The Grasmere Journal

I started reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s The Grasmere Journal the day after Christmas and have been dipping in each day. It’s a lovely, quiet book and it’s beautifully presented with illustrations and an elegant overwrap cover, all done by The Folio Society.

Wordsworth began the journal in May 1800, and it follows just over two years of time while she and her brother William (and others) were staying at Dove Cottage in the village of Grasmere.

I’m only about a quarter of the way into the journal, but already its entries revolve regularly around four different things: the natural world, the comings and goings of her brothers, short listings of cottage tasks, and descriptions of visitors or the people she passes while out on her many walks. For the first category, she has a wonderfully sensitive eye for nature. There is not a journal entry without some mention of the weather, of the look of a lake, the condition of the winds or any animals she might see – birds especially.

May 16th. The woods extremely beautiful with all autumnal variety and softness. I carried a basket for mosses, and gathered some wild plants. Oh! That we had a book of botany. […] I was much amused with the business of a pair of stone-chats; their restless voices as they skimmed along the water following each other, their shadows under them, and their returning back to the stones on the shore, chirping with the same unwearied voices.

I quite enjoy her listing of cottage tasks, even if this is as simple as mentions of baking a pie or putting out the laundry. They do so much work in their little garden over the summer, and eat in season and happily with what they harvest. The simplicity of it is appealing. And the walks each day to retrieve and send letters. The days as Wordsworth presents them are busy, but somehow that busyness includes what seems like leisure: walking, discussing poetry, garden work, etc. I’m trying not to overly romanticize what their life might have been like (Wordsworth mentions illnesses and I can only imagine how frightening these would actually be) but parts of it viewed from 200 years in the future seems quite idyllic. I’m sure it is the quiet I find mostly so appealing.

She writes often of the many beggars who come to their door or pass them on their many walks. I am often struck by these entries, in which she describes the situation of the women, children, or old men who come knocking at their door with such detail. Quite matter-of-fact, but in listing the details of their lives, it’s easy to read her interest and empathy.

Will finish with one of the small instances of humor I’ve come across so far, written after a friend walks her home one evening when the lake is particularly beautiful.

This was very kind, but God be thanked, I want not society by a moonlight lake.

4 Comments

  1. We loved our visits to Grasmere and to Dove Cottage while we had a vacation in the Lake District. Dorothy’s writtings are so tenderly equisite. She gave so much of her own life to support her brother and I can’t help but wonder what life would have been like for her in more contemporary times. I write this while recovering from pneumonia, so your comments about how frightening illness might be really strike home. This was a lovely post and opened my memory to cherished times.

    1. I have never visited the Lake District, Liz, and have always wanted to. I didn’t even know about Dove Cottage or any of this until I saw this book. Dorothy Wordsworth is so interesting to me, for all the reasons you mention. Her own life seems to have been so limited in certain ways, and I agree with you on wondering what her life would have been like now.

  2. Hi Michelle,
    Thank you for the reminder of that beautiful journal. Does your version include her brother’s poems? I read it maybe 20 years ago, but seem to remember a very strong correlation between her observations in the journal and his poems.

    Camala

    1. My edition does not include any of WW poems – and I think the idea is to foreground her as her own writer, which I like, but she references the poems so much, I think I’d like to know which ones he was working on at the same time, it would be a lovely companion to her writing. I will look for one to read alongside, that must be interesting.

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