Childbirth, Dove Cottage, the Wordsworths; The Victorian Obsession with the Preservation of Hair

Childbirth, Dove Cottage, the Wordsworths

In September Basil Montagu
arrived in Grasmere for a stay
of more than three weeks,
by his third wife,
his second wife
like his first
having died in childbirth.
—Adam Sisman, The Friendship


And of course they were mourned
and appropriately interred
and Anna, Wife the Third,
who brought her little namesake
into the union, mercifully remained childless.

Given the odds, I think how willful
she was to take a chance on Basil
whose housekeeper she had become perforce
after her young husband died. Still,
staying single might have been worse.

I weigh it: better to chance a breach birth,
be wrenched apart by amateur surgeons
only to die later of childbed fever, or
to wither penniless, forever
dependent on resentful relatives?

And then I wonder, how did Dove Cottage
accommodate the lot of them—
William and the women
who served him: wife Sara,
sister Dorothy, and after laudanum
had stealthily shrunk the aura
of their friendship, Coleridge’s Sara—
that Sara, with his Sara, who despised her
as her intellectual inferior.
A houseful of menstruating women

and the cloths they boiled clean, hung to dry.
Four small rooms down, four up,
no running water, an outdoor privy.
Think of the chamber pots.
Also the accumulated children.

Think of the feeding, the scrubbing,
the apportioning of beds. The garden
to be planted, peas and runner beans.
And look who takes on
the worst of it, peeling and peacemaking.

First up, last to bed, Dorothy.
Is it any wonder that my hands quake
for Dorothy, said to be virginal,
her last twenty years invalided, senile,
Dorothy who gave so much and got so little?

The Victorian Obsession with the Preservation of Hair


On the subject of beards, Walt Whitman
wins widest spread. Tolstoy’s was
longer but not as full, Marx’s
was shapelier, Darwin’s
housed butterflies and
Longfellow, where
I meant to

ly grew his to cloak his scars after
the fire that killed his wife des-
pite his heroic efforts to
smother her flaming
dress by pulling
her into a close
embrace. It
is thought

the sealing wax she had been
using to preserve locks
of her daughters’ hair
ignited. After that
what came out of
his face every
day was a