I have to admit that when I got this for my birthday last month, I was a bit unsure how much I would get out of it. Having spent more than a decade studying the works and lives of Wordsworth and Coleridge, I thought I knew quite a lot about the respective daughters who feature here -- beautiful, brilliant Sara Coleridge, whose picture you see here, and troubled, anorexic Dora Wordsworth, whose father for many years denied her the marriage she most ardently desired.
Well, in one sense that was true -- there were no great surprises here. But all credit to Katie Waldegrave for a hugely impressive piece of research which I would hope would not offend the most ardent admirer of those two great, if rather peculiar, poets and their decidedly peculiar family lives. What it did for me was to fill in what was, after all, a relatively sketchy picture, and make many illuminating connections.
Sara and Dora were born a few years apart at the very beginning of the 1800s. Both grew up in the beautiful Lake District of England and both were the daughters of ground-breaking poets who, in the early days, were the closest possible friends. But by the time of Sara's birth the friendship was beginning to sour, and she was still a young child when her father left the family home, theoretically to deal with his opium addiction though in practice he never conquered it. The marriage of her parents broke down irretrievably, and she was raised by her strong-minded mother in the busy household of her uncle, the poet Robert Southey. Sara was a young adut before she re-established a connection with her father, by this time living in London. Dora, meanwhile, grew up in the equally full house, or various houses, where the Wordsworths lived in marital and familial harmony -- of a sort, anyway. The household was dominated by the poet, hugely talented but extremely demanding -- all the females of his family spent many hours copying his poems and watching his agonise over his revisions.
It was a long time before Dora was able to break free, as her father disapproved deeply of her choice of a potential husband, but Sara married happily and had children, though she also suffered from miscarriages and still births. Throughout all this, and the rather early death of her husband, she carried out with incredible tenacity the task of editing and commenting on her father's works. In fact modern scholarship now acknowledges that Sara was one of the best, most brilliant and most sensitive editors Coleridge has ever had. Sadly she also became addicted to opium, but managed to control it to the extent of being able to live a relatively normal life. Dora too had massive health problems, though hers took the form of an absolute inability to eat, which now we have to assume was a form of anorexia.
Could we say that it was the pressure of being the daughters of two such famous, and difficult, fathers that caused the problems of these young women? I'm really not sure. Certainly difficult fathers cause problems, whether they are famous or not, and in Sara's case, her life was immensely enriched by the long years of study of Coleridge's writings. I've always admired her tremendously and was delighted to be able to get to know her better through her letters and other writings.
So in the end I read this with a great deal of pleasure, and all credit to Katie Waldegrave for uncovering so much fascinating material and making what must have been an almost unmanageably large quantity of research into a book which is immensely readable.