Mary De Morgan, by Marilyn Pemberton

Can the writers of these two extracts possibly be referring to the same woman? The first quote is taken from Mary De Morgan’s obituary and the other is Bernard Shaw‘s recollection of his first meeting with her in 1892, during a visit to Kelmscott Manor. Even taking into account the tendency to idealise the deceased in obituaries, and the inaccuracy of one’s memory nearly half a century after the event, there is certainly a huge discrepancy between the two portrayals. So it was that I set myself the challenge of trying to find out who Mary Augusta De Morgan really was. 

I first came across De Morgan whilst carrying out research for my PhD thesis, “Glimpses of Utopia and Dystopia in Victorian Fairylands.” In the years 2003-2008, there was often one or two of her works included in anthologies of Victorian fairy tales but there was very little biographical information and no indication that she wrote anything else. Perhaps it was because there was so little about her that I became interested in her and after my PhD, decided to write her biography (Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary de Morgan).

So, who was Mary De Morgan (1850-1907)?  She was the youngest of seven children and born into a family of intellectuals, non-conformists and dissenters. Her father Augustus was a brilliant mathematician who described himself and his family as “Christians – unattached” and who resigned his professorship at University College London because he considered it unfair that a candidate was not appointed a Chair just because he was a Unitarian. The De Morgan Law is still discussed today and the De Morgan Medal still given for outstanding contribution to mathematics. Mary’s mother, Sophia Elizabeth, was a spiritualist and a fervent campaigner against vivisection and slavery and for the poor and children’s playgrounds. Elder brother William designed and produced tiles used by William Morris’s company and eventually became a best-selling novelist, marrying the renowned artist Evelyn Pickering at the age of 48. Another brother George was also a gifted mathematician but he died at the age of 26 from tuberculosis, as did Alice (aged 15), Chrissy (aged 23) Ann (aged 29) and Mary herself (aged 57). Of the seven De Morgan children the only ones not to die of the “De Morgan curse”, as William called it, were Edward, who died having fallen off a horse, and William himself.

I can find little about De Morgan’s childhood. The only thing I have found is a notebook in the De Morgan archives that was kept by Mary’s mother, in which she recorded the dreams of her 6 year old daughter. There are descriptions of a number of Mary’s dreams, in which she describes playing with her sister Alice, who had been dead for three years. Other records tell of places and events that the mother takes great pains to interpret as being evidence of the existence of spirit guides and a life after death.  A. Stirling, Evelyn Pickering’s sister, wrote about her brother-in-law William in a very comprehensive biography entitled William De Morgan and His Wife. According to Stirling, as a child Mary was extremely lively and full of fun – and also rather precocious. At 13 she asserted to Henry Holiday, who was a painter, stained-glass designer, sculptor and illustrator, that ”all artists are fools”. Stirling also recounts that Mary was considered to be a seer and an accurate reader of palms. I have not found any other evidence of this so-called gift.

I can find no evidence of where or even if Mary was educated at a school or university. Despite the fact that her mother was one of the co-founders of Bedford College, the first college for women founded in 1849, Mary’s name is not in the registers, although her sister Alice attended for three months when she was twelve, to be instructed in French and painting.

Mary is best known today, if she is known at all, as a writer of fairy tales. Luckily for me, because of the eminence of her father and brother William, the De Morgan archives are kept at Senate House, the University of London. It is here that I discovered that Mary was not just a writer of fairy tales – she was also a prolific writer of short stories (a few published, many not as far as I can tell), a writer of a two-volume novel called A Choice of Chance written under the pseudonym of William Dodson - the disappointment of poor reviews causing her to abandon attempting another - an editor of her mother’s reminiscences of her husband, and a writer of articles for both English and American magazines on subjects as diverse as “Co-operation in England in 1889”, “The New Trades-Unionism and Socialism in England”, “The Jewish Immigrant in East London”, “The Education of Englishmen” and “The History of Belgian Lace”. It seems to me that she wrote about what she knew about, what interested her – and presumably what might earn her money.

On reading this I rather liked the sound of Mary. But over the years further research has revealed that she did not mellow with age. In a letter in 1885, for instance, when Mary was 35, William Morris describes how she came into a tea room where he was drinking with a friend and straightway fell to tackling them on socialism with, as Morris says,  “rather less than her usual noise; but with rather more than her usual ignorance”. Despite this rather derogatory description, Mary was a regular visitor at the Morris household, and at many others, despite the fact, as Bernard Shaw reveals, that many considered her to be the “devil incarnate”. Shaw explains that she was tolerated because “Mary had in her a quality of helpfulness and efficiency that made her indispensable wherever there was illness or trouble”. Indeed Mary cured William Morris of his fear of snakes and was one of those who nursed him during his final illness and was at his bedside when he died in 1896.  

Mary never married, and although Shaw suspected that she was flirting with him when she squeezed his hand one evening, I can find no evidence of any romantic relationships. I have only found a couple of photographs of her. This one is definitely Mary - no date.

Whatever the reason, whether from choice or otherwise, Mary, like many other women at the tail end of the nineteenth century, remained unmarried, and because there were no male members of the family with sufficient funds to keep her, she had to earn her own keep. It does not seem likely that she made sufficient money from her writing. In 1876, for instance, she received £14 18s 6d (just over £700 in today’s money), being a third of the year’s profit from the sale of her first volume of fairy tales – another third going to the illustrator, her brother, and the other third to the publishers. This can hardly be considered to be a living wageand I know that in the early 1890s she worked at May Morris’s embroidery workshop and also advertised herself as a manager of a typewriting office.  Despite these multiple means of income Shaw recalls how “word went round that Mary was in pecuniary straits. A purse was forthcoming instantly from everyone who had ever spoken ill of her: that is, from everyone who had known her. She flung it back in our faces”.  This is perhaps not so surprising as she apparently told her sister-in-law sometime after 1887 that “I am so thankful I have only a small income – it is so delightful planning things and deciding what one can afford. It would bore me to death to be rich!”

Like her mother, Mary was also very involved in social reform. She was the secretary of the People’s Concert Society, who performed concerts for a very reasonable price so that the poorer families could afford to attend; she ran a mothers’ groups in the East End of London and she was one of the many visitors to the poor families of the East End, who tried to get them into work and out of the gin palaces.

No one woman can, as I am sure we are all aware, epitomise the “New Woman” but as far as I am concerned Mary de Morgan certainly had many of her attributes. One definition, which seems to suit Mary, is one in which the New Woman is considered to be one who is lacking in many, if not all, of the attributes usually associated with ideal Victorian womanhood. Such attributes are a penchant for self-sacrifice, a talent for home-making, and a willingness to defer to men. Nothing that I know about Mary de Morgan makes me think that she was ever such an “Angel in the House”. Not surprisingly she was a member of the Women’s Franchise League and she signed the Declaration in Favour of Women’s Suffrage in 1889. She was independent and utilised modern technology – the typewriter - in order to earn her keep and, as many of her fairy tales reveal, she had things to say regarding the political and social issues that were prevalent at the time.

It is perhaps strange that such a writer should use the fairy tale genre to make a political or social statement. But fairy tales have always been used to critique society and how easy it was for her to be subversive and write of active heroines, who rebelled against the conventions imposed particularly on women. She was, in fact, one of the forbears to such twentieth–century feminist writers as Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. So what sort of fairy tales did this “devil incarnate”, this feisty, independent, rather over-bearing and rude woman write?

The first volume of tales was published in 1877 and was illustrated by her brother, William. On a Pincushion, is, in my opinion, the best and reveals how Mary addressed themes that were concerning the great thinkers of the time, such as William Morris, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin. For instance, in “Handa and Siegfrid”, she tells of the dreadful fate that befalls a previously utopian village when the inhabitants prefer to buy cheap, mass-produced shoes from a goblin, rather than the individually made, more expensive shoes from one of their own. The crops fail, the cows stop producing, and worse of all, girls begin to disappear. All ends happily, of course, but not before the villagers acknowledge that it is their greed that has led to their downfall.

Another significant tale, “The Toy Princess”, tells how, unbeknownst to the patriarchal court, her fairy godmother replaces Princess Ursula with a toy, who is submissive, says exactly what is expected of her and never laughs. Once the real princess has grown up the fairy godmother takes her back to the court, who unsurprisingly decide to keep the toy, so scared are they of a real woman, who shouts, laughs and cries and has a mind of her own.

De Morgan’s second volume of fairy tales, The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde,was published in 1880 and was illustrated by Walter Crane. These stories similarly address adult issues, such as the acquisition of wives as ornamentation, the roles of both partners within marriage, the acquisition of contentment as opposed to that of power, and, once again, the dangers of mass-production.

De Morgan’s third and final volume was not published until 1900, when she was 50. The fairy tales are far more domestic and do not address social issues with as much force and energy, emphasised to my mind by the rather insipid illustrations by Olive Cockerell. It is, however, pertinent that in “Dumb Othmar” De Morgan again has a protagonist who is silenced, but this time it is a male who loses his voice as the result of a curse and has to wait patiently at home whilst a female goes on a quest to find it again. The final fairy tale of the volume “The Ploughman and the Gnome” is perhaps the one which explicitly critiques Victorian society the most, and tells of a young ploughman who promises to give a horrid, little, wizened gnome the best of everything he owns in exchange for assured prosperity. Whilst he has to give just the best of his own food and materials the farmer has no problem, but when he has to give the best of his new wife’s belongings he finds it more and more difficult to comply. Eventually he is faced with the choice of having either to give the horrid creature the skin off his pretty wife’s face or to lose his wealth. The story ends satisfactorily for the couple but, De Morgan’s obvious message that the fulfilment of one’s desires often comes at an unacceptable price, reflects the fin de siècle realisation that Utopia cannot be attained without the loss of freedom.

All three anthologies of fairy tales were reviewed in news papers and all were usually positive. However, with no exception, the stories were considered to be for children only, with the following being typical: “Though the tales are all such as children delight in, even grown-up people, if they retain the least spark of the childlike in their nature, may be attracted by the freshness, the simplicity, and the pathos of the little stories.”  One reviewer does favourably compares her to Hans Christian Andersen but then goes on to say that her “stories are very slight, but they are pretty, and told in good faith, and have the immense advantage of being illustrated by Mr Walter Crane”. I suspect that these reviewers assigned these fairy tales directly to the nursery without attempting to read them with a critical eye and they certainly did not seem to ever read between the lines.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, then, Mary De Morgan was a relatively well-known and respected published writer, albeit not a very well paid one, who lived very much in the world of artists and intellectuals. At the beginning of the new century, however, she travelled to Egypt and with a short time became a directress of a girls’ reformatory in Helouan, where she died in 1907 at the age of 57. I know she suffered from tuberculosis and the hot, dry Egyptian climate would have offered her the best hope of survival, but how she came to take on such a disparate career so late in her life still remains a puzzle, one I have tried to address in The Jewel Garden. This is my debut novel, published in February 2018, in which I tell the story of Mary De Morgan’s life through the first person eyes of a fictional character, Hannah, who becomes a close friend. There is much that is true in the book, but I have tried to fill the gaps in my knowledge with my imagination.


The Jewel Garden is published by Williams & Whiting (ISBN 978-1912582037) and is available to buy now as an e-book for £1.99 and paperback for £9.99 from: or

Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan is published by Cambridge Scholar’s Publishing (ISBN 978-1443841955).

You can contact Marilyn by e-mail at


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