‘She can stand it no longer.  When she looks from her window at the two men running up the avenue to tell her that the wedding is over, she throws herself down on the bed where she lies in a trance, neither hearing nor seeing.  Earlier that morning, William had entered her room and she had removed the ring, which she had been wearing all night, and handed it back to him with a blessing  He had then returned it to her finger, blessing it once more, before leaving for the church to bind him to another.’ 


This is how Frances Wilson begins her book about one of the most enigmatic relationships in English literature; that between Dorothy Wordsworth and her brother, William.  Were they in effect man and wife?  Did they have an incestuous relationship?  How did Dorothy influence William’s poetry? What happened after William married?  


‘The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth’ is based on Dorothy’s Grasmere journals, written between 1800 and 1802.    Frances Wilson, young, nervous, with a bird-like attractiveness and intelligence, that is not unlike her subject, is an excellent storyteller.  Her account is witty, informed and entirely credible.  Using the wedding vows as titles;  ‘For richer for poorer’,  ‘In sickness and in health’, ‘To have and to hold’, ‘Till death do us part,’  Wilson demonstrates how the bond between Dorothy and William was more like that between husband and wife than a sibling relationship. 


Dorothy wrote that ‘the two and a half years she lived with William in Grasmere were the happiest in my whole life.’  They were inseparable.  She was his muse, his amanuensis.. William was surprisingly lazy.  He relied on Dorothy’s quick and inventive mind to come up with the ideas for his poems.  She was, Wilson asserts, much more of a romantic in a poetic sense than Wordsworth.  He hated writing.  It gave him a headache.  But he had ambition, whereas Dorothy had none but to serve William.  Together, they developed a peripatetic pattern of composition, that looked very strange to the locals.  ‘Mr Wordsworth went bumming and booing about’ in his curious oblique stride that would edge his companions off the road, while she, Miss Dorothy,  scuttled ‘close behint him’ like a little hen, and she picked  up the bits as ‘e let ‘em fall and put ‘em on paper for  him’.  The time he lived with Dorothy in Grasmere were the most productive for William Wordsworth. Clearly, without Dorothy,  some of the greatest poetry in the English language would not have been written.  


For Dorothy, William seemed to give her life purpose.  For William, Dorothy gave him the means to achieve his purpose.  They were a good team. Dorothy was attracted to William’s romantic nature and she knew that she could develop his creative potential. But it wasn’t just that they were good working partners.    There was something deeper in their relationship.  They knew each other, understood each other. They were soul mates.   


Although William wrote that ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud,’ the fact is, Wilson explained, that he wasn’t that solitary a figure.  He hated being alone and was much more given to co-dependant relationships.  He found a soul mate in Dorothy, wrote much of his poetry about her, and undoubtedly with the collusion of Dorothy,  romanticised their relationship.  The Lucy poems were almost certainly attributed to Dorothy.   


So, all the signs indicate that Dorothy and William were in love with each other.  If they were not brother and sister, there could be no other conclusion.  They ran away to live together, much to the disapproval of their family, they were inseparable – like one person.  They worked together, ate together, and although a veil is drawn over whether they slept together, the journals reveal that Dorothy would sleep in his bed when he was absent, just to experience his presence, the smell of him.  And if she saw that William had left a half eaten apple she would finish it off.  These are not the actions of a brother and sister.  They were not only of one mind and poetic soul, they even seemed to share the same body.  They both suffered from severe headaches and also bowel disorders, but never at the same time.  When Dorothy had a headache, William was well and vice versa.  But when Coleridge came to stay and suffered from one of his headaches, they were both surprisingly well.


And then there were the journals.  Dorothy wrote these for William – they shared the same note books  – and she was not averse to letting him know, as a lover would,  how unhappy she was when he was not there and how devastated she was by the marriage. The tableau with the ring indicate how William tried to accommodate his feelings for both Dorothy and his wife by symbolically marrying them both.  .    


Despite all the evidence, Wilson is convinced that the relationship between William and Dorothy Wordsworth was not incestuous in a physical sense. Relationships between brothers and sisters, she points out, were often idealised by the romantics.  They feature prominently in the novels of Jane Austen.   The Bronte sisters were deeply bonded to their brother, Branwell.  And Shelley even had to invent a sister, so he could express the romantic nature of the bond. 


And Wilson does not describe Dorothy as particularly attractive.  She is pretty enough, but there is something sharp and angular about her features and her personality.  She is neurotic and talkative, somewhat awkward and not at all seductive or romantic, more like a spinster, a maiden aunt in the making.  But she was not unattractive to other men, particularly those with sensibility and intelligence.  She could have married William Wilberforce, had she not run off with her brother.  William Hazlett was also attracted to Dorothy and might have proposed.  Coleridge, a lonely figure, fell under Dorothy’s spell but was too frightened to make an offer.


And as Wilson argues, our desire for another person is about their difference – they have something different, something exciting and inspiring that we would like to be part of.  Brothers and sisters are too familiar, they have grown up together, they know each other so well they are desensitised to desire – a form of imprinting recognised as  The Westermarck Effect.    


But Dorothy and William didn’t grow up together.  After their mother died at the age of 7, Dorothy was sent away to be raised by her second cousin, Elizabeth Threlkheld, in Halifax while her four brothers remained with their father in Cockermouth. She  didn’t return, not even for her birthday and Christmas, until she was 18.  The attraction between the two must have been enormous.  Not only was there the physical similarity – people often rank similar facial features to their own as more attractive, more trustworthy than the average, but there was also the shared grief for their mother and for each other and their shared interests and attitudes.  As Tamas Bereczki has recently described, the choice of mate is heavily influenced by childhood imprinting on the opposite sex parent (Bereczkei et al, 2004; ‘Sexual imprinting in human mate choice’ Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 271: 1129-1134.).  Dorothy must have reminded William of the mother who had been taken from him.


There could be no brakes on their desire; they were unfamiliar, they had been separated for over 10 years and they were deeply attracted to each other.  Genetic Sexual Attraction (GSA) is a term given to the sexual attraction between close relatives, who are separated very early in life and meet again as adults.  It often occurs  as a consequence of adoptive reunions, where people knowingly or unknowingly encounter their siblings or parents.  One classic example is that of Sophocles,  Oedipus, (playing next month at the National with Ralph Fiennes in the title role),  who is left out in the fields to die, but survives and, unaware of his real parentage, returns to murder his father and marry his mother.  The discovery of his crime is catastrophic.  Genetic sexual attraction can often be highly distressing to both parties, since incest is such a powerful social taboo.


I find it difficult to believe that William and Dorothy could have stopped themselves from physical intimacy.  William was of a passionate nature.  He had already fallen in love with his French mistress, Annette Vallon, and had an infant by her before feeing back to England.  Dorothy was his muse, the mother he had lost, the one he had been searching for all his life.  And, as Wilson points out, Dorothy could be wild and uncontained; she found it difficult to rein in her passions.  She was inspired by William, devoted to him.   She sleeps in his bed when he isn’t there, just to breathe in the smell of him.  Living  and working with her brother harnessed her passionate spirit to give birth to the most beautiful and evocative poetry of the age.  Wordsworth’s poems were in effect, the babies he and Dorothy brought into the world. 


Come on; they must have done it!  But it would have caused them both the most terrible anguish.  Such a relationship was not only unnatural and irregular in the eyes of God, but criminal in the mind of the law.  The risk of social disapprobium would have been awful.   No wonder they both suffered from illness.   


The tension would have affected them both.  Wilson comments that Dorothy probably wrote her journal ‘to construct a life she could bear’.  It seems that she was in almost constant pain, from headache, toothache and her bowels, but the journals paint a much more pleasant picture.  The migraine aura she sees around sheep are mentioned as something magical.  It is very likely that her illnesses were the somatic expression of intolerable guilt and emotional anguish.  She was in love with William, but couldn’t be.  It was the happiest time of her life but had to end.  She was ambitious for William but she held the seeds that could destroy him. What if she became pregnant?


 Something had to happen.  William had to get married.  They would have discussed it.  William would have told her that he would always love her.  She would have expressed her love for him, ‘til death do us part. The tableau with the ring played out their spiritual marriage.  The solution;  Dorothy would live on with William and his new wife.  She would continue to help him.  And although they could not have a physical relationship, they would be together forever.  And nobody would be suspicious of an unmarried woman living with her brother’s family.  Such arrangements were quite normal in Georgian society, where, unless they were courtesans or had inherited wealth, women could not afford to live alone.


Dorothy’s journals show that she was devastated by William’s marriage.  It was the end of her spiritual life.  Nevertheless, she continued to live in William’s house, she became friends with Mary his wife and her sister Sarah.  She continued to help William and she was devoted to their five children.  She was part of the family, but as the years sped by with William famous, but not writing such good poetry, she began to lose her mind.  She continued to be cared for in William’s household – the mad woman in the attic- and to the end, although incapable of sensible conversation, could still quote all of William’s poetry.