In our round-up of Something Rhymed’s first year, we promised this month to reveal a friendship between two female authors that has been neglected in favour of these women’s relationships with famous men.
Mary Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth, great writers themselves, are most often remembered because of their intense attachments to their brothers, essayist Charles Lamb and Romantic poet William Wordsworth. Their own fascinating friendship, preserved in their intimate correspondence, barely scrapes a mention in most literary histories.
And yet, like the men in their circle, Mary and Dorothy also hiked up the mountains around Grasmere, exchanging their thoughts on the natural world and trading ideas on each other’s poems.
When Dorothy visited London, Mary would welcome her into the small Inner Temple flat where she lived with her brother, and the two women would stay up talking late into the night.
The pair both shunned marriage in favour of devotion to their sisterly roles. The night before William’s wedding, Dorothy wore the ring that he had purchased for his betrothed and, when she gave it to him the following morning, he slipped it back onto her finger before taking it to the church. Dorothy did not attend the ceremony.
Stories of the relationship between the Lamb siblings suggest similar hints of the illicit. Mary, who suffered throughout her life from severe attacks of mental illness, had tragically stabbed their mother to death during her first breakdown. Charles promised to take care of his sister, thereby preventing her from being sent to Bedlam. They upheld their mutual pledge never to marry, instead committing themselves to each other ‘for better, for worse’ as Charles put it; writing in collaboration; and caring for their adopted child.
The women’s fraternal relationships, which had drawn them together, later threatened to split them apart. One of Mary’s breakdowns – so severe that she spent several weeks in an asylum – occurred after an overnight visit from Dorothy.
Charles, who felt that his sister’s mental health was reliant on a good night’s sleep, blamed the women’s late-night conversations for the onset of her illness. He therefore banned Dorothy from staying with them in future and declined her offer to bring Mary up to the Lakes.
But as soon as Mary recovered, she wrote a cheerful letter to Dorothy and the pair continued their friendship despite the restrictions imposed by Mary’s kindly but overbearing brother.
Both of them eventually outlived their beloved siblings. In her dotage, Dorothy also suffered a loss of mental health – although different in nature from Mary’s lifelong illness.
As Dorothy’s grip on the present loosened she became immersed in memories of her youth. She took to reciting poems from the early Grasmere days: poems by the men we’ve come to think of as the great Romantics, but also her poems and those of her friend – the female Romantics whose lives and works have for too long been consigned to the shadows.
Inspired by Mary Lamb and Dorothy Wordsworth, this month we will write about some of our own late-night conversations.