Posted by: robbedlyric | October 3, 2012

Work-shopping Wordsworth: ‘Love, Loss and Lore: The Letter’s of the Wordsworth Family’

A few weeks ago, I and two other interns gave a talk at the Wordsworth Café and Bookshop in Penrith. The talk was titled ‘Love, Loss and Lore: The Letters of the Wordsworth Family’ and was an examination of several letters sent between different members of the family for very different reasons.

We weren’t really sure what to expect as we’d never visited the café before but it was lovely with a small seating area downstairs which was just right for the informal session we had planned. Around 10 people had booked for the evening and they were a lovely and enthusiastic group who were keen to be involved in the activities and discussion.

We began with a short discussion of Wordsworth’s connections to Penrith. His grandparents lived in the town and ran a draper’s shop. When the Wordsworth children were young they often visited with their mother however after their mother’s death Wordsworth was sent away to school and he visited his grandparent’s only in the school holidays.

Dorothy had a deeper connection with the town. She had been sent away to Halifax after her mother’s death but at age 16 she returned to the draper’s shop in Penrith to live once again with her grandparents. Neither William nor Dorothy particularly enjoyed staying with their grandparents but Dorothy has happy memories of the friendships she made in the town. It was here she met Mary Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s future wife and she describes how they would in the evenings when their work was done sneak to each other’s houses to talk over the fire and then would walk the streets of Penrith by moonlight to avoid parting.

We had prepared some facsimile letters of the Wordsworth’s from various periods of their lives. They were folded as they would have been when they were sent and we had sealed some with wax so that people could open them and really get a sense of what it would have been like to receive and ‘crack open’ one of these letters.


These letters enabled us to lead the conversation onto some interesting points. We discussed the letters in the context in which they were written and the context of the Wordsworth’s lives but they also enabled us to discuss the nature of postage and letter writing in this period and how the availability of paper and the price of the post affected the physical character of letters, how they looked and how they were folded.

We also talked about the social nature of letter writing, how letters were often written to more than one recipient at a time and were designed to be read aloud. In this way they could convey news and ideas to many people at once and the reading of a letter from friends and family could be part of an evening’s entertainment. It is this that makes Mary Wordsworth exclaim in delight when she receives a letter from her husband addressed solely to her because she has never had a letter to herself before.

One of our letters was particularly emotional and led us on to a discussion about the speed of post and how this could affect the travel of important news. This is the letter from Dorothy to her brother telling him of the death of his daughter, Catherine. Both Wordsworth and Mary were away from home when the child died and Dorothy writes only to her brother because by the time the news would have reached Mary it would be too late for her to come home for the funeral.

After tea and cakes, which were absolutely delicious and very welcome for hungry interns we bought out ink and quills and allowed people to have a go at writing and folding their own letters. This proved extremely popular and even more popular was the sealing of the letters with wax and seals.

The workshop was an excellent way for everyone involved to think about letters in different ways. It is important to look at manuscripts not just for the content contained within the writing but as physical objects. The way the letters look can tell us just as much as what is written within. 



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