Introduction to Notebook 1 of the Rydal Journals (DCMS 104.1, 11 December 1824—9 December 1825)
Contrary to the lingering notion that the Rydal Journals (RJ) are, above all, a chronicle of Dorothy Wordsworth’s inexorable, decade-long slide into infirmity and senescence, the first nine of its 15 notebooks capture the tireless comings and goings of a hale and hearty 50-something relishing a new stage of life with fewer household duties and relative financial security. At various points in 1825, the year when she completed her first RJ notebook (DCMS 104.1), Dorothy told one friend, “When the air is clear I can walk nine or ten miles or more with as little fatigue as ever I did in my life” and another that she could “walk as well as when but twenty years old, and can climb the hills better than in those days.”
If anything, the first several volumes of the RJ log proportionally fewer days when Dorothy was confined to a sickbed than her Grasmere Journal from a quarter-century before. Until her first major health crisis in the spring of 1829, only heavy rain and occasional aches and pains kept the middle-aged writer from spending her days wandering the Westmorland fells and her nights socializing among an ever-widening circle of friends.
Like her brother William and sister-in-law Mary, Dorothy grew increasingly prone to wanderlust as the three surviving Wordsworth children came of age during the 1820s. Just how disencumbered she had become by 1825 is suggested by a letter explaining that what was supposed to be a week-long trip to see the Cooksons in Kendal had stretched to a fortnight because her friends begged her to stay, and, “having no particular object to call [her] home, [she] could not refuse.”
While her ultimate travel dream was to take another trip to the Continent,
she settled in the meantime for extended excursions in the British Isles, including a seven-week tour of Scotland with Joanna Hutchinson in the fall of 1822, a 10-month stay with family and friends in the Midlands in 1826, and a trip with William to the Isle of Man in the summer of 1828.
All of this travel in surrounding years makes Notebook 1 something of an outlier, as Dorothy spent the entire year it covers (11 December 1824–9 December 1825) in anchor at Rydal Mount. Not that her 1825 was entirely devoid of holidays, however, as we find her taking several multiday trips throughout the Lakes. For many readers, in fact, the highlight of Notebook 1 will be her entries for 5–8 July 1825, which break from her typical just-the-facts style to describe in vivid detail each leg of a four-day excursion across the region’s southern peninsulas. The expansive, keen-eyed, and witty style of these entries brings to mind sections of Dorothy’s travel narratives from Scotland and the Continent.
Perhaps even closer parallels, though, can be found in the shorter accounts she made of her 1805 “Excursion on the Banks of Ullswater” and 1818 “Excursion up Scawfell Pike.” Considering the stylistic similarities between the 5–8 July entries and these two “excursions” and the fact that the Ullswater and Scawfell accounts had recently appeared—albeit with no acknowledgment of her authorship—in new editions of William’s Guide to the Lakes,
it seems entirely possible that Dorothy composed this distinctive segment of Notebook 1 in anticipation of her brother’s wanting to include a third Lake District “excursion” in some later edition of his guidebook.
All other sections of Notebook 1 chronicle daily rhythms and routines at Rydal Mount, offering an affecting portrait of Dorothy’s devotion to her closest family and friends and a clear window into the lives of the middle-aged Wordsworths and, more generally, the provincial English gentry of this period. Within the first few pages, it becomes clear that this was an unusually convivial period for Dorothy. Just how much of a social butterfly she had become was captured by Sara Hutchinson, who, upon returning to Rydal in August 1825 after a two-year absence, reported finding “dear Dorothy as well and active as ever—& a knott of good friends around her—so that we are in no want of society which would have been no loss on my first arrival.”
Functioning as something of a hub for her “knott of good friends,” she inspired intimates like Letitia Luff and “Cousin Dorothy” Harrison to relocate to the environs of Rydal and frequently brought together old neighbors, distant cousins, and respectable new arrivals to the area. Just how few social niceties stood between her and her closest female friends is suggested by entries like that of 26 July 1825, in which she records how on this “loveliest of nights” she “called on Mrs Luff in her Bed-room – past 10.”
Throughout Notebook 1, Dorothy mixes freely with young and old alike, displaying a particular relish for playing the surrogate aunt to the grown Cookson, Coleridge, and Southey children, whom she had known since their childhoods, and new favorites like Maria Jane Jewsbury and the Dowling sisters. Unlike her letters from the mid-1820s, in which she frequently rails against radicals and reformers, the RJ show Dorothy to be thoroughly ecumenical in her choice of friends, with her inner circle ranging beyond orthodox Anglicans and Tories to incorporate progressives like Samuel Barber and the Marshalls and a bevy of Unitarians (the Cooksons), Catholics (the Quillinans), and Presbyterians (Mary Honeyman and the Hardens).
Her 1825 diary may, in fact, reveal flickering embers of her youthful republicanism. For, not only do we repeatedly see her socializing with working folk in ways women of her rank would never seem to imagine in the contemporary novels of Jane Austen, but we even catch her commiserating with a Windermere ferryman about how “all the Land” above the lake . . . had been “divided among the Gentry” and opining that the surrounding hills would be considerably “more cheerful” if “scattered over with houses” of ordinary Dalesmen.
Similarly compelling moments elsewhere in this first volume of the RJ capture the range and breadth of Dorothy’s reading and her enduring bonds with her brother, his family, and the natural wonders of the Lakes. And, especially through the lists of expenditures and favorite Bible verses she kept inside its front and back covers, we gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of Dorothy’s sensibilities, both spiritual and material, than even the fullest biography provides. All told, then, however succinct and weather-obsessed the journal entries may be for pages at a time, those reading this edition’s transcription of Notebook 1 will find in it a consistently engaging and frequently illuminating portrait of a year in the life of one of the most fascinating figures of Britain’s Romantic age.
Introduction to Notebook 1 of the Rydal Journals (DCMS 104.1, 11 December 1824—9 December 1825) © 2023 by Romantic Circles and Nicholas Mason is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0