There is no shortage of writing on the brief, unhappy marriage of Euphemia Gray and the Victorian art critic and polymath John Ruskin. Most of it has tended to be partisan – in Effie’s favour. The first salvo in Effie’s defence was fired by her grandson, Admiral Sir William James. In writing his The Order of Release (1948), he had access to the Gray family archives, now lodged in the Morgan Library in New York. These were skilfully used by Mary Lutyens in her three books on Effie and Ruskin and their respective parents and on Effie’s subsequent marriage to the painter John Everett Millais.
As guides to Ruskin’s thinking, Lutyens’s books are valueless. Effie emerges as the central, beguiling figure. But Effie in Venice (1965), Millais and the Ruskins (1967) and The Ruskins and the Grays (1972) kept Ruskin in the public eye during the years when the shelves of second-hand bookshops groaned with countless copies of Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice. More importantly, it was Lutyens who first suggested that Ruskin failed to consummate his marriage because he was shocked at the sight of Effie naked, knowing women’s bodies only from statues and paintings.
Lutyens seemed to be saying that Ruskin was unnerved by Effie’s pubic hair, making him appear absurdly naive. Her theory was to float up in more serious studies of the man. Even Tim Hilton’s admirable John Ruskin: The Early Years concluded that Ruskin was unusually ignorant of women and sex, and that his real tendencies were paedophiliac. Meanwhile popular accounts of Effie and Ruskin’s marriage travails have continued to find a market – in biographies, plays and a forthcoming film, written by and starring Emma Thompson as Lady Eastlake, Effie’s ally and Ruskin’s nemesis. Just the thought of it, with Thompson’s screenplay and all those rustling crinolines, is depressing.
At first sight Robert Brownell’s Marriage of Inconvenience looks like another attempt to cash in on the most accessible part of the Ruskin story. But Brownell makes the vital point that in 1848 Ruskin realised the 19-year-old Effie was marrying him not for love but for money. She had rebuffed him once; Brownell argues convincingly that Effie was pressured to accept the wealthy heir to a wine and sherry fortune because her father, George Gray, found himself facing absolute financial ruin. Ruskin adored Effie but during the 12 days he spent at the Gray family home in Perth before the wedding it became clear just why Effie had agreed to marry him. He decided, eccentrically perhaps, to wait five years before consummating his marriage in the hope that he would win Effie’s love.
Meanwhile he dreamed of the highest kind of companionate Victorian union, he and Effie examining artworks, drawing and note-taking together: ‘Keen sighted as you are, I think you would soon find
great delight in deciphering inscriptions – interpreting devices – and unravelling enigmas. – Gradually I think you might become far, far my superior in judging of dates and styles.’ It could have worked – a wife as an intellectual helpmeet – but Effie, wise in her own way, was not ready to be instructed by her husband, and Ruskin failed to keep his over-possessive parents from interfering in their relationship. They were his favourite people and Effie’s growing dislike of them seemed inexplicable to him. Brownell has interesting things to say about Ruskin’s health and the possibility that he was suffering from tuberculosis, a dark secret that caused his parents to be especially protective of their prodigiously gifted son.
Love did not grow and Effie was driven to find her own amusement, most notably during the couple’s two stays in Venice in 1849–50 and 1851–2. In Victorian terms this was, as Brownell points out, ‘a radical experiment in marital relations’. While Ruskin drew, photographed and wrote, Effie led a hectic social life with the Austro-Hungarian military – ‘everyone is fond of me and pets me’. In his disappointment and helplessness, Ruskin neglected his wife. As Effie observed, ‘I am so peculiarly situated as a married woman.’ In Venice scandal began to bubble up; in Verona a duel was fought over Effie’s name and a man died; and at the end of their second stay, Effie’s jewels vanished in mysterious, possibly compromising, circumstances.
As the deadline for the consummation of his marriage approached, Ruskin realised their relationship was an impossible mismatch. Brownell argues that he took secret legal advice in the summer of 1852, discovering that Scotland had laxer divorce laws (available after a 42-day residency) but that an ecclesiastical annulment in England would be the most discreet solution. The painter John Everett Millais, already half in love with Effie, became central to Ruskin’s plans. In June 1853, soon after Millais’s prophetically titled The Order of Release 1746 (for which Effie had posed) had been shown to great acclaim at the Royal Academy, Ruskin, Effie and Millais headed for Scotland on an extended holiday.
The trio settled at the beauty spot of Brig o’ Turk in the Trossachs; visitors came and went and Millais began painting Ruskin by a riverine escarpment of geologically interesting rock. Ruskin stayed in the recently built hotel while Effie and Millais lodged in a tiny cottage, bedrooms side by side. Ruskin began keeping a diary of evidence, recording a playful intimacy between the artist and his wife. Brownell argues persuasively that in the 1850s such material would have proved invaluable for divorce lawyers. By the end of the year Ruskin was able to confront George Gray with his diary and threaten a Scottish divorce based on their 42-day Highland residency – unless Effie petitioned for an annulment.
This train of events is pure speculation on Brownell’s part, but the possibility that Ruskin took complete control of the situation explains the bitterness felt by the Gray and Millais families long after the marriage was annulled on the grounds of Effie’s proven virginity and Ruskin’s ‘incurable impotency’, freeing Effie to embark on a happy marriage to Millais. Effie’s vengeful response towards Ruskin’s subsequent love for the Irish girl Rose La Touche – she was for Ruskin ‘the only living thing I care for … one can’t get on with stones only’ – had a slightly different basis. Brownell argues that Effie’s letters to Rose La Touche’s mother were provoked by the fear, based on incorrect legal advice, that if Ruskin remarried and had children the annulment would be rendered void and the Millais children would be branded illegitimate.
Serious Ruskin scholars have tended to be briskly impatient with the story of Effie and Ruskin, seeing its undeniably gripping twists and turns as an unwelcome distraction from the complexity and majesty of Ruskin’s thought. But Robert Brownell’s valuable research into the finances of the Gray family and the intricacies of Victorian matrimonial law recasts Ruskin as a man of practical action and a surprisingly worldly figure. If we are to believe Brownell, Ruskin’s determination to end the marriage was a kindness to Effie, while the annulment shielded her reputation. However, the consequences of Effie’s ongoing character assassination of her first husband were tragic. Ruskin was immune to hostile gossip, but the loss of Rose La Touche broke his heart and almost certainly brought on the madness that was to cloud the last twenty years of his life.