"Romantic Romantics":

21 July 2011

I have recently finished working on one of Adam Matthew’s newest resources, Romanticism: Life, Literature and Landscape, the digitisation of The Wordsworth Trust’s unique manuscript collection covering William Wordsworth, his family and contemporary Romantics.

A highlight of the project for me was working through the collection’s 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 Poets’ 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 Valentine’s Day this month, I feel justified in defining ‘Romantic’ 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.

William and Mary Wordsworth

First are a group of letters whose discovery in the 1970s caused scholars to re-evaluate William Wordsworth’s relationship with his wife Mary. Whereas the depth of William’s feelings had previously been questioned, these letters, with such fond openings as ‘My dearest love’ and ‘my sweet darling’, assuaged doubts that theirs was a love-match. Written during rare spells of being apart, William wrote in 1812 of how separation made him “feel how profoundly in soul and body we love each other.” By this time the couple had been married for ten years and had five children, yet William’s letters were still sufficiently passionate as to throw his wife into a veritable flutter: “Oh my William, it is not in my power to tell thee how I have been affected by this dearest of all letters” she writes in 1810. In 1813, she is reduced to tears of happiness by one of William’s love letters, much to her daughter Dora’s befuddlement.

As an adult, Dora would inherit her parents’ 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, Edward’s courtship of Dora was excessively long, and his sufferings are well documented by the couple’s surviving letters. They are by turns affectionate, impatient and frustrated, but most of all, charmingly teasing. “You cruel wicked vagabondizer” opens one of Dora’s letters in 1829, while that same year Edward wrote “if I were to tell you that I am in love with you for your two last letters, you would answer ‘Why you wretch, you have told me that a thousand times before!’ Well, then, I am more in love with you than ever.”

Dora Wordsworth

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 – around the same time then as he declared his love for Dora – to Dora’s aunt Sara Hutchinson. “Sarah my dear, my love, my life! And soon I hope to be my wife!” the little sonnet begins, before ruminating on the domestic pleasures they could soon enjoy (“you’ll make my tea, I like it strong; you’ll mend my stockings, short and long”) and building up to a faux-Shakespearean flourish: “So thou art mine and I am thine, my Sarah thou and I thy Valentine”. Whether serious or not, it is a charming little piece from the collection. The idea of Edward Quillinan being genuinely attracted to Dora’s 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.

Edward Quillinan's valentine to Sara Hutchinson, Thumbnail

It is not known whether Sara Hutchinson reciprocated Coleridge’s love. She never married anyone else, although she was at one time linked with Wordsworth’s younger brother, John. John Wordsworth died tragically young at sea when the ship he was captain of sank in 1805. Coleridge’s lament after John’s death indicated that a union between John and Sara had been anticipated: “Ah that I could but have died for you, and you have gone home, married Sarah Hutchinson”. However, John’s own letters hint that any romantic inclinations he felt were for another woman entirely: Sara’s sister Mary. John Wordsworth composed a number of letters in 1800 and 1801 to ‘my dear Mary’, which, through their frequency and warmth, testify to an affection that ran deeper than friendship. “Write me often, and long letters” he implores in one, adding “to be with thee, I read thy letters a dozen times in a day”. Another begins “I wrote to you this evening, but I cannot forego the pleasure of talking to you a little again”.

Sinking of John Wordsworth's ship 'The Abergavenny', frontispiece Thumbnail

John’s letters to Mary cease when she married his brother William in 1802, after which John never saw her again. That Mary’s marriage to William Wordsworth was a happy one is evidenced by the letters previously quoted; yet it is interesting to speculate on how William’s life and poetry would have evolved had his little brother been quicker to act, and married Mary first.