It rained the day I visited Dove Cottage in Cumbria. I had taken the bus from Windermere to see both the cottage and Rydal Mount. Standing in the dark interior and pondering upon the demands of poets provided relief from the damp. Upstairs, one of the small rooms was plastered with replicas of newspapers from the days when Dorothy and William Wordsworth lived there. I also remembered Dorothy’s self-denying devotion to her brother in that relatively confined space. Before entering the modern and impressive Wordsworth Museum and Art Gallery next door, I lingered in the hillside garden at the back of the cottage and sat on a stone bench supposedly favoured by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I tried to fancy myself a Romantic poet, but could not. I now remember Dove cottage and garden because they are settings in Kathleen Winter’s lovely novel, Undersong. Rydal Mount, the manor house where the Wordsworths later lived for many years, is just a few miles away.
I read and enjoyed the novel, happily remembering my visits, but after reading three or four other novels, I returned again to Undersong. Wearied by the righteousness and social relevance of the other books, award winners among them (which shall remain nameless), bringing the injustices of my society and the world to my doorstep, an important function of literature, to be sure, I was feeling browbeaten by literary earnestness and outrage. Hungering for spring and the first sign of the hundred daffodils I planted last fall, I looked out the window. The daffodils reminded me of Undersong.
Gracefully and lyrically written, Undersong is a novel about sensibility and silence, about plagiarism and poetry, about devotion and denial, about womanliness and independence, about feelings for and knowledge of the natural world, about brothers with power and sisters with none; a novel devoid of conventional plot but rich with original character. Above all, it’s a novel about kindred spirits and companionship, not only between Wordsworth and Dorothy, but also between Dorothy and James, gardener and general factotum at Rydal. James is entirely a fictional character, and it’s one of the many achievements of this fine novel that he is utterly believable and sympathetic with a voice as capable of poetic acuity as anything Wordsworth or Dorothy might say.
The novel opens with James sitting under a sycamore tree and grieving over the death of Dorothy Wordsworth in 1855. Much of the narrative consists of his memories of his forty-year life with the Wordsworths, and how he came to share their stories and know their ways. His observations of William’s unease when Dorothy is not present: “I know it could seem to Rotha as if it might hardly matter to William if she was alive or dead, but I could have told her that without her William lost substance and became like a flake of soot wisping around these gardens.”
Winter now and then adroitly incorporates diary entries in her novel to reveal Dorothy’s feelings for the natural world and her acute perception of vibrant life on the many rambles with James in the Lake District: “at the graveyard I saw lupins with their pods out after the flowers had gone, & I opened these, green glimmering through a skin of silver fur … & inside lay the “peas” just like Rose’s kittens, all in a line feeding on their mother pod.” She has a poet’s eye for detail, a poet’s celebration of the inner life of things.
An undersong of human misery, never obtrusive, nonetheless hums throughout the novel: from James’s horrific experience in the Napoleonic wars to his younger sister whose body was deformed from years as a child labourer in a Manchester textile mill, and his somewhat gin-soaked mother. There is the querulous Wordsworth, requiring James’s assistance in the construction of his terraced garden and in keeping Dorothy more or less on safe ground. And then, there is Dorothy’s physical decline, which ultimately affects her ability to clamber about the hillsides, her bowel problems and chronic headaches, and dependence upon laudanum.
Wordsworth came to rely upon Dorothy’s diaries as his own eyesight and sense of smell weakened. Filled with notes, the sights, sounds, smells and textures of the natural world, her diaries allowed him to see and smell in ways that eluded him, although he is not interested in her feelings. As William says to James, “[p]eople come to Rydal to glimpse the great poet and here I am unable to feel any of the youthful things I once felt. Those things have gone from me … But they have not gone from my sister.” And famous people came to Dove Cottage and Rydal Manor to visit the great man: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles and Mary Lamb, William Blake, and so on. With Mary Lamb, cared for by her brother and famous for murdering her mother, Dorothy develops an intimate relationship, as if they are psychologically akin, and one can speculate why, which I won’t do here. There is also a painter, Mary Baker, who lives alone, subservient to no man, and with whom Dorothy also has a close friendship.
She wrote entries, not only because she loved to write about what she had seen, but also to be useful to her brother. Seemingly, she had no wish to publish any work in her own name, least of all her personal journals, and Wordsworth certainly discouraged her from doing so. She also acted as his amanuensis, since the great poet abhorred the physical act of writing, “scratching,” he called it. He expected her to do it. She did it, and did not object to doing so, even as the role raises questions about the male ego, poetic presumptions and exploitation, and the degree to which a woman’s consciousness, the female as poet or artist, is diminished in her “womanly” role of servitude and subservience. Kathleen Winter could have made heavy weather out of this, which would have tilted the novel towards bitter recrimination and sociological study: instead, she explores the dynamic between William and Dorothy mostly through James Dixon’s eyes, and then lets Dorothy speak without intermediary or self-effacement in the great and final section of Undersong.
James witnesses the drama and tensions in the household, learns of past tragedies and present travails, all the famous visitors, and in the process develops a loving and respectful relationship with Dorothy, as if she were his Queen Bee and he the faithful drone. He is, actually, a worker bee with character and emotion. A useful tool in the household, so to speak, he is nonetheless able to speak convincingly in his own language about significant moments, filled with precise, poetic observations. When William Blake comes to visit, for example, William Wordsworth would rather not be in the house and scurries away, but Dorothy and Blake are so intuitively connected that James needs to find an image to explain what happens when they meet:
The only way I can describe the scene is that when the two glanced one upstairs and one down at the other, a beam lit from Rotha Wordsworth to William Blake like the flash you get if a lamp’s flame meets a cat’s eye. I remembered the eye in us all that my mam described, and I knew that Rotha and the Blake fellow had that all-seeing eye sprung wide-open, and our William, William Wordsworth, fled from it. But these two burned and I saw the flash before they turned back into an ordinary pair of writers such as the ones I was used to seeing at Rydal Mount all the time.
James Dixon’s voice doesn’t belabour, denounce, or justify. Through him readers come to understand, not so much what Dorothy does for William or why, but how she reveals her own passionate attachment to the natural world and its amazing and complex variety, something William could not do. James relates:
And she says to me, My brother can only engage with certain forms and colours. Fragrance eludes him and I cannot bear to talk to him about it for fear I might seem to be gloating. I have to wait until he reads of fragrance in my diaries and then he can use it in his poetry as if his own nose had smelled it.
I could hardly credit it. Did her brother really read her sensations and then put them in his poems as if they were his? I thought how painful this must have been for him. Knowing glory was there second-hand, like.
It’s a stroke of literary genius to have James narrate, because he is as unlike Wordsworth as it’s possible to be. He, too, has a sister for whom he cares and whom he tries to help, not successfully. Wordsworth hires James, not only as a gardener to help build the terraced gardens of Rydal, but also as a companion and guardian for Dorothea, whose mental and emotional stability the poet neither trusts nor wishes to burden himself with. He encourages James to read the diaries and tell the poet what he has found there, a form of betrayal, except James is clearly on Dorothy’s side, his Rotha, as he calls her, a spirit like his own. “Aye, in the phaeton we traveled, didn’t we, through gateways. All through those late years she called down to me from her bedroom, and out we ventured in the wagon. Into a world far deeper than her brother’s.”
There is also another narrator, a speaking sycamore tree who introduces each section of the novel, and which I find a bit twee. As it occupies little space and indicates Dorothy’s sense of communion and communication with the natural world, the sycamore’s leafy lectures contribute to the undersong of nature’s vitality and Dorothy’s sympathies, and doesn’t diminish the excellence of the novel. Dorothy speaks in her own voice, either through quotations from the diary, or in Winter’s presentation of her as she rambles about the countryside and shares her ideas and insights with James, often in playful or poetic language.
Above all, Dorothy comes to her own in the last section of the novel, an utterly ravishing tour de force of literary creation. Winter creates a fictional diary, the red diary often referred to in the novel, and there we see into the tumultuous depths of Dorothy’s imagination and heart.
When I sat in Wordsworth’s garden at Rydal, the rain had stopped and the thousand daffodils were past their prime, perhaps descendants of the original daffodils planted by William and his real assistants. Of course, his famous daffodil poem came to mind, as much of it as I could remember. It seemed appropriate to wax poetical at the time. An old church squats at the bottom of the property, the interior of which was so cramped and dark that I felt immediately burdened and spiritually benumbed, far removed from the glories of the daffodils and shining light of Dorothy Wordsworth’s perceptions gathered from her rambles. As she notes about William and Coleridge in the days of their friendship: “Our minds were more interesting than the Holy Trinity for none of us was separate body from spirit but manifested both. There ran transparent stairs from the cellars in our bodies to the resplendence of our minds, & our words were the light. I was lit & I was one of them.”
So I fled the hovering church, thankful my feet were not as sore as Dorothy’s, and not dependent upon a wheeled cart, which James Dixon built for her. Liberated from the strictures of plot, in chapter six Undersong explodes into a brilliantly written revelation of creative energy, both in the voices of Dorothy and Mary Lamb, whose words about dominating brothers, and “invisible” old women are repeated in the diary. But there is a fascinating undersong of repressed emotion in the Red Diary, call it a quiet rage accumulating over the decades, which at last is released in the privacy and safety of the diary. Remembering the story of Mary Lamb pricking her thumb as she dressed a fowl before killing her mother, the debilitated Dorothy finds an apt analogy:
This is what happened in Mary Lamb’s mind, only it was her mother she pricked & the pricking was not small or incidental but massive, a slaughter. So it was not the same. Yet— if I could simply end my life with the point of a knife or the embroidery needle or the darning awl, then nobody could fault me & nobody need know about the torment I feel, this peel, raw state that comes upon me in which I feel the cruel ache of having to move & stand & walk & be alive among other living beings, who do not seem to feel these torments at all.
Undersong, however, is not a novel about suicidal depression, but of efflorescence out of straitened circumstances. The Dorothy Wordsworth Winter creates does not seek seriously to end her life but to express her own identity and voice, both of which are intimately and unsentimentally connected with the powerful forces of life and decay in the natural world, the dashes in her prose suggesting spiritual energy and ecstasy like those in the poetry of Emily Dickinson:
I have never been pregnant, but I have been alive, even now when the branches are nearly bare … The architecture. Skeletons. Bones of the trees, & the air clinging & dancing all around & hanging there grey & white, white & rain-coloured… Those are the colours of the Wordsworth siblings. The air inside the terrace is like a mind.
It is my mind teeming, slumbering, dreaming—flying, floating, hanging, moving in wind-riven play—
Kenneth Radu has published fiction, non-fiction and poetry. A two-time recipient of the Quebec Writers' Federation award for English-language fiction, his latest book, Net Worth, is published by DC Books Canada. He has recently completed the manuscript of a new collection of linked stories.
Photo of the author by Joshua Radu.
Photo of church on Wordsworth estate by author.