Another from the vault of unearthed lit crit…

The mashup of feminism and post-structuralism in Dorothy Wordsworth

            Mary Wollstonecraft is largely considered the paragon of proto-feminism. Jane Austen is a scion atop the mountain for insights on feminine society. Mary Shelley, with the hindsight that 200 years brings, may have written the preeminent work of the British Romantic period. With so many women becoming prominent figures in the literary realm, why doesn’t Dorothy Wordsworth, who spends an inordinate amount of time with two of the most acclaimed writers of the time period, carry more gravitas? Why doesn’t Dorothy, whose works are raved over by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ever go her own road, much like the aforementioned women? Properly understanding Dorothy Wordsworth’s intentions stems from grasping her narrative form, her gender, and her overwhelming acceptance to be muse rather than maker.

Wollstonecraft was an academic. Shelley and Austen grew fame writing novels. The journals of Dorothy Wordsworth can only be classified as a piece of creative nonfiction – an aberration for the period. The difference between creative nonfiction and standard nonfiction, as defined by Carolyn Yoder, Senior Editor for History and World Cultures at Highlights for Children, comes through in the following: “Straight nonfiction relies solely on the parts–the facts for the most part–and not on the whole. Creative nonfiction is all about the whole–how the parts make it up. Creative nonfiction, like fiction, is all about story or theme. Creative nonfiction tends to have strong characters, strong sense of place, rich details, obvious themes, conflicts, arcs–everything” (Yoder). Wordsworth’s journals, when looked at as a whole, follow what Yoder is describing. There are names and dates, but there are also vivid descriptions of nature and the characteristics of the people Wordsworth meets. The leecher is a prime example of Wordsworth’s ability to describe a character. For instance. “He had on a coat thrown over his shoulders above his waistcoat and coat. Under this he carried a bundle and had an apron on and a night cap” (343). The way Wordsworth rattles off details of first approaching the man is comparable to any of the other female writers of the period.

Throughout the entirety of the journals Wordsworth repeatedly mentions periods when she visits female friends and details the concerns they address to her. It is in these places she summons Austen. Wordsworth details sending Peggy Ashburner goose and then details Peggy explaining her husband’s actions. Inclusion of these details brings to mind thoughts of Luce Irigaray’s “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine” in which Irigaray states: The place where it serves as security for a narcissism extrapolated into the “God” of men. It can play this role only at the price of its ultimate withdrawal from prospection, of its “virginity” unsuited for the representation of self” (796). Peggy’s entire conversation with Wordsworth stems from the world created by her husband, in turn making the conversation about a woman’s place within society, and in many ways directly contrasts the life Wordsworth leads.

Ernest de Selincourt once noted Wordsworth admitting in a journal she never really cared for publishing her works, she preferred that William get the pleasure of it (Selincourt). The overwhelming question is why? It’s clear that Dorothy Wordsworth had the talent and the support of her elder brother. She seemed intelligent and well enough read to recognize that women were succeeding in the period and that her prose would be in good arms. In many respects the question may be unanswerable without direct reference from Wordsworth herself. What can be assessed, however, is what George Derrida calls the “difference” in the journals, and to a larger extent, literary career, of Dorothy Wordsworth. As it has been noted, Wordsworth’s work, in its narrative form, is different from her contemporaries, male or female. In her own admission, she differs to her brother in reference to critique or literary fame. It follows the process of “relation and differentiation,” (279) that Derrida notes. Her inability to be assessed as an author in a common form or with common intentions for her work, portrays her as an enigma who cannot be pinned down.

Wordsworth makes astute observations about the female condition, but her unwillingness to make those thoughts known to the public, to differ to her brother in any instance of transferring dialogue to the public sector, begs the question of does a work have to be published in order for it to be credible? Further, what would these documents be had they never been released to the public? Since Wordsworth wrote these journals for her own accord, and they were only released because of a choice by an executor, can these writings be properly critiqued as having being written with a critical lens? Applications of Feminism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis or New Historicism can be applied to any type of text, but what if these were nothing more than just a journal? In that event, are any of the textual portraits Wordsworth paints extraordinary, or are they simply reviewed because they were released and she was the brother of a famous poet? In many ways both.




Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. “Differance.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd. Blackwell: Malden, 2004. 278 – 299. Print.

Irigaray, Luce. “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd. Blackwell: Malden, 2004. 795-799. Print.

Selincourt, Ernest de. “The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, vol. 2” Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1967. 454

Wordsworth, Dorothy. The Grasmere Journal. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Age of Romanticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Joseph Black. Toronto. Broadview. 342-355. 2010. Print.

Yoder, Carolyn. “Creative nonfiction.” Pbworks. 2003. Web. 8/16/15.

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