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Wednesday’s Women … Jane Morris

September 12, 2012

Jane Burden met William Morris through Dante Gabrielle Rossetti; who was always on the lookout for a ‘stunner’. Research shows that Rossetti put much effort into looking for beautiful models. He saw Jane and her sister at the theatre in Oxford.  At first she modelled exclusively for Rossetti; when she did model for Morris for the La belle Iseult,

which still hangs in the Tate Gallery,  he fell in love with her and they married her two years later.
Jane was born in 1839 to Ann Maizey and Robert Burden in Holywell; in a cramped and unsanitary  cottage.  Her mother registered her birth with a cross;  suggesting she was illiterate.  Her father was a stable hand.  Jane was one of three surviving children with an older brother and little sister Bessie; who was considered at the time to be the more beautiful of the sisters.
Jane was tall, gaunt with frizzy hair; with an exotic and foreign features; some suggested gypsy–like.  It was these features that, while they did not please those less artistic, did appeal to those in tune with the Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunners.’ Jane was to become the Pre-Raphaelite icon.
William Morris fell in love because she was aesthetically pleasing; George Bernard Shaw suggested that it was her role ‘to be beautiful’
Jane admitted later that she had never loved her husband; Morris had given her an offer too good to refuse.  Although it would appear at the time she had no choice in the matter; she added that 40 years later if she would not have done it differently.
William and Jane married on 26th April 1859 at St Michael’s Church, Oxford. It was a simple occasion conducted by licence. While none of William’s family were present; Jane’s father and sister signed the register.  They honeymooned for six weeks in  Europe; visiting Bruges and Paris, places that William had been previously with his sister Henrietta.
Jane had her first child ; Jane Alice called Jenny in 1861 and Mary called May a year later.
The Morris family moved to Bloomsbury in 1765. By now Jane was suffering from a mystery illness and it would continue throughout her life it was not ever diagnosed.  It was considered to be either gynecological and or spinal. However, rather than be invalided out of society   she used her condition to her advantage.  The archetypal Victorian; semi- invalid beautiful and supine on the couch attracting sympathy.  
In the summer of 1869 William took Jane to Koblenz in Germany, when her condition worsened to take the water. They left the girls with friends.  By September Jane seemed to have improved and the doctor was able to give her a prescription; a formula of carbonate of soda and salt that suggests he was treating a gynecological complaint.  The treatment was to be continued at home using a shower-like contraption to be rigged up in Jane’s bedroom.  The journey home went well although Jane did have back pain while crossing the Channel.
William hired a steamship so that the family and friends could make the journey between Kelmscott Manor  at Lechlade to Kelmscott House, Hammersmith.  Although Jane had been unwell before the trip she seemed to find the experience comfortable and was able to sit and do her embroidery.   
While Jane’s daughters were members of the Socialist Party; Jane was not a political animal;  for this private person the comings and goings of the Socialist activists in her home at Hammersmith were difficult for her.  She did however join a demonstration and march in a procession of the Ladies National Society.  It was during the summer of the Pall Mall scandals when W.T. Stead exposed the selling of children into prostitution. She was also a supporter or Irish Home Rule.
In was never a secret that Rossetti and Jane had a close relationship; Jane denied that is was physical as she feared further pregnancy.  Also she cared for her husband and was devoted to her children and feared more the difficulties she would have faced if infidelity was proved.
In 1883 a year or so after the death of Rossetti  Jane met Wilfred Scawen Blunt, they became lovers.  He was already married and a notorious philanderer, poet, explorer and political adventurer.
Although Jane was over forty and still beautiful she was vulnerable from recently losing Rosetti.  The relationship lasted another ten years until she was no longer beautiful for Blunt. He would stay at Kelmscott with his wife and children; Jane would invite him to her bedroom by strategically leaving a pansy in his room.  On one such occasion he declined the invitation and slept alone thus ‘allowing the love to die.’ They did however stay friends until she died,
In the shadow of her celebrated husband and lovers Jane went unnoticed. She made a calculated decision to remove herself from a life of drudgery when she accepted William’s offer 40 years before.  She she was educated privately during her engagement to William.   She became an avid reader and proficient in French and Italian.  Jane contributed to the political and artistic stage with dignity and poise.  

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2012 6:43 am

    I really liked this piece about Jane Burden an icon of the time


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