Dorothy’s Room (2018) created by Louise Ann Wilson

Image of Dorothy's Room art installation

Contributor: Louise Ann Wilson

Location: Rydal Mount, Ambleside

Dorothy’s Room (2018) is an immersive, multi-media installation made in response to Dorothy Wordsworth’s Rydal Journals, written between (1824 -1835) whilst she was living at Rydal Mount near Ambleside.

The installation makes material Dorothy’s deeply-felt longing to be outside when, due to illness she was bedroom bound for long periods, and also reveal how she was able to walk her longed-for landscapes by using the ‘power’ of her imagination.

The installation was originally created for Dorothy Wordsworth’s bedroom at Rydal Mount, Ambleside, Cumbria where she lived with William and Mary Wordsworth from 1813 until her death in 1850, before transferring to the Wordsworth Trust Museum, Grasmere, the Peter Scott Gallery, Lancaster and the Royal Geographical Society, London.

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Today, Dorothy’s bedroom at Rydal Mount is furnished with a single bed. It was easy to imagine Dorothy in that room, sitting, tucked-up in bed, bolstered by pillows and writing her journals whilst surrounded by books, bottles of medicine, cups of tea, pots of flowers brought in from the garden, and bird song and voices drifting in through the Wisteria framed window. So, to create Dorothy Room, I decided re-walk many of the walks she mentioned in her Rydal Journals and using film and sound recording, bring the landscapes, sight and sounds I found whilst walking back into her bedroom – as she had through memory.

Walking in her footsteps (and those of present-day women in a parallel project entitled Women’s Walks to Remember: ‘With memory I was there’ (2018), enabled me to get as close a view as possible on the landscapes she remembered vividly, and longed for.

In parallel to the time I spent on the fells walking in Dorothy’s footsteps, I visited the archive at the Wordsworth Trust to study the original journals – there are six in total, written on creamy-white paper, some with hand-stitched covers bordered with strengthening running stitches and knotted in place. Dorothy’s words are written in black-brown ink, entries run vertically and horizontally, densely packing the pages. Daily journal entries are interspersed with housekeeping records and shopping lists, many of which relate to sewing – pins, needles, scissors, thread and buttons.

Due, perhaps, to her deepening illness and the effects of what might have been the early stages of dementia, her final journal entries, written in on the 4th November 1835, are determinedly written in spidery pencil lines, but her words are muddled and fall-away, off the page:

Torments

who noted nights vivid sound

 night is here to tell me

dismal doom

(Rydal Journal, 1835)

One journal – the one containing the draft of the poem ‘Thoughts on my Sickbed’, which included the lines that show how she ‘trod the Hills again’ in her imagination:

No need of motion or of strength
Or even the breathing air
I thought if nature’s loveliest scenes – haunts

And with memory I was there

(Rydal Journals, 1833)

When opened these pages looked like a pair of pillowcases and others looked like folded bed sheets (Rydal Journals, 1881-1833). Noticing this visual connection, the Rydal Journals and the single bed in Dorothy’s Rydal Mount bedroom came together in my mind and I decided that the Dorothy’s Room installation would centre around a bed and that journal extracts – longings, lists, the ‘with memory was there’ pages, and the final falling-away entries – would be stitched into the bed linen with sheets, blankets and pillows becoming like journal pages.

Making the bed, I twisted, pulled and disordered the bed linen to reflect the turmoil and pain of her ‘insides’, so vividly describes in a series of journal entries written in 1834:

Tired & exhausted … & “twisting” pain; insides extremely disordered;

pain in left side & the usual drag on right; Inside aches constantly … what I call a “piping agony”. (Rydal Journals (various), 1834)

I then tucked and nested objects Dorothy mentions in her journals into the folded and stitched linen – spectacles, cough medicine, books, bundle of letters, knitting needles & wool, scissors, coal, barley sugars and Pace Eggs. Added to these I brought objects back from my walks – feathers (for quills) and poppy seed heads (for opium).

Finally, in the semi-darkness of Dorothy’s half curtained bedroom, all these elements came together. Projected onto the bed was the footage I filmed whilst re-walking Dorothy’s walks. This created a dream-like layer of sound and imagery – places, people, textures and voices – that flowed, like-memory from bedroom, window and garden and outwards beyond the grounds of Rydal Mount to lakes, fells, caves and the sea.

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The making of the Dorothy’s Room involved a number of skilled craftspeople from the community. This included a small team of needle workers who stitched Rydal Journal extracts into the bed linen. This group described how the slow and precise process of stitching brought them a closer understanding of Dorothy Wordsworth. For one, the stitching drew her closer-in, and she remarked how:

the character and life of Dorothy began to emerge as a real person with both friendships and concern about her health very much at the front of her mind.

(Liz Bagley, Sanctuary Guild, Lancaster Priory Church, Lancaster 2018)

In response, a guide at Rydal Mount described how a number of visitors found the Dorothy’s Room installation:

showed a great understanding of the effects of dementia, or an inability through ill health, to no longer be able to continue with things they enjoyed in the past but how – with prompts, through words and objects – could remember and reminisce.

(Guide at Rydal Mount, 30.8.18)

For one visitor, unable herself to walk the fells as she had once, on a daily basis, the ‘film and spilling and embroidered bed’ became an ‘embodiment of Dorothy’s imagination’, and was deeply resonant. Dorothy, ‘and the need for and recompense of poetry and memory, felt very close.’ (Rydal Mount, Visitor feedback, 16.12.18)