I seem to be spending my time visiting writers' houses, but what else do you do on a rainy day in the Lake District? I'd never visited Dove Cottage. Wordsworth is not a favourite of mine. He's a bit of a gap in my literary landscape, if I'm really honest. I didn't study his poetry at school, or university, and never taught his work, so I have little more than a general readers' knowledge. I admired his radical stance vis a vis the French Revolution, His lines:
''Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!''
Seemed to sum up something about those momentous times, so I read that Prelude, and about his going to France when I was writing Sovay. I could identify with that, but not so much with settling down in Grasmere, until a few weeks ago when I went to the house. It was a revelation. It was as though I was discovering something really important. Centuries separate his time from ours and the Wordsworths didn't even live there for that long a time, but I felt a tingling, as if there was something about them still in the house.
I went round the house, from room to room, and could almost feel their presence. Stepping into the kitchen parlour, which the Wordsworths called the Houseplace, a small room, dark with diamond paned window and oak panelling but made cosy and welcoming by the glowing fire, it was not hard to imagine it filled with children playing, dogs barking, people coming in from the cold outside for a warm in front of the fire. The next room was the kitchen, a working room, sunk almost below ground level, with its range and oven, table and adjacent buttery slabbed in slate with a stream running through it. Wordsworth didn't like to come in here too often, we were told, domestic clamour disturbed his train of thought. No wonder he was the poet, not Dorothy.
He spent most of his time in the upstairs sitting room, a long, bright room with his chair in pride of place. He didn't like to work at a desk, preferring to sit in his chair to write and compose. He could leave the study and step straight out, avoiding any upsetting domestic scenes, and sit and look at his garden, ranging up the hill side. A garden of practicalities, fruit bushes and fruit trees, mixed with Romantic ideas of the pastoral, half wild, planted with violets, daffodils, primroses and cowslips, flowers from the woods and hillsides.
On William's bed lay his case. The case he took on his travels to Europe. It was very small, not room for much at all. He'd written his name on the inside lid, the letters not quite fitting, having to be squashed up at one end. Details like that brought home his humanity, his real presence in this house. In one of the rooms, there was a glass cabinet containing his ice skates and his spectacles. There was also a little bottle of 'Lancaster Black Drops', a local laudanum concoction, probably recoursed to by the family for aches and pains, rather than frequent visitors, Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Thomas De Quincey. They would have swigged the lot in one go. Another room, the children's bedroom, was papered with The Times, cheaper than wallpaper, but now uniquely preserving the room in its precise time.
The museum was full of treasures: manuscripts, letters and journals. Here, it was Dorothy Wordsworth who came alive for me, her writing separating her life from the domestic duties in the house. Her journals, written in that quick, flowing hand told of their life outside the domestic confines, walking the hills deep in conversation, exploring ideas, discussing their work. These walks were as important, if not more important than anything that went on inside the house. What I found so moving were the marks on the pages: the crossings out, the uneven ink flow. In one letter, the paper is splashed, the words dissolved by tears, as Dorothy tells William about the death of his daughter.
After my recent blog about Dylan Thomas' Writing Shed http://awfullybigblogadventure.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/sheds-celia-rees.html its beginning to look like I spend all my time haunting writers' houses. This isn't true, but I do sometimes find inspiration from the places where other writers lived, worked and strived and I came away from Dove Cottage exhilarated, with a copy of Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals and a vow to re-acquaint myself with Wordsworth and the Romantic Poets. There might be a book in it somewhere, who knows? But that's not really the point. I want to know more about them now and feel that I will be the richer for it.
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