I have recently finished working on one of Adam Matthewâs newest resources, Romanticism: Life, Literature and Landscape, the digitisation of The Wordsworth Trustâs unique manuscript collection covering William Wordsworth, his family and contemporary Romantics.
A highlight of the project for me was working through the collectionâs copious correspondence, over 2,500 pieces from Wordsworth, his family and friends, which offer a direct and at times intimate glimpse into the lives of the Lake Poetsâ circle. By following the paper trail of the Wordsworth connections as I progressed through the letters, a labyrinth of relationships and cross-connections unfolded before me, and the stories and voices of ordinary people, who were it not for the coincidence of their relationship with a renowned poet would be lost to history, came to life. There are many letters which merit special attention, yet as it is Valentineâs Day this month, I feel justified in defining âRomanticâ in its most literal sense, to draw attention to some of my favourite love letters in the resource, and the chain of connections they reveal.
First are a group of letters whose discovery in the 1970s caused scholars to re-evaluate William Wordsworthâs relationship with his wife Mary. Whereas the depth of Williamâs feelings had previously been questioned, these letters, with such fond openings as âMy dearest loveâ and âmy sweet darlingâ, assuaged doubts that theirs was a love-match. Written during rare spells of being apart, William wrote in 1812 of how separation made him âfeel how profoundly in soul and body we love each other.â By this time the couple had been married for ten years and had five children, yet Williamâs letters were still sufficiently passionate as to throw his wife into a veritable flutter: âOh my William, it is not in my power to tell thee how I have been affected by this dearest of all lettersâ she writes in 1810. In 1813, she is reduced to tears of happiness by one of Williamâs love letters, much to her daughter Doraâs befuddlement.
As an adult, Dora would inherit her parentsâ fiery passion, and is suspected of forming deep and perhaps physical relationships with a number of men and women. Among the latter was Maria Jane Jewsbury, whose emotionally charged letters to Dora are included in this resource. Dora would eventually marry Edward Quillinan, the Irish poet and one-time soldier, and old friend of the family. As William Wordsworth objected to the match, Edwardâs courtship of Dora was excessively long, and his sufferings are well documented by the coupleâs surviving letters. They are by turns affectionate, impatient and frustrated, but most of all, charmingly teasing. âYou cruel wicked vagabondizerâ opens one of Doraâs letters in 1829, while that same year Edward wrote âif I were to tell you that I am in love with you for your two last letters, you would answer âWhy you wretch, you have told me that a thousand times before!â Well, then, I am more in love with you than ever.â
Yet Dora was not the first of the Wordsworth household Edward attempted to woo. One of my absolute favourite pieces in the collection is a Valentine that Edward Quillinan sent in February 1928 â around the same time then as he declared his love for Dora â to Doraâs aunt Sara Hutchinson. âSarah my dear, my love, my life! And soon I hope to be my wife!â the little sonnet begins, before ruminating on the domestic pleasures they could soon enjoy (âyouâll make my tea, I like it strong; youâll mend my stockings, short and longâ) and building up to a faux-Shakespearean flourish: âSo thou art mine and I am thine, my Sarah thou and I thy Valentineâ. Whether serious or not, it is a charming little piece from the collection. The idea of Edward Quillinan being genuinely attracted to Doraâs aunt is also not implausible; they were not massively far apart in age, and Sara, despite by all accounts being rather plain, had a history of men falling hopelessly in love with her. Most famously of all, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was for years infatuated with her, despite already being married.
It is not known whether Sara Hutchinson reciprocated Coleridgeâs love. She never married anyone else, although she was at one time linked with Wordsworthâs younger brother, John. John Wordsworth died tragically young at sea when the ship he was captain of sank in 1805. Coleridgeâs lament after Johnâs death indicated that a union between John and Sara had been anticipated: âAh that I could but have died for you, and you have gone home, married Sarah Hutchinsonâ. However, Johnâs own letters hint that any romantic inclinations he felt were for another woman entirely: Saraâs sister Mary. John Wordsworth composed a number of letters in 1800 and 1801 to âmy dear Maryâ, which, through their frequency and warmth, testify to an affection that ran deeper than friendship. âWrite me often, and long lettersâ he implores in one, adding âto be with thee, I read thy letters a dozen times in a dayâ. Another begins âI wrote to you this evening, but I cannot forego the pleasure of talking to you a little againâ.
Johnâs letters to Mary cease when she married his brother William in 1802, after which John never saw her again. That Maryâs marriage to William Wordsworth was a happy one is evidenced by the letters previously quoted; yet it is interesting to speculate on how Williamâs life and poetry would have evolved had his little brother been quicker to act, and married Mary first.