Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Tragedy of Jenny Morris

by Phillip Brown

Jenny Morris was born in January 1861, 18 months after Jane married William Morris in a low key ceremony in Oxford. Her rags to riches story is well known now. How she and her sister Bessie met Dante Rossetti and Edward Burne Jones in an Oxford playhouse in 1857 but she was courted by William Morris (after Rossetti left to look after Lizzie Siddal). By 1860 the couple were living at the Red House, built for William by Philip Webb.

Although the couple were not religious, Jenny had a conventional christening in Bexley parish church. Edward and Georgia Burne Jones were there plus their friends Rossetti, Web and Algernon Swinburne. Lizzie was heavily pregnant and stayed in London, and Georgia was pregnant too. The house was so crowded, Swinburne slept on the soffa. No members of Jane’s family seem to have been present.

Jenny at 7
We start to see Jenny in her own right when the family moved to Queen Square in London for William to be nearer his work. At only 7 she is recorded as making a ‘kettle-holder; for Philip Webb and Henry James on a visit to the family records Jane and the girls (Mary ‘May’ was born about a year after Jenny and they were always treated rather like twins) helping their father with embroideries.

As Jenny and May grew older as for most middle-class Victorian children they had a Governess but at Kelmscott in particular they loved to play outside in the fields and on the river (we know May at least learned to punt).

Margaret Mackail (née Burne-Jones); May Morris; Jenny Jane Alice Morris; Sir Philip Burne-Jones by Frederick Hollyer (1838-1933) taken in the garden of Edward Burne-Jones’s home, The Grange, Fulham, 1874

The girls stood out dressing in a sort of medieval dress with beads, free of ‘fripperary’ and stays. Jenny was regarded as studious, and May remembered her sister as a ‘virtuous and amiable child’. Rossetti used them as models, particularly May who was his favourite. William brought back a horse, called Mouse from his travels in Iceland, and the girls shared him. The girls were firm friends with the Burne-Jones children, Margeret and Phil. In the Summer of 1874 all of the children went with their parents to Belgium. When they returned, Phil went off to Boarding School (which he hated) and Jenny and May started at Notting Hill High School. Jenny was considered really clever and in the 1875 Inspectors report commended her knowledge of Lain and English Literature. Within two years of starting at the school she passed the Cambridge Local Exam and was talked of to go to University (probably Oxford or Cambridge where the first women’s colleges were beginning)..

And then in 1876 it was all over. Jenny developed ‘grand mal’ epilepsy, triggered probably by a boating accident. At that time there was no cure and no reliable way to control the seizures which gradually caused physical and mental damage (apart from Bromide whose long term effects were terrible, and only helped to alleviate some seizures).

Like any family they hoped (falsely) for a recovery but the main burden of looking after Jenny, arranging nursing etc. fell on her mother. Jenny’s seizures were unpredictable and it made entertaining anyone but very close friends impossible. Epilepsy was simply not understood at the time and not mentioned in polite society. Both Philip Webb and Sydney Cockerell tried to prevent it even being mentioned in Mackail’s biography of William.

Oct 12 1892
To Wilfred Scawen Blunt

My dear Mr. Blunt,
It is not that Jenny is much worse (indeed she is as well as usual) but that my nerves have given way under the great pressure of being continually in the house with her. … Jane Morris

Jenny at the time she developed epilepsy.
She later became rather fat and had a vacant
look with the treatments
May was taken out of school at the same time as her sister. There is some evidence to believe that potential suitors were put off May by the belief that epilepsy was hereditary. May also may have worried it could happen to her.

Jenny could never be left alone as a fit could come on at any time and damage her.

We have no letters from Jenny relating how she felt about it all [though there are said to be letters from her, but I can‘t trace these]. But she lost all hope of further education or marriage. Her parents seem to have felt responsible, particularly William who‘s Mother had it in a mild form. Epilepsy was often considered as a form of insanity. At one point Jenny, probably out of despair, tried to throw herself out of a window. She was treated like a child again and not considered to be able to make any major decisions.

In a merciful lull in the attacks in 1878-9 Jenny produced a home magazine called ‘The Scribbler’ which amounted to seventeen issues. It included some juvenile pieces from Rudyard Kipling, a cousin to the Burne-Jones children. Jenny herself, drawing on a trip to Italy they had all been on wrote a long serialised story called ‘Queen of the Adriatic’. She also wrote on dress with wit and humour about fashionable dress.

Both sisters loved amateur dramatics and the theatre and it is interesting that Jenny managed to attend the theatre and took part in home plays, including Cymbeline in ‘Mrs Morris’ drawing room at Hammersmith’.

Jenny must have been taught embroidery, probably by her Mother and Aunt Bessie (who lived with the family) and a cushion cover of 1893 was designed by May but worked in a chain-stitch by Jenny. Together they embroidered a white dress in 1916 which was exhibited.

Jenny was never put away as happened to many epileptics at the time. To give Jane a rest she stayed in Malvern under medical supervision. She stayed with William in London at times and he reported on her success with the housework!

Though little is known of Jenny’s participation, May was actively involved with her father’s Socialist activities and William commented that his daughters were ‘very sympathetic with me as to my aims in life’. Both girls certainly went to hear him speak at public meetings.

But by 1884, Jenny’s attacked considerably worsened until ‘she was almost out of her mind’ [Wilfred Blunt]. He describes a bad attack where she suddenly fell backwards hitting her head against a cupboard. The attacks put a considerable strain on Jane, but William refused to have her sent put in an asylum, though she did go to Malvern. Jane wrote “Everytime the thing occurs it is as if a dagger were thrust into me” (letter to Blunt).

In February 1894 Jenny was despaired of with two nurses attending her round the clock. She seems to have gone temporarily mad, believed she had murdered her Father and tried to jump out of the window. At times she had to be tied to her bed.

William was ill too and given the closeness between them, there may well be a connection. Its quite possible Jenny was ill but also very depressed both by the loss of a meaningful life and what she was doing to her family. But as they started to feel better, Jane describes them wandering the South Downs together ‘like two happy babies’.

By 1901, Jane describes her daughter, ‘Jenny is so much slower in speaking and apparently in thinking than she was a year ago’ … ‘She never speaks without being spoken to or almost never and seldom smiles’. These are symptoms of long term use of Potassium Bromide.

After William’s death, Jenny seems to have lived in the country, nursed an heavily sedated with bromide. She was comfortably off financially and occasionally went to Kelmscott Manor. But it upset her and she seems to have wandered the grounds looking for her Father. But she became friends with Marie Stillman’s daughter Lissa. Before Jane’s death Jenny made a will leaving her money to The Society of Antiquaries (that look after Kelmscott to this day) and her treasured possessions (including her Father’s books inscribed to her) to May to leave to a museum.

She lived in a series of homes in southern England where she paid to be looked after. She died at Over Stowey (in Somerset) on 11th July 1935 at the age of 74 of diabetic complications (like her Father). May died three years later.


It’s easy to forget now when so many conditions that blighted humanity can at least be controlled, the devastating effect that such conditions had in the past. Although she had craft skills, I suspect Jenny had academic skills that would have led her into writing, including drama. We’ll never know now of course.

[This post was originally published on 24th November 2012 and is today's Editor's Choice]


  1. Such a sad story, but a marvelous glimpse into the life of an unusual Victorian woman.

  2. Great article. I so enjoyed reading it and learning so much about Jenny Morris. The spotlight usually shines on her sister May but Phillip has brought it back on Jenny in a beautiful way. It's so important to learn as much as we can about the Victorian era and those we have affection for.

  3. Salutary to realise just what such an illness could do then - affecting so many others too.

  4. How horrid that must have been in the 1800's if one was ill, and the medical establishment and society did not comprehend what to do, and shunned it as if it must be hidden.

  5. How horrid that must have been in the 1800's if one was ill, and the medical establishment and society did not comprehend what to do, and shunned it as if it must be hidden.

  6. Oh how very very sad,but a wonderful glimpse into what an illness could do to a person and their loved ones at that time! Beautifully written! Thank you!

  7. We visited Kelmscott before it closed for the winter season 2012. It was difficult to find out what had happened to Jenny, for whom we had great sympathy. Thank you for the research which gives answers to our questions, and puts her illness into both family and social context. So sad for everyone.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. How sad for Jenny and for the whole family. That phrase from Jane Morris, "my nerves have given way under the continual pressure of being with her", describes what it is like for so many carers.

  10. I know it is some time since this article was published, but I'm hoping someone looking might be able to help, if not the original author. I'd love to track down The Scribbler. It is fairly widely referred to, but I can't see any original sources. And the original itself of course - doesn't seem to be in the British Library. Many thanks.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.