This is my review of The Poets’ Daughters: Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge by Katie Waldegrave.
The remarkable two volume biography of Coleridge (STC) by Richard Holmes inspired me to read Katie Waldegrave’s very readable and apparently effortless achievement of the difficult task of interweaving the parallel lives of Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, brought up a few miles apart, and friends from childhood.
Dora should have been the happier and more successful of the two: her parents’ marriage was stable, her father was a renowned poet with a supplementary income from his sinecure as “Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland” and they lived in a large house with dramatic views over the Lake District. Yet it seems that for much of her adult life, Dora suffered from acute anorexia, which eventually debilitated her so much that she died in her early forties. Although we cannot be sure of the cause, it must have been related to periods of intense emotional repression. The only times she is recorded as clearly happy are when flirting innocently with the married poet, Edward Quillinan who eventually became her husband, when teaching in a local boarding school against her parents’ wishes, and on various trips away from home, as far afield as Portugal. Otherwise, Dora’s role as a dutiful daughter, working tirelessly as her father’s assistant, coming to terms with the realisation that he would never complete his masterpiece “The Recluse” as he had promised Coleridge, was in conflict with the sadness over seeing other young women of her age finding husbands and forging lives separate from their parents. Her reluctance to marry without her father’s approval delayed her own wedding by several years, and must have caused her considerable stress.
Abandoned by her brilliant but erratic father, Sara Coleridge was dependent on the goodwill of her mother’s brother-in-law, Southey. Like Wordsworth a successful and reasonably affluent poet, Southey fortunately treated her (almost) like a daughter, although on becoming an adult she would have been obliged to work as a governess if her beauty and intelligence had not caught the eye of her first cousin Henry Coleridge. Sara was as it proved justifiably nervous that the duties of housekeeping and childcare would divert her from intellectual pursuits. Before marriage, she confessed to her brother Derwent, “I should have been much happier, with my tastes, temper and habits, had I been of your sex……The thing that would suit me best …would be the life of a country clergyman – I should delight in the studies necessary.. and am sure I …..should not…. shrink from the active duties of it”. The malaise which dogged her throughout her adult life, and led to her own opium addiction, ironical in view of her father’s history, seems to have been worst when her children were young.
What galvanised Sara from her sickbed were Thomas de Quincy’s critical essays accusing her father of plagiarism. Although she had never really known him, apart from his habit of blazing into her life for a few weeks at a time to bewitch her with frightening fairy-tales or to teach her Italian, Sara made it her life’s work to “set the record straight” by editing and interpreting her father’s writings, not shrinking from difficult metaphysical works like the Biographia Literaria. She clearly felt qualified to comment on Coleridge, because she had come to know and understand him through reading his work. They clearly had a similar cast of mind. Prematurely facing death in her forties, Sara wished briefly to have spent more of her all too limited time writing poetry, yet in fact managed to write some fine pieces, including that it is better to know “the stains of frailty” of a noble mind, like her father’s, “than fain would see it white as snow”. She appears quite modern in her insistence on honesty.