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Wellesley [née Ashton], Dorothy Violet, duchess of Wellingtonlocked

(1889–1956)
  • Vita Sackville-West
  • , revised by Clare L. Taylor

Wellesley [née Ashton], Dorothy Violet, duchess of Wellington (1889–1956), poet, was born on 30 July 1889 at Heywood Lodge, White Waltham, Berkshire, the only daughter of Robert Ashton, of Croughton, Cheshire, and his wife, Lucy Cecilia, née Dunn-Gardner (d. 1931). After her father's death when she was about seven years old, her mother married, in 1899, Aldred Beresford Lumley (1857–1945), the tenth earl of Scarbrough. Dorothy suffered from tuberculosis in adolescence, a disease which killed her twenty-year-old brother. On 30 April 1914 she married Lord Gerald Wellesley (1885–1972), secretary in the diplomatic service, who succeeded his nephew as seventh duke of Wellington in 1943. The Wellesleys spent the early part of their married life in Constantinople before returning to England prior to the outbreak of war. They had one son, Marquess Douro, and one daughter, Lady Elizabeth Clyde. Wellesley largely lived apart from her husband and he is an obscure presence in her autobiography Far Have I Travelled (1952).

Privately educated, Wellesley started writing poetry at a very young age and published Early Poems in 1913. She took a flat of her own in Hyde Park and became a friend of Vita Sackville-West, and to a far lesser extent, Virginia Woolf; Sackville-West dedicated The Land (1926) to Wellesley, and they almost certainly had a brief romantic attachment. Woolf found Wellesley 'pecking and exacting' of Vita, and Wellesley thought Woolf perverse, intellectually intolerant, and teasing (Lee; Wellesley, 153). Wellesley's later Poems (1920) had a lukewarm reception, and she was judged to be 'languishing through weary lines in quest of a dimly pagan paradise' (The Times, 12 July 1956). Sackville-West surmised that a university education might have disciplined Wellesley's often careless and unrevised work, and, one might add, her romantic capriciousness. Nevertheless Genesis (1926), the poem-sequence Deserted House (1931), 'a luminous, if grotesque, revisitation of childhood' (Hamilton), and a collection, Poems of Ten Years (1934), brought Wellesley to the attention of a wider public. She was praised for her rich detailing of nature in 'Shells', 'Birds', and 'Moths', and for the energy of her anguish over the subjugation of the natural world by commercialism. In his introduction to her Selections from the Poems of Dorothy Wellesley (1936), W. B. Yeats noted that 'she can unite a modern subject and vocabulary with traditional richness'.

Wellesley's reputation was only truly established owing to Yeats's support; they had become intimate friends in the last years of his life. He included her poem 'Horses' in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) and he also singled out for particular attention 'Walled Garden'; 'Matrix', a curious, philosophical vision of the womb as the source of the masculine soul; and 'Fire', which Yeats saw as expressing 'frenzied grandeur'. They also collaborated on a sequence of poems entitled 'The Three Bushes', a meditation upon the grave of a trio of lovers. Yeats's Letters on Poetry written to Wellesley were published in 1940, and she returned the favour with Beyond the Grave (c.1950), a collection of elegiac letters and poems addressed to him after his death.

Later volumes of Wellesley's poetry included Lost Planet (1942), The Poets (1943), Desert Wells (1946), and Rhymes for Middle Years (1954), the last a book of verses dedicated to 'the middle-aged'. Her prose works included a discursive and elusive autobiography, and a biography of childhood friend Sir George Goldie. She also edited the Living Poets series for the Hogarth Press; the English Poets in Pictures series (1941–2); and the 1937 series of Cuala Press broadsides with Yeats. She collected her poems in Early Light (1956).

In 1928, on the advice of Sackville-West, Wellesley had purchased Penns-in-the-Rocks at Withyham, Sussex, the dining room of which was designed by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. She lived here with Hilda Matheson ('amica amicarum') and Yeats considered it his English home. She also entertained other major literary figures and gave poetic and dramatic readings. Throughout her life Wellesley travelled widely in Egypt, India, Russia, and Persia with Sackville-West, and she was with Yeats in Roquebrune when he died (she read a few lines of her verse at his graveside).

Sackville-West described Wellesley as 'slight of build, almost fragile, with blazing blue eyes, fair hair, [and] transparently white skin' (DNB). George Goldie, who had an interest in phrenology, had felt her skull when Wellesley was a child, and had informed her then that she had overdeveloped bumps of temper, pride, and combativeness, and, indeed, she proved to be a self-styled iconoclast. She died on 11 July 1956 at Penns-in-the-Rocks.

Wellesley's literary reputation is contested. Kathleen Raine, editor of the 1964 version of Letters on Poetry, judged her to be a 'minor poet, [and] a not always perceptive judge of Yeats' poems', while Sackville-West felt that owing to Wellesley's half-formed philosophy, a weight was imposed upon her verse which 'it should never have been asked to carry' (DNB). Nevertheless the 'passionate precision' ascribed to her by Yeats perhaps best encapsulates Wellesley's work.

Sources

  • D. Wellesley, Far have I travelled (1952)
  • J. Shattock, The Oxford guide to British women writers (1993)
  • H. Lee, Virginia Woolf (1997)
  • The Times (12 July 1956)
  • I. Hamilton, ed., The Oxford companion to twentieth-century poetry in English (1994)
  • W. B. Yeats, introduction, in Selections from the poems of Dorothy Wellesley (1936)
  • K. Raine, introduction, in Letters on poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley (1964), ix–xiii
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • State University of New York, Buffalo, corresp. and literary MSS
  • Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, W. B. Yeats MSS, corresp.
  • U. Sussex, Monks House MSS, corresp.

Likenesses

  • R. Whistler, pencil drawing, 1933, Stratfield Saye House, Hampshire
  • H. Coster, photograph, repro. in Wellesley, Far have I travelled
  • W. Rothenstein, drawing, repro. in Yeats, ed., Selections
  • W. Rothenstein, two drawings, Stratfield Saye House, Hampshire
  • Madame Yevonde, photograph, NPG

Wealth at Death

£20,467 12s. 7d.: probate, 16 Oct 1956, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)
V. Blain, P. Clements, & I. Grundy, eds., (1990)