the graves." The woods, hedgerows and meadows would have been dense and rich with wildflowers, and alongside the footpaths and river at the bottom of the garden, butterflies and dragonflies would have abounded.
Her domestic duties increased as the family increased. Dorothy adored her young charges and she worked alongside her aunt as helpmeet and aunt, with unflagging energy and tenderness. Her love of William though is unwavering and the bond is deeply mutal. He wrote to her:
"I have thought of you perpetually: and never have my eyes burst upon a scene of particular loveliness but I have almost instantly wished that you could for a moment be transported to the place where I stood, to enjoy it"
The closing months of the year of 1790 brought immense joy to Dorothy; William, returned from a walking holiday, made his second and longer six week stay at Forncett Rectory. "Every morning they walked in the country. Every evening they paced the avenue of limes or up and down the long gravel walk of the garden from four to six, heedless of the whistle of the North wind amongst the trees over their heads, heedless of the cold." The young poet and eager sister, although deep in conversation, would have been very alive to the beauty of their surroundings. Norfolk skies would have shown sunsets of every hue. Perhaps they heard the rooks cry in unison as the wind rose and the treetops shuttled to and fro. We know that here William wrote one short sonnet, untitled, but known as 'Sweet was the Walk'.
'Sweet was the walk along the narrow lane
At noon, the bank and hedge-rows all the way
Shagged with wild pale green tufts of fragrant hay,
Caught by the hawthorns from the loaded wain,
Which Age with many a slow stoop strove to gain;
And childhood, seeming still most busy, took
His little rake; with cunning side-long look,
Sauntering to pluck the strawberries wild, unseen.
Now, too, on melancholy's idle dreams
Musing, the lone spot with my soul agrees,
Quiet and dark; for through the thick wove trees
Scarce peeps the curious star till solemn gleams
The clouded moon, and calls me forth to stray
Thro' tall, green, silent woods and ruins gray.'
From windows in the Rectory they would have seen the timeless grey tower, encircled by rooks and the peaceful graveyard. It is tempting to imagine that on Sundays, William and Dorothy, (Dorothy in bonnet and William probably wearing the forerunner of the 'top hat'), would have made the short journey to join the farming families and gentry of Forncett, sitting quietly on a wooden pew, light slanting through high clerestory windows, to hear their uncle's sermons.
Wordsworth's visit to France fostered early revolutionary and radical ideas, although these were to alter over later decades. He also fell in love. Marie Annette Vallon bore him a child in 1793. She was the daughter of his host, a surgeon in Blois. Poverty though, drove William home leaving his daughter and her unmarried mother. This was a terrible blow to Dorothy who had cherished the idea of making a home with William, possibly in Forncett. Hoping that Annette might yet be brought to Forncett, the task fell upon her to tell her uncle. Dr. Cookson was shocked; he considered William selfish and imprudent and barred him from Forncett. This almost certainly marks the point at which Dorothy no longer saw her future in Forncett. Although devoted to her Aunt and Uncle, her most earnest desire was that she should live with William. She finally left in February 1794 for Halifax and was reunited with William shortly after arriving. They would rarely be separated again.
Dorothy is not revered merely for being her brother's sister. We have interesting testimony about her character; Wilberforce considered her to be a woman of "excessive organic sensibility" in whom burned "the secret fire of a temperament too fervid." De Quincey considered her to have a "constitutionally deep sensibility" and "some subtle fire of impassioned intellect which apparently burned within her." Her fame today, growing since the last century, rests on the journals she wrote later in life, when at last living with William at Grasmere. In them she reveals herself as a poet naturalist. Dorothy had wide and deep knowledge of the natural world; her observations were close, her descriptions had clarity. Her journals are full of tender observations of landscape, flora and fauna.
"The young Bullfinches in their party coloured Rainment bustle about among the Blossoms and poize themselves like Wire dancers or tumblers, shaking the twigs and dashing off the Blossoms. There is yet one primrose in the orchard - the stitchwort is fading - the wild columbines are coming into beauty - some of the gowans fading...The scarlet Beans are up in crowds...The heckberry blossoms are dropping off fast, almost gone - barberries are in beauty- snowballs coming forward- May Roses blossoming.”
Her affectionate observations are intensely alive, made with humour and throughout her journals her descriptions are poetic in the power they own to bring images and associations to the reader's mind's eye. It is believed that William made use of her written observations, among them this:
"I never saw daffodils so beautiful, they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed into the wind..."
Full due is paid by Wordsworth to the debt he owed to his sister, making use in his poetry of their intense discussions and the notes in which she recorded all they saw, in their long explorations and walks. That William valued her immense talent and loved her almost reverentially is shown in his poetry:
Dear Sister! was a kind of gentler spring,
That went before my steps.'
It tempting to speculate that had Dorothy not turned almost her entire energy to the domestic life of those she loved, and the necessary drudgery and long hours that accompany this, plus her additional work as William's amanuensis, that she too could have become a brilliant poet. This was the eighteenth century and early nineteenth however, the same time in which Mozart's sister Maria Anna Mozart, (Nannerl), was playing with prodigious talent alongside her brother in the great houses of Europe and composing. Society then, decreed that women should marry, or lead the life of the industrious spinster, helping the family. Had Dorothy and William been born today, who knows? Maybe Dorothy would have been anxious to write more and publish. The Brontes were determined to do so but were born a critical 46 years later; Jane Austen, born just a few years after Dorothy, succeeded. Dorothy though, had another preoccupation. Much of her life had been spent in a nurturing role and it was William, beloved chosen brother and genius, who satisfied her passionate need to devote herself entirely to the welfare of another. William himself, recognised Dorothy's literary skill. It is believed by many today, that Dorothy, through her poetic contributions to his work, her care and constant companionship, helped ensure her brother's achievements and lasting reputation as one of the world's greatest poets.
Maclean, Catherine MacDonald. 1932. 'Dorothy Wordsworth: the Early Years', Viking Press.
Gittings, Robert., and Manton, Jo. 1985. 'Dorothy Wordsworth', Open University Press.
Wilson, Frances. 2008. ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth', Faber and Faber.
Times Literary Supplement Biography and Letters
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