Georgiana Burne-Jones

Georgiana Burne-Jones

(b. 21 July 1840 – d. 2 February 1920)

Georgiana Burne-Jones is one of the central characters in my novel of the Pre-Raphaelites, Beauty in Thorns, along with her daughter Margaret, Lizzie Siddal and Jane Morris, all writers and artists in their own right.

The daughter of a God-fearing Methodist minister, Georgie met Edward Burne-Jones when she was ten. He awoke her to a new world of art and poetry and beauty, and she was the model for his first ever drawing of the “Briar Rose” fairy tale, which was to inspire him for the ret of his life. Georgie married Burne-Jones at the age of nineteen, after a four-year engagement.

'Study of a Sleeping Woman's Head, possibly for 'The Rose Bower' in the  'Briar Rose' Series', Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt, c.1871–3 | Tate

“I wish it were possible to explain the impression made upon me as a young girl whose experience so far had been quite remote from art, by sudden and close intercourse with those to whom it was the breath of life. The only approach I can make to describing it is by saying that I felt in the presence of a new religion. Their love of beauty did not seem to me unbalanced, but as if it included the whole world and raised the point from which they regarded everything. Human beauty especially was in a way sacred to them, I thought; and of this I received confirmation quite lately from a lady … “I never saw such men,” she said, “it was being in a new world to be with them. I sat to them and was with them, and they were different to everyone else I ever saw. And I was a holy thing to them.” …

Lady Georgiana Burne-Jones

Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, Volume I 

The early years of their marriage was idyllic, but in 1864 Georgie contracted scarlet fever, which brought on the premature birth of her second child, who consequently died. Her third child – a daughter named Margaret – was born in 1866, the same year as Burne-Jones began a passionate and ultimately calamitous affair with his model, the beautiful and fiery Maria Zambaco.

Georgie supported her husband steadfastly through every crisis of faith, ill health, and infidelity, putting aside her own dreams of art and creativity. The scandal of Ned’s affair with Maria Zambaco tested her courage and faithfulness to the utmost. Her friend Rosalind Howard wrote in her diary: ‘her love is the deepest I ever met with. She is centred in her husband, the whole romance of her life is bound up with him from when she was eleven years old – more than romance, every feeling she has. She longs for him. He cannot know what she has endured.’ 

Maria Zambaco as ‘Summer’
Georgiana Burne-Jones as ‘Winter”

Edward Burne-Jones (c. 1870)

Yet Georgie was by no means the passive, long-suffering wife that she is sometimes painted to be. 

Georgiana Burne-Jones as ‘Cinderella’

Edward Burne-Jones (1863)

She pursued her own interests, and had many strong friendships with intelligent and forward-thinking women such as Rosalind Howard and Marian Evans (better known as George Eliot). She became a Socialist, against her husband’s inclinations, and was voted in as a parish councillor in Rottingdean at a time when women still did not have any voice or votes in politics. 

Most interestingly, the Memorials she wrote of Ned’s life are, I think, the most readable and engaging biography of Victorian times. Wherever possible in Beauty in Thorns, I have tried to let Georgie speak in her own voice. For example, when Georgie speaks of ‘the cloven hoof of fashion’, that is a direct quote from her book.

Elsewhere she describes the ‘brown sugar’ of a beach, or Ned’s ‘cloud-scattering laugh’. Her nephew Rudyard Kipling once said that ink ran in the veins of the Macdonalds. I think that he was right, and that it is a shame that Georgie never wrote that novel she dreamed of creating. 

Portrait of the Artist’s family

By Edward Burne-Jones (c. 1880)

The best books on the life of Ned and Georgie are A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin by Judith Flanders (2001), The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones & the Victorian Imagination (2011) by Fiona MacCarthy, and the two volumes of Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones by Lady Georgiana Burne-Jones (1904). 

Kate Forsyth
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