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Kathleen Jones, A Passionate Sisterhood: Women of the Wordsworth Circle

Monday, January 15, 2001 - 04:58
Kathleen Jones, A Passionate Sisterhood: Women of the Wordsworth Circle. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. xix + 313pp. illus. $29.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-22731-0).

Reviewed by
Judith Thompson
Dalhousie University

The Romantic period, with its literary circles and coteries, its close collaborations and incestuous alliances, has long offered fertile ground for the development of a new form of literary biography, that would be more intersubjective, intertextual and historicized, taking into account recent research into plural nature of subjectivity and textuality as well as new historical understanding of the way the "lives of the poets" are interwoven with, and constructed in collaboration with, their others (readers, editors, publishers) and their material and economic circumstances. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the presence of such group biographies as William St. Clair's The Godwins and the Shelleys, or Nicholas Roe's carefully historicized and intertextual Wordsworth and Coleridge: the Radical Years, little has been done to break down prevailing and longstanding notions, originating in the Romantic period, of biography as the writing of a singular self. While the loosening of the canon and the rediscovery of women writers have, as it were, enlarged the optical field to take in ever more moons and satellites, the gravitational pull of the Romantic ideology is so powerful that our attention seems inevitably drawn to the center of any subjective universe.

Kathleen Jones's A Passionate Sisterhood: Women of the Wordsworth Circle exemplifies the difficulty of breaking prevailing paradigms. In choosing to write a group biography focused on the moons and satellites of planet Wordsworth, she makes an admirable effort to recenter and enlarge our perspective upon romantic subjectivity and life-writing. She moves the Great Men, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, to the margins, where they appear only relationally, weaving in and out of the lives of one another and of the women in their lives, the multiplicitous Saras, Marys, Ediths and Dorothys who are the real subject of this biography. Their wifely, sisterly, motherly and daughterly talents as emotional and domestic managers, building and navigating an intricate web of relationships, facilitated the creation of great romantic poetry (and greater romantic egos), but took an enormous emotional and physical toll. This book opens up rich territory, and it is to Jones's credit that she attempts to look at it whole, to interweave multiple stories and trace patterns of similarity and difference between generations, all the while drawing our attention to the ineluctable realities, economic, material, domestic and physiological, that underlie, underwrite and undercut the grand romantic story. In the end, however, her book does not succeed—not because of its plural topic, but because of its theoretical reductiveness. Relying upon limited and outdated sources, reflecting not at all upon its own methodology, paying scant attention to its subjects as writers, A Passionate Sisterhood, like its subjects, fails to live up to its own creative potential.

Jones creates a dramatic narrative (oddly similar to Wuthering Heights in its intergenerational and binary structure) which shows the increasing complication of the interconnected lives of the poets. Part One introduces the first generation—four sisters (three Frickers and a Wordsworth) and their respective brothers, lovers, husbands and/or soul-mates (Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth)—and follows the interweaving of their lives and loves in the early years (before 1800). This section is set up around a series of familiar romantic binaries which Jones personifies in her two female leads, representing two models of romantic-era feminine identity: the intellectual, independent, outgoing, Wollstonecraftian Sarah (Fricker Coleridge) and the passionate, dependent, imaginative, Wordsworthian Dorothy (Wordsworth). (To a lesser extent the same binaries shape her presentation of the male characters, as for example the irresponsible Samuel Coleridge is played off against the dutiful Robert Southey.) In Part Two, the cozy complementarity of this "plaited nest" of sibling-lovers is complicated as two more sister-threads (Sara and Mary Hutchinson) are added to the weave, coming between husband and wife or sister and brother, creating emotional tangles and intellectual tensions which lead up to the schism between Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth in 1810, with which this section ends. Finally, Part Three deals with the second generation: a "Triad" of daughters (Sara Coleridge, Edith-May Southey, Dora Wordsworth) who play out, but ultimately fail to resolve, the conflicts personified by their parents. Bright, creative, full of potential, they end their lives as monuments to what Jones sees as the fatal hallmark of this passionate sisterhood: the unbridgeable schism between female creativity and domestic, material reality, which inevitably turns feminine romanticism into a movement of potential unfulfilled, of tragic lack and loss, of repression, disappointment and diminishment.

This carefully patterned structure of Jones's biography, with its multiple perspectives on and parallels of character and experience, along with its detail of daily family life in the romantic era, makes for a richly-textured, readable narrative. The close attention paid to health (bodily and psychological), and the impact of such everyday matters as the state of one's feet, the weather and the roads upon one's creative identity, adds something to our understanding of Romanticism, reminding us how material circumstances and quotidian reality must be factored into accounts of creative production. Jones draws heavily upon existing biographies (especially of both Sara Coleridges and of Dorothy Wordsworth), but adds to them insofar as her plural method allows her to juxtapose their experiences not only with one another, but with those of other women in their circle, thereby highlighting the range of romantic female response to similar situations. Thus, for example, in chapter 4 on "The German Experiment," she juxtaposes the experiences of three couples during the winter of 1798–99: the terrible isolation of Sarah Coleridge, left alone by her intellectual adventurer husband to cope with a baby dying with excruciating slowness and pain; the intense, incestuous intimacy and alienation experienced by Dorothy and William Wordsworth alone in rural Germany; and the increasing emotional and physical estrangement of an anorexic, sexually repressed Edith Southey from her equally repressed and obsessive husband Robert. Disappointingly, however, Jones does not often follow up or reflect upon the implications of these juxtapositions, too often jumping abruptly from one pair and one paragraph to another, missing opportunities to draw intellectual conclusions that might complicate and add nuance to her otherwise rigid thesis about the repressive effects of domesticity upon female intellect and imagination.

Surprisingly, given her interest in creativity, Jones does not pay as much attention to the writing of her principals as do some other more critical biographers. Of course, Dorothy's journals are mined for biographical information, or interpreted as evidence of emotional stress and instability (including the requisite over-reading of the wedding-day entry), but there is no serious attention to Dorothy as a writer in her own right, with an intellectual life and a craft of expression, and little understanding or nuanced reading of the deeply fascinating intertextual relationship between her writing and William's. Instead, fitting her thesis regarding repression and depression, Jones stresses Dorothy's utter dependence on William, stating baldly that her life as a writer ends with his marriage to Mary Hutchison (to be fair, the dependence is seen by Jones as mutual, and William's work without Dorothy's inspiration is dismissed as mediocre). In so doing, Jones devalues Dorothy's later accomplishments as a poet and travel writer and ironically reproduces in her own work the very subordination of female creativity to domestic drudgery that she complains of. She relies on outdated sources to support this argument (at one point quoting a book published in 1924 as evidence of a critical "consensus" regarding the relationship between William and Dorothy) and ignores recent criticism (like Susan Levin's Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism, which does not even appear in her bibliography) that would have offered her a more balanced and nuanced reading of Dorothy's work and life, and of her continuing creative dialogue with both William and other members of her circle. When attention is paid to the literary accomplishments of the other members of this passionate sisterhood, it is a hit and miss affair. One is surprised, for example, late in the book, to find Jones commenting on the significance of Sarah Fricker Coleridge's invention of her own private language. Not that her observation that "in a household of wordsmiths and linguists it was not only a creative, but also a subversive act" (174) is not worthwhile, but it stands alone: because there has been no attention to Sarah as a writer before this, and there is no attempt to follow up with analysis of her writing, or commentary on the intertextuality between Sarah's and Samuel's philological experiments, or conclusions drawn from comparisons with Dorothy's writing, Sarah's linguistic creation appears as a mere curiosity, contributing nothing to our overall understanding of the feminine imaginary. Likewise, little is made of her daughter Sara Coleridge's accomplishments as an editor, intellectually aware of and engaged with the complex and problematic legacy of her father's genius. Too wrapped up in her idea of repressed creativity, and of writing as a symptom of illness, Jones does not consider the rich ways in which the work of this sisterhood succeeds in self-consciously engaging with, entering into dialogue with, the writing of their brothers and sisters.

Judging from her bibliography, which leans towards biography of rather elderly vintage, Jones has little knowledge of recent developments in literary criticism, and little interest in investigating the enormous number of scholarly resources on Romantic women's lives and writing that have become available in recent years, and that would help enrich her biography. What theoretical framework there is in her book is drawn from a limited range of rather outdated feminist criticism (Showalter, Gilbert and Gubar), and it is applied schematically in a way that undercuts Jones's apparent intention to present a truly multi-faceted, plural view of her subject. The reductiveness of this approach is particularly evident in her binary constructions: for example, her insistent presentation of Sarah and Dorothy as polar opposites, even when evidence contradicts such a presentation. She plays up the slavishness of the latter's devotion to her brother and the emotional manipulativeness of her relations with men and women in her circle, in order to contrast her unfavorably with the wife of Coleridge, whom she presents sympathetically as a long-suffering woman of great intellectual independence locked in a stifling marriage. At the same time, Jones ignores or downplays evidence that doesn't fit her thesis—nowhere do we read of the sharp concern for economic independence shown in Dorothy's astute correspondence with her brother Richard, or her identification with poor women she meets on the road. Jones fails to understand the significance and complexity of Dorothy's writing about vagrants and outcasts and insists that "her whole emotional focus was on William and Coleridge" (129) to the exclusion of all other concerns. Unfortunately this kind of blatant misreading of writing or reductive misrepresentation of character is all too common in this book, which also relies heavily on the popular stereotype of Samuel Coleridge as a drug addict, and generally presents William Wordsworth as a whiny, self-pitying egomaniac.

In short, then, "this will never do." Romantic studies has progressed beyond a reductive binary approach to Romantic-era women as failures and victims, maddened and miserable mirrors of their more successful brothers, husbands, and fathers. We need a more nuanced view of this passionate sisterhood, and of the intricate collaboration that produced Romanticism. And we have had such a view put forward in the studies which Jones ignores, especially Susan Levin's book, and articles by Alan Liu and Kurt Heinzelman, Anne Wallace and Alison Hickey, among others. Scholars looking for a book that would do justice to the complexity of intersubjective and intertextual relations within the Wordsworth Circle would do better to seek out these studies, and to leave A Passionate Sisterhood on the shelf among other accessible but reductive popular biographies of the Romantic generation.