A copy of Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes, 1822

A copy of Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes, 1822

Contributor: Jeff Cowton

Location: The Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere

Description: This is a copy of the 1822 edition of William Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes in its original board covers, containing an account of an ascent of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike. Five hundred copies of the Guide were printed, selling for 5/- (25p) each. This copy is of a size that could be carried on a tour. Wordsworth’s Guide was deeply influenced by his travels in Europe, in particular his experience in 1790, when he (then twenty years old) walked through France to the Alps with his friend Robert Jones. The history of this account of the ascent of Scafell Pike suggests in addition how Rousseau’s influential depictions of the Alps affected how the landscape of the Lakes was experienced.

The Guide gives an impression of Wordsworth as the poet of the Lake District, walking in his ‘native mountains’, indeed, on its highest mountain, Scafell Pike. Contemporary tourists climbed other 3,000 feet mountains, notably Helvellyn and Skiddaw, but rarely attempted Scafell Pike. (Local artist and guidebook writer William Green records climbing it in 1816, but his account was not published until 1819, a year after the climb recorded in Wordsworth’s guide.) Even the shepherds rarely climbed the mountain – there was little that was edible on the summit to attract their sheep.

This account of the climb in the Guide, Wordsworth tells us, is extracted from a letter to a friend. It describes how the walkers set out on 7th October 1818, reached their original destination Esk Hause, took in the views, and then decided the weather and time were sufficiently favourable to allow them to venture further on to the Pike itself. On the summit they enjoyed distant views, and noticed it was adorned by lichens nourished by ‘clouds and dews’, ‘with colours of vivid and exquisite beauty’. The account notes that the rocks were like the ‘skeletons and bones of the earth not needed at the creation’ and that ‘on the summit of the Pike, which we gained after much toil, though without difficulty, there was not a breath of air to stir even the papers containing our refreshment as they lay spread out upon a rock. The stillness seemed to be not of this world’.

This description strongly recalls a section from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), arguably the most popular novel of the eighteenth century. In letter 23 St Preux writes to his lover, Julie d’Etange, as he travels through the Upper Valais in Switzerland. He describes ‘huge cliffs’ and an ‘abyss’ below; the experience moves him from a sense of sublime to a ‘peaceful state’. He notices ‘thunder and storms gathering below’. He describes the air at this height as ‘pure and subtle, one breathes more freely, one feels lighter in the body, more serene in the mind’. Finally, he notes that ‘the subtlety of the air … makes colours more vivid, outlines sharper, brings all lines of sight closer.’ The Guide’s account echoes this in many respects: it describes the view as composed of huge forms and deep gulphs (‘Great Gavel, the loftiest, a distinct and huge form’ and Wasdale’s ‘gulph inmeasureable’), notes a storm which, once passed, left those present ‘free to observe the struggles of gloom and sunshine in other quarters’, and similarly records great peace: ‘We paused, and kept silence to listen; no sound could be heard…. not an insect to hum in the air’.. The vividness of the lichens on the Scafell Pike summit has already been noted.

There is no evidence that the Wordsworths ever read Rousseau’s novel. However, its influence could be found in many other writings that they would have read. Editions of other works by Rousseau were in the family library (see Bainbridge 2017). This Rousseauistic passage would in its turn influence how later tourists would experience Scafell; it was referred to and quoted in later guides by other authors. By the time of Harriet Martineau’s guide of 1855, the Scafell range had become more popular though still a challenge and Martineau quotes Wordsworth’s account extensively. Eliza Lynn Linton, the first salaried female journalist in Britain, published a series of walks in the area in 1864 which also quoted extensively from the Guide.

But readers of these books, and of Wordsworth, were unaware that the mountaineer and author of the original account was, in fact, not William, but his sister Dorothy. Manuscripts in the Wordsworth Trust’s collection at Grasmere collection reveal the backstory. The description contained in the published guide is, as Wordsworth tells us, an edited version of the original account in manuscript; passages have been omitted or their order changed; individual sentences revised. But there is no question as to the origin of the piece, a letter by Dorothy to William Johnson, one time curate at Grasmere. This reveals additionally that Dorothy was accompanied by Mary Barker, plus three helpers including a shepherd as guide. The walk by these two women is considered pioneering in hill-walking history. No wonder Dorothy writes triumphantly that ‘courage did not fail’. It is curious to imagine Dorothy as inheritor of St Preux’s mountain sensibility, reactivating Rousseau on the summit of Scafell not just for herself, but for those who would come after her.

Date: 1822

Creator: William and Dorothy Wordsworth

Media rights: original object out of copyright; photograph taken by Jeff Cowton, employee of the owning institution

Object type: printed book

Format: ink on paper

Language: English

Related objects: DCMS 31, Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journal 

Publisher: The Wordsworth Trust

Digital collection record: https://tinyurl.com/y92njy4y

Catalogue number: B/150


For a specially commissioned soundscape inspired by this exhibit, see below.

Composed by Hans Vercauteren. Performed by Maja Horvat (violin), Rosalind Dobson (vocals).

To play the video of the complete suite, ‘Romantic Sounds’, click here.