In these days of literary trend-chasing, when every publishing season yields yet another widely acclaimed “Voice of a New Generation,” it seems little short of remarkable that the most influential movement in the history of English literature made its way in a relatively hype-free manner. The first generation of Romantic writers based their operation in the remotest part of England, avoided London literary society, and set their work before the public without unseemly haste or self-promotional fanfare. Most striking of all, perhaps, the movement had as its chief historian and prose artist—and, arguably, as its emotional center—one of the most unassuming and unambitious women ever to correct a set of proofs.

They were not, alas, Dorothy Wordsworth’s own proofs. For, though she did enough writing in her now celebrated journals to occupy several standard nineteenth-century volumes, not a single word of...

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