Walking in Confinement: Dorothy Wordsworth’s habits for irregular times

This past week has been a lesson for all of us in how to survive in enclosed spaces. The quietness of the world without as many cars, trains, or people seems at moments to be very loud – but there is also a sense of turning back, somehow, to a way of experiencing place and geography that’s mostly out of living memory: one where the local is magnified, because it’s all we can know for now.

We are far from the first people to live in this kind of enclosure, and so past experiences have much to tell us about how to stay sane in this new world in which we find ourselves. How do we adapt so that, rather than feeling trapped, we can find ways to expand our conceptions of our new boundaries?

exhibition-dorothy - Wordsworth Trust
Silhouette of Dorothy Wordsworth (1806)

Dorothy Wordsworth had well-developed practices for how to (imaginatively, at least) resist social and physical constrictions. She never quite got over how free she felt being able to walk where she liked once she moved in with her brother William – because she knew, both at the start and at the end of her life what it was like not to be able to walk as one pleased. In her youth, her walking was restricted by her grandmother’s strict rules. It was one of the things Dorothy disliked most about living in Penrith; she complained to her friend Jane Pollard that she ‘never [went] out but on a Sunday’.

When she was permitted to go and live with her aunt and uncle in 1788, she was ‘mad with joy’ at the prospect of having ‘leisure to read, work, walk, do as I please’. But even here she was discouraged from walking very far. Driven to defend her walking against her aunt – who felt that it was indecorous for a lady to ‘rambl[e] about the country on foot’ – Dorothy responded:

I rather thought it would give my friends pleasure to hear that I had courage to make use of the strength with which nature has endowed me, when it not only procured me infinitely more pleasure than I should have received from sitting in a post-chaise – but was also the means of saving me at least thirty shillings. 

So Dorothy developed a walking practice that was more suited to enclosed spaces, like the garden. When William came to visit her, Dorothy writes in May 1791, she involved him in this activity. She recalled that they used to

walk every morning about two hours, and every evening we went into the garden, at four or half-past four, and used to pace backwards and forwards till six.

Dorothy recognises this activity as a distinctive activity: it’s not the same as walking where you like, but it has its own benefits. She advised Jane Pollard that ‘Unless you have accustomed yourself to this kind of walking, you will have no idea that it can be pleasant; but I assure you it is most delightful’. She offered to introduce Jane to this ‘plan’, so long as she was ‘not afraid of the evening air’. When Jane had joined them, in 1793, Dorothy rhapsodised about a fantasy in which she, Jane and William shared a cottage which they would ‘call […] our own’ and ‘be the happiest of human beings’. This vision is remarkably close to the life she and William would later share with Mary (William’s wife), and ‘this kind of walking’ results in a particular mode of companionship.

Easedale, Westmorland
E. Bennet Easedale, Westmorland

Even when she was free to walk further afield, Dorothy still maintained this habit of walking backwards and forwards. For Dorothy, the intimacy with the environment that this kind of walking offered ran deep. Take this moment, for instance, when Dorothy describes in her Journal a walk she and Mary had undertaken:  

After dinner it was agreed that we should walk – when I had finished a letter to C[oleridge] part of which I had written in the morning by the kitchen fire while the mutton was roasting. Mary and I walked into Easedale, and backwards and forwards in that large field under George Rawnson’s white cottage. We had intended gathering mosses, and for that purpose we turned into the green lane, behind the tailor’s, but it was too dark to see the mosses. The river came galloping past the Church, as fast as it could come; and when we got into Easedale we saw Churn Milk Force, like a broad stream of snow. At the little foot-bridge we stopped to look at the company of rivers, which came hurrying down the vale this way and that; it was a valley of streams and islands, with that great waterfall at the head, and lesser falls in different parts of the mountains, coming down to these rivers.  

Initially, this ‘backwards and forwards’ pattern of their walk seems to be merely companionable – a convenient route for the two women’s conversation. But as she goes on, it morphs into a form of motion that affords Dorothy a moment of serene embeddedness in the mountains. 

We could hear the sound of those lesser falls, but we could not see them. We walked backwards and forwards till all distant objects, except the white shape of the waterfall and the lines of the mountains, were gone. We had the crescent moon when we went out, and at our return there were a few stars that shone dimly, but it was a grey cloudy night. 

In a literal sense, Dorothy and Mary walk until the mountains disappear into the coming night. But in a literary sense, the moment also indicates Dorothy’s sense of – or at least desire to be – absorbed into the landscape. Walking backwards and forward like this means that she becomes familiar with the particular rises and slopes of the ground, the distinct sound of the waterfall, the local sounds of birdsong and wind dancing across the darkening fells. Eventually, as the night falls, this walking back and forth at the same spot seems to mean that she, too, is folded in to the mountains’ embrace.

Our situation today is, clearly, different in many ways from Dorothy’s. But perhaps it might also offer a chance to embed new habits. Walking backwards and forwards across the garden, or taking a turn about the living room (to use an Austen-esque phrase) isn’t the kind of freedom we’re used to. But perhaps these activities can offer new ways of engaging with our loved ones and the world immediately around us, as we stay inside to protect those beyond our walls.