Sunday, 2 September 2012

In the Company of Goddesses

This week I was fortunate enough to be sent a review copy of the collected letters of Jane Morris.  My rather mixed feelings for Mrs Morris are well known, but I have a passion for wanting to know more about her, to see if I can understand the woman who was at the centre of such unhappiness for Fanny.  In my perpetual quest to find some common ground for Jane and I, I turned the page onto this photograph...

The woman second from the right is Jane Morris, stood next to (from the left) Jane Cobden, Thomas Sanderson and, on her right, Anne Cobden.  Even with some quite appalling posture Jane obviously towers over them.  Two things struck me about the image; firstly, I know Jane suffered from back problems and I wondered how many of them were caused by her bad posture, attempting to minimise her height.  Secondly, how did images of her change the perception of the perfect woman?  What does the image of Jane Morris tell us about Victorian feminity and the construction of perfected womanhood?

I am a tall woman.  At five foot eight I towered over my four-foot-nothing Victorian grandmother at about eight, and was taller than my own mother as soon as I hit puberty.  I seemed to have surrounded myself with even taller friends (not to mention the male members of my family, who are well over six foot) so I found myself among the giants and never felt the need to slouch to fit in.  Carnation-Lily-Lily-Rose Walker, it must be noted, is a very tall girl, already wearing jeans for nine year olds while she is only 6, so she may yet be as tall as my six foot eight brother.  Anyhow I digress...

Windsor Castle in Modern Times (1840-5) Edwin Landseer
Queen Victoria, tiny and wee, became an obvious model for Victorian womanhood.  Factor in all those qualities of meek, angelic, childlike goodness and innocence and all that malarkey, then the perfect package of womanhood was a little one.  Look at Queen Vic, she's barely taller than Albert, and he's sat down!  At five foot, she was still taller than Grandma Daisy, but was a dinky little woman.  In her likeness, the small became all...

Woman's Mission: Companion of Manhood (1863) George Elgar Hicks
A good wife should never rise above your shoulder, but should be a little taller than a spaniel.  Sorry, but the pose of this woman reminds me of many a faithful dog...

The Long Engagement Arthur Hughes
Yes, like that one!  A nice, meek, shiny haired lady, leaning in to her big strong gentleman admirer/husband, although I suspect Hughes' girl is thinking 'Get on with it, I've been through half a dozen spaniels since you proposed!'  Little simpering girlies do seem to litter Victorian art, and the following must be the most heinous example.  Shame on you Johnny....

Bob and the Girl from Ipanema (1848) J E Millais
Yes, I know that's not the real title but honestly, it's so revolting.  Apart from the embarrassing wardrobe malfunction, Queen Victoria seems to be guesting as Iphigenia, while her mates attempt not to appear in such an embarrassing painting behind her.  The figure is Academy-pleasing (although it didn't please anyone) and pandering to the standard of womanhood of the time.  Oh deary me.  
The ideal of womanhood was challenged by the Pre-Raphaelites and their desire to paint from actual people, normal, real people.  It wasn't only the use of Lizzie Siddal's copper tresses that raised eyebrows, but also the faces of real women that looked out of the canvases that caused a revolution.  No more simpering, bland Etty maidens, no more Queen Victoria-a-likes in a variety of costumes, simpering and sighing.  However, the figure of feminity still appeared slight...

Ophelia Arthur Hughes
Partly, the blame lies with the subjects that attracted our angry young men.  Ophelia, fragile of mind, seemed no more than a girl, victim of her first love.  Shakespeare is full of young heroines that could be shown as girlish slips of things.  The women who were used were slight, working-class and young, so although the early years of PRB fought many of the traditions of art, the ' perfect tiny woman' was not one of them.

Isabella and Lorenzo (detail) (1849) J E Millais
Then along came Jane Morris...

This is definitely my favourite picture of her, and if Angelina Jolie is reading this (as I assume she often does) then she should give me a call about being Jane Morris in a Hollywood version of the Pre-Raph story.  Come on Angie, we'll call Tim Curry, it'll be grand.  Anyhow, Jane, like most of her Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, was a contrast, a deviation from the accepted story.  She was tall, she was frizzy and she was filled with brooding.  And with all this, she was adored.

Astarte Syriaca (1877) D G Rossetti
Anyone who has seen this picture in real life knows how massive it is, that the Goddess Astarte looks enormous, truly awe inspiring.  She doesn't have an ounce of simper in her and she looks like she could have you in a fight.  It's not just this image of Jane that has this quality.  I don't think there is a passive image of Jane in existence...

The Death of Lady Macbeth (1875) D G Rossetti

Even when it's not a portrait, Rossetti makes Jane the dominant aspect of the image, the central strength, the keystone upon all other pieces are supported.  Take Dante's Dream, for example...

Dante's Dream (1871) D G Rossetti
The pale dress draws the eye, but honestly, you notice Jane first in the picture, not least because of her centrality.  Also, look how long she is; she's sat up, but her toes are still seen behind Dante, which would make her far taller than the ladies holding up the canopy. Jane always seemed a goddess forced into earthly scenes and never fitting properly.  In the group photograph right at the beginning, she had to stoop to appear with her friends.  In art, Rossetti made it seem that she must fold herself up to appear a normal woman, yet never disguising how larger than life she is, literally.

Maybe one thing that should warm me to Mrs Morris is that she paved the way for women of height to be appreciated for the astonishing goddesses we obviously are. Who else is going to get the book off the top shelf for you?


  1. Do we know how tall she was? As a six footer myself, I've always wondered.

  2. I'm not sure, only how she appears in the pictures. When we are in London, possibly a covert raid on the V&A costume department may be in order - they must have a dress or two of hers, surely?

    1. If we asked nicely, who knows?

  3. Well Kirsty very enlightening,I am one of the four foot nothing brigade and have never warmed to Jane either, She reminded me of the tall girls who sat in the corner at parties looking mysterious with hordes of young men at their feet. I of course flitted about chattering and being a bolshy little feminist trying to get some poetical young man to just notice me! Ah well,and then ofcourse she was horrid to lovely William!

  4. I was a tall girl in the corner of the party looking mysterious, however I am still awaiting my hoard. However I did get Mr Walker, which is far better.

  5. Well, I've long been a fan of both Jane AND Lizzie, for completely different reasons (and all the other PRB ladies, too). But there is one thing that I wonder about for both, and that is, what was it like, having goddess/stunner status conferred, when you were from modest if not low upbringing and may not have known much about your mythical comparisons - if anything at all - or how to act like them? Lizzy suffers being portrayed as a drip, which I absolutely doubt was the case. Jane suffers being portrayed as the distant, glowering goddess, when she may have felt like absolute doodoo from her back, bad teeth, home births or just not equal to the high wit around her. Or maybe she thought that being a "lady" meant being seen and not heard. Who knows? I've read some of Jane's letters, which seem pretty down to earth and are not fancy. The issue of teeth back than is intriguing to me. There wasn't much to do to care for them, so I wonder how many famous beauties had to be careful to keep their mouths shut? Sure wish I had a time machine.

  6. Hello Lila! The construction of the accepted personas for our 'goddesses' is fascinating. Yes, I agree, possibly Jane kept her mouth shut because her teeth were bad, or she didn't want to look stupid, so in turn she is thought of as aloof, mysterious and not a stupid girl with bad teeth. If only Fanny had kept her mouth shut she too might have been thought a mysterious goddess, rather than, well, Fanny....

  7. Sounds like an interesting read, tho' of course we need that time machine of yours to rescue the really important letters from the bonfire.!

    I find the suggestion that something as striaghtforward as shame over bad teeth (a personal neurosis, so I can sympathise) inhibiting someone. I don't have a problem with Jane, I can understand how she felt about finding the stash of chloral bottles in Bognor (bugger Bognor indeed), having sadly had a moment myself, thankfully years ago, when drug paraphernalia came to light. There is shock, and with the concern also a wish for self-preservation. Also she was brunette and liked embroidery so I rather like that.

    Before I read this post I was thinking about Jane M anyway as my reading has been all pre-raph this summer - and it hit me like a brick that there are no sketches or paintings of her by Rossetti with her hair complely loose. This would seem to suggest, along with your theory in an earlier post that as R liked mystery she kept aloof from complete physical intimacy with him, as she said herself when asked by both Wilfred Scawen Blunt and Georgie Burne-Jones. One gets such a feeling of integrity around Georgie's character, that she seems like a person you wouldn't have lied to.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx