Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Life of Dorothy Wordsworth ('All for William') Sonia Woolley, Stewart Clapp and Richard Skinner St Mary Arches Church Exeter Wednesday 15 February

A step back in time . . .
Actress Sonia Woolley from the Salisbury Playhouse
is Dorothy Wordsworth
composing letters to friends and relatives
(St Mary Arches Church Wed 15 Feb)

Caroline Cornish exhorts us all 
to continue our efforts to preserve
Exeter's St Stephen's Church
Shout Hurrah! The St Stephen's Project - to restore the ancient Church of St Stephen in Exeter High Street - has reached a watershed. The interior is still a construction site, but work in on schedule for the building to reopen to the public on Thursday 19th July. A monumental success!

Many thanks to everyone who has responded to the appeal and given generously. Special thanks are in order for the tireless work of Caroline Cornish and Bridget Davis. With a team of helpers, they have put on a series of benefit concerts in aid of the project. Until renovation work began in earnest, concerts and shows (including the wonderful Circus Berzercus, 12 Nov 2010) were staged in St Stephen's Church itself. More recently the venue has generally been nearby St Mary Arches Church. A series of wonderful performers have entertained us, and helped raise money to keep the restoration on track.

As the builders continue their work, the fundraising and concerts also continue. On Wednesday evening the actress and voice tutor Sonia Woolley came to St Mary Arches. Sonia is from the Salisbury Playhouse, and also directs opera at Salisbury Cathedral. She teaches as 'Visiting Scholar in Voice and Word' at Sarum College - and she founded, and runs, the Salisbury Talking Newspaper - an invaluable service providing recorded readings of each week's news for 200 print disabled listeners in the city. A very talented and generous performer!

Stewart Clapp 
recites the poetry of
William Wordsworth
Richard Skinner 
narrates and recites poetry by
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
On Wednesday Sonia gave an extremely moving monologue tracing the life of the author Dorothy Wordsworth. Dorothy lived from 1771 to 1855, and spent a large part of her 84 years with her brother William, the poet and colleague of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Sonia, as Dorothy, sat at her escritoire - itself of antique provenance. She wrote with an impressive quill and thought, or read, aloud. Additional narration was provided by Richard Skinner, who also quoted Coleridge's poetry. Stewart Clapp recited the selected work by William Wordsworth.

This simple but perfect presentation of Dorothy's diaries took us into her world, starting with her experiences as a young girl.

Dorothy's mother (Anne Cookson) died when she was very young, and she and her three brothers - Richard, William and the youngest, John - were brought up by their father, John, Agent to Sir James Lowther in Cockermouth. The family lived rent-free in the former home of Joshua Lucock, High Sheriff of Cumberland - which was, by then, the property of Sir James.

The house was, and is, very grand (you can visit, courtesy of the National Trust) and the children had a grand childhood. But their father died in 1783 when Dorothy was only twelve. Dorothy then lived with her aunt, Elizabeth Threlkeld, in Yorkshire, separated from her beloved brothers.

The tone of the first letters and diary entries from that time is surprisingly cheerful. Dorothy adores her Aunt Elizabeth and her new life in Halifax. Her relationship with her father had been distant and it is her brothers she misses - but she has hope that they will be reunited.

As the century draws to a close, Dorothy, now twenty four, joins William in Dorset where they live in (relative) poverty, but Dorothy is overjoyed to be with her brother again. From Dorset they move to Somerset for a couple of years in the late nineties.

Using Dorothy's original writings, Sonia wove in the important story of William's time in France following the Revolution. In the early days William enthusiastically supported the Republic. He fell in love with a French girl called Annette Vallon and they had a daughter, Caroline, born in 1792.

William's reunion with Dorothy was partly due to his lack of funds and inability to continue living in France. The subsequent 'Reign of Terror' in France meant that William was then unable to return to France for many years. Eventually he went to see Annette in 1802 and arranged for the care of her and Caroline. He was, by then, engaged to marry Dorothy's close friend Mary Hutchinson.

Seeing his daughter for the first time in nearly ten years, but in such circumstances, must have caused William confused emotions. Perhaps the poem he wrote that night sums up his feelings -

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun,
Breathless with adoration: the broad sun,
Is sinking down in its tranquility . . .

The kind and gentle tone of Dorothy's reminiscences of her brother's impetuous affair and its disastrous consequences are strangely moving. Such tenderness for her brother, and her ability to forgive his mistakes, must have drawn them closer together.

Once married, William, with Mary - and Dorothy, moved back to the Lake District, to Grasmere. Their new home, Dove Cottage, was a long way short of the grandeur of their childhood home in Cockermouth, but it was very cosy, and the three friends lived happily there. As time passed they were joined by William and Mary's five children. The youngest, Willy, was born in 1810.

Their life was particularly comfortable because Sir James had died owing their father's estate £4,000. James' son William, First Earl of Lonsdale, repaid the debt in 1802.

Decorating and gardening, making the house beautiful inside and out, enjoying the stimulating company of friends like Samual Coleridge, or sitting quietly by the fire - everything sounds idyllic. Sonia's choice of passages and delivery makes you want to be there. (And you can! - Dove cottage is preserved and kept open to the public by the Wordsworth Trust ( - not the National Trust as previously mentioned here!)

But the idyll was to be shattered abruptly. After a sudden and protracted pause, Sonia uttered the terrible words, "My brother, John, is drowned."

Dorothy Wordsworth (Sonia Woolley)
 recalls the terrible news of John Wordsworth's death.
Richard Skinner narrates from the shadows
William and Dorothy's younger brother had taken a career as a naval officer and was captain of the East Indiaman 'Earl of Abergavenny' which he took to China twice. On the third and fourth voyages the captain was John Wordsworth Jnr, the son of Dorothy's eldest brother Richard. On the fourth return journey the 'Earl of Abergavenny' was involved in the battle of Pulo Aura where a strong French squadron was driven off by a fleet of British East Indiamen. John senior took over for the fifth voyage but met disaster at the outset. The ship sank, killing most of the crew as she left Weymouth Bay.

It was 1805.

Napoleon had amassed nearly a quarter of a million troops at Boulogne for the invasion of England. The UK and Russia were forming the 'Third Coalition' to resist French expansion. Bonaparte's troops occupied Vienna, and the premiere of Beethoven's 'Fidelio' played to an empty Theater an der Wien.

(The British Fleets under Nelson and Collingwood had been keeping the French and Spanish fleets engaged, and the English Channel under British control, preventing the French invasion barges from crossing. The decisive engagement at Cadiz (The Battle of Trafalgar), where half the ships of the French and Spanish fleets were captured along with Admirals Villeneuve and Gravina, was to take place later the same year.)

Dorothy, now thirty four, had given up any ideas of getting married herself. She continued to live with William and his growing family in Grasmere, their comfort and companionship now marred by the sadness of bereavement.

William continued work on his great autobiographical work 'The Recluse'. He planned to write three volumes. The initial collection, entitled 'Poem to Coleridge', had been completed just before John died. In 1807 an extension of this was published as his, now famous, 'Poems in Two Volumes'.

In 1812, Coleridge became increasingly addicted to opium. William and he were increasingly estranged. Disaster struck again. Two of William and Mary's children, Thomas and Catherine, died aged six and four. In 1813 William moved the family to Rydal Mount near Ambleside on his new salary as 'Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland'. The following year he published 'The Excursion' as the second instalment of 'The Recluse'.

Critical acclaim for William's work declined over the next two decades. In 1829 Wordsworth and Coleridge were reconciled, but by then Dorothy was seriously ill, and never fully recovered. In 1843 the Prime Minister, Robert Peel, convinced William to accept the post of Poet Laureate, a post for which he would write no poetry. After the death of a third daughter, Dora, in 1847, he gave up writing completly. William died in 1850, aged eighty, and Dorothy died five years later.

Nearly half a century later Dorothy's diaries were discovered by Edinburgh University Literature Professor, William Angus Knight. Knight was in the process of writing 'Wordsworth's Works and Life' which would eventually extend to eleven volumes. He edited Dorothy's work and published it as the 'The Grasmere Journal' in 1897. Before his death in 1916 (also aged eighty) he donated all the works by Wordsworth that he had collected to the Dove Cottage Trust.

And so we find ourselves, two hundred years after that happy time came to an end, hearing the voice of Dorothy describing the minutiae of life at Dove Cottage as if it were yesterday. Through the power of the written word, and Sonia's impressive ability to bring those words to life, we are transported across centuries to the classical period, a very different world, but strangely similar to the one in which we now live.

An all-star cast:
 Richard Skinner, Sonia Wooley, Stewart Clapp
'All for William'
Bridget Davis 
clutching her Wordsworth poems
expresses our thanks to Sonia Woolley
'All for William' was one of those gems of theatre which we enjoy so much here in Devon. Simple but incredibly moving. Many thanks to Sonia Woolley and the two Exeter poets, Richard Skinner and Stewart Clapp, who brought the story to life so vividly. And thanks to the St Stephen's Project, to Caroline Cornish and to Bridget Davis, for bringing such talent to Exeter, and for coordinating the rescue mission for our thousand year old church - a project which is now, quite rightly, fast approaching its successful completion!

First class work!

After standing for nine centuries
 St Stephen's Church narrowly escapes destruction
by the German Luftwaffe in May 1942

Surrounded by its new neighbours 
St Stephen's Church attracts visitors
- and donations towards its restoration

Want to know more? -

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