Peonies by Charles Edward Perugini

Seeing some of the work of Victorian artist, John Everett Millais, at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool recently, reminded me of a blog post I wrote about Effie Gray, his wife, after visiting Ruskin’s house at Brantwood. It’s gives a wonderful sense of continuity when threads come together. While it was Millais and Ruskin who achieved artistic status, Effie was also rather extraordinary in a different way, in challenging the patriarchal marriage system.

The story of Effie (Euphemia) Gray is an extraordinary one. Her first marriage was a disaster. Even agony aunts would struggle to find a solution to her problems with Ruskin. We tend to think of marital issues of this magnitude as being a contemporary phenomenon, but it shows that the Victorians, too, had their difficulties. Of course. Their issues probably felt insurmountable because  the legal system at the time  gave women few rights. Divorce was difficult, as was annulment which was very uncommon, but the latter is exactly what happened in the case of Effie Gray, who had to undertake a virginity test (to prove her marriage was celibate) to achieve it.

Euphemia Gray, a Scottish beauty of little fortune, married renowned art critic, John Ruskin, at the tender and idealistic age of 19, only to find herself trapped in a cold, unconsummated loveless union. She later fell in love with his protege, John Everett Millais, artist, his  work strongly influenced by Ruskin. Well, I’m not sure how ‘in love’ she fell but she certainly lost her admiration and respect for her husband, John Ruskin, so sought an alternative, which makes a great deal of sense but was not really the done thing at that time. Suffering in silence was more likely a scenario. Escape pretty much had to be via another man.

Sibylla Palmifera by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Now, the understanding is that Effie was not bad looking, but also had a certain attraction, charm. Men liked her. She had energy and passion, an eagerness to learn, in the days when women were both educationally and socially constrained. Her relationship with John Ruskin seemed to begin with her admiration of his intellect, and desire to go through the doors he might open. So, a bit of social climbing, maybe, on her part.

John Ruskin, was something of a social philanthropist; however, he is also often painted as being overly attached to his parents, who were very forthcoming in their views. He also seemed to like women on the cusp of adulthood, i.e., young. Now, we might say his predilections were a little suspect. Put in the context of the time, it seems that Victorian artists were fascinated by adolescent girls, so it is hard to know whether it is a historical/cultural phenomenon, or just deviant.

Either way, Ruskin and Effie married during Lent, which was his first (and a common) excuse for not starting conjugal relations. When Effie eventually questioned his lack of activity, he excused it through religion, mentioned a dislike of small babies, felt that having children would interfere with his working life, and that her pregnancy would destroy their travel plans and Effie’s girlish beauty. He may well have been right on all counts but it was not a fruitful start to their married life.

There seems to be no indication that he was gay, or even asexual, but apparently told Effie that he had been ‘disgusted with her person’ when he saw her on her wedding night. Additionally, he seemed a chilly character, proffering little warmth in terms of even affection, preferring to spend his time with others, especially his parents.

Questions are raised whether this ‘disgust’ referred to her under-arm hair, removed in paintings of classical nudes, yet the pornography he apparently saw at Oxford acquainted him well with real women with body hair. Or her bleeding, for a popular  suggestion  is that Effie married at the wrong time of the month; she was menstruating. John could not cope with flesh – and especially, blood. Basically, the marriage was over before it began, though it lasted for six years, and left Effie understandably scarred.

She did fall for Millais, and went on to have eight children by him. However, by the time they came to marry, it was suggested that Effie did so in order to regain some respectability, for annulment was a damned state for a woman to be in (think earlier, Katharine of Aragon). For example, Queen Victoria would have nothing to do with her. One gets the impression that while Effie was a loyal wife, her love for Millais seemed at times lukewarm, not the great passion we are sometimes led to believe. That said, marriage was largely an economic union, not a romantic one. 

Ruskin later fell in love again with an even younger beauty but her parents were not happy with the idea that this ‘impotent’ man  should ruin the life of their daughter. Meanwhile, despite having eight children, Effie didn’t seem to like them that much. While Millais became an artist of some repute, she seemed destined to frustration in many areas of life. All in all, her life was quite a sad one, though she rejoined society, became involved in the art world and generally got on with sorting out life’s – and especially her family’s – problems.

Story of many women’s lives even now, perhaps.