Almost single-handedly, the daughters of Wordsworth and Coleridge shaped their poetry for posterity
Amid the idyllic landscape of the Lake District lived three poet patres familias– the now all but forgotten poet laureate Robert Southey; the heir to Milton, William Wordsworth; and his friend and collaborator, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The dependants of these great men "merged into an extended family: a spider's web of relationships built on love and envy, rivalry and fierce loyalty", out of which Katie Waldegrave plucks the poets' daughters, Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, from relative obscurity, setting them centre stage in a joint biography all of their own.
Wordsworth and Coleridge defined and dictated the Romantic age, but how their poetry was shaped for posterity was near single-handedly down to the ways in which these two women "tended the legacies of their fathers": Sara edited her father's works as well as writing the introduction to his Biographia Literaria, while the notes Dora produced to accompany Wordsworth's poetry have proved invaluable to scholars ever since.
In true Wordsworthian style, cue serene, rustic years in which "children and poets flowed back and forth across the Raise". The Wordsworths lived at Allan Bank, on top of a hill outside the village of Grasmere, a cold, smoky house packed with people – the poet, his wife and children, his sister, Dorothy, and his wife's sister, Aunt Sara. Behind every great man is a great woman, as the saying goes; Wordsworth, however, was propped up by four. In 1808 as Waldegrave's story opens, Coleridge and five-year-old Sara joined the household. Coleridge and his wife, Sarah Fricker, were estranged, and Sara's childhood had hitherto been spent with her mother at Greta Hall, her uncle Southey's house, 12 miles north of Allan Bank over Dunmail Raise.
Brought up as close as sisters (each man as much of a father figure to his friend's child as his own), Dora and Sara established a close friendship that lasted their entire lives despite long periods spent apart – Sara settled in London with her husband, Henry, while Dora remained in the Lake District, her father's "living staff" and amanuensis for most of her life, entwined "unhealthy within her family"; her own late marriage to Edward Quillinan, a widowed family friend and her senior by 12 years, rendering a cruel blow to her father, so deep was the bond between them. Without doubt, this was a "mutual adoration", but one that nearly killed Dora, as she starved herself stick-thin during the years her father refused to give his blessing to her and Edward's relationship. Edward's financial situation was indeed precarious, but Wordsworth was clearly used to having things his own way and didn't want to share Dora.
Wordsworth and Dora's relationship would have had Freud rubbing his hands with glee, not least because it made a "peculiar parallel" with the previous closeness between Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. Even Dora's husband-to-be was caught up in it, sending Wordsworth, not Dora, a love poem during their long courtship: never would he have "expressed his love for Dora anything so ardently as he did towards her father". Indeed, the entire extended familial network was a hotbed of neuroses, hysteria and repression, from the eating disorders that Dora "learned" from her mother and aunt, to Sara's dark depressions and split personas – the "Good Genius" who by day ran her household, looked after her children and worked tirelessly to maintain her father's reputation, and the "Invalid" who spent her nights racked by nostalgia and hysterical depression, dependent on morphine to sleep.
To find a fresh story to tell about an already formidably chronicled group of historical figures is an accomplishment in itself, but for weaving such a fascinating familial case history out of the material, Waldegrave deserves considerable praise.