Wordsworth exhibition explores true nature of William and Dorothy's bond

Show at National Trust’s Wordsworth House and Garden in Cumbria to mark 250th anniversary of poet’s birth

More than two centuries ago there was cruel and rude gossip about how startlingly close the relationship between William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy was.

“The rumour mill has continued,” admitted Zoe Gilbert, visitor experience manager at Wordsworth’s childhood home in Cumbria. “We still get asked that question today.”

A new exhibition will, in part, explore the true nature of the siblings’ relationship, suggesting it was unusually close but not sexual.

It was, said the Wordsworth expert Kathleen Jones, an “amazingly close bond” founded on the deep psychological trauma of being split up as young children and then reunited in their late teens.

The National Trust is staging the exhibition at its property Wordsworth House and Garden in Cockermouth, Cumbria, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the poet’s birth.

It explores Wordsworth’s childhood and how his life and poetry was shaped by the wild, outdoor upbringing he and his sister enjoyed at the house on the banks of the River Derwent.

Among the exhibits will be Dorothy’s tiny baby bonnet, handsewn most likely by their mother Ann. It is the only item from their childhood to survive.

William was eight and Dorothy was seven when their mother died and they were split up. She was sent to relatives in Yorkshire and five years later they became orphans when their father died. Dorothy did not reunite with her brother for nine years.

“Dorothy was passed around like a parcel,” said Jones. “It had a deep psychological impact.

“For someone like Dorothy who was very sensitive, very emotional – what we’d now call highly strung – that childhood bond with her brother was all she could remember of security and love, everything to do with family.”

When they finally met again a syndrome called “genetic attraction” happened, said Jones.

“They looked into each other’s eyes and they saw a similar person with similar feelings … this is what happens when you fall in love with someone. You meet someone and think wow this person is so like me, all that empathy, everything. They had shared so much.”

When William married his wife Mary, Dorothy went through a type of grief which led him to giving his sister his wedding ring to wear before the big day. “An extraordinary thing to do,” said Jones.

Dorothy then lived with William and Mary for the rest of her life. “His wife must have been very patient,” said Gilbert. “There were always three in the relationship.”

The childhood of William and Dorothy and its effect on their lives is explored in a series of films at the exhibition featuring Jones and the poet Helen Mort.

Jones argues that Dorothy was an astute judge of her brother’s poetry and played an important part in his wellbeing. He was “a man who needed a lot of positive reinforcement and Dorothy gave him that”.

The exhibition title, The Child is Father of the Man, comes from a line in Wordsworth’s 1802 poem My Heart Leaps Up. He is suggesting that childhood experiences help form an adult’s character, but also that people should hold on to their childhood sense of wonder in the natural beauty of the world.

The bonnet is a remarkable survivor, with no one knowing quite how it came to be passed down over 250 years to its current owners, the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere.

Gilbert said: “Anybody visiting this year will see how events from childhood, objects which have survived or been lost, and other memories can connect them to their own past.

“Dorothy’s baby bonnet, as the sole item to remain from the siblings’ childhood, is especially precious and evocative.”

The exhibition also features objects from William’s later life, including his ice skates and his tinted spectacles, which shine a light on the poet’s lifelong anxieties about health and his fear of going blind.

• The Child is Father of the Man is at Wordsworth House and Garden, 14 March-8 November.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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