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How We Might Live: At home with Jane and William Morris by Suzanne Fagence Cooper

07 October 2022

William Whyte reads of the Morrises’ marriage

THEY were, it’s fair to say, an ill-matched pair. He was obsessive, often angry, garrulous — even verbose, the pampered child of a wealthy family. She came from grinding poverty and was known for her icy self-control, her sense of almost unearthly detachment. She was, one of her lovers reflected, “the silentest woman I have ever met”.

Small wonder that the marriage of William and Jane Morris was so unhappy. Encountering each other in Oxford, he was smitten by her beauty, and she was attracted by his money. “I was 18 when I married,” Jane would recall. “I never loved him.” Unsatisfied by her husband, she pursued passionate affairs with the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the serial philanderer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. For his part, William Morris sought escape in travel, work, and what he described as his “sulky room” at home.

In this delightful, accessible, and insightful new book, the art historian Suzanne Fagence Cooper seeks to rehabilitate the Morrises’ relationship. It is an ostensibly uphill task — and even she acknowledges the “jarring unhappiness of their marriage” from time to time. To make matters worse, there is a terrible imbalance in the evidence at her disposal. William Morris wrote and spoke seemingly without stopping to breathe. Moreover, as those of a famous designer, politician, and poet — very nearly the Poet Laureate at one point — his words were often recorded by people whom he knew. Jane, by contrast, was a muse, a model, a mother, and a wife — and one notorious for her silences. She was not expected to speak; nor were her words always valued.

To understand how this hapless couple actually managed to live together — much less remain married — for 45 years needs an author with considerable powers of empathy and the capacity to look beyond all William’s words and Jane’s erasure. Fortunately, in Suzanne Fagence Cooper we have just that. She has had the brilliant idea of following them from place to place in a series of chapters that examine where they lived and what this can tell us about them.

In some ways, it is an approach that confirms the differences between the two. Dr Fagence Cooper shows that William Morris, for instance, found peace and some degree of solace in the volcanic wastes of Iceland, while his wife was really happy only in the Mediterranean sun. Likewise, the author teases out the terrible tensions that arose when they shared their homes with Jane’s longstanding, unstable, drug-addict lover Rossetti, with whom they endured a simply unspeakable ménage à trois in the Cotswolds.

But How We Might Live also reveals how they created a common life and even some degree of happiness together. The distance between them enabled a space for experiment, even as their genuinely shared interest in art and craftsmanship found expression in a succession of beautiful homes. A work of considerable empathy — not to say a heartening degree of charity towards people not immediately appealing in any respect — this is a surprisingly uplifting book about an unhappy marriage.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.


How We Might Live: At home with Jane and William Morris
Suzanne Fagence Cooper
Quercus £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

Read an edited extract from the book here

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