The lives of male artists’ wives and mistresses are invariably overshadowed, even if these individuals are creative in their own right. Yet attempts to recover the overlooked stories of their lives can be transformative. For example, the publication of Ida John’s letters, edited by her granddaughter Rebecca John and Augustus John’s biographer Michael Holroyd, enabled us to empathise with this gifted and ultimately tragic figure for the first time. But How We Might Live attempts something especially difficult. Suzanne Fagence Cooper wants us to inhabit the mind of Jane Morris and – still more challenging – to understand the workings of her creative relationship with one of the greatest men of the 19th century, a poet, a designer of huge talent who could turn his hand to every kind of applied art and a revolutionary socialist.
Fagence Cooper has been aided in part by the publication of Jane Morris’s collected letters in 2012 and by Wendy Parkins’s Jane Morris: The Burden of History a year later. That punning title – Jane’s maiden name was Burden – hints at Parkins’s sophisticated attempt to retrieve Jane from incremental mythologisation in which she featured variously as exotic, tragic, silent, faithless or simply an invalid. Fagence Cooper takes up the task of freeing her from these limiting representations by following a slightly different path: giving us Jane as an important half of an artistic partnership with William Morris. In her reading, their homes – the Red House, Kelmscott Manor and Kelmscott House in Hammersmith – were created by them both as shared works of art. It is a compelling approach, and it also recalibrates our understanding of the social gulf between Jane, the daughter of a stable hand and a laundress, and William, significantly wealthy from childhood onwards.
Fagence Cooper’s emphasis on artistic partnership works best for the early years of the Morris marriage, when husband and wife together beautified the Red House, their home in Kent designed by the architect Philip Webb. It was a house inhabited by loving friends who came down from London to