It was hard to be condemned to old age, when in Rossetti’s portraits her face remained ageless as a goddess. But those who knew Jane understood that she had always been more than just a face or a pose. At Kelmscott we get a glimpse of the Morrises together. William had slipped away from their friends, “canoping in the orchard … shortly afterwards we saw him in a summer gazebo with his head bowed in his wife’s lap, his head cropped”. In a letter from Wales, Jane writes of her own hair—that extraordinary mane, “wonderfully thick and crisp”, as if it were “forged from a strange metal thread by thread,” which William had immortalized in verse—with which she was played by a happy little baby, who made “huge attempts to swallow everything”.
In 1886 Jane wrote to a friend, “I’ve had mungles. Perhaps you don’t know what that is, it consists of sorrow and temper and various pains.” She acknowledged that “it may be called incurable at my age”; she was 46, and as Shaw had noted, “her beautiful curtain of hair had been touched with gray and the Rossetti face was 10 years older”.
But she wouldn’t resign herself to an inevitable decline. Yes, William had gout, May was preoccupied with a failed love affair and Jane was “frantic trying to keep myself warm”. “Despite everything,” she said, “I’m learning to play the mandolin, which is a great resource – it suits May’s guitar and we make sounds together that please me and I hope it doesn’t bother others too much.”
At William’s funeral in 1896, onlookers treated Jane as an artifact rather than a living person. She looked “like the photo of her as a very young woman, with the same movement in the folds of her cloak from neck to floor”.
After his death, Jane led ‘a strangely isolated life. † † almost that of a hermit, and somehow it suits me.” William’s estate was valued at £55,000 (equivalent to over £4 million in today’s money). “I find myself really rich, but feel unspeakably poor today,” she wrote on the second anniversary of his death. As her strength waned, she said to Blunt, her former lover, “I know all too well that these quirks of life are not very merry; if you could just quietly fall like autumn leaves, it would be so pleasant for everyone.
In 1914 she was buried next to William. Laying still for so long, it is good to hear her own voice, to think of her sitting in the garden in the spring two years before her death, a little weak but warm and content. She tells her daughter, “I’m basking like a pussy in the sun today.”
This is an edited extract from How we could liveby Suzanne Fagence Cooper (Quercus, £30)