Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Love of a Silent Woman

Here I am again, talking about Jane Morris.  As we have discussed before, my feelings for Jane Morris are somewhat coloured by Fanny Cornforth and how Jane and Rossetti’s relationship affected her, not to mention poor William Morris.  I try not to judge Jane too harshly as I am told time and time again that she loved Rossetti first and only, and had it not been for Elizabeth, then Rossetti would have married her and all would have been well.  Things did not turn out that way and she married a man of independent means and, for a stablehand’s daughter from the rough end of Oxford, she did extremely well for herself.  Still, the reappearance of her First and Only LoveTM shook her world and she could not help but fall into his arms.  William stepped aside and the love affair that launched a heart-full of glorious images ran its course to Rossetti’s death.  In 1882, her love died and the rest of her life was a shadow veiled with tears.  So far, this is what I understood.  I didn’t much like it as it spoke of missed opportunities for Jane and William to make a go of their marriage, and in comparison with Fanny’s later years, which were hard and uncertain, the comfort in which Jane sat in stately sadness bothered me.  However, this is another woman’s life, I don’t have to make her choices or live with her husband.   I tried not to judge.

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt
Step forward Wilfrid Scawen Blunt.  Mr Blunt is an interesting addition to the history of the Morris family for a number of reasons.  It is through him that we know a great deal of Jane’s later life, it is through him we have her letters, and the letters between Rossetti and Jane as she left them to his safe-keeping.  He provides diary entries that record a love affair of depth and intensity and he tells us things about the Pre-Raphaelite ménage a trios that both surprise and puzzle.


Jane met Blunt a year after Rossetti died.  Both were in their mid 40s, both married with children, and both had formerly been unfaithful to their spouses.  Blunt is best known for his affair with a society beauty called ‘Skittles’, Catherine Walters.  Yes, that really is her waist…

Catherine Walters AKA Skittles
As you can tell by her letters to Blunt, Jane loved a bit of gossip so it’s hard to believe that she didn’t know him by reputation beforehand. Either way, Jane and Blunt became friends and she began to correspond with him and visited his home, Crabbets, and he visited Kelmscott.  Beginning in 1884, notes of intimacy begin to creep in.  In August Jane wrote ‘Farewell, send me a bit of heather is you write from Scotland – and think of me sometimes.’

In his visits to Kelmscott, Blunt draws a picture of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, tortured by the pressure of her sick child and surrounded by portraits by her former lover.  He writes in 1885 ‘There are moments when she is still a beautiful woman and I wish I had known her in old days.’


Jane Morris (1890s?)

Jane’s unhappiness hangs heavily over every word she writes to him: when she is away she longs to be ‘seeing real friends once more’ and she writes ‘it will be a most consoling thought I may write to you when sorrow weighs on me more heavily than usual…’.  When at home, without Blunt, she writes ‘I think of you often and wish I could see you and talk with you…of course I know all this is impossible and utterly foolish, but the thought recurs again and again to my anger and dismay much as I strive to drive it away…’ (February 1885).  At the prospect of Blunt’s visits, Jane’s eagerness is obvious and darkly humorous.  She insists he should let her know when he is to come, ‘or I may be out when you call, then I should tear my hair and you know one can’t afford to lose a whole handful at this age…’

Jane in the garden of Kelmscott (1880s)
Arguably, a major part of Blunt’s interest in Jane comes from his obsession with Rossetti.  How far Jane knew this, or minded, is uncertain, but she certainly fed his obsession and a good many of Blunt’s diary entries concerning Jane mention Rossetti.  In 1888, when Jane reveals that most of House of Life was written about her, Blunt records ‘This makes both her and Rossetti still more interesting to me’.  It is possibly unsurprising that when Blunt stays at Kelmscott in 1889, their relationship became more intense.  Blunt’s diary records how he ‘came to identify myself with [Rossetti] as his admirer and successor’ and definitely seems to live out a fantasy where he is Rossetti, seducing Jane under her husband’s nose.  In the same breath, Blunt has obvious affection for Morris, who he describes as ‘a loveable man’, whom he acknowledges loves Jane very much.  I find the following passage to be possibly one of the saddest things I have ever read:

‘What had taken place between her and Rossetti he knew and had forgiven.  But he had not forgotten it.  I used to think that he suspected me at times (for her intimacy with me was not very explicable) even to the extent of jealousy.  More than once, after having left us alone together, I noticed that he had returned suddenly on some pretence to the room where we were, blundering with loud footsteps, and as if ashamed of a suspicion which he had not been able to control.  Finding nothing, he was far too generous not to put the thought aside either with her or me – And yet there was reason.’

I don’t know what depresses me more – Morris’ compulsive need to check on his wife’s fidelity or Blunt’s clinical recording of the shameful suspicions of a man he admits to cuckolding. I found the statement that Jane’s intimacy with Blunt ‘was not very explicable’ rather puzzling.  If Blunt and Jane were friends why would they not be ‘intimate’ in a non-sexual sense?  Jane’s letters give a sense that she is close to Blunt, that she craves his company, so why would Morris find it strange that Jane needed to be with her ‘friend’ at Kelmscott?  The answer appears in Blunt’s diary of 1891.  In 1890 Jane wrote in a letter to Blunt that ‘there is nobody now living…who knows me as you do…’, so Blunt’s diary entry in 1891 comes as a shock when he records that ‘she is so silent a woman that except through the physical senses we never could have become intimate’ and that they had never called each other by their first names.  Still, he concludes, it is ‘a very excellent and worthy friendship’ as they never exchange cross words.  Or any words.

Taking a step back, I think I sat on the sofa for a good long while considering Jane and Blunt, who never spoke, except by letter, and never called each other by their first names, yet had a passionate affair.  Jane refers to herself as ‘shy’ once in her letters, but there is no sense in them that she doesn’t speak to him, but why should he lie?  Hold that thought…

Through Blunt’s diary, we learn more about Rossetti’s affair with Jane, or in fact, lack of affair.  In 1892, Blunt records ‘We slept together, Mrs Morris and I, and she told me things about the past which explain much in regard to Rossetti. “I never quite gave myself,” she said, “as I do now”.  Perhaps, if she had, he might not have perished in the way he did.’  Isn’t the final opinion both interesting and vicious?  Apparently sex with Jane Morris can cure you of drug dependency and mental illness.  The woman is a miracle.  Further on, in 1896, Blunt records the death of William Morris and his visit to Jane: ‘”I am not unhappy” she said “though it is a terrible thing, for I have been with him since I first knew anything.  I was 18 when I married – but I never loved him”’.

After Morris’ death the letters continue, until 1913, but the intensity dissipates.  The letters are mostly concerned with mutual friends, various publications, May’s failed marriage and Jenny’s see-saw health.  After her death, Blunt recorded his dealings with the Morris family both in published diaries and also in his private papers which were published in the 1980s.  The book of letters and diaries comes with a disclaimer: ‘The reliability of Blunt’s notebooks is open to question; it seems likely that the facts recorded are accurate, but the reader must use his own judgement in deciding whether to accept every word attributed to his various interlocutors.’  So, we can put a certain amount of faith that Blunt did indeed share Jane Morris’ bed, but as to whether she did indeed say ‘You are better than Rossetti!’ is another matter.

Why the caution?  Because Wilfrid Scawen Blunt is possible the most unpleasant git-weasel excuse for a human being I have ever had the misfortune to read about.  I read the book through and was left with the impression of a man who was definitely carving himself a place in Pre-Raphaelite history, which I found irritating but possibly understandable.  I felt the same way after reading Thomas Henry Hall Caine’s reminiscences of Rossetti’s final years, as if it is unseemly to be shoehorning yourself into immortality because you knew a celebrity after they were famous.  However, you get hints that Blunt was doing more than that, he felt he was ‘out-performing’ his heroes by sleeping with their prized woman.  His dealings with Jane are usually framed in some reference to Rossetti or Morris and their work.  Although Blunt’s political work seems to have been challenging and dangerous, when it came to women, Blunt only seems to have had one setting, summed up by his dealings with Jane and May after William’s death, on holiday with him ‘I am at my wits end how to amuse them for I cannot make love to either of them and what else is there to be done.’  I know Wikipedia is not to be wholly trusted, but even if a quarter of what is written on it about him is true, regarding his treatment of his wife and daughter, then I despair of Jane’s choice in men.

Many people love Jane Morris and feel sympathy for her sorrow at her mis-stepped life.  I freely admit I’m not one of them, but by reading this book of letters, I do appreciate just how difficult she felt her life to be.  She seems to have no purpose, nothing to do but to think about her marriage and children.  Jenny’s illness especially seems to weigh on her almost to the destruction of her own health.  What Blunt seems to offer is distraction from all of it.  He is the opposite of William, being charming company to women and an easy lover, but still intellectual and political, sharing many things in common with Morris.  It’s almost as if she finally managed to fall in love with Morris, but a palatable version of him, all sugared up and easy to swallow.  What I’m left with again, however is that the Morris’ marriage was an unholy mess and a toxic environment, that caused harm to the children and misery to the parents. 

What a damn shame.

 

8 comments:

  1. Only to add a couple of points to a superb post. Jane used to leave a flower on Blunts bed when she wanted sex and once he heard Morris asleep he would creep off to her bed. Incidentally several women called him a stallion in bed and certainly he had no shortage of lovers. One day Jane left the flower but Blunt went to sleep and that was that. After William's death, she and May went to stay with Blunt in Egypt. May wouldn't talk to him and Jane couldn't ride so it wasn't very successful.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ew. EW. What a piece of work. "Git-weasel" indeed! I'm struggling to come up with something more coherent than that, and damned impressed that you managed a whole blog post.

    I've never heard of this guy before today, which isn't too surprising, since I'm pretty indifferent to Jane myself. (I'd feel bad about that, but she has no shortage of admirers, so.)

    This does bolster my sense that Jane was someone who didn't know -- never had the opportunity to learn, really -- how to define herself in any terms other than those provided by the men in her life. Fanny, Lizzie, Annie, even oh-so-conventional Effie in her way, each had her own flavor of that spark of self-determination and sense of her right to go after what she wanted. I wonder if the heart of Jane's unhappiness mightn't be that she lacked that talent, and knew it?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post.I love William Morris and do feel sad that his marriage was so cold.I think that it is difficult to imagine what life was like for women in those days.They had very few options.All the pre raph women had a hard time off it,what about poor Georgie Burne Jones!

    ReplyDelete
  4. My take on Jane has always been that she started out out of her depth and only caught up now and then. Unlike Lizzie Siddal, she had no true spark of creativity, and unlike Georgie Burne-Jones, she did not have a strong moral upbringing to fall back on. I often think that she must have really suffered with her health, and that's what made her somewhat depressive. As a result, I don't have a strong dislike on for her. That paragraph you quote about Morris is heartbreaking though. I like to think he went back to his room and took solace in writing a nice long letter to Georgie!

    As to Blunt, I've known him for the sleaze that he is ever since I read the amazing book Unquiet Souls, about the Souls and his affairs with several of the aristocratic women in that group.

    ReplyDelete
  5. William Morris had an unhappy marriage because he was meant to marry me. (Is it weird for a 17-year-old girl to have a crush on him?)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thank you all for your comments! I must admit that the book changed my opinion of Jane from 'meh' to feeling very sorry that she couldn't find happiness. I agree that I think she spent so long being defined by others that when the attention waned, she didn't know what to do. I guess some people don't feel they exist unless they are being looked at by others.

    RA: No, I think that is perfectly sensible. If you had a crush on Ruskin, I'd have to have a word...

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jane, you are in good company. A lot of us have a hard time finding happiness with another person. The good thing is that women have more options today in finding a career and not relying on men to be their guardians. Perhaps you could have found something that you were good at but never had the chance, Like most of us, you did the best with what you had at the time. I find it hard to be critical of another women when I have not walked in her shoes or lived with the social restrictions that she had to live with.

    ReplyDelete
  8. What an interesting article. My own interpretation of Jane M's comment about not having given herself fully to Rossetti would be slightly different from yours, though- I would assume that Jane meant that although she had sex with Rossetti, she didn't give herself to him fully emotionally. I think this is what Blunt meant when he said he thought Jane might have saved Rossetti if she had not held back; I think Blunt meant that if Jane had given Rossetti her warmth and love as well as her body, he might not have taken refuge in drugs. As to what Blunt meant when he said it was not very explicable that he himself and Jane should have been intimate, perhaps he meant at their stage of life, or because one of them was older or less attractive than the other? Certainly Jane looks grey in that photo, though still with the striking profile she always had.
    I read a very interesting biography of Rossetti a while back by a writer named Bullen. I tried to link to it here but for some reason this site isn't allowing pasting. My review of it is on the following link, if you scroll down far enough:
    http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/author/leyla/
    Thanks for the fascinating article.
    All the best,
    Leyla

    ReplyDelete