The story of the disastrous marriage between the beautiful young Effie Gray and John Ruskin, the brilliant but socially maladroit art critic almost a decade her senior, is well known and often dramatised. Apparently, on their wedding night in April 1848, he was so shocked at the sight of a female body, something which hitherto he knew only from pictures in books, that he was unable to consummate the marriage. Painfully, they endured married life for another six miserable years, with Ruskin drawing ever closer to his parents. He wrote to them of his pride in seeing his twenty-something wife shine in society, while regretting that in ten years’ time, once her cheeks had wrinkled, she would no longer sparkle.
What Henrietta Garnett attempts in this entertaining book, full of familiar stories, is to move the spotlight away from the men and shine it not only on Effie but also on the other women who, she insists, were the crucial inspiration for the paintings and poetry produced by the band