Jane Morris: The Burden of History

Jane Morris: The Burden of History

Jane Morris: The Burden of History

Jane Morris: The Burden of History


There are private histories belonging to every family, which, though they
operate powerfully upon individual happiness, ought never to be named
beyond the home-circle.

Sarah Stickney Ellis (1843: 151)

Why should there be any special record of me when I have never done any
special work?

Jane Morris (1904; Faulkner 1986: 121)

In recent years, the study of Victorian life writing has increasingly begun to recognise the generic instability and hybridity of auto/biographical modes. Lives can be narrated through a wide range of textual forms letters, diaries, speeches, testimonies, gossip – as well as through visual texts or material artefacts. As David Amigoni has noted, the challenge for life-writing research is to use such rich resources to map the relations between the multiple sources of subjectivity in the writing of Victorian lives (2006: 2). But how do we narrate a life when these resources are more limited? In the case of Jane Morris, a paucity of textual sources has often been enhanced by reference to the creative work of William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as if their literary and artistic productions could illuminate her life as well as theirs. The powerful imagery of Rossetti’s paintings, for instance, becomes in some scholarly or biographical accounts a writing of Jane Morris’s life, variously depicting her as a seductive object of desire, as an ill-treated and melancholic wife, or as a powerfully androgynous figure. Rossetti’s imagery of Jane could seem, to contemporaries as well as later scholars, to provide the key to decode both the complex emotional history of the artist and the inscrutability of Jane Morris. Read in this way, the labour of the artist’s model was not ‘special work’ on her part but merely a conduit for the expression of the artist’s personal feelings.

The myth of Jane Morris, then, has tended to conflate what Sarah . . .

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