by Meg Wise-Lawrence

Now she's dressing two kids
Looking for that magic kiss
She gets the faraway look in her eyes
--Neil Young "Desert Highway"

My back hurts from bending. I feel like somebody's servant. I'm thinking about Jane and how she looked so withdrawn. She inspired the only painting by designer and writer, William Morris (later her husband). She was the inspiration --no muse-- to painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. How her back must've hurt as she sat for hours posing for him while they were having their affair! Only a woman can know how much another woman's back can hurt.

When Janey was just five years old
she said, "There's nothing happening at all."
--Lou Reed "Sweet Jane"

Jane Burden was born in 1839 Oxfordshire, daughter of a stable hand. It was (quite literally) like something out of Thomas Hardy. They were 'dirt' poor: according to one book, the house she'd been born in was 'unsanitary.'

Supposedly Jane's sister Bessie was prettier but it Jane who captured the hearts of two brilliant men, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti's brother William described her as "tragic, mystic, calm, beautiful & gracious-- a face for a sculptor & a face for a painter." She was immediately pronounced "a stunner" and modeled for Rossetti until he was called back to the ailing Lizzie Siddal. Jane then started modeling for Morris. He fell madly in love with her and would read to her from "Barnaby Rudge" during their courtship. Even if it's true that she never loved him, as lover Blunt and even her own husband sometimes suspected, then she must've hidden her yawns well as Morris courted her and trained her as a lady, even teaching her to weave (an important part of his life) before marrying her in 1859.

Revered in her circle as the epitome of Pre-Raphaelite beauty, she was stared at on her honeymoon with William in France for her "outre'"gypsy look. She was dark and sullen, tall and thin. Brittle but too weary to snap, she lived a long life though she was always sickly. She became a "sofa lady" at twenty-nine: a women who, rather than taking to drinking and drugs, takes to the sofa.

When she tried to take trips with her husband, he'd screw them up. Once, when he was taking her to Baden-Baden to experience "the healing waters," he did everything except make the hotel reservations. Whoops! Sensitive enough to write poetry and Utopian novels, gentle enough to weave his own textile designs, yet bumbling with his own wife. After his first (and only known painting) of her, he wrote, "I cannot paint you, but I love you." He also wrote this:

Her great eyes, standing far apart,
Draw up some memory from her heart,
And gaze out very mournfully;
--Beata mean Domina!

So beautiful and kind they are,
But most time looking out afar,
Waiting for something not for me,
--Beata mea Domina!

It's obvious what William Morris was thinking when Gudrun confessed in his translation of the Laxdoela Saga: "I did the worst to him I loved the most." I'm sure the more he suffered in trying to please her, the more disgusted she'd become. Still, there was an intimacy and periods of bliss.

Their union produced two daughters, and they were devoted parents. May followed in her father's footsteps and became a famous weaver. As a young girl, she sometimes modeled for Rossetti and can seen as the angelic young girls in the corner of La Ghirlandata, which Rossetti referred to as "the greenest painting in the world." Jenny was later diagnosed as epileptic. Despite the difficulties then, Jane and William preferred home care, and Jenny lived a long life.

Sometimes Ned and Georgiana Burne-Jones and their children shared the elaborate Kelmscott Manor with them. Later, after Rossetti had been widowed, he came to live with them. It was then that he began to paint Jane and shower her with attention. Morris didn't know what to make of it. Afterall, he was technically a free love advocate (like the Romantics, thought the Pre-Raphaelites were actually anti- the Romantic movement, just as they were anti-Raphael or actually anti-Renaissance). So he went to Iceland.

It's such an icy feeling
...It's so cold
in Alaska
--Lou Reed "Stephanie Says"

Jane's other affair was with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt -- another playboy like Rossetti. I suppose they gave her the attention and affection she sorely missed from her preoccupied, awkward husband. It's easy to say she never loved him and that she was simply 'marrying up,' as any woman might do in those days. Yet she impressed Henry James with her grace and beauty, and George Bernard Shaw based Mrs. Higgins on her (in Jane's later years).

Ultimately, Jane was a good wife. She and her husband in many ways seemed to have had a close relationship, at least by Victorian standards.

What ailments made Jane take to the sofa? Didn't it make her back ache to sit for hours posing for Rossetti? Did he give good back rubs?

She died in 1914, living surprisingly long for such a 'frail' woman.

This above is an excerpt from The Germ: Victorian Mores & the Pre-Raphaelite Vision by Meg Wise-Lawrence.

The photo at top is an early photo of Jane Morris.

Meg Wise-Lawrence is a stay at home feminist mother of three. Her writing has appeared most recently in "Coffeehouse: Writing from the Web" (Manning Press) and "The Mother is Me". Meg is the creator of Acorn Mush.

Meg's work has previously appeared in the spring nineteen ninety seven issue

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© Copyright 1997 - Meg Wise-Lawrence. All rights reserved.