'Victorian scandals don't come much more intimate and revealing than a wife seeking annulment from her famous husband because their marriage has not been consummated...'
Effie Gray was the wife of two distinguished Victorians, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais and that was about all I knew as I read the opening sentences of Merryn Williams's excellent book, Effie : A Victorian Scandal, published by Book Guild and sent to me by them some time ago. I get there eventually and I think it was a prompt from 'someone' in comments here over Christmas ( thank you...whoever it was), coupled with the tempting sight of the biography I am planning to take a leisurely stroll through this year, that all led me to find the book on the shelves.
The biography in case anyone else has a copy and is interested in reading along is The Last Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne - Jones and the Victorian Imagination by Fiona MacCarthy more of which soon, but I fully expect the reading and looking trails to be meandering and colourful, involve some lovely visits and to be conducted at a snail's pace, there will be plenty of time to admire the scenery and talk as we walk.
But back to Effie.
Poor Effie I think may be a verdict others will share after reading this book. Young and sexually naive, pretty, fair-haired and intelligent, well-educated and very happy, and it was at the age of thirteen that Effie found herself staying with the Ruskins of Herne Hill. Mr and Mrs and their son John, accommodated Effie during the summer holidays of 1841, rather than allowing her to go home to Perth where scarlet fever was decimating her family. The families were distant friends, John born in 1819, the same year as Queen Victoria and George Eliot and now an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford and a great friend of Lewis Carroll...
'...tall, thin, narrow-shouldered...a beaky nose, intense blue eyes...attractive smile and charming manners...'
John and Effie soon became great friends. John write her stories (does that sound familiar?) and over the next few years they would meet on occasion. After one or two misunderstandings and a great deal of Ruskinian parental meddling agin the union, the marriage would eventually come to pass in 1848. John Ruskin now approaching thirty, Effie almost twenty-one. A honeymoon in Europe with Mr and Mrs Ruskin Senior was on the cards and only avoided thanks to a bit of revolt around the continent, so the couple set off alone (but for Ruskin's manservant, whilst no maid for Effie) for a tour of the Highlands.
What really happened on the wedding night at Blair Atholl, and what didn't has all become legendary... did Ruskin blanche and 'fail' at the sight of a naked Effie... if exact records exist they are lost, though Effie was to write six years later
'that he had imagined women were quite different from what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person that first evening...'
What does remain is a vast collection of letters, along with legal documents surrounding the divorce which Effie eventually sought from the church on the basis of non-consummation, and it is these that Merryn Willams uses to great effect as she plots the dire years that were to come.
There follows a catalogue of emotional abuse and hints of violence perhaps as Effie becomes John Ruskin's possession, legally 'owned' by him ... his 'foolish little puss' , there to serve the needs of a complex and seemingly cold and heartless man. Whilst Merryn Williams makes a plea in her introduction that the book is not seen as an attack on Ruskin, it is very hard for the book to follow any other course when the evidence of the letters is so compelling.
The arrival of Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais on the scene is fascinating, propelled into Effie's company by Ruskin who encourages Millais to use Effie as his model in this painting, The Order of Release, and going out of his way to ensure that they are able to spend time alone together. Millais suspected a trap, perhaps Ruskin paving the way for a divorce on the grounds of adultery. What is without question is that Millais was a diamond, the perfect gentleman who did nothing to compromise Effie's situation, steered clear until the dust had settled on the divorce (prior to which Effie had to submit to an internal examination by two male doctors) before marrying her and raising a family together.
And it's hard not to cheer at the way that Effie eventually makes her actual escape, or to feel the heart sink when it becomes evident years later that, should Ruskin actually father a child, the divorce on the grounds of his impotence would be annulled and Effie and Millais's children would become illegitimate.
Villified at the time and since as something of a harlot and snubbed by Queen Victoria despite the enduring popularity of her second husband's paintings, it is heartwarming to read a book like this that redresses the balance and restores Effie's tarnished reputation...
'The real Effie Gray was a brave, gifted and essentially decent young woman who wanted with all her heart to be respectable...'
Everyone will draw their own conclusions from Effie : A Victorian Scandal. I am not quite in the 'Ruskin as paedophile' camp, and nor I felt was Merryn Williams, even though when considerably older Ruskin set eyes on a fifteen-year old girl and the same disaster beckoned. Ruskin's relationship with his parents is complex, especially intense with his mother, and anyone with some Freudian analysis at their fingertips would be able to explore the Oedipal connotations at play here.
But I'm thinking too that Ruskin for all his flaws was also gifted, and a great and single-minded lover of beauty, whether that be in landscape, paintings, architecture or young girls, though nothing can excuse his behaviour towards Effie. Like Charles Dickens though possibly at the opposite end of the 'lust' spectrum, Ruskin also played the mental illness card in an effort to discredit his wife, but perhaps to his credit he did not allow ensuing events to cloud his critical judgement, continuing to both praise and pan the work of John Everett Millais accordingly.
So Team Middlemarch. It is early in the day and we have most of the book ahead of us yet but I wonder if you are already spotting the similarities??
The young woman marrying the rather dry and dusty self-absorbed older man...the appearance of a young artist on the scene, we have just had a glimpse of Will Ladislaw in Miss Brooke, so it will come as no surprise to learn that there may be connections which Merryn Williams also explores...
Millais knew George Eliot slightly and attended her funeral.
The Girlhood of St Theresa painted by Millais was based on the Prelude to Middlemarch.
George Eliot admired both Ruskin and Millais and would have been living in London at the time of the scandal and doubtless considering her own position with G H Lewes. Her sympathies towards Effie, though there is no evidence that they ever met, may well have been of the woman-to-woman variety. George Eliot hardly in a position to judge other women harshly given her own ostracism, and whilst she can't have known as much as we do now from the letters, we do know that there was, as much then as now, a huge appetite for 'celeb' gossip, so who can tell how much filtered through the novelist's sub-conscious as she wrote.
So a really fascinating book that has paved the way in all sorts of directions for my planned reading this year, and I hope this has put you all in the mood for the first Team Middlemarch Brougham stop this coming weekend. I will post on Saturday and let discussions then begin.