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Why should there be any special record of me when I have never done any special work? ~Jane Morris
The first lines of any description of Jane Burden Morris describe her as a muse to important men. Well, yes. Her dark, sad beauty managed to catch the eye of Burne-Jones and Rossetti, a fortuitous constellation of genes and environment that gained her entry into a circle of men who would change the direction of fine and decorative arts for the next 150 years.
Jane was the daughter of a stable hand and her mother was illiterate. When Morris decided to marry Jane, she hesitated, but as Rossetti was in a committed relationship with Lizzie Siddal, and having few options at the ripe age of 18, she relented. And William was a nice man. As Jane was uneducated, Morris paid to have her educated as a fine lady, a process that took a year, giving him time to build Red House. Jane mastered her "fine lady" lessons to the point that she came to be, as the years progressed, referred to as "queenly".
Why did Morris decide to marry Jane? Projection onto her evocative, dark beauty, certainly, but Jane was not unintelligent. She taught herself French, Italian, and a smattering of Latin, raised two children and managed a large household (while maintaining a torrid love affair with a man who can hardly be described as low maintenance); she remained a loyal friend if not a loyal lover to a man best described as passionate about everything, whose interests were many, and for whom the term "overachiever" pales. Jane played hostess to her husband's friends and some of the greatest mind of her age.
I was a holy thing to them. ~Jane Morris on the Pre-Raphaelites
Jane Morris, embroidered evening bag
Note swans are still in play
Jane loved her children dearly. I've heard it often said that Jane claimed to have never loved William Morris, and that the marriage was, in effect, justifiable social climbing for a woman who had no other options. I believed that myself for many years. The source of this confidence is the poet Wilfred Blunt, a man with whom she had an affair possibly as early as 1884, but there's no hint that she ever said anything like this to her intimate friends, even when Morris was alive and their relationship strained in the early years. That includes Rossetti, for whom keeping private matters private was not a strong suit. Rossetti even spoke of trying to adopt Jane's daughter, May, the logistics of which plan do escape me.
Moreover, Jane's Collected Letters have been published within the last few years; her letters to William in the later years of their marriage are marked by a warm and affectionate tone, especially by formal Victorian standards, and carry no hint of the resentment one would expect from a woman who had spent a lifetime as the consort of a man she did not love, and who certainly had other offers had she wanted to escape.
Red House Daisies
I'm a remarkable woman - always was, though none of you seemed to think so. ~May Morris
A famous father's daughter, May was the younger of William Morris's two daughters, and decidedly the daughter fate brought him closest to, after her old sister Jenny's boating accident that resulted in frequent severe seizures.
May was an expert at embroidery, a skill she learned from her mother. By 23, she was head of the Embroidery Department at Morris and Co. But May did much more than design textiles for her father's business. She wrote lectured, wrote books, even a play about her relationship with George Bernard Shaw and its painful demise. We can only do so much with our time, and May chose to spend over a decade of her time here organizing and editing her father's Complete Works. Her introductions to the sections add so much more and provide invaluable context.
Born at Red House, William Morris's first married home that he planned and built along the path Chaucer's pilgrims would have traveled, May was born a day-later birthday present to Morris on 25 March 1862. May's preferred artistic medium was embroidery, although she lived and breathed the air and passions of her father, the artists and craftsmen that often came to Red House. Decidedly not a demure wallflower quietly working in a drawing room, May studied embroidery at what became the Royal Art College. By the time she was 23, she was the director of the embroidery department at Morris and Co.
Two years before her father's death in 1896, May burned bridges that could never be rebuilt: May's relatively short marriage to a socialist that her mother disapproved became estranged due to her affair with her father's friend, George Bernard Shaw. She and her father, lifelong penpals, fell silent. Morris wrote many letters to his older invalid daughter, Jenny, in his last years, but no letters at all remain from Morris to May from that period. May Morris edited her father's 24-volume Collected Works after his death, a five-year undertaking, and completed The Sundering Flood (Project Gutenberg), an early modern fantasy novel whose ending Morris dictated to her from his deathbed. She died at Kelmscott Manor, Morris's later family home, in 1938.
Jenny was the eldest daughter of William and Jane. She developed epilespy in 1874 and her seizures were quite severe. Her future changed radically at that point. Plans for her education were put on hold and canceled. William grieved her illness greatly and there are hints in his letters that blamed himself or his bloodline. Jenny modeled as an angel for Burne-Jones' Days of Creation.