Trying to Understand Janey: Much More Than Just A Muse

Fiona Rose

As someone who is a little in love with William Morris, I have to confess I felt rather harshly about his wife Jane Morris. To be honest, I was a little angry with her for the hurt and pain she must have caused William by her two affairs, the first of which was with one of his close friends. So when I had the opportunity to attend a lecture on The Collected Letters of Jane Morris by Frank C Sharp and Jan Marsh, I felt I should give Janey a chance to show for herself who she really was.

Sharp and Marsh have brought together all 570 letters of Jane Morris known to survive, many of which were previously unpublished. Whilst this may sound like a lot of correspondence, it is substantially smaller than for William Morris or Dante Gabriel Rossetti as her letters were rarely saved in their own right as they were seen as trivial or domestic. To date, Jane's position in history has usually been assigned to wife of a great man and muse of a great artist rather than looking at her own achievements. She has been portrayed as cold, distant, other worldly, a beautiful but silent semi-invalid lying on a chaise lounge. Sharp and Marsh provide evidence dispelling these old misconceptions and offer a new perspective about her life and character. They give a balanced view of Janey through her own words, showing she was a considerable person in her own right.

The authors believe Janey's greatest achievement was the recreation of her identity following her marriage to William Morris. She began life with a distinct lack of human capital: Jane was born into poverty, with her father an Oxford stable hand and her mother an illiterate laundress. Raised in an Oxford slum, had she not married William, Jane was probably destined for domestic service. However, she was sharply intelligent and given access to education, opportunity and beauty an amazing transformation took place. Janey morphed into a socially and intellectually successful upper middle class Victorian lady who was fluent in French and Italian, an accomplished pianist and able to hold her own with the Morris circle of intellects and artists.

Jane has not hereto been given credit for her involvement in Morris & Co which she always referred to in her letters as "our firm". Not only is she shown to support all her husband's enterprises but Janey was in fact in charge of the embroidery department at Morris & Co from 1865 - 1885. She also assisted with the Kelmscott Press and it's administration after the death of her husband and was actively involved with fundraising for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. It would have been hard to spend too much time lying resplendent on the couch with these responsibilities!

Jane has previously been portrayed as not being politically engaged but her letters show she was an ardent supporter of Irish Home Rule and a supporter of the radical wing of the Liberal Party. Her letters show she followed the progress of women's suffrage and believed women should have the vote but thought radical suffragists hurt the cause. Jane is often portrayed as silent and humourless but her letters give evidence of her playfulness, her pleasure in travel and nature and her love of laughter, writing, "I find laughter does me more good than anything".

Unfortunately there are only a couple of brief letters that survive from Jane to William which is a great shame - the authors believe May Morris destroyed them after the death of her mother. However, the ones that survive show a tender, loving relationship with the middle and later years of the marriage providing affection and companionship. It is telling that after William's death Janey very much saw herself as his widow, preserving his memory and legacy, rather than as Rossetti's muse.

I can't ignore though the fact Janey had an affair with one of William's best friends, the painter, poet and member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. What were Janey's motivations embarking on this dangerous romance? Perhaps the word 'romance' is key here. Rossetti 'discovered' 17 year old Janey, proclaiming her a "stunner" and plucking her from obscurity to the feted attentions of an artistic circle. Rossetti was then a glamorous, confident and worldly wise figure. It was very likely that he the first person to ever celebrate her unconventional (by Victorian ideals) beauty. Perhaps she fell in love with him but he was involved with long term on - off girlfriend Lizzie Siddal. Maybe she always carried a torch for him which was only relight after Lizzie's death. We will never know for sure as, alas, Jane's letters to Rossetti during the period of the affair do not survive. Maybe Jane and William were not the best love match - he had very little experience with women before meeting her and perhaps saw her through rose coloured glasses as his (unrealistic) medieval maiden.

I also always have a hard time reading the diary entry by Wilfred Scawen Blunt (Janey's second lover) where he describes visiting Janey after William's death and her saying that she, "never really loved" William. When I questioned the authors about this they said Blunt some times rather bent the truth to serve his own purpose. If indeed Janey did say this then perhaps she meant she was not actually "in love" with William at the time of her marriage. This was a common occurrence amongst young women in the Victorian era when truly knowing your intended was not made possible by society. This explanation and rationale made me feel much better!

I've chosen my favourite image of Jane to accompany this entry - it's Water Willow by Rossetti. I've chosen it as I'm very grateful to Janey for buying Kelmscott Manor after William's death and so starting the chain of events that make this idyllic house accessible to us today. Frank Sharp said at the start of his 15 year project collecting Jane's letters, "I liked her when we started but at the end I had a genuine admiration for her" - I too am left with feelings of admiration and a great deal more understanding.

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