David Robinson Reviews: All Before Me by Esther Rutter

‘This then is a book about recovery, about regaining self-confidence and rediscovering joy.’

In this review of All Before Me, David Robinson explores the ways in which Esther Rutter weaves the history of the Wordsworths and the landscape around Dove Cottage into her own personal battles with depression and need for belonging.


All Before Me
By Esther Rutter
Published by Granta


If you’re ever looking for a good walk across the north of England, try the one William Wordsworth did with his sister Dorothy in 1799. Start about eight miles south-west of Richmond in North Yorkshire and walk across the Pennines to Kendal. The Wordsworths took just three overnight stops – inns at  Askrigg, Hardraw and Sedburgh –  to do it, even though the winter roads were frozen, because Dorothy walked fast: 16 miles in four and three-quarter hours, even allowing for rests. Once in Kendal, they stopped to buy furniture for their new, rented house. The next day – December 20, 1799 – they moved in. Perhaps you’ve been there: Dove Cottage, Grasmere. 

Esther Rutter certainly has, and after reading her book All Before Me, you’d be hard-pressed to say whether the place meant more to her or the Wordsworths. To William and Dorothy, Dove Cottage represented an end to their orphaned homeless wandering, a place where they would be among their kith (people like them) if not their kin, all the more appreciated after their miserable stay in the German town of Goslar the previous winter.  

To Rutter, working for a year as a paid intern at Dove Cottage, and living just across the road, meant an end to a cycle of mental illness that had culminated in her being sectioned in a Japanese psychiatric institution the previous year while teaching English in her first post-university job. At the interview in Grasmere, she had broken down in tears. Mercifully, the man who interviewed her wasn’t put off. Good job too: he is now (spoiler alert: happy ending in sight) her father-in-law.  

This then is a book about recovery, about regaining self-confidence and rediscovering joy. In rural Japan, like William and Dorothy in Goslar, Rutter was ‘unmoored from her mother tongue’ and homesick. More than that, though, her depression had hardened into such a strong  conviction that she was incapable of happiness as to allow the possibility of suicidal thoughts. Back in her native Suffolk, she was jobless, alienated, her sense of self almost non-existent. 

So how and why does the turnaround happen? How does Rutter gain from the society of dead poets and living guides to the Wordsworths’ home? How does the loud internal voice of self-recrimination learn to hush and a young woman who was still having panic attacks become at ease with herself? 

Dove Cottage has a lot to do with it. This was, Wordsworth once wrote, a place of such happiness that even on his deathbed it would still be foremost in his thoughts. It was where he fell in love with his wife Mary Hutchinson (Dorothy’s friend: they’d been visiting the Hutchinsons in lower Teesdale before they started that long walk back to their new home in December 1799). Once there – and isn’t this the absolute marker of a love of place? – they started naming their surroundings after themselves. The wood a quarter of a mile away was John’s Wood (after William’s brother). A spit of land at the lake’s foot was Mary’s Point, while Mary’s sister Sara (whom Coleridge clearly fancied despite the fact that he had a wife and child up the road in Keswick) was commemorated by Sara’s Gate, the place where she first stopped to admire the view of Grasmere.    

Now suppose you or I paid our £14 to shuffle round Dove Cottage and the extra £11 to wander round its garden, orchard and museum, would we, too, get anything even remotely like what Rutter describes here from the experience?  (Incidentally, I absolutely share that curious impulse to get closer to great minds, to stand at the spot where, as here, you could argue that the Enlightenment ended and Romanticism began – even though, I agree, it’s completely irrational.) 

Well, although I don’t doubt that we would leave Grasmere with a greater sense of what made Wordsworth such a great poet of memory, and of the massive role played by his sister and Coleridge, Rutter’s own debt to Dove Cottage goes way deeper. This was, after all, where Wordsworth developed a new way of looking at the world, and it played that role for her too: his desire to ‘see into the life of things’ was also hers as she learnt more about the poets’ lives and the mountains and lakes they now had in common.  

More than that, there was kith here for her too -  visiting poets, writers, academics, the curators, guides, interns, and everyone else at the Wordsworth Trust, or Wordsworth Grasmere as it has now rebranded itself. This would certainly include Tom, the son of the trust’s director, with whom she started a relationship while they were both working for a conservation charity putting in land drains. (I know: the romance!) 

All Before Me is a contrast to Rutter’s 2019 debut book, This Golden Fleece, which ranged all over Britain to tell the history of wool and knitting. But although the new book has a tighter geographical focus, it also weaves a whole variety of subjects together. A less confident writer might have separated them out more obviously: personally, I love the naturalness of the links, as we zoom back into Rutter’s childhood, get an overview of why Wordsworth’s poetry was such a radical break with the past, slip into musings on the roots of depression, picture the creative burst when, as Dorothy wrote, Wordsworth and Coleridge ‘wantoned in wild poesy’, or set about learning to climb some of the Lake District peaks.  

At its heart, though, is Dove Cottage, which she, along with Dorothy’s first biographer, who bought it in 1860, says has ‘a sense of benevolent possession’. Maybe it always has. In 1800, just after William and his sister had moved into Dove Cottage, he started writing a poem about it. He never finished ‘Home in Grasmere’, and because it was only printed in full in 1977, perhaps you’ve never heard of it either. In its expression of what the place meant to him, though, you get a sense of what it means to Rutter too: 


                                ’tis the sense  

Of majesty and beauty and repose 

A blended holiness of earth and sky 

Something that makes this individual Spot 

This small abiding-place of many men, 

A termination and a last retreat, 

A Centre, come from wheresoe’er you will 

A whole without dependence or defect, 

Made for itself, and happy in itself 

Perfect Contentment, Unity entire. 


Or,  to put it another way, Paradise. Don’t all rush at once. 


All Before Me: A Search for Belonging in Wordsworth’s Lake District by Esther Rutter is published by Granta, priced £16.99. 

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