As an undergraduate I became fixated on my tutor, Ann Wordsworth, a woman of devastating command who held the other English Literature dons in contempt. Tutorials were conducted in a grubby shed in the college grounds where we chain-smoked Gitanes and quaffed red wine from, for some reason, small cartons. In an attempt to impersonate Ann’s wistful, pained intellect, I employed in those years a world-weary prose style, and while I read out my weekly essays she listened, hunched up in an attitude of agony, dragging heavily on her cigarette, eyes fixed on the filthy, threadbare carpet. Her responses to my efforts were uniform: she would either snort with derision and lament the tyranny of soft misreadings, or she would look up, eyes blazing, and pronounce, “Yor!”—her version of “yar”—a word used in the eighties as a snooty alternative to “yes.” Getting a “yor” from Ann Wordsworth was the highest possible accolade.
Ann had been married to another don called Jonathan Wordsworth, a great-great-nephew of the poet, and they had four grown-up sons about whom she talked a great deal. Four huge sons! This intellectual colossus was magnificent in body as well as mind. Despite being separated and denouncing Jonathan’s mind as “vulgar,” Ann was evidently still in love with him and this added to her appeal. She was a wounded warrior, she carried a scar.
At some point during my final year at Oxford I decided to throw in my lot with Ann Wordsworth. After all, I was her creature; her snorts and yors had rooted themselves in me. It was not love so much as fear, a need for approbation, and a desire to turn myself into her. My own people having proved disappointing, the Wordsworths became my new family. I moved to London, where I met the eldest of her sons; he shared my obsession with his mother and so, both hoping to win her approval, we began a relationship which lasted four years. After we separated, I married his first cousin, also a Wordsworth. We had a child and divorced. Devotion to the Wordsworths now turned sour; thus began the process of breaking free.
My relationship with Ann Wordsworth has been, literally, the story of my life, but I have never much wanted to write about myself. I prefer giving shape and structure to other people’s stories and like to think that I am aware of the ways in which the unconscious washes up in writing. It wasn’t until the end of drafting Guilty Thing, my life of the Romantic essayist and opium-eater Thomas De Quincey—until the end, goddamit!—that I clocked what was going on. De Quincey, who was everyone’s double, was also mine. The book was less a biography than an exorcism. I was dredging it out of myself, bringing to the surface a submerged wreck.
De Quincey was a teenager when he became addicted to William Wordsworth. He threw in his lot with the poet on the strength of “We Are Seven,” a poem in Lyrical Ballads which captured with uncanny precision De Quincey’s response to the death of his sister. Wordsworth was the one man on earth who understood De Quincey: to serve Wordsworth was his destiny. De Quincey was Wordsworth’s first fan and best reader; he was also, for years, Wordsworth’s stalker and Coleridge’s doppelganger. He traded his own family for a bit-part in Wordsworth’s more interesting clan, making himself indispensable to the poet’s wife and sister and young children. When the Wordsworths moved out of their home, Dove Cottage, De Quincey moved in. When Wordsworth’s daughter died, De Quincey fell to pieces and slept on her grave. He then married a servant girl whom the Wordsworths snubbed as their social inferior, at which point his love for the poet turned to hate. He too had been treated by Wordsworth as a servant; Wordsworth had never recognized De Quincey’s own genius or appreciated De Quincey’s part in promoting his fame. Wordsworth would be the making of De Quincey, and breaking away from him became De Quincey’s great subject.
When I broke from the Wordsworths I began to write about their crushing ancestor. The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth explored the strange, quasi-incestuous relationship between William and his sister, who collapsed on his wedding day and lived for the rest of her life in a triangle with the poet and his wife. Wordsworth does not come out of the story well, but I have always been drawn to the monstrosity of writers. Strong writers are not like other people. “I am at core a writer,” wrote Henry Miller to Anaïs Nin, “and not a human being.” “I am a writer first,” said Katherine Mansfield, “and a woman after.” De Quincey’s terrible discovery was that Wordsworth’s poetry represented the moral sublime, but in person he was arrogant, egotistical, and with limited charm. The psyche of a poem and the psyche of the poet, De Quincey now understood, were two different things.
My first book, Literary Seductions, explored in embryo what Guilty Thing brings to fruition. It was about readers who fell for writers through their writing, who would have liked, as Keats put it, “to be married to a poem or given away by a novel.” Not every writer can seduce: only those who are writers first and human beings after have been confused with their writing in this way. Thus Caroline Lamb introduced herself to Lord Byron with a letter beginning “Dear Childe Harold”; “I love your verses with all my heart,” wrote Robert Browning before meeting Elizabeth Barrett, “and I love you too”; Robert Graves left his wife and four children for a poem by Laura Riding; and when Elizabeth Smart first read George Barker, she shipped him over, together with his wife, from Japan. Smart made no secret of preferring Barker’s language to his body—“Barker’s new poems arrived,” she wrote in her diary, “But when I opened the book my excitement made me too impotent to read.”
The subject of Guilty Thing is, I now realize, Wordsworthian seduction: my own and De Quincey’s. Identifying with my subject does not make me sympathetic to his plight, but then I have never much cared for the people I write about. “Some of our contemporaries,” De Quincey observed of his own biographical writing, “we hate particularly and for that very reason we will not write their lives. It is too odious a spectacle to imprison a fellow in a book, lock a stag in a cart, and turn him out to be hunted through all his doubles for a day’s amusement.” It’s the best description I know of the biographer’s art: to hunt a fellow through all his doubles. When I first read this passage I looked up from the page, eyes blazing, and pronounced, “Yor!”
Frances Wilson is a critic, a journalist, and the author of four works of nonfiction: Literary Seductions; The Courtesan’s Revenge; The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, which won the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize in 2009; and How to Survive the Titanic; or, The Sinking of J Bruce Ismay, the winner of the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography in 2012. She lives in London with her daughter.
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