The Poet’s Daughters: Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge

Published by Hutchinson 29 August 2013

416pp, hardback, £25.00

Reviewed by Lesley Bown

Sometimes, all too rarely, a review seems superfluous and all the reviewer wants to say is, ‘This is a terrific book, read it.’ The Poets’ Daughters is one of those rare books.

Read it if you are interested in Wordsworth and Coleridge, the fathers of the daughters in question.  Read if it you are interested in British life in the early nineteenth century, feminism, the Romantic movement, or the history of medicine.  Read it if you simply like a good story beautifully told.

Wordsworth and Coleridge were friends at the time their daughters were born, and the girls maintained their friendship long after their fathers’ falling out.  Their lives went in different directions, but they always stayed in touch.

Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge make an interesting pairing: Dora brought up in the bosom of a close, not to say suffocating, family, Sara abandoned by her adored father and left to grow up in the household of her uncle, Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate.  Dora struggled to balance her love for her emotionally needy father with her desire to live her own life, and since she pre-deceased him this was a lifelong task.  Coleridge on the other hand died when Sara was thirty-two years old, and as she increasingly took on the task of collecting and editing his writings she was able to work through the difficulties in their relationship and make her peace with most of them.

Both women endured debilitating mental and physical health problems, Dora apparently anorexic, although the illness wasn’t identified then, and Sara with a form of hysteria that may or may not have been driven by her use of opium (which was then entirely legal).

The lives of both Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge have been examined before, of course.  They came from families that kept journals, wrote copious letters, and, it seems, never threw paper away, to the extent that a biographer could easily be overwhelmed.  And as well as the three family archives (including the Southeys), there is the whole question of historical context.  Katie Waldegrave does an outstanding job with this wealth of material.  The Notes run to thirty-three pages and the Bibliography to twelve, but it’s perfectly possible to enjoy and understand the book without referring to them.

On the rare occasion when the records fail her, Waldegrave resorts to her imagination, but it is always clear when she is doing this.  Tracking two lives means that there is inevitably a certain amount of moving back and forth in time, but the author maintains an impeccable grip on the chronology.  Even the constant repetition of first names in the three families is briskly dealt with (for instance, the three key Saras are Sara, Aunt Sara and Mrs STC, STC being Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

When Sara Coleridge’s husband, with her help, brought out the first volume of Coleridge’ s Literary Remains she wrote that she was enjoying it so much that, ‘I quite grieve to find the pages on my left hand such a thick handful.’  The same is true of The Poets’ Daughters; despite being a chunky book it is all too quickly finished.


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