Although by now the image of the Lake District has diminished into a cozy cliché of the pastoral, when William Wordsworth first invited his friends and fellow poets to join him in the area around Grasmere, they were settling in what was considered a remote and barbaric wilderness. Having left behind the conventions of the city as well as its comforts, these Regency hippies tramped through the hills, espoused radical views, fell in and out of love and, in their spare time, redefined English poetry.

    So goes the legend of the Lake District poets. Kathleen Jones offers a different perspective. There is more to life, she points out in "A Passionate Sisterhood," than splendid walks and beautiful poems. Someone must do the wash; someone must raise the children. The freedom of great men to ramble through the woods and scribble verse is made possible by the hard work of women.

    Jones, the author of two previous biographies of English literary women, turns away from the famous men and focuses here on the gifted women of the Wordsworth circle: their complex relationships with one another as well as their unfulfilled potential. The isolation and rough conditions took a heavy toll. Worn down by loss, their talents and ambitions swamped, many became addicted to opium; others just degenerated into dementia.

    Jones neatly folds together the stories of several families and generations. The central figures were Dorothy Wordsworth and Sarah Coleridge. Passionately attached to her brother, Dorothy extended her devotion to his best friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. What Jones calls their "long triangular love affair" inspired in both men their best poetry. During this period, Dorothy wrote journals that preserve her incandescent imagination and gifts of observation. "Tho we were three persons," Coleridge wrote, "it was but one soul."

    There was no room for Mrs. Coleridge in this menage. The Wordsworths deemed her dull and superficial; Coleridge came to share their opinion. Jones considers her unfairly maligned. She reminds us of the fortitude with which Sarah raised her children in the absence of her opium-addicted husband. In one poignant letter, Sarah begged him to return from Germany as their infant lay dying of smallpox. Even after Sarah broke down completely, he waited another six months.

    In 1805, Wordsworth married his sister's best friend, Mary Hutchinson. Dorothy was too hysterical to attend the wedding, but she accompanied them on their honeymoon. "It was virtually the end of her life as a writer," Jones writes. By 1835 Dorothy's greatest pleasure was playing with a bowl of soapsuds; she hid from visitors. The muse of Romanticism had become the madwoman in the attic. Meanwhile, Sarah Coleridge, abandoned by her husband, was forced to rely on the charity of her brother-in-law, Robert Southey. Her sister, Edith Southey, distraught over the early deaths of four children, ended up in an insane asylum in York.

    The stories of the next generation aren't any more cheerful. Coleridge's brilliant daughter Sara devoted herself to editing his work. The burdens of motherhood catapulted her into deep depressions. She eventually died of breast cancer, another opium addict. "In the conflict between the demands of her body and those of her mind," Jones remarks, "both were almost wrecked."

    "A Passionate Sisterhood" powerfully connects these individual tragedies to the general condition of 19th-century women. Yet by concentrating so much on the domestic and mundane, Jones excludes what should be near the heart of her story, the poets and their poetry. We hear a lot about Coleridge's failings as husband and father, but little about the charm and intensity that made him such an original man. These women might have been happier if they hadn't married poets, but surely there were compensations. We can mourn the waste of their creative potential, but without a sense of the poetry's merit, their sacrifices seem truly senseless.  

Ladies of the Lake
April 30, 2000, The New York Times

A review of
A PASSIONATE SISTERHOOD: The Sisters, Wives and Daughters of the Lake Poets.
By Kathleen Jones.