By DWIGHT GARNER writing in The New York Times, February 24, 2009
THE BALLAD OF DOROTHY WORDSWORTH
By Frances Wilson
Illustrated. 316 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.
For many readers she will always be, as Frances Wilson writes in her elegant new book, “one of the casualties of 19th-century femininity”: the spinster’s spinster, a “quintessential Victorian virgin” who sacrificed every ambition, including marriage, to be her brother William Wordsworth’s muse, caretaker, walking companion, secretary and most trusted reader.
At the same time, Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855) has come down to us, as the scholar Ernest de Selincourt put it, as probably “the most distinguished of English prose writers who never wrote a line for the general public.” Her journals, not intended for publication, are small, filigreed masterpieces. In The Norton Book of Nature Writing, she is the first woman to be chronologically represented, the Annie Dillard of the Romantic movement.
So much, yet so little, is known about Dorothy Wordsworth that she is impossibly attractive to biographers and scholars, who glide down her empty expanses like skiers, some of them leaping from helicopters to explore the stranger, more forbidding peaks. (Did she have an incestuous relationship with her famous brother? Probably not, and let’s not go there. But they were so determinedly intimate that speculation will never cease.)