In comparison to the rest of her family, much less is known of the life of Jenny Morris, eldest daughter of Janey and William Morris, due to the Victorian stigma of her epilepsy.
Born only 18 months after Janey and William wed, Jenny was welcomed into the Morris’ artistic circle with a christening in Bexley Parish church, attended by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward & Georgiana Burne-Jones, Philip Webb, and Algernon Swinburne.
Jenny’s childhood spent at Red House, and later Queen Square, was content. She was close to her sister May, only a year younger, and friends with the Burne-Jones’ children Margaret & Philip. At the age of 7 artistic influences were already rubbing off, she modelled for Rossetti and is recorded as having made a ‘kettle-holder’ for Philip Webb & Henry James and, along with her sister, was helping on embroideries.
It was however at school that Jenny excelled. Attending Notting Hill High School, Jenny passed the Cambridge Local Exam, the opportunity of attending Oxford or Cambridge (some of the only universities with colleges for women at this time.) opened up. However, it was at this point that Jenny’s life took a saddening turn.
At the age of 15 Jenny was diagnosed with epilepsy. Although understood and controlled today, in Victorian England a huge stigma surrounded this disease with people believing it was a form of insanity. There was no cure and little medication to manage the illness, and so Jenny required 24 hour care.
Both Jenny and May were taken out of school at this point, but during a hiatus in attacks during 1878-9 a little of Jenny’s academic talent can be seen. She establishes a magazine, The Scribbler, which is published fortnightly by the Morris & Burne-Jones children. It included short stories and articles written by Jenny, as well as offerings from a young Rudyard Kipling, a cousin of the Burne-Jones children.
By 1884 Jenny’s epilepsy had worsened, and although she had not been admitted to an institution, which happened to many others, her care put considerable pressure on the family, and she began spending time in Malvern under medical supervision.
At the time of Jenny’s diagnosis, the recognised treatment for epilepsy was Potassium Bromide, a chemical as dangerous as the epileptic fits. In 1901 Jane writes, ‘Jenny is so much slower in speaking and apparently thinking than she was a year ago…’ evidence of the toll both epilepsy and Bromide was taking on Jenny.
Jenny lived till the age of 74 in various homes, always in the countryside; and on her death left her money, possessions and her fathers’ books to The Society of Antiquaries, which still looks after Kelmscott Manor today.