The Wayward Muse

waywardcoverPulled straight from the canvasses of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Hickey’s The Wayward Muse paints a vivid portrait of the mysterious and beautiful Jane Burden, the Pre-Raphaelite icon.

A stableman’s daughter raised in the slums of Oxford, England, seventeen-year-old Jane is convinced of her own homeliness. But her fortunes forever change when she is discovered by the charismatic and irreverent painter, Rossetti. Jane is swept into the artist’s world as model and muse and falls madly in love with him. When Rossetti abruptly leaves her, Jane reluctantly agrees to marry his protégé, a shy craftsman named William Morris. But her passion for Rossetti never dies, and years later all three become entangled in a love triangle from which they will never escape.

“I will never again encounter a William Morris design or read a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in quite the same way. Elizabeth Hickey’s rendering of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in English poetry and art is evocative and enchanting. Jane Burden is a heroine worthy of the Brontë sisters.”

– Brenda Rickman Vantrease, author of The Illuminator and The Mercy Seller

“In The Wayward Muse, Elizabeth Hickey conjures up the fascinating love story behind an artist’s vision and brings it to life with richly imagined characters and historical detail. It is an enchanting novel.”

– Tova Mirvis, author of The Ladies Auxiliary and The Outside World

The Wayward Muse grants us and its protagonist, the plainest Jane from an Oxford slum, a shared dream: to be transported out of ourselves. With sumptuous and persuasive detail, the novel unveils for us the intoxications and burdens of always being someone’s muse.”

– Jim Shepard, author of Project X and Love and Hydrogen

Read an excerpt


Plain Jane Burden never expected to be an artist’s model, much less the standard of pre-Raphaelite beauty, but in Hickey’s second historical novel (after The Painted Kiss), Jane’s looks catapult her from the Oxford slums to the drawing rooms of London. After Jane is discovered by painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, her domineering mother allows her to sit for a mural of Guinevere because of the much-needed income it brings the family. Jane relishes the few hours each week she’s allowed to sit and eavesdrop on Rossetti and his clique of artists and writers, inspiring verses in their poetry and a declaration of love. But after Rossetti leaves her for his sickly fiancée, Lizzie, Jane agrees to marry his rich friend William Morris so she can stay close to him. Jane bears two children and becomes an uneasy confidante to Lizzie, but Rossetti’s feelings for Jane resurface after Lizzie dies, and William can’t help noticing. Hickey handles her characters with a light touch and steers them clear of brooding cliché territory. Marvelous period detail adds appeal to an alluring story.


A young girl, born in the worst kind of poverty, mistreated by her parents, is faced with the prospect of going into service, where her treatment won’t be much better, or marrying a neighbor boy as poor and brutal as her family. Enter a handsome young gentleman who sees her unusual looks as beautiful and falls in love with her as he immortalizes her on canvas. Sound like a fairy tale? It isn’t. It is the real life story of Jane Burden, muse to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the rest of the Pre-Raphaelites and model for Shaw’s Pygmalion. Although Rossetti seduces and wins Jane’s heart, he is promised to another. She marries his protégé, William Morris, father of the Arts and Crafts movement because he is adoring and rich. But when Rossetti’s wife dies, their affair blooms again and Morris and Jane come to an interesting arrangement. Hickey, author of the well-receivedPainted Kiss (2005), manages to imbue the story with real warmth and passion focusing on the relationships and the art. Haunting and lyrical; the reader will be captivated. —Elizabeth Dickey


Elizabeth Hickey’s excellent historical novel “The Wayward Muse” is unhurried, the writing quietly assured.

Elizabeth Hickey imagines the life of Jane Burden, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s model and inspiration, in “The Wayward Muse,” a deftly written historical novel rich in period detail. Jane, a poor girl born in an Oxford slum, is unusually tall and very thin, with a long, pale, sad face and a mass of coarse, unruly hair. Her family and neighbors consider her ugly and despair of her finding a husband, but her unusual beauty attracts Rossetti’s attention. His fellow artist Edward Burne-Jones persuades Jane’s grasping mother to allow the 17-year-old to pose, for a fee, as Guenevere in a series of murals . The modeling sessions change Jane’s life, introducing her to a group of young artists, writers, and craftsmen who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Jane’s face doesn’t launch the movement, but she becomes its icon.

Hickey writes persuasively, capturing Jane’s confusion as she adjusts to her new life. She and Rossetti fall in love, but he soon drops her to marry his semi-invalid fiancée. Crushed by Rossetti’s rejection, Jane agrees to marry his friend and protégé William Morris, an independently wealthy young man, a poet, designer, and social reformer who will found the Arts and Crafts movement. Jane never stops loving Rossetti and takes up with him again after his wife dies. Morris knows about their affair and reluctantly facilitates it, preferring private humiliation to public scandal. Hickey writes knowledgably about the period, but her research never eclipses her graceful narrative. –Diane White


Hickey’s obsession with the art world has led her into a fascinating realm where she merges art and passion to explore what fires an artist’s spirit and creativity, both in work and for the women who serve as inspiration. Her full-blooded characters move through the pages with verve and passion for life and their art. She traces the triumphs and tragedy of an unconventional love triangle and paints a portrait as fine as any artist’s—one readers will see and feel.


Jane Burden Morris (1839-1914) was born poor in Oxford, England. Both of Jane’s parents came to Oxford from the country as agricultural work declined, and were barely literate. Her father worked as a stableman and her older brother became a college messenger at the age of 14. Her older sister died of tuberculosis. The family moved frequently, but never far, only from house to house in the slums of Holywell Street. Little is known of her childhood, because in later years she rarely spoke of it. What is known is that her fortunes changed forever in 1857 at a performance of the touring company of London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane. It was there that she was spotted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement, and approached about modeling for him. The London artist was in Oxford to decorate the Debating Hall of the new Oxford Union with murals.

In the course of modeling she met William Morris, who had become infatuated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and its ideals and was attempting to be a painter. In particular he was mesmerized by the charismatic Rossetti. Now he fell in love with Jane Burden and asked her to marry him. Whatever her feelings for Rossetti were or had been, she married Morris in Oxford on April 26, 1859. They had two daughters, Jenny and May.

Considered very plain in her childhood, through Rossetti’s many paintings of her Jane came to be thought of as an icon of beauty. When we think of a Pre-Raphaelite beauty, it is Jane Morris we are thinking of: long, wavy dark hair, a long neck, small, rosebud mouth, long straight nose, grave, sad eyes.

William Morris


William Morris (1834-1896) was the son of a self-made man who had become wealthy from investing in a copper mine. He went to Oxford intending to be a clergyman, but a trip to the cathedrals of France and the influence of John Ruskin’s writings convinced him to become an architect instead. After leaving Oxford he began working for the architect George Edmond Street, but soon (under the influence of the Rossetti) changed career paths again in an unsuccessful attempt to become a painter.

After Morris gave up trying to paint, he went on to write several well-received books of poetry. He also translated Old Norse literature into English, and late in life he became an ardent socialist, but it is as a designer that he is remembered today.

In 1861 he and his friends founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals, a firm dedicated to producing decorative articles according to Morris’s ideals.

Morris was opposed to mass production and felt that artists should make beautiful, well-made furniture for the common man. He believed in honesty, being true to one’s materials, and in the exercise of skill and craftsmanship. He emphasized function and hated reproduction.

In the early years the Firm, as they called it, produced stained glass, hand-painted tiles, embroidery and furniture. Later, the Firm became known for wallpaper, hand-printed cottons and tapestries. Morris single-handedly brought back the ancient art of vegetable dye, which had fallen out of favor with the invention of aniline dyes. Morris’s ideas became the underpinnings of Modernism, and made him arguably the most influential designer of all time.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti


Born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti (1828-1882) to an Italian immigrant father and a half English, half Italian mother, Rossetti was the second of four children. The family was fairly poor, as their father eked out a living teaching and translating. Rossetti attended an art school that prepared young artists for the Royal Academy, but he found the work dull. He wrote a fan letter to Ford Madox Brown in 1848 and became his pupil, and through his classes became friends with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. Together they founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Their main goal was to study nature directly, and they placed themselves in opposition to the “conventional and learned by rote” aspects of contemporary art. For a while they were the enfant terribles of the London art scene, vilified by almost everyone, until the critic John Ruskin took up their cause and they became more or less accepted. After only a few years the group went their separate ways, though many of the members went on to become famous painters and critics. Rossetti began grooming a new group of protégés, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.

Rossetti began a relationship with shopgirl-turned-model Lizzie Siddal in 1851, but they did not marry until 1860. Lizzie had a miscarriage in May of 1861 and in February of 1862 overdosed on laudanum and died. It is likely that she committed suicide. In a show of grief Rossetti buried the only copy of his poems in her casket. A few years later he thought better of it and had Lizzie exhumed and the poems retrieved. They were published in 1871.

From 1865 on most of Rossetti’s paintings are of Jane, though it is not clear when their affair actually began or its extent. In the summer of 1871 Rossetti and Jane spent the summer together in Gloucestershire while Morris was in Iceland. But in the spring of 1872 Rossetti suffered a mental breakdown, precipitated by his feud with a critic of his poetry and his increasing drug addiction. He and Jane had ended their affair by 1875, and Rossetti was a broken man until his death in 1882.



Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini! 1849-50


The Oxford Union, Oxford University, England


The Oxford Union Debating Hall murals, Oxford University 1857


William Morris, Queen Guenevere (La Belle Iseult) 1858


Red House at Bexleyheath (built 1859)


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix 1863-70


William Morris, Daisy Wallpaper 1864


William Morris, Jasmine Wallpaper 1872


William Morris, Pimpernel Wallpaper 1876

Jane Morris Blue Silk

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mrs. William Morris (The Blue Silk Dress) 1868

Pre Raph3

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Reverie 1868


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Pia de’ Tolomei 1868-81


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine 1873-77

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor, Gloucestershire


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Jane Morris 1879