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JANE MORRIS: her Life & Sorrows

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Jane Burden Morris (b. 1939 – d. 1914)

Jane Morris is one of the four women who tell their stories in my novel Beauty in Thorns.

Her sorrowful face, her heavy ripples of hair, and sensual mouth were what first drew me to the Pre-Raphaelites. I was fascinated by her story – a girl from the slums who married a rich young man who loved her but could not paint her, and then her secret and ultimately tragic affair with one of his best friends. Reading about Janey led me to read about William Morris, and I discovered his poetry and his philosophies and his designs, all of which I loved.

His words, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’, is one of my life mantras. 
Janey rarely spoke about her childhood. She kept it well-hidden, even famously refusing to allow John Mackail to include a drawing of the house in which she grew up in his biography of her husband. One of the few things she ever admitted is that she used to pick violets on the Iffley Road, outside St Clements. It is most likely she picked these flowers to sell. 

It is believed that Janey was the inspiration for the character of Anne Brown in Vernon Lee’s 1884 novel Miss Brown, which in its turn inspired George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 play Pygmalion, in which the flower seller Eliza Doolittle is plucked from the streets and taught how to speak and act, just as Jane Burden was by William Morris. Interestingly, Shaw was very close to the Morris family, living for some years in a ménage-a-trois with May Morris and her husband. 

It is necessary to understand what life would be like for a child growing up in a 19th century rookery. 

Her mother was illiterate, her father working as an ostler in a stable. Janey lived with her parents and brother and sister in a single room not much larger than a loose-box. Her life would have been hard and brutish and hungry, and she would have seen much that the other women in the book would have been protected from. It is known her father could be violent, as he was charged with assault on a neighbour, that he was unable to pay the parish poor rate, and that her parents separated after Robbie Burden refused to pay for his wife’s debts. 

Janey went to the local parish school till she was twelve, and then would have worked as a laundress, seamstress, or scullery-maid. Yet she was to later teach herself Italian, learnt to play the piano, and read unusually widely. Where and how Janey was taught to be a lady is not known, though there is one reference to friends of William Morris rowing to Godstow to ‘see Topsy’s Stunner’. I invented her teacher, Miss Leigh, and their skivvy, Violet, the only made-up characters in the novel.

To help me imagine Janey’s childhood, I am grateful to Margaret Fleming for her essay, ‘Where Janey Used to Live’ published in The Journal of William Morris Studies, Winter 1981, and for London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work, by Henry Mayhew (1862). The Old Cotswold Dialect by Charles Gardiner was also helpful to me in imagining how Janey and her family might have spoken. 

It is not known whether Janey and Gabriel had an affair when they first met in Oxford, when she was only seventeen. However, Hall Caine wrote that Gabriel had confessed to him one night that ‘(he was) a man who, after engaging himself to one woman in all good honour and faith, had fallen in love with another, and then gone on to marry the first out of a mistaken sense of loyalty and a fear of giving pain.’ 

A drawing of Janey at the age of 17 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I have written what I believe most likely happened, but of course I cannot be sure. Maybe one day a lost packet of letters will be found that proves me right (or very wrong). 

The other great unknown about Jane Morris was her ill health. Once again she has not been treated with much kindness by her husband’s biographers. It has become fashionable to think of all Victorian-era women as hypochondriacs and hysterics, and Janey has not escaped this slur. E. P. Thompson’s 1955 biography of William Morris says explicitly: ‘Janey seems to have entered a settled melancholia and hypochondria (the symptoms mentioned include lumbago, sciatica, neuralgia, migraine, sore throats, fevers.)’ 

This has been repeated by all following biographers, including Fiona MacCarthy who, in her brilliant 1994 biography of William Morris, writes: ‘There remains the mystery of the ill-health of Mrs Morris, who took to the sofa at the age of twenty-nine, and never really left it.’ Even Jan Marsh, the most sympathetic of all the Pre-Raphaelite historians, entitles her chapter on the subject ‘Jane Discovers the Benefits of Invalidism’ (Jane and May Morris: A Biographical Story 1839-1938, published in 1986).

This is despite the evidence that Janey worked for Morris & Co as an embroiderer, was a notable housekeeper and cook, and went on numerous adventures to Broadway Tower in the Cotswolds, to Kelmscott Manor in the country, and to Italy and Egypt. Her letters are cheerful and full of a self-deprecating humour. 

It seemed poor Janey was only ever sick whilst in London. Quite apart from the smog, and the Great Stink of the sewage in the Thames, recurring outbreaks of cholera, smallpox, scarlet fever and measles, and the lack of antibiotics, no-one has ever investigated the possibility that Jane Morris may have been suffering from chronic arsenic poisoning from living in close quarters with wallpapers and fabrics known to be saturated with the poison. 

Janey’s ill-health began once she moved to Queen Square in London, where the Firm’s workshops were at that time situated. Apart from the fumes from the kilns and the leading of stained glasses, every room in the apartment was furnished with early William Morris wallpapers. Nine of the first eleven wallpapers made by the Firm have since tested positive for arsenic. 

Topsy’s father’s company, Great Devon Consols, was then the largest arsenic producer in the world. In 1862, a medical health officer established that three children in the Limehouse district had died as a result of arsenic poisoning from their wallpaper. Their symptoms were the same as Janey’s: headaches, fatigue, nausea, abdominal cramps, weakness or trembling in the limbs, and chest and upper respiratory tract complaints. Lily Yeats, who learnt embroidery from May Morris, even observed that Janey’s skin had become ‘sallow and coarse’, another known side effect of chronic arsenic poisoning. 

In 1875, the Firm announced it was no longer using arsenic in its wallpaper, and the next year William Morris resigned from the board of Great Devon Consols (and famously sat on his ceremonial top-hat to squash it). However, arsenic was still being found in the Firm’s wallpapers in the mid-1880s – and it was particularly strong in the ‘Trellis’ wallpaper which was used in the master bedroom at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, where the Morris family lived after 1878. It has been argued that there is no evidence that arsenical wallpapers – produced by William Morris & Co or not – were poisonous, but the World Health Organization has just recently shown the dangers of long exposure to low doses of arsenic. Interestingly, in light of Jenny Morris’s epilepsy diagnosis, seizures are also a side-effect of arsenic poisoning.

The theory that Janey suffered from chronic arsenic poisoning seems to be borne out by the fact that she recovered much of her health whenever she travelled away from Queen Square or Kelmscott House, but relapsed once she returned to London. 

If you’d like to know more about arsenic poisoning, read The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work & Play by James C Warburton or King of Poisons: A History of Arsenic by John Parascandola.

A portrait of Janey by DGR - Kelmscott Manor can be seen in the background

Kelmscott Manor is, of course, the setting for Janey and Gabriel’s blissful summer of love in 1871. For many years, it was not known whether Jane Morris had an affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, or not. Many of their letters had been destroyed after Fanny Cornforth, Rossetti’s mistress and housekeeper, tried to blackmail Rossetti by threatening to sell them. Only a few survived. 

However, it is impossible to read Rossetti’s love poetry – which he wrote out for Janey in a small notebook– without being aware of the deep sensual bond between them. Many of these poems have not been published. I read them in the Special Collections reading room at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It was unspeakably moving, seeing these beautiful poems of passion and yearning written in Gabriel’s bold handwriting and knowing that Janey kept them all of her life, despite the danger. Jan Marsh has edited a small booklet of the poems, called ‘Water-Willow & Well-Away’, if you’d like to read more of them.

After Gabriel’s tragic descent into madness and paranoia, Janey broke off the affair to protect her children. She wrote later: ‘he wanted me to go away with him altogether, to leave my children & everything. But you know I (could) not do that.’  

If you’d like to read more about Janey, the best books are Jane & May Morris: A Biographical Story 1839-1938 by Jan Marsh (1986), William Morris (1994) by Fiona MacCarthy, and Jane Morris: The Burden of History by Wendy Parkins (2013), which dismantles many of the unkinder myths circulated about her. 

Want to know more about the fascinating women of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood?

I do hope you enjoyed this blog. If so, tell me so! I love to read your comments. 
Marina Elphick commented on 01-Aug-2017 03:59 PM
Hi Kate,
I am a life long fan of the Pre-Raphaelites especially their woman. I have been reading posts on your blog that give real insight and tell their stories from a different angle, making me re think what I have already read.
Thank you !
I am currently making muses which include Jane, Effie , Fanny E and Lizzie, maybe you would be interested in taking a look at
Kate Forsyth commented on 01-Aug-2017 05:16 PM
Thank you so much, Marina - I went to your website and loved your mannequins (is that the right word?) Amazing! Thank you for sharing with me.
sue knight commented on 01-Aug-2017 06:47 PM
❤️ love ur blogs, it really fleshes out the stories for me, thank you for taking the time to create them
Kate Forsyth commented on 03-Aug-2017 12:28 PM
Thank you so much, Sue :)
michelle ferrer commented on 04-Aug-2017 07:28 AM
Hello, Kate. Thank you for the background on Jane Morris. Having read "Bitter Greens" and "The Wild Girl", I am anxious to read "Beauty in Thorns".Eagerly awaiting its arrival in the U.S. Thank you also for the opportunity to participate in your work sessions early this summer, here in Texas. The principles you shared have helped my writing leap-frog to a higher level. You are dangerously close to becoming a Heroine in my eyes. Warmest regards.
Diane Hake commented on 06-Jan-2018 08:44 AM
So enjoyed reading this article & discovering you have a blog I can follow, specially as I did a William Morris tour with Michele Hill in 2014. The tour really sparked my interest in learning more about these talented people
I am a huge Morris fan & love making Michele’s amazing quilts.
Have my copy of Beauty in Thorns.
Loved reading your blog & will continue to do so.
Many thanks...x

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