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The Poets' Daughters review a meticulous double portrait

An elegantly interlocking biography of Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge shows us that greatness casts a long shadow

They might have believed that children should run "wild and free", but William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge both weighed heavily on the lives of their eldest daughters. Katie Waldegrave's elegantly interlocking biography of the two women lifelong friends, raised closely together sensitively highlights the frustrations and pain of their supposedly rarefied upbringing. Coleridge abandoned his family when Sara was a child, and his absence as powerful as his occasional presences, while Wordsworth's expectation that Dora would mimic Milton's daughters and devote herself to being his amanuensis tightly constrained her future.

Both women managed to write their own books and Sara became editor of her father's work, but Waldegrave's meticulous double portrait shows lives notably lacking in poetry. All around them, there is illness and death: stillbirths, lost children, suddenly fatal sore throats and "rheumatic fevers", depression and madness. Dora, possibly suffering from anorexia, became horribly emaciated, while Sara, obsessed with her menstrual cycles, followed her father into opium addiction, with all its bowel-related indignities. These trials might not be unique to them, but the book's emphasis on physical debility underlines the feeling that greatness casts a dark, destructive shadow.

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