My favourite young man, the one somewhat given to chocolate, asked me recently, ‘What is a family?’
Unfortunately I had, the previous evening, been watching a documentary about murderer Charles Manson, whose gang of young murderous sociopaths called themselves ‘the Family’, so the question floored me for a moment.
When I recovered, I fumbled my way into talk of my own family - my much loved son and daughter, their spouses, my sister and brother and nieces and nephews. Then I thought how my sense of family is also imbued with ever-present memories of my unique mother and my gentle brother. Even my father, who died when I was nine, sits perfectly in my memory and constitutes part of my essential self. I remember how he used to put his little finger up my cardigan sleeve because his hand was too big to hold mine properly.
Then I talked about the groups of friends I made emerging from college into later professional and adult life who are more knowing of me, more intimate even, than my family of the flesh - certainly they are more accurate mirrors for the person I have become.
All of which gets me back to the other part of my holiday reading A Passionate Sisterhood – the sisters, wives, and daughters of The Lake Poets, by the excellent Kathleen Jones to which I turned after the delights of Dan Brown.
I have appreciated the work of Kathleen Jones since she came to the prison where I was writer in residence, to read from her biography of Catherine Cookson, and play unique interview tapes of CC talking: we listened as this odd, phenomenal woman, talked, fulminated, raged about elements of her own story. I later devoured Jones’ scholarly work, which addresses the subtleties and dark, significant areas of the life of Catherine Cookson. This writer, because of her staggering universal appeal, is seen my some luminaries as not so much a writer as a literary aberration.
The women in prison - some CC fans, some not – were fascinated. Experienced as they were in the matrix of abuse that counts to some as family life, they saw aspects of their own life validated - not just in CC’s stories, but in her life.
So here I am, by the seaside, reading Kathleen Jones’s book on the extended ‘family’ that emerged from the emotional, intellectual and erotic encounters between poets Robert Lovell, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and two sets of sisters - the Hutchinsons, Mary & Sara(h), and the Frickers, Sarah, Mary and Edith. The last but not least of this remarkable extended close-living ‘family’ was, of course,the remarkable Dorothy Wordsworth, sister, muse, amanuensis and all-but lover to her brother William Wordsworth.
The stories of these individuals have been told separately but Kathleen Jones weaves her delicate way through this matrix of self conscious geniuses, these eccentric individuals. In doing so she brings the clever women - for once - into the foreground. In doing so she makes profound points about intellectual women sacrificing themselves on the altar of male genius; about the slave- labour involved in being the muse and amanuensis, valued more for their copying labour (thousands of pages…) than their critique; more for their motherly care of these child-men, than for their intellect. This is so, despite the fact that the original attraction to these women was their intellect and bright personalities.
The women’s childbearing faculties (except for the famously childless Dorothy W) were a bonus for these men of acute sentiment, although the gross care of children was in the main laid it the door of the women. So far, so little time, then, for the development of the women’s own considerable talents.
Except for Lovell, who died early. and Roberts Southey, who cheerfully shouldered Coleridge's domestic responsibilities as well as his own, the men come off quite badly here. The radical Wordsworth became autocratic and full of pride. Beautiful Coleridge, who became addicted to opium and was often paranoid, made a profession of running and staying away from his stoical wife Sarah and played a double blame game with his doting friends the Wordsworths , who blamed Sarah as the cause of his woes. Despite the extent of his betrayals and self indulgence Coleridge was still sustained for a long time as a kind of sacred monster by this talented, extended mixed up family.
Then there were the next generation of gifted and eccentric children… but read the book, if you can get hold of it! Let Kathleen Jones lead you through this family maze with a novelist’s skill.
I have to say the book quite put me off Wordsworth, whose poetry I’ve long admired, and Coleridge whose Ancient Mariner was a staple of my childhood. And it made me wonder what Sarah Coleridge might have produced had she not had to love, labour and support in every way this lost – ultimately so unattractive – soul, Samuel T Coleridge.
Idols fall and we suffer and survive betrayal, disappointment, loss and change. But we survive. That’s families for you.