Possessed is based on the life of Jane Burden, the muse and model of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's most famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings and wife of William Morris the Arts and Crafts designer.
Jane also contributed to the interior design of The Red House, Kelmscott House and Kelmscott Manor, designed and embroidered fabric for Morris and Co. and handmade her own distinctive Pre-Raphaelite frocks. Although born in the backstreets of Oxford she successfully transcended her working class roots and moved into the middle class world of the artists, almost as an equal. She was well known for her beautiful piano playing, love of opera and literature and both Rossetti and Morris turned to her for design approval.
Jane was born in a cramped cottage in St Helen's Passage, Oxford, in 1839. Her parents, Robert and Ann, married in 1833, were from local farm labouring families. The Burdens lived in a number of small tenements in the alleys off Hollywell Street in Oxford described as "several unwholesome dirt heaps". Jane had two sisters and a brother, although one of her sisters died of TB at the age of 14. Her father worked as an ostler and her mother was illiterate. There is some evidence that both Jane and her younger sister Bessy were educated at the local school. I have found no record of what job Jane was doing before she met the artists but like most other girls of her background she would probably have gone into service at 14 and be working as a servant.
In 1857, when Jane was just 17, Dante Gabriel Rossetti began the second wave of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The original members, including Millais and Holman Hunt had disbanded the school in 1853. Rossetti had no time for the Royal Academy theories on art, as defined by Sir Joshua Reynolds (Sir Sloshua as Rossetti called him) and formed a new arm of the PRB with a group of young artists including Edward Burne Jones, William Morris and JR Spencer Stanhope. He believed he could teach anyone to paint and so he took his new pupils to Oxford to paint Arthurian scenes on the walls of the newly built Oxford Union Debating Chamber.
That summer in 1857 Jane went to see a show presented by the touring company of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, playing a summer season in Oxford. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne Jones attended the performance, possibly as part of Rossetti's drive to search for "stunners" as he called potential models. He approached Jane after the show and asked her to come and sit for him. She took some persuading, but eventually began sitting for Rossetti at his lodgings at 13 George Street.
Charmed by his charismatic personality Jane soon fell in love with the artist whose greedy eye for beauty had changed her life. However, it was not Rossetti whom the young model ended up marrying but his pupil and friend William Morris. When Rossetti was suddenly called away to the bedside of his fiancé Lizzie Siddal, Morris took his place and began painting Jane as Isolde. Morris wrote his proposal on the back of the painting "I cannot paint you but I love you". On discovering that Rossetti, her knight, was taken, Jane took the best option open to her and married his friend. As to what she felt about her husband she replied "it is a terrible thing for I have been with him since I first knew anything…but I never loved him."
Rossetti and Lizzie eventually married but when Lizzie died of a drug overdose, Jane begins sitting for Rossetti again, and the passion of her life begins.
Jane Burden had never been considered beautiful until Dante Gabriel Rossetti decided that she was. Every feature of her face, her tall stature and large hands and feet were the reverse of what was at that time considered refined, delicate and beautiful in a woman. Henry James described Jane as "a tall, lean woman in a dress of some dead purple stuff… with a mass of crisped black hair heaped into great wavy projections on each side of her temples, a thin pale face, a pair of strange, sad, deep, dark, Swinburnian eyes and with great thick black oblique brows." He found it difficult "to say, whether she's a grand synthesis of all Pre-Raphaelite pictures ever made – or they a ‘keen analysis' of her – whether she's an original or a copy. In either case, she's a wonder."