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Dorothy Greenwell was born 6 December 1821 at the family estate called Greenwell Ford in Lanchester, County Durham, England. Her father was William Thomas Greenwell (1777– 1856) and mother was Dorothy Smales (1789– 1871). Her oldest brother was William Greenwell (1820– 1918), an archaeologist. She had three younger brothers: Francis Greenwell (1823– 1894), Alan Greenwell (1824– 1914) and Henry Nicholas Greenwell (1826– 1891). She was known as Dora to avoid confusion with her mother.
She published her first volume of poems in 1848, after her family had to leave their home. She moved to Durham with her brother William who would later become canon of Durham Cathedral. After a short time working with her brother Alan who was rector of Golborne, she moved back to Durham and lived with her mother.
Her major success came in the 1860s. Many works have Christian religious themes. She is often compared to Christina Rossetti, and dedicated a book to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In addition to poetry, she wrote essays on women's education and suffrage, and attacked the slave trade. After her mother's death in 1871, she visited friends for a few years, and then moved to London in 1874. After an accident in 1881 she lived with her brother Alan Greenwell in Clifton, Bristol. She died 29 March 1882 and was buried in Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol.
She was taught by a governess for five years then taught herself, studying philosophy, political economy and languages. After the loss of Greenwell Ford, the family moved to Ovingham, where Dora taught local girls and published her Poems (1848). In 1850, the family settled at Golbourne in Lancashire, where Dora became friendly with Josephine Butler and supported her work. After 1854, the Greenwells lived in Durham. This was the period of Dora's greatest intellectual achievement, and she met many literary celebrities, including Jean Ingelow and Christina Rossetti. After 1874, she settled in London and supported the franchise struggle. She also became addicted to opium.
Dora Greenwell was a woman of understated elegance and had a melodious voice. Despite her strong Christianity, her letters are lively and spirited. She was, in fact, a sociable woman, though much restricted by her Victorian sense of duty towards her mother. She was loud in the praise of her friend Christina Rossetti, to whom she has been compared, but her last words on herself reflect a sense of failure to meet her own high standards 'One word would alone tell my story - inadequacy.'