William Morris may serve as another instance of a Victorian middle-class father whose parenting style eschewed detached authoritarianism, and instead combined nurture, play, instruction, lively conversation, and shared interests throughout the lives of his two daughters. May Morris describes her relatively liberated childhood, marked by both intellectual and physical freedom. As children, May and her older sister Jenny fished, punted, climbed trees, and roamed outdoors at will, unconfined by Victorian conventions of feminine dress or demeanour. May’s penchant for climbing the gabled roofs of Kelmscott Manor — or ‘roof-riding’ as she called it — seems to have been a regular activity until one day she found herself stranded, unable to descend, and the gardener was sent ‘post-haste for the longest ladders the village possessed’.7 The Morris girls were given free access to the family library, educated outside the home, and included in social occasions as full participants, as May’s memories of childhood conversations and friendships with famous denizens of the Morris social circle attest. Morris also seems to have had an enlightened view of the role of adult daughters in the home: the social expectation that (unmarried) daughters would serve their fathers’ needs seemed entirely absent from the Morris household and Morris was known to undertake domestic duties at times (he was a keen cook, for instance).
The Morris daughters’ sympathy for their father’s aesthetic and political philosophies, and the circumstances of their later lives, however, complicate this picture in a number of ways. Jenny Morris’s epilepsy — which developed in mid-adolescence and left her a semi-invalid for the rest of her life — struck at the heart of Morris family life, taking a heavy emotional toll on all. For Morris, it meant that he always worked to include Jenny in conversations and correspondence about literature, politics, and art as a means of assuring her of his confidence in her intellectual capacities, despite her illness (much misunderstood in this era, of course) and to compensate for her limited access to the outside world. May Morris’s close collaboration with her father, both in Morris & Co. and socialist organizations, no doubt reflected an emotional dynamic in which passionately shared interests were inextricably bound up with shared affection, but one does not need to be an avowed Freudian to see May’s short-lived marriage to an unprepossessing socialist of her father’s circle as a conflicted — if unconscious — attempt to replace and please her father at the same time. The tone of Morris’s correspondence with his daughters retained a childlike playfulness throughout their lives, despite (or because of?) the complexities of their adult relationships. Letters offering sustained accounts of political events or other weighty concerns were interspersed with affectionate asides to ‘my darling child’ or ‘my dear little May’ and gentle but humorous mocking of friends and associates.9 In her recollections of her father, then, it is not surprising that May Morris emphasized this light-hearted aspect of her father’s character in his dealings with the children. From May, we see glimpses of Morris’s delight in his children and their happiness, very similar to that described by Mamie Dickens of her father. Describing her first trip abroad — when the Morris family, together with the Burne-Jones children, Margaret and Philip, travelled to France — May recalled that, during the train journey, ‘Father smiled across at Mother above the scrambling swarm and said, with his heart in his voice, “It’s worth anything to take the kids a treat, Janey, and see the little rascals enjoying it so.”