Book reviewer Sarah Fairbairn on the first ever joint biography of William and Jane Morris By
In many biographies of William Morris, his wife Jane – the celebrated beauty and subject of Gabriel Rossetti’s most famous paintings – is reduced to “a blank space, a nobody”, lingering on the sidelines of his success. While her fascinating personal life is enough reason to merit more attention, in Suzanne Fagence Cooper’s latest book, published today, she is also keen to show how the work that made William Morris this borough’s favourite son would have been impossible without his wife’s unpaid, unrecognised labour.
Jane Morris in 1865, photographed by John Robert Parsons
Morris designs, Cooper notes, “celebrated the way that living things intertwined [and] supported each other”, a principle that perhaps motivated her decision to write the first ever joint biography of the pair. How We Might Live: At Home with Jane and William Morris artfully reflects the lives of a couple whose “home and garden were never entirely private spaces”, thanks both to the “constant overlap between the personal and commercial” inherent to running a business from home and Jane’s open affair with Rosetti. However, despite Jane’s notoriety and constant presence in the letters, diaries and writings of those around her, Cooper has had to search carefully and painstakingly for examples of her own voice and thoughts. Jane, Cooper writes, “still evades our attempts to pry into her most personal life” and it is perhaps this evasiveness, when coupled with her husband’s outspoken campaigning, which makes this dual biography such a compelling read.
Tracing the couple’s lives from their very different upbringings, through the energetic and romantic years of their early life together, to the foundation of Morris & Co. and Jane’s almost unbelievable transformation from her working-class origins into a woman of noted refinement, the book explores the Morris’ joint quest for “neither prison nor palace but a decent home”. Despite ill health, grief, the dissolution of long-treasured friendships and their daughter’s severe epilepsy, the Morris marriage was nevertheless sustaining for both of them. Each in their own way were revolutionary figures, defying societal expectations in pursuit of “a better, more sustainable life”.