Dove Cottage, recent photo
Kathleen Jones’s A Passionate Sisterhood has been my comfort and rivetting book to read in the evening over the past two weeks. I was sorry when it came to an end. Its great achievement is to free representations of women’s lives from the hegemony of men’s stories. She was able to do this because both the women and men of her stories left an enormous cache of letters, diaries, autobiographical books (travel writing, memoirs, biographies) & poems rooted in their private lives.
Writing lucidly and with subtle and compassionate insights and a great deal of sociological and material (what were the physical circumstances these people had to live in, how they worked, got money, couldn’t travel far but by foot), Kathleen Jones retells the lives and characters of the Fricker and Hutchinson sisters, three of whom married Coleridge (Sarah Fricker), Southey (Edith Fricker) and Wordsworth (Mary Hutchinson), one was pursued relentlessly, remorselessly by Coleridge (Sara Hutchinson), and also the Wordsworth women (Dorothy, Wordsworth’s beloved sister) and Dora (his and Mary’s daughter), and the next generation of women (Sara Coleridge in particular) born to these couples.
It’s interesting at the outset to know all three men and all the women were orphaned early (or simply pushed out of the parental home when very very young), that all were very fringe people (with no property or income and few connections to anyone who did). They were the children of men who failed in business, and women who often had breakdowns (hidden in the way of the times). The Lambs were close to them, but they remained in London (Charles had a regular job of 5 and 1/2 days a week many hours a day and besides was not keen on the remote difficult-to-live area of the Lakes which was cheap). They too had very bad problems with parents: Mary was (I think) driven to kill her mother as many here may know.
This differentiates them strongly say from the Shelley-Byron clan, not that the parents were longlivers, but that in this other group there was money, and there was usually some person who really cared for the child (Godwin for Mary for example, Shelley’s sisters, Byron’s mother whatever you may think of her) when growing up. Austen too was a member of the pseudo- or fringe gentry with a father with a income and house and connections to those who could place the brothers to say nothing of Hastings (Philadelphia’s lover father of Eliza, he pushed for the Austen sons in the navy). So Austen and Mary Shelley were not driven to the kinds of occupations the Fricker and Hutchinson girls were. Austen not married was not inflicted by endless pregnancy once married, nor the same kind of household harsh drudgery.
Keats was yet in another group, one based in London.
It seems that at the core of William and Dorothy’s abysmal to difficult childhoods is a new unearthable story about their mother. After the birth of her fourth child (in not many more years than that), she vanished to London for some time and came back to die. Nothing is told of why she went, what she did, or why came back. Her husband gives the children to relatives and never sees them again. They are badly treated by these relatives.
This is the pattern of what is done to the children of women who are sexually transgressive.
Wordsworth himself in turn treats Annette badly. How badly Coleridge behaves towards Sarah and how I respect and like Southey so strongly for his sense of duty towards those he tied himself to, Edith (who was often depressed — see below) and partly exploited (as people do in their close relationships).
I am beginning to see why Diana Birchall said of this book “how the sublimest poets could be breathtakingly self-centered and ratty men, following grand precepts and grand follies while utterly neglecting consequences. From reading these two books I learned an infinite amount about the age.”
We see Dorothy’s tremendous courage. The only chance at even a half-life was to join William and live with him: she was treated like a pariah, sexually transgressive in potentia, and she went anyway — and did live and fully for a time (until Mary and William married). At the supposedly kind relatives’ house she was a drudge having to sleep with a woman from 9 at night until the woman cared to get up and take care of her endless children (she being endlessly impregnated), the only entertainment continual religious harangues.
Jones hints, she suggests, and there’s enough there to show a love affair (physically consummated except making sure of no pregnancy) between the Wordsworths (beginning in their time in Germany). And what egoist they were. And mean to the children (“robust” disciplinarian pratices like put the child in solitary confinement until he “behaves”).
The trip to Germany to learn German is absurd. No one visits the Wordsworths as they are pariah, have no money to do social intercourse (one needs money today too), no letters of introduction, people like me (I think to myself). Coleridge is at university, but it seems to me he could learn as much at home. He’s a lot on drugs.
I was appalled by Coleridge’s behavior to Sarah. And horrified by what she went through when she had two babies, with small pox, living in a nasty cottage with almost no amenities whatsoever, expected (!) to breastfeed them, herself covered with the disease, and this man is not to be told (the genius cannot be disturbed) and doesn’t come home for months afterwards. Then she gets pregnant again. You wouldn’t catch me in that man’s bed.
Thomas Poole seems to me (and Jones means me to think this) a homosexual in love with Coleridge, using this nonsense about genius cannot be disturbed to keep him from Sarah. With friends like this (from Sarah’s standpoint) who needs enemies. But Coleridge didn’t need a Poole to make him utterly self-centered.
Again Southey emerges as the decent one of the lot. It seems his turn to conservatism was also engendered by his sense of real obligation to wife and children and the need to support them and himself in dignity and comfort.
There are two still important issues here, the first I have been thinking about since starting this book: a couple of years (maybe more) ago now on Eighteenth Century @ Yahoo a few of us read Diderot’s La Religieuse in translation and ditto for his Rameau’s Nephew. It may be remembered RN is a debate on the rights of genius: does a man who has special gifts in the arts (or sciences) have the right to absolve himself of responsibilities he incurred. That’s the way it’s put. You cannot escape parents and relatives the way you cannot altogether escape the state. Anna Barbauld puts it this way when she argues that within limits a citizen must not work for, tolerate without criticizing heinous crimes by the state no matter how many people in the society are for this or allow it. But once you are grown, the responsibilities you incur, can you ignore or exploit others and use them.
Diderot says no. He has Rameau’s inner self shown to us as sordid, animal like, and the behavior which tolerates it abject and false, usually brought on by not being able to do anything.
I agree. If Coleridge wanted to spend his life with poetry, he should not impregnate Sarah each time they have sex. There were ways to stop it and they were known. Look at the Wordsworths, at Byron (and say Teresa and many other of his mistresses who did not get pregnant).
Coleridge was supported by Poole who Jones implies was in love (in other words) homosexually with Coleridge. what stopped Sarah from leaving him? It was her pride in being dropped by this man and knowing she wouldn’t get another — she had lost her looks and came encumbered with babies. It is clear that when she saw she was better off without this monster, that he was so egocentric to women (like the other men in the group) well beyond the others, that she at last dropped him and walked away.
Everything has its price. You want freedom you must give up certain kinds of things (looking at Coleridge). Sometimes the price is way too high (Sarah Coleridge having erotic love and a husband so that she will be respected), and you’ve got to face that and stop paying. Then the pain goes away and you are at peace.
The later chapters about the next generation (“Lost Children”) made me remember how children pay for those of their parents’ gifts the world condemns and only exploits for money when the parents fulfill them. “Lost Children” is brimming with real vital life as Jones has made such an astute use of the diaries and letters and documents left. I felt I was really there and the sense of reality in the intimate portraits is unbeatable.
When I finally closed the book, I found myself to have been very moved by the deaths of everyone but Mary Hutchinson (Wordsworth’s wife, a library attendance later this summer if we can get it to her) — who died last, was the strongest physically and probably emotionally too. Mary too left a diary journal travel book which Jones suggests is in some ways better than Dorothy’s as it tells far more personally about their lives as they travel.
How Jones tells the story of Sara Coleridge, the depth and perception and information she brings it can epitomize the book as a whole. Brought up by her mother, Sarah (with an “h” to tell them apart) in the hardest of circumstances because of the father’s desertion and their poverty, Sara lived in what became Southey’s large comfortable mansion, Gretna Hall (originally rented by Coleridge, and was supremely well-educated when it came to intellectual and academic matters (6000 books in the house by the time Southey was made poet laureate).
Gretna Hall as it was when the Coleridges first saw it
Like Hartley, Sara was supremely gifted (Sarah, the mother was also pace all the bad-mouthing a highly intelligent woman, well-read and one of Sara’s teachers). Sara Coleridge also had the continual companionship of Edith (Southey’s daughter, not that bright intellectually at all) and Dora Wordsworth (hard to say what she was intellectually so smothered was she by father, mother, and treated so harshly by Dorothy who sent her away to school just as she, Dorothy had been sent).
She had the beautiful country around her.
Many compensations. What she didn’t have was security and real tranquillity and order until Southey moved in permanently with his (often severely depressed wife) and many children (endless pregnancies inflicted on these poor women). STColeridge would actually badger her to tell him she loved him after himself berating her casually; he was openly in love and pursuit of Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Mary, Wordsworth’s wife. Sara and her mother and Hartley and Derwent (the third child of the Coleridges) were there on suffrance and knew it.
Also there was an intense repression of sexual knowledge. This is important. Although the older generation certainly didn’t conform to the repressive sexual norms of the time, they apparently themselves carried in their minds the same repressive attitudes of those around them, and deliberately kept all the daughters and sons ignorant of sexual matters. Dora and Sara in particular we know had a hard time coping with sexual maturity, and Wordsworth and his wife, Mary were able ruthlessly to prevent Dora from marrying until she was in her later 30s partly because she was frightened of sex. And what she saw of its results I might add in her house. Dorothy must be credited with encouraging Dora to marry the beloved man, Quillian — Dora ended up tubercular early on and died only a couple of years after marrying.
Drains were bad, no heat, little conveniences, no modern medicine and the result here was opium bondage, hardly discussed but real and that takes us to Sara.
In her comments Diana quoted the lines from Jones’s book about how after two harsh childbirths, and much illness and weakness, Sara begged the husband she finally married (after his father kept them apart because he loathed this bohemian group) to leave her be. He wouldn’t and he wouldn’t use contraception – they knew techniques, anal intercourse is obvious as well as other alternatives (used by Fanny Burney and Alexandre D’Ablay – fingers &c). The way it’s put by all sounds like he is an ogre, but in fact if you read Jones’s account what emerges is Sara disliked and was frightened of sex, and before the marriage, tried to keep the bethrothed away from her, and also after.
More to the point: Sara Coleridge didn’t want to be a family or man’s cow, at their beck and call, nailed own to children 24 hours a day. During her decade in her 20s he did much literary work, not paid, of course. She did two remarkable translations the first of which she began with Derwent under Southey’s tutelage. When Derwent got a scholarship to go to university, there would be no payment and outhey told her she must do it for herself and not to bother.
Southey was himself unscrupulous about women: he supported all these women and was in his daily life respectful and kind to them, but to him, they were here to serve men, and not a sliver of any money or attempt was ever given the girls for any kind of career or place in the world. He has the best, the airiest room in the house:
The floor plan of Gretna Hall when Southey, his wife and children, Sarah Coleridge and her children and Mary Lovell (another friend) and her daughter lived there; note Southey’s study on the first floor with 3 large windows
Doubtless he was hard at work for them, and I learned to like him too from this book (and have ordered for myself W. Specks’s fine biography of him as a complete man of lettes), but he loved the work (ate, breathed and slept it), and did not fall into debilitating depression, but late in life married a young poet, Caroline Bowles who took tender care of him in his senile last years — in return for his support (I’ve written a posting on her and her poetry in my old blog — see “women’s art” on my website).
Now Sara Coleridge understandably learned to want out. She too used opium for pain and began to use it for sleep. It had this side-affect: it made for miscarriages and made getting pregnant harder. She tried to escape the husband implicitly: they’d go on a trip and she’d stay behind on an inn and try to live there. The husband came and fetched her — and impregnanted her again. Twins, died almost immediately. She was profoundly depressed during much of this marriage — to man she did love, who was her intellectual equal, a lawyer.
Anyway as it happened he died young. Many of these people died in their fifties as many people would today but for modern medicine for troubles over organs and other small (to us) breakdowns. I’d have died at 27 of a miscarriage if I had lived before the mid-20th century. Not oddly if you read Jones aright, after an initial prostration (losing him, the income, the contingent dependence), she cheered up and went back to literary work and even socialized in London a bit. She began friendships by letters, with example, Elizabeth Barrett (not yet Browning). Sara did superb editions of her father’s papers, wrote poems (now first published in 2007). Doing the Biographia Litereria was a particularly immediately thankless task. Who would read it but scholars? There have never been many. What money did it make? Zilch. Who was the drudge who permitted this? Sarah Coleridge took care of Sara’s children.
I deeply sympathize with Sara and Dora and fear others will not. Why should she give up her life to others? It was a deep need in her to read and to write Jones said. I also liked Sarah Coleridge so much and admired her strength and loving heart.
Sarah Coleridge when in her 30s
Many of these women suffered terrible bouts of depression. Dorothy (obvious reasons), Edith Southey (continually pregnant, not Southey’s intellectual equal at all and had to watch him much prefer Sarah Coleridge and live a rich full life in London she was shut out of and who knows what he said to her inprivate), Sara Coleridge, Dora, Sara Hutchinson (stalked in effect by STC), Annette Vallon (deserted by Wordsworth and never helped in the way she needed at all, and he was relatively guiltless over it).
Sons without connections and decent fathers (Trollope uses this in his novels) suffered too. Were it not for Wordsworth and Southey, Hartley would not have had a chance at university, IN the event he got a second class degree, and by the time he was in his 20s was alcoholic. He had a very bad childhood emotionally because of his father. One thing here impressed me: how these women imposed on the children their continual way of giving up their lives so the children felt utterly bonded to them and the adults could get away with a lot of punishment on the children. Well I’ll say this for STC since he never did that, you could tell him what you thought and Hartley at least did that. He stood up to STC who was (we are told) so terribly shocked. Hartley was homeless at times since it was felt (as it is today) that men don’t have to be helped when they can’t manage (the young women were taken in you see). Often ill. Died young, not having fulfilled his gifts even so much as his sister, Sara did, not having lived the life he could have. He became the sort of young adult who stays away. I understand that very well,
What the women managed to leave were poetry, diaries, and journals of travel writing. Editions of their fathers’ work. And then the next generation of children (mostly women) wrote biographies of the aunts & mothers as well as fathers. Hartley left poetry and essays.
I wrote a foremother poet posting for Sara Coleridge (1802-53) on Wompo as a result of reading Passionate Sisterhood and would like to focus for a bit on her poetry.. First, however misleading the wikipedia article gives you the gist of her life as hitherto known; then an important on-line article published in The Guardian, tells you something of Sara’s backstory: Coleridge’s daughter hid her poetic passions.
In 2007 for the first time all Sara Coleridge’s poems edited by Peter Swaab and published by Carcanet Press were published; the book contained a hitherto unknown or forgotten 120 poems found in manuscript, much of which was apparently superior to the mostly conventional children’s (didactic, meant to teach words) and pious poems that had been known and published by her family. Unfortunately I don’t yet own this book (I’m waiting for it to come from Ireland via Amazon marketplace.uk and a slow shipping rat), so I quote
Father, no amaranths e’er shall wreathe my brow.
a still mostly unprinted poem by Sara, untitled, but to her father, which is printed in Jones’s book:
Enough that round thy grave they flourish now:
But Love mid’ my young locks his roses braided,
And what car’d I for flowr’s of deeper bloom?
Those too seem deathless – here they never faded,
But, drench’d and shatter’d dropp’d into the tomb.
Ne’er was it mine t’unlock rich founts of song,
As thine it was ere Time had done thee wrong:
But ah! how blest I wander’d nigh the stream,
Whilst Love, fond guardian, hover’d o’er me still!
His downy pinions shed the tender gleam
That shone from river wide or scantiest rill.
Now, whether Winter ‘slumbering dreams of Spring,’
Or, heard far off, his resonant footsteps fling
O’er Autumn’s sunburnt cheek a wanner hue,
While droops her heavy garland, here and there,
Nought can for me those golden gleams renew,
The roses of my shattered wreath repair.
Yet Hope still lives and oft, to objects fair
In prospect pointing, bids me still pursue
My humble tasks: – I list – but backward cast
Fain would mine eye discern the Future in the Past.
She did publish one to her daughter when the child was very young:
Fast, fast asleep my Edith lies
With her snowy night-dress on;
Closed are now her sparkling eyes;
All her merry thoughts are gone.
Gone! ah me! perhaps she dreams;
Perhaps she views the crystal streams,
Wanders in the grove and field —
What hath sleep to her revealed?
And one which revealed her opium addiction and need for opium for sleep:
The Poppies Blooming all around
My Herbert loves to see,
Some pearly white, some dark as night,
Some red as cramasie;
He loves their colours fresh and fine
As fair as fair may be,
But little does my darling know
How good they are to me.
He views their clustering petals gay
And shakes their nut-brown seeds.
But they to him are nothing more
Than other brilliant weeds;
O how should’st thou with beaming brow
With eye and cheek so bright
Know aught of that blossom’s pow’r,
Or sorrows of the night!
When poor mama long restless lies
She drinks the poppy’s juice;
That liquor soon can close her eyes
And slumber soft produce.
0′ then my sweet my happy boy
Will thank the poppy flow’r
Which brings the sleep to dear mama
At midnight’s darksome hour.
To return to A Passionate Sisterhood as a whole, the first half of the book coincides with the lifespan of Jane Austen and what Jones shows to be so about the women’s lives of her book (genteel yet semi-impoverished) tells a good deal about Austen’s. Austen was just a cut above the Fricker and Hutchinson sisters so she didn’t have to go out and be a governess (or worse yet, milliner) and she was strong enough to refuse to marry so was not burdened with endless pregnancies though she did die young all the same.
It is customary to find fault. Jones has one flaw: she misnames her book. It should have been subtitled: Women Southey Lived with or Helped Support. But then who would have bought it?
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