Thursday, 10 November 2011

Beata Mea Domina!

As you know, I am currently sneakily writing a Pre-Raphaelite novel, and part of the joy of writing it is the chance to animate figures from the artistic world that I know so well.  It has been a wicked pleasure, for example, to write Fanny Cornforth’s words and actions, how she appears to me.  My novel is set in the late 1860s and 1870s and revolves around Rossetti’s circle.  I felt happy and confident until I realised that I would have to tackle Jane Morris.

Pretty much the same facial expression I had when I realised
I would have to write for Jane Morris...

So what’s Jane Morris like?
Jane Morris February 1873

The Prisoner's Daughter (1870)
See, that’s just it, I suddenly realised I don’t have a clue.  Not only that, I think on the whole I actively avoid her.

That’s shocking.  I have nothing against Jane Morris, nothing at all.  Or so I thought.  Considering further, I discovered that of my wall of Pre-Raphaelite postcards and pictures at work, only one is Jane Morris.  Lord alive, I have more of Fanny Waugh than Jane.  What is my problem with Jane Morris?
Jane Morris (1870)
Obviously, my attitude is greatly influenced by Fanny.  On the face of it, Jane Morris managed to have her cake and Fanny’s cake too, although I doubt she ate either cakes, she most likely just reclined artistically on a couch with the cakes beside her.  Jane climbed the social ladder from working-class girl who was a bit funny looking (by contemporary standards) to muse of an art movement, with an independently wealthy husband and Cotswolds shag-pad for her brooding lover.  Oh, hang on, I’m getting cross again…

Reverie (1868)
Jane Morris, Seated
In Nerina Shute’s Victorian Love Story, Fanny and Jane discuss Rossetti and agree that they both want what is best for him, despite not liking each other.  Although it is unlikely any such conversation took place (God, can you imagine...?) Jane’s love for Rossetti through some of the most trying years of his life shows that she did genuinely care for him, and tried as much as Fanny to keep him together when he was bent on self-destruction.  By taking him off to Kelmscott, you could argue that she delayed his implosion, gave him some happy times before the inevitable.  How could I object to that?  Her husband didn’t…
La Belle Iseult (1858) William Morris
Ahhh, William.  Another sticking point for me is that it’s all well and good that she looked after Rossetti, but what about her husband?  Recently, I heard Franny Moyle refer to William as a hellish husband, impossible to live with, but I’ve never got the impression from anything I’ve read that Morris was a bully or a brute.  A bit socially awkward, granted, and a bit like a bull in a china shop, but not awful.  As far as we know, his close friendship with Georgie Burne-Jones was as close as he ever came to playing away.  

I think it was Bell Scott (correct me if I’m wrong) that actually blamed Jane for Rossetti’s break down after the Fleshly School review.  He suggested that it was her presence in Rossetti’s imagination that had worked up something dark and destructive, calling her 'sweet Lucretia Borgia', and it’s easy to see what he meant.  Although similar in structure, the pictures of Alexa and Fanny are miles away from the pictures of Jane.  Rossetti was capable of glorious, glowing paintings such as Venus Verticordia and also, my favourite of Jane, Astarte Syriaca, which draws you into the darkness in a particularly intense way.  I saw Astarte recently at Manchester and it is utterly astonishing and a little bit terrifying.  I have read criticism of Rossetti’s work that suggests that all his women look like they are dying.  Well, actually I think his depictions of Jane Morris look like she’s coming to kill you.

Astarte Syriaca (1877)
 Now, that’s just it, maybe the problem is the way I ‘consume’ Jane Morris (that just sounds odd, sorry).  Possibly if I am relying on Rossetti to tell me about Jane, I’m going to get a bad impression because he’s not talking to me from the Sane Train.  When I read The Wayward Muse, I got a distinct impression of a woman who made bad choices but experienced more of life than she expected, both better and worse.  I felt sympathy for Jane, a real attachment to her, which I didn’t expect.
Salutation of Beatrice (1880)
Fiction being fiction, obviously I can’t base my opinion of her on a romantic novel, but as she kept her mouth shut, I have very little to go on.  Her rather studied silence was taken as proof of her ‘mysterious muse’ nature, and unlike Fanny, Jane strikes me as a woman who understood that it was better to be silent and be suspected of being an idiot, than to flap off your mouth and prove everyone right.  I know she denied that her relationship with Rossetti was sexual, which tends to be greeted with snorts of disbelief, but if you take Rossetti’s hydrocele into consideration (ouch) it’s not out of the question.  It doesn’t excuse what she did as she still drove her husband to Iceland with her love affair.  I’ve been to Iceland and it was lovely but I flew and had a Toblerone on the plane.  William Morris got neither a plane ride nor a Toblerone.  Poor William.
Jane and May Morris
Jane Morris  (1900)
Maybe I should turn over a new leaf and attempt to understand Jane better.  When Rossetti’s madness became too much, she did withdraw from him for the sake of the children (no, I don’t believe for one second that Jane left Rossetti because he lusted after May.  Not every Victorian man was a paedophile. Oh, and not every single man was gay, and some gay men got married! Gosh, it’s like they are deliberately refusing to be pigeonholed…naughty Victorian men!).  She succumb to the adoration of a man who created a series of stunning art works out of her image, which must have been hard to resist and her husband enabled the dysfunctional relationship as much as she allowed it.  What Jane represents is a woman attempting to get as much out of life as the men who surrounded her.  I think the images of her as an old lady are very telling.  Even then people sought her out to model, because she represented an eternal creature, something almost supernatural in its power and majesty.  There are worse things you can be remembered for....

It’s better than being remembered for being an illiterate, nut-flinging whore.  Sorry, Fanny...


  1. I think its hard for us now to understand that for a Victorian women marriage was almost all important. She probably always loved Rossetti but as far as I know he never offered her a ring whereas Morris did. She probably didn't betray Morris physically and looked after his homes and children pretty well by all accounts.

  2. Love, love this post. First smile all week. I agree with you. Jane is very frustrating. However, Rossetti was probably overwhelming, too. And as Hermes said, who knows what really went on between the two? You make me feel like a literary detective out of Byatt's Possession!

  3. Thanks to Nancy for sending me this link... I never realised May Morris was married! Shameful. Well, this certainly is an interesting view of the Morris Household. I also need to know more about Jane's second affair...

  4. Jane Morris's letters in the recently published book brought her alive for me for the first time, and I've been reading about that lot for over 30 years.


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