Philobiblon: The damage done by sexual repression

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The damage done by sexual repression

To the Almeida theatre this evening, for The Earthly Paradise:

"June 1871. William Morris spends summer in Kelmscott, Oxfordshire in the company of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and their beloved Janey - the wife of one and muse of the other.

It seemed that they had found their ideal, in harmony with nature, a garden of earthly delights. But cynics whispered that the move from London was to conceal the very Pre-Raphaelite affair between Janey and Gabriel... "

An excellent, if very showily theatrical show. If you are planning to go, you might want to stop now ...

If not, then I can say that although it focuses for much of its length on the two men, the enthusiastic, boyish Morris, and the self-consciously arty, dramatic Gabriel, it turns out in the end to be largely about Janey, and how both have treated her for their own ends. William wanted to self-sacrificingly throw her into his friend's arms (he only married her originally because the already committed Gabriel couldn't). Gabriel wanted to worship her "purely" from afar, and reacted to the opportunity by pushing her away, driving himself mad in the process.

(Of course in the background is his relationship with his dead wife Lizzie, to which there is a famous story attached - he buried the only copy of his poems with her, guilty over neglecting her for his work when she lived, then seven years later had her exhumed so he could get them back.)

Janey is, we eventually learn, tormented by this - tormented by her desire for Rossetti (which she is not supposed to feel as a Victorian woman), and also tormented by her feelings of being out of place, since she was dragged up from being a stableman's daughter to being a "lady" by these two men for their own purposes, having had no real say in the matter herself.

This of course is the (male) playwright's view - and quite a feminist one it is too. But it seems to be close to the facts, at least in outline, see for example here.

See also the Rossetti archive. I found one webpage about her.

P.S. I should say that after my brief post on Aphra Behn, Sharon on Early Modern Notes compiled a whole web bibliography - definitely worth checking out.


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