Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson

I do, occasionally, take up brand new books. I like those nice, crackly new mylar covers, and the feel of new paper and the look of clean bright typeface. I like, who does not, the possibility of fresh discovery, something good of today. And I remember finding and liking new books when I browsed the library shelves at the age of ten or twelve or a little more. Have I since become snarkily judgmental? Or have the books all declined precipitously in quality? Surely it can't be possible that intelligence and talent left the human race -- or the English-language publishing world -- sometime around June of 1977.

I plucked this, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, off the New Arrivals shelves a few days ago. It looked good. A quick sample of the prose was nice ("a routine of mutton and moonscapes, walking and headaches, watching and waiting, pie baking and poem making"). I am sorry to say that within thirty pages, the promise fell away and the book confirmed the teachings of my inner voice, which has warned me for a long time: in general, avoid new books.

Why? Because not only did this one begin awkwardly and self-consciously, with the author writing in the present tense and omnisciently ("She can stand it no longer. When she looks from her window ....") about a subject whom she will subsequently treat in a more traditional style ("This is the story of four small notebooks whose contents Dorothy Wordsworth never meant to be published"). But it exemplified the bloodless, navel-gazing, oh so archly aware attitudes that come straight from people whose only meaningful education has been in the thin air of the university classroom, and whose cohorts have these last thirty years gone on to suck any healthful oxygen out of English-language publishing officialdom. The result is not only a book like this, but a veritable book-stuffed universe lived in, loved, and guarded by themselves. The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth sings the Academy, with a capital A.

What people learn in an Academy's English literature departments, it seems, is to perfect a basic human skill, and that is the ability to see patterns. If you can see patterns and then weave them into something more or less semantically clever -- if you can " 'make extracts,' " as Mr. Bennett teases his bluestocking daughter Mary in Pride and Prejudice -- then you may be on your way to a book contract with an important firm. (Did I mention that no important firm has ever offered me a book contract? Full disclosure.) Here is where I stopped reading Frances Wilson:

She weighs and measures her condition: her heart is full, she cries until it is lighter; her brothers are together, she is apart from them; they are walking, she is still; she leaves them under the trees, she sits upon a stone. Dorothy initially wrote that she sat upon a stone at "the foot of the lake" before changing "foot" to "margin," which gets in more her sense of frames, limits, borders. It is William who provides the contours of her life.

I would not doubt that William Wordsworth provided the contours of his sister's life, but in this particular case, she may have read over this one page, realized that lakes don't have feet but they do have, what, beaches, shorelines, ah! -- margins! and corrected even her private words accordingly. But to an academic, this is pattern. Capital P. This is something to analyze. And of course the resulting extract is always plausible, publishable, because as long as you provide evidence, who is to say that your pattern analysis might not have been right? At any rate you are thinking for yourself, as your professors want you to do. You are writing your paper. Dorothy Wordsworth is in no position to argue.

I don't know what the rest of the book is like, but I take it that Frances Wilson's oeuvre is the dissection of the idea of the Journal, any journal, as such. "The self as a perceiving subject." Pity, then, poor Dorothy, or any diary keeper. Who knows why people do it? To purge the mind (Aristotle). To not purge it (" 'Aw, Sport, because I've seen them, and I want to remember them,' " Harriet explains in Harriet the Spy). Every journal keeper might list the pretty flowers she saw on a walk, or write down an appalling encounter with a bereaved neighbor who had lost all her children to disease in a year and a half. Let those jottings come under the eye of a well-meaning academic two hundred years on, however, and you've got pattern. The flowers "symbolize her sorrow," as they do for Hamlet's Ophelia; by the tale of the mourning neighbor she "communicates her own fear for her immediate future." It didn't all just happen. No one could get a book out of that.

In the end you can tell you've got an anemic, modern book on your hands, Modern with a capital M, when the quotes in it from older sources, meant to be ancillary, stand out as fresh, adult, and simply normal. The lines from Wordsworth's poems stand out. A bit less so do the snippets from Dorothy's journals. You read them and feel encouraged to go and seek them out for their own sake. That's good; and previous eras have certainly also produced their share of anemic books, which I am sure one by one suffered their inevitable fate, and were forgotten. What strikes me about Modern publishing, and what makes my inner voice say 'life is short, avoid it,' is that a whole industry should seem to be so devoted to making and selling such thin, repetitive, adolescent product. The really dense, impressive but new book, randomly plucked from a shelf as opposed to sought out from an author whose talent you know, is a rare treat. How do good, untried things ever pass the narrow gate? Perhaps it is just randomly done.


  1. Wow, that was some venom at vellum. I share your scorn of academic 'pattern-searchers', although I am guilty of being one, too, sometimes, because of my profession as a teacher.

    I have read Dorothy Wordsworth's journals (long ago, in college), and she seemed to have her brother's ease and simplicity of description. But what struck me also was her sense of passivity, she seemed so content to play second fiddle to William.

  2. Mercy, did you find it venomous? I thought I was being balanced. Perhaps I'd better re-boot.