Here I am again, talking about Jane Morris. As we have discussed before, my feelings for Jane Morris are somewhat coloured by Fanny Cornforth and how Jane and Rossetti’s relationship affected her, not to mention poor William Morris. I try not to judge Jane too harshly as I am told time and time again that she loved Rossetti first and only, and had it not been for
, then Rossetti would have married her and all would have been well. Things did not turn out that way and she married a man of independent means and, for a stablehand’s daughter from the rough end of Elizabeth , she did extremely well for herself. Still, the reappearance of her First and Only LoveTM shook her world and she could not help but fall into his arms. William stepped aside and the love affair that launched a heart-full of glorious images ran its course to Rossetti’s death. In 1882, her love died and the rest of her life was a shadow veiled with tears. So far, this is what I understood. I didn’t much like it as it spoke of missed opportunities for Jane and William to make a go of their marriage, and in comparison with Fanny’s later years, which were hard and uncertain, the comfort in which Jane sat in stately sadness bothered me. However, this is another woman’s life, I don’t have to make her choices or live with her husband. I tried not to judge. Oxford
|Wilfrid Scawen Blunt|
Step forward Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. Mr Blunt is an interesting addition to the history of the Morris family for a number of reasons. It is through him that we know a great deal of Jane’s later life, it is through him we have her letters, and the letters between Rossetti and Jane as she left them to his safe-keeping. He provides diary entries that record a love affair of depth and intensity and he tells us things about the Pre-Raphaelite ménage a trios that both surprise and puzzle.
Jane met Blunt a year after Rossetti died. Both were in their mid 40s, both married with children, and both had formerly been unfaithful to their spouses. Blunt is best known for his affair with a society beauty called ‘Skittles’, Catherine Walters. Yes, that really is her waist…
As you can tell by her letters to Blunt, Jane loved a bit of gossip so it’s hard to believe that she didn’t know him by reputation beforehand. Either way, Jane and Blunt became friends and she began to correspond with him and visited his home, Crabbets, and he visited Kelmscott. Beginning in 1884, notes of intimacy begin to creep in. In August Jane wrote ‘Farewell, send me a bit of heather is you write from
– and think of me sometimes.’ Scotland
In his visits to Kelmscott, Blunt draws a picture of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, tortured by the pressure of her sick child and surrounded by portraits by her former lover. He writes in 1885 ‘There are moments when she is still a beautiful woman and I wish I had known her in old days.’
|Jane Morris (1890s?)|
Jane’s unhappiness hangs heavily over every word she writes to him: when she is away she longs to be ‘seeing real friends once more’ and she writes ‘it will be a most consoling thought I may write to you when sorrow weighs on me more heavily than usual…’. When at home, without Blunt, she writes ‘I think of you often and wish I could see you and talk with you…of course I know all this is impossible and utterly foolish, but the thought recurs again and again to my anger and dismay much as I strive to drive it away…’ (February 1885). At the prospect of Blunt’s visits, Jane’s eagerness is obvious and darkly humorous. She insists he should let her know when he is to come, ‘or I may be out when you call, then I should tear my hair and you know one can’t afford to lose a whole handful at this age…’
Arguably, a major part of Blunt’s interest in Jane comes from his obsession with Rossetti. How far Jane knew this, or minded, is uncertain, but she certainly fed his obsession and a good many of Blunt’s diary entries concerning Jane mention Rossetti. In 1888, when Jane reveals that most of House of Life was written about her, Blunt records ‘This makes both her and Rossetti still more interesting to me’. It is possibly unsurprising that when Blunt stays at Kelmscott in 1889, their relationship became more intense. Blunt’s diary records how he ‘came to identify myself with [Rossetti] as his admirer and successor’ and definitely seems to live out a fantasy where he is Rossetti, seducing Jane under her husband’s nose. In the same breath, Blunt has obvious affection for Morris, who he describes as ‘a loveable man’, whom he acknowledges loves Jane very much. I find the following passage to be possibly one of the saddest things I have ever read:
‘What had taken place between her and Rossetti he knew and had forgiven. But he had not forgotten it. I used to think that he suspected me at times (for her intimacy with me was not very explicable) even to the extent of jealousy. More than once, after having left us alone together, I noticed that he had returned suddenly on some pretence to the room where we were, blundering with loud footsteps, and as if ashamed of a suspicion which he had not been able to control. Finding nothing, he was far too generous not to put the thought aside either with her or me – And yet there was reason.’
I don’t know what depresses me more – Morris’ compulsive need to check on his wife’s fidelity or Blunt’s clinical recording of the shameful suspicions of a man he admits to cuckolding. I found the statement that Jane’s intimacy with Blunt ‘was not very explicable’ rather puzzling. If Blunt and Jane were friends why would they not be ‘intimate’ in a non-sexual sense? Jane’s letters give a sense that she is close to Blunt, that she craves his company, so why would Morris find it strange that Jane needed to be with her ‘friend’ at Kelmscott? The answer appears in Blunt’s diary of 1891. In 1890 Jane wrote in a letter to Blunt that ‘there is nobody now living…who knows me as you do…’, so Blunt’s diary entry in 1891 comes as a shock when he records that ‘she is so silent a woman that except through the physical senses we never could have become intimate’ and that they had never called each other by their first names. Still, he concludes, it is ‘a very excellent and worthy friendship’ as they never exchange cross words. Or any words.
Taking a step back, I think I sat on the sofa for a good long while considering Jane and Blunt, who never spoke, except by letter, and never called each other by their first names, yet had a passionate affair. Jane refers to herself as ‘shy’ once in her letters, but there is no sense in them that she doesn’t speak to him, but why should he lie? Hold that thought…
Through Blunt’s diary, we learn more about Rossetti’s affair with Jane, or in fact, lack of affair. In 1892, Blunt records ‘We slept together, Mrs Morris and I, and she told me things about the past which explain much in regard to Rossetti. “I never quite gave myself,” she said, “as I do now”. Perhaps, if she had, he might not have perished in the way he did.’ Isn’t the final opinion both interesting and vicious? Apparently sex with Jane Morris can cure you of drug dependency and mental illness. The woman is a miracle. Further on, in 1896, Blunt records the death of William Morris and his visit to Jane: ‘”I am not unhappy” she said “though it is a terrible thing, for I have been with him since I first knew anything. I was 18 when I married – but I never loved him”’.
After Morris’ death the letters continue, until 1913, but the intensity dissipates. The letters are mostly concerned with mutual friends, various publications, May’s failed marriage and Jenny’s see-saw health. After her death, Blunt recorded his dealings with the Morris family both in published diaries and also in his private papers which were published in the 1980s. The book of letters and diaries comes with a disclaimer: ‘The reliability of Blunt’s notebooks is open to question; it seems likely that the facts recorded are accurate, but the reader must use his own judgement in deciding whether to accept every word attributed to his various interlocutors.’ So, we can put a certain amount of faith that Blunt did indeed share Jane Morris’ bed, but as to whether she did indeed say ‘You are better than Rossetti!’ is another matter.
Why the caution? Because Wilfrid Scawen Blunt is possible the most unpleasant git-weasel excuse for a human being I have ever had the misfortune to read about. I read the book through and was left with the impression of a man who was definitely carving himself a place in Pre-Raphaelite history, which I found irritating but possibly understandable. I felt the same way after reading Thomas Henry Hall Caine’s reminiscences of Rossetti’s final years, as if it is unseemly to be shoehorning yourself into immortality because you knew a celebrity after they were famous. However, you get hints that Blunt was doing more than that, he felt he was ‘out-performing’ his heroes by sleeping with their prized woman. His dealings with Jane are usually framed in some reference to Rossetti or Morris and their work. Although Blunt’s political work seems to have been challenging and dangerous, when it came to women, Blunt only seems to have had one setting, summed up by his dealings with Jane and May after William’s death, on holiday with him ‘I am at my wits end how to amuse them for I cannot make love to either of them and what else is there to be done.’ I know Wikipedia is not to be wholly trusted, but even if a quarter of what is written on it about him is true, regarding his treatment of his wife and daughter, then I despair of Jane’s choice in men.
Many people love Jane Morris and feel sympathy for her sorrow at her mis-stepped life. I freely admit I’m not one of them, but by reading this book of letters, I do appreciate just how difficult she felt her life to be. She seems to have no purpose, nothing to do but to think about her marriage and children. Jenny’s illness especially seems to weigh on her almost to the destruction of her own health. What Blunt seems to offer is distraction from all of it. He is the opposite of William, being charming company to women and an easy lover, but still intellectual and political, sharing many things in common with Morris. It’s almost as if she finally managed to fall in love with Morris, but a palatable version of him, all sugared up and easy to swallow. What I’m left with again, however is that the Morris’ marriage was an unholy mess and a toxic environment, that caused harm to the children and misery to the parents.
What a damn shame.
What a damn shame.