22nd March 2020
It’s clear when looking at the Morris family tree that we’re pretty guilty of leaving a member out; Jenny Morris. As you know we talk about William, Jane and May quite a lot on this blog of ours, so we’re here in this blog to rectify our mistake and discuss Jenny!
Born in January 1861, 18 months after her parents Jane and William married in Oxford and living at Red House. Jenny was christened in Bexley Parish Church despite her parents not being super religious. For the occasion, in attendance were Edward and Georgia Burne Jones who was pregnant at the time. Also, Rossetti, Webb and Algernon Swinburne, Lizzie Siddal wasn’t there as she was heavily pregnant. Swinburne is said to have slept on the sofa at Red House there were so many people to celebrate. As far as was noted, none of Jane’s family appear to have been at Jenny’s Christening.
May was born around a year after Jenny and it seems they were always treated more like twins growing up. As most middle-class children in the Victorian era, they had a Governess and at beautiful Kelmscott, they loved to play outside in the fields and river.
We know of her personality from May who described her as a, “virtuous and amiable child” and she was regarded as studious. Along with their mother, Rossetti used them as models – especially his favourite, May. We love the story of Morris journeying to Iceland and his adventures there, bringing his girls back a horse which they called Mouse. In terms of socialising, their father’s friend Edward Burne-Jones children’s Margaret and Philip were friends with the girls.
There’s honestly less known about Jenny than her sister May due to the fact she didn’t have the same level of professional success. May grew up to have a pivotal position in her father’s company Morris & Co, a talented embroiderer and she founded the Women’s Guild of Arts 1907 amongst other achievements. She has more written about her due to this and today there are still celebrations of her work.
The 1875 Inspectors Report commended her Latin and English Literature and it’s known Jenny was really intellectual. Within two years of being at the school, she passed the Cambridge Local Exam and there was talk of her going to University – there were a few women’s colleges at this time, notably Cambridge and Oxford where her father went.
This is when the story turns rather sad. To emphasise her intellect, she seemed to have as many talents as her sister May. Though due to her illness never was able to completely explore these. In 1876, Jenny developed ‘grand mal’ epilepsy. No one is sure how it was triggered but it’s suggested this was due to a boating accident. During the Victorian era, there was no cure nor treatment for epilepsy. And so, Jenny was left to suffer the seizures which gradually caused physical and mental damage.
May was pulled out of school along with Jenny. Because of the lack of knowledge and understanding of epilepsy it’s clear May feared she would suffer from it. It was the societal belief at the time that it was hereditary. Some have said this put suitors off May, though it’s clear she had admires throughout her life so we’re not sure how true that claim is.
Jane cared for Jenny and looked after her with arranging her nursing. Because there was no predicting her seizures, her care was hard. As with many conditions, epilepsy was not understood at the time and therefore, not discussed within polite society. In fact, both Philip Webb and Sydney Cockerell tried to stop Jenny’s epilepsy being printed within a biography of William by Mackail.
We don’t have Jenny’s own words about the affect epilepsy and the treatment of her following diagnosis had on her mental health. There were clearly ups and downs to her epilepsy. During the years 1878-1879 when the seizures came less frequent, she produced a magazine called “The Scribbler.” This can be drawn again as a comparison between her and her father who famously published the Germ.
He also set up his own printing press, another similarity was clearly their joint intellect. The Scribbler ran for 17 issues and Rudyard Kipling wrote in it. He was friends with Jenny because he was a cousin of her friends the Burne-Jones children. She wrote articles and a story “Queen of the Adriatic” which was inspired by a trip to Italy.
It’s hard to know the level of her involvement with Morris’s work since there’s not as much written about her compared to May. May was clearly involved with William’s socialist activities, Jenny’s activity of this is unknown. However Morris did comment both girls were, “very sympathetic with me as to my aims in life” and she attended his speeches so it’s clear she did support the cause.
After a bad seizure where she fell and hit her head, it’s clear her epilepsy worsened. This coupled with an illness her dad was going through, it’s known to have been a hard time for Jane. She notably worried about her beloved daughter. As their health improved Jane mentioned in a letter of them walking the Southern Downs together. “Like two happy babies” – a very close relationship between father and daughter is evident throughout.
Morris died in 1896 and Jenny afterwards lived in the country, financially stable though with declining health. She’s said to have been heavily sedated with bromide to try help her fits as there just wasn’t the medication available at the time. Potassium bromide was the treatment used at the time, but the chemical, unknown to them, was as dangerous as the fits. In her will she left her money to the Society of Antiquaries, who remain looking after Kelmscott Manor even today.
She died in Somerset in 1935 aged 74, May died three years later in 1938. Parts of her story remain tragic, it’s also a shame that we have glimpses of a visibly talented woman as her sister, but due to her health and the treatment of it at the time, she has been left to fade into history.
Beloved daughter and sister, it’s clear the entire Morris family; William, Jane and May, looked after her at home and took the best care of their treasured Jenny.
We read lots of books and articles over the years about the whole family so some knowledge about Jenny is from these. But a great article to read that we referenced when writing this was English Historical Fiction Authors. The article we read is linked here.