In An Artist's Studio

An excerpt from a fiction in progress
inspired by the life of Jane Burden Morris,
the little-known wife of designer William Morris,
and friend of painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

by Meg Wise-Lawrence

La Pia by Rossetti

At night this big old house becomes the castle where Guenevere betrays Arthur by sleeping with Lancelot. Except I confuse the two men and never know who I'm loving. Why is it that when they take me into their arms, right and wrong drift away and a strange inevitability washes over me? The only reality is my flesh and the way it moves beneath them.

I know my husband William left for his expedition because Gabriel is here. He invited him. But it turns out it makes William uncomfortable. Big surprise! So suddenly William has 'business' calling him away to Iceland.

And Gabriel stays like a lion on new territory he's won. But he didn't win, William simply acquiesced. What William couldn't take was Gabriel lumbering around these rooms that he -my dear husband-- loved so well, that he had put so much into. But William couldn't just tell Gabriel to go, his esteemed former mentor, the famous artist.

I walk out to the studio in the morning. It's cold here in the country and Gabriel complains about it constantly. But I won't go with him to the city. I love it here-- I can breathe. And I love this house, which Gabriel says is too big and cold. The walls and the tapestries are William's, the children are ours, but the home --the air itself-- is mine.

In the studio in the morning, Gabriel has the fire burning and scarves wrapped around him. I sit for him. I see faces on the canvas, beautiful and full of remorse, but it's not what I feel when I reach my hands up or what I even see when I look in the mirror.

Gabriel dresses me in bolts of material to see the colors reflected in my face. What does he see? He uses cloth from India. This one is a shiny ecru.

He argues with himself some days. Most days he's silent. Sometimes he rages. Those days I hate. Today he says, "Why would William leave you here with me if he weren't giving us permission?"

I don't know if he makes sense or just wears me down. I just know I don't feel like an adulteress. It never feels as if I'm betraying William. If anything, I'm betraying Gabriel because he thinks I love him better, but I don't. It's just that I'm able to answer to his calling now and not my husbands.

I feel sorry sometimes for William up in Iceland but I cannot give in. He wants so much of me yet gives so little. If I gave in and showed him my most tender feelings, he would smile with that preening, arrogant male smile, looking down at me like a knight up on his stag, and I'd hate him for it.

Gabriel gives me a shift, this one in summer-green. He watches me change into it. He kisses my neck and I shiver, but it's just a chill. My back feels stiff. He gives me pillows and props them behind me. I look bored while he nurtures and it makes him try harder. Sometimes before we make love, he rubs my back. He always warms his hands first by the fire. I like it that he tries a little harder than William would ever think to.

Does William have someone up there in Iceland? Does he even feel the cold?

Do marriages freeze sometimes like grass in the winter?  You think they're dead but then one day they come back to life, green as spring.

Sometimes I look into the mirror and see William's face transposed over mine. Sometimes I feel his face when I make a certain expression. I remember when the girls were babies, all of us lying on the bed together for hours, just staring at each other. They weren't just our babies; we were each other's babies . We were that smooth and unformed. Tabula rasa.

My hands are cold on my lap from lying still for so long. The fingertips are white and numb. The coldest finger is the ring finger, where my wedding band has cut off all heat.

The morning is passing. I know because I can see the sun through the trees now, up toward the top of the window. When it disappears over the house, I'm free. I breathe into myself, trying not to think about my back. If I can relax my spine into the pit of my stomach, like my head onto the pillow at night, I'll feel good and get through.

The sun is about to disappear over the rim of the window. Gabriel will finally finish and put down his brush.

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel-- every canvas means
That same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, nor with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

--Christina Rossetti "In An Artist's Studio"

The painting above is "La Pia del Tolomei" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The model was Jane Morris.

Meg Wise-Lawrence is a stay at home feminist mother of three. Her writing has appeared most recently in Enterzone and The Mother is Me. Meg is the creator of Acorn Mush.

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