All Before Me by Esther Rutter review – the healing power of place and poetry | Autobiography and memoir

All Before Me by Esther Rutter review – the healing power of place and poetry | Autobiography and memoir

The concept of “genius loci” – the spirit of a place, often with a connotation of protection or nurturing – is the foundation of Esther Rutter’s revivifying blend of memoir, literary history and travelogue. Eliding three books into one, she explores her own terrifying mental collapse and tentative recovery, the lives of Romantic poet William Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy and their confrère Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the efforts to preserve the Wordsworths’ cottage at Grasmere within the context of the Lake District as a whole. At times, the reader may feel a little too aware of the compression mechanism at work, but the book is nonetheless alive with fascinating episodes and potted histories and, even more importantly, a heartfelt commitment to the power of place and of poetry to sustain lives and minds.

Grasmere was not Rutter’s first attempt to transport herself to an entirely unfamiliar landscape and thereby to find a new direction for her life. As a 21-year-old, she set off to teach English in a small Japanese village, living alone in a rented apartment with very little Japanese at her disposal. This was not a grand gap year adventure born of a privileged upbringing – Rutter writes effectively about the challenges and ruptures in her familial environment – but an attempt to get close up to another culture and way of being.

‘An intense feeling of connection’: Esther Rutter. Photograph: Chris Scott

And it was working, until she suffered a sudden breakdown of her mental health, a sort of dissolution of the self: severe anxiety attacks, agitation and a deep-seated feeling in her body that “happiness would for ever pass me by”. Within a couple of weeks, she had been admitted to a psychiatric facility, where she was shown great kindness but remained unclear as to the path toward diagnosis and treatment; and then, an abrupt return home. In one sense, she was back where she started; in another, she was profoundly and permanently altered.

Where does Wordsworth come in? After a period of recuperation – and with the jury still out on how lasting and durable the improvement would be – Rutter applied to become one of an annual group of interns who spend a year working at Dove Cottage, the small, white house in Cumbria in which William and Dorothy lived for many years. Determinedly ungrand, the cottage saw the composition of some of the former’s greatest work, including early incarnations of his long, autobiographical poem The Prelude, which was not published until 1850, the year of his death. It is this astonishing work, a breathtakingly ambitious synthesis of introspection and outward-facing inquiry, that invokes the possibility of having the Earth “all before me” and confronting it “With a heart / Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty”.

Rutter got the job, despite – and perhaps even because of – crying in the interview, and embarked on a year devoted to helping with Dove Cottage’s upkeep, its guided tours and programme of poetry readings. It’s hardly surprising when the highly particular nature of the work combines with the awe-inspiring beauty of the landscape to produce an intense feeling of connection; but Rutter senses something even more fundamental. What she is experiencing, she begins to realise, is a manifestation of “kith” – a feeling of being oneself in a place, at home in both body and mind.

All Before Me also explores how William and Dorothy, who had been
separated in childhood following the death of their mother, created their own home, after several false starts (there is a particularly compelling account of their season in Germany, when they were all but abandoned by Coleridge, who went off with some other pals and left brother and sister freezing and virtually penniless). It was in Grasmere that the Wordsworths began to link natural beauty with community and creativity, an identification with place that makes the tiny settlement of Townend feel to visitors not merely a stop on the literary tourist trail but the embodiment of a greater artistic impulse.

William and Dorothy did not spend all of their lives in Grasmere, and
nor does Rutter; but she shows how once somewhere has got inside you, it’s quite possible to take it with you to pastures new.

All Before Me: A Search for Belonging in Wordsworth’s Lake District by Esther Rutter is published by Granta (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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