Jane Morris was born Jane Burden to an Oxford stableman and an illiterate servant. One night she attended a play in Oxford at the Drury Lane Theatre Company with her sister Bessie and was singled out by artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, who asked her to model for their commission at the Oxford Union. She modeled for Rossetti and William Morris, who painted her as Queen Guinevere.
Morris fell in love with Jane and they became engaged. They married and had two daughters, Jane Alice (called ‘Jenny’) and Mary (‘May’). She was privately educated and was considered very intelligent, quickly picking up French and Italian. Despite her low-class upbringing, she assimilated completely into the high-class world of artists and intellectuals. Some have speculated that she was the inspiration for Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Jane was known for her strange beauty and the eccentric clothes she wore and made for herself. She carried on an emotional – and likely physical – affair with Dante Rossetti for much of her marriage to Morris. She also had an affair later in life with poet and activist Wilfrid Scawen Blunt.
There is great variety in perceptions of Jane by Morris’s contemporaries. Some found her ethereal and queenly; others found her strange or dull. She went through phases of ‘invalidism’ and back pain, which had unclear causes. Some have speculated that they were psychosomatic in origin, the result of an unhappy life married to a man she did not love.