Tuesday 9 May 2023

Dorothy Wordsworth Undercover - Flash Fiction Story by Mary Grimm


Dorothy Wordsworth Undercover

Flash Fiction Story

by Mary Grimm


It is known to most by now that D-113 (aka Dorothy Wordsworth) was a time agent, sent back so that she could facilitate the production of her brother’s poems. The importance of these poems cannot be overstated, although details of their impact on global security (and beyond) are classified. D-113’s part in this operation, however, has been declassified, and hence we can now honour this intrepid and sensitive woman as she deserves.(1)

As Twayne’s English Author series tells us, “Counterbalancing his [William’s] wildness and turbulence….  [was] the gentleness of his sister Dorothy. In the poems celebrating the early years of his life, William keeps returning to the softness of her nature.”(2)

For bureaucratic reasons, D-113 was embedded as William’s sister early in their lives, and therefore had to deal with the indignities of childhood, compounded by the fact of her gender, not easy for someone as high-spirited as D-113 is known to have been. Particularly hard was feigning the sensibility then expected of females. (She had to be withdrawn for retraining several times, for instance in swooning gracefully, or turning pale at the sight of something distressing or gruesome.)(3)

Not much has been recovered from those years, except for random scraps. For instance, she learned ballroom dancing as a child (not unusual for girls of this class). A contemporary remembered how she opened the Children’s Ball when she was five with the little son of the local sheriff, skilfully performing the minuet, the cotillion, and a country dance. 

As everyone knows, D-113 and William lived together for a time in the Lake District during the period of perhaps his greatest productivity, seemingly a happy existence. D-113 managed their lives with the housewifely skills that had been implanted before her embedment, producing meals and making jam, etc. The two went for long walks across the countryside, taking note of nature – she for her diary(4) and he for his poems. Her brief, besides supporting William in his literary endeavours and providing a sounding board for his flights of revolutionary philosophizing, was to be as invisible as any female of this period. Even as we valorize her achievements, it has to be admitted that she did not always succeed.

She sometimes stepped out of her assigned portrayal of the ideal early 19th-century female. For instance, she often took long walks alone, something no female of her class should have done. These “nature walks” resulted in detailed and lyrical passages in her “diary,” which puzzled and annoyed her superiors. “Too much shit about trees,” one of them wrote in an admittedly snide scrawl.(5)

D-113 was supposed, as the poet’s sister, to submit to his will, encourage his literary flights, keep his house, cook the meals, and entertain his friends (even if they overstayed their welcome)(6) – to live, in short, eclipsed by the sun of her brother. She was to give every evidence of sisterly “love” and to present the image of muse, companion, and sounding board. She did all these things, and we commend her for them. But some critics feel that she forgot herself to an extent, forgot she was playing a role.

The main evidence is her seeming distress when William courted and then married her close friend, Mary Wordsworth (nee Hutchinson). Some say D-113 acted as if she were a jilted lover. It is true that on the night before William’s wedding, D-113 slept wearing the ring he would the next day give to his wife. But shall we fault her for overzealousness, which this surely was? I (and many others) argue that we shall not.(7)

All in all, D-113 is to be commended for her patience, her steadfastness, her submission of her formidable will and talents to the necessities of being William’s continually overlooked sister, and the ensuing anonymity during her later (nonembedded) lifetime, due to the stringent requirements of secrecy. It is a little compensation to think that she was recognized by second-wave feminists in the next century, who “discovered” her and named her their sister. That this recognition depended on her “diary,” is to the contemporary historian highly ironic, of course, but still, I think, rather nice.(8)


(1) Her real name is redacted to protect her identity from those who still object in these enlightened times to what they call “defiling the sanctity of the timeline.”

(2) As he expressed in his poem, “The Sparrow’s Nest”:

She gave me eyes, she gave me ears;
And humble cares, and delicate fears…

(3) This is not meant as criticism. Retraining, (sometimes referred to as refreshing), is a normal and expected for this sort of assignment. Furthermore, swooning convincingly is not as easy as it might seem.

(4) This diary, later published as a literary document, consisted of the compiled reports to her superiors, combining straightforward accounts of daily activity with coded passages for more sensitive material.

(5) Henry Crabb Robinson, himself a noted diarist, advised her to publish her diary, but as she was bound by the time agents’ code of secrecy, she refused, claiming its unworthiness. That it was published years after her death as a part of William’s legacy is due to a regrettable administrative slip-up.

(6) Coleridge in particular could be annoying in his habits. For example, not content with salt, he insisted on sprinkling cayenne pepper on his eggs, which he ate from a teacup.

(7) The controversy is analysed at length in the useful account, “Mishaps and Mayhem: Tales from the Early Days of Embedding.”

(8) What more will be known about her arduous assignment when, in 53 years, as we are promised, the Wordsworth Archives are open to the public, we can’t say, but it is sure to be instructive, if not altogether enlightening.

Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection), and a number of flash pieces in places like Helen, The Citron Review, and Tiferet. Currently, she is working on a YA thriller. 


1 comment:

  1. Phyllis Toth Magold10 May 2023 at 08:44

    This is a wonderful read! Fun and creative and original. I love it.


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