Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Rushkin, and John Everett Millais

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9780792788522: Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Rushkin, and John Everett Millais

Effie Gray, a beautiful and intelligent young socialite, rattled the foundations of England's Victorian age. Married at nineteen to John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the time, she found herself trapped in a loveless, unconsummated union after Ruskin rejected her on their wedding night. On a trip to Scotland she met John Everett Millais, Ruskin's protege, and fell passionately in love with him. In a daring act, Effie left Ruskin, had their marriage annulled, and entered into a long, happy marriage with Millais. Suzanne Fagence Cooper has gained exclusive access to Effie's previously unseen letters and diaries to tell the complete story of this scandalous love triangle. In Cooper's hands, this passionate love story also becomes an important new look at the work of both Ruskin and Millais with Effie emerging as a key figure in their artistic development. Effie is a heartbreakingly beautiful book about three lives passionately entwined with some of the greatest paintings of the pre-Raphaelite period.

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About the Author:

Suzanne Fagence Cooper is a research fellow and curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum. She has also worked as a consultant for the BBC. She lives in London and York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Effie
Chapter OneSpring: 1854THE MORNING of Tuesday, 25 April 1854 was achingly cold. Effie said goodbye to her husband, John Ruskin, for the last time on the platform at King's Cross Station. Then he helped her into the train. Taking a seat beside her sister, Sophy, she avoided his eye, preoccupied with arranging the cage of her crinoline in the cramped compartment. Effie hoped never to see him again. For a man who had made his name as a visionary critic of modern art, John Ruskin could be remarkably blinkered. His attention was focused on pictures, not people. He was anxious to get back to his parents' house and his books, and noticed nothing unusual in Effie's strained appearance. It had become her habit.The temperature had dropped the previous night. As Effie's train headed north, John drove south to the suburb of Denmark Hill, where his father was fretting about frost damage to his pear trees.Leaving London behind, Effie removed her gloves and slipped off her wedding ring. She tucked it inside an envelope addressed to her mother-in-law, together with her house keys and account book. Ten-year-old Sophy was bewildered. She had witnessed her sister's misery during the past months. But Effie had not dared tell her how this journey would end. As far as Sophy knew, Effie was going home to Scotland for a holiday, while John and his parents travelled to Switzerland. Effie did not have much time to explain. Just after ten o'clock the train was due to stop for a few minutes at Hitchin, where her father and mother were waiting. Effie could see them on the platform as they drew into the station. She gave her sister a hurried kiss, then Sophy jumped down to join their father. Effie's mother took her place in the carriage beside Effie. Her father reached up to receive the envelope containing her wedding ring. Effie asked him to post it, together with a few notes addressed to her closest friends. A handful of them knew her plans. She hoped they would defend her actions in her absence. Effie knew that London society would bescandalised by her decision to leave John Ruskin. His writings had made him something of a celebrity. Ever since the summer of 1843, when he had published his tribute to Turner in Modern Painters, he had been the most admired art critic of his generation. When Charlotte Brontë had read his words she had exclaimed, 'I feel now as if I had been walking blindfold-this book seems to give me eyes.' Elizabeth Barrett Browning agreed. She thought John Ruskin was 'no ordinary man'. He was inspirational, he was brilliant, he was invited to all the best parties, and he had a handsome private income. So why was Effie running away?Effie and her mother had a long journey before them, changing at Edinburgh for Perth. They did not expect to be on the road home to Bowerswell until well after midnight. It gave them ample time to mull over the six years of Effie's marriage. Mrs Gray could see the expression of pain above Effie's eyebrows, a twitch that marred her daughter's fine features. She had known from Effie's increasingly disjointed letters that her relationship with the Ruskins was deteriorating. But it was not until early March that the Grays had discovered the secret of Effie's distress. John had refused to consummate their marriage. Writing on 6 March 1854, Effie had entreated her parents to help her escape from this unnatural relationship. In this letter she claimed that John believed she was unfit to be a mother as 'if I was not very wicked I was at least insane'. No wonder she was often ill. Effie was only twenty-five, but living a lie had left her exhausted.1Shocked but uncertain how to proceed, Mr and Mrs Gray had dithered for several weeks before deciding to come to London. Her father was unsure whether to confront John directly or seek legal advice about Effie's position: in law, an unconsummated marriage was no marriage at all. The Grays eventually arrived by steamer from Dundee on Good Friday, 14 April. Effie had not told the Ruskins of her parents' arrival, for fear that they would draw the two families into a pointless and poisonous argument. She had already warned her father that old Mr Ruskin would not hesitate to resort to underhand tactics if he thought his family name would be dishonoured. Worse still, if John got wind of her complaints, he might force her to consummate the marriage. Then she would have no hope of escape. She could not divorce him.The 1850s were a time of upheaval in the laws governing marriage. Effie's story was part of a wider shift in women's roles and expectations. Women aswell as men were benefiting from an information revolution; the arrival of the electric telegraph, the popular press and a daily postal service meant that this generation had an unprecedented view of the world. The old certainties were wearing thin as in London, Leeds and Glasgow women and men rubbed shoulders with people of all classes and many nations. The pace of life was quickening. Effie and her contemporaries felt the buzz of modernity.The Queen herself drew attention to the novelties and paradoxes of the Victorian age. She showed up the shortcomings of gender stereotyping. Victoria was a wife and mother, as well as Sovereign. Her authority over her nation and her growing empire could have a beneficial effect for other women. They might look beyond the home and the family and see the potential for a wider sphere of influence. As an ambitious wife, Effie had hoped to use her social skills to promote her husband's career, but her talents were stifled by the conventions of an older generation, and she had found herself trapped in a loveless marriage.In England before 1857, a divorce could only be granted by a special Act of Parliament. It was a costly and time-consuming business. In an open letter to the Queen, published in 1855, the poet Caroline Norton drew attention to the impossible position of women like herself, who wanted to end an abusive marriage. Her account is sobering: an English wife had no property of her own, not even her clothes or jewellery. She could not make a will. If she left her husband, he could bring her home by force. She could sue him for cruelty, but only if he 'endangered life and limb'. If she went back to him, she could not complain if he beat her again, as she had 'condoned' his actions. It was the same with adultery. If she forgave her philandering husband once, she had no legal redress. As a husband was not bound to pay maintenance, a wife often could not afford to leave the marital home, however badly she was treated. According to Mrs Norton, during Victoria's reign only four women had been granted a divorce in order to marry again. In two of those cases the husband had been guilty of incest.How did the law apply in Effie's case? If John compelled her to fulfil her conjugal duties, there was nothing she could do. Husbands might rape their wives with impunity. As she had been married in Scotland, she was a little better protected in some ways than her English friends. A Scottish wife could defend herself against accusations of infidelity, could demand financial support, and her clothes and 'paraphernalia' belonged to her. However, she couldstill only sue for a divorce on the grounds of her husband's infidelity or desertion, and John was guilty of neither. Effie had two options. She could simply leave John, in the hope that he would let her return to her parents' house, or she could seek an annulment and face the indignities of a court case, a messy and intrusive business. If she chose this second course, Effie would need to be examined by doctors to prove that, after sharing John's bed for six years, she was still a virgin. And how would she defend herself against her husband's accusations that she was mentally unstable? John was known to make notes of her mood swings, and some of her recent letters had verged on the hysterical. Effie discussed these difficulties with her parents over the Easter weekend, and they came to the conclusion that they would have to take John Ruskin to court and sue for an annulment. On Monday afternoon she wrote to a friend: 'Papa is quite hopeful about my case, having found a similar one decided last year. The Ruskins have not a suspicion.' She was keenly aware of the hard road ahead, ending the letter: 'Dear friend if I never see you again, God bless and prosper all your undertakings.'2Effie could have just walked away from the marriage. It seems that her husband hoped she would. In her final letter to her mother-in-law, she revealed how John had threatened to break her spirit and force her to return to her parents. He claimed she bored him. However, it was a shock when Effie refused to go quietly.Effie could not admit to John's mother the real reason she was pushing for an annulment. She could hardly admit it even to herself. But her friends and family were urging her to expose the sham of this 'pretended marriage' in the hope that she would marry again. They already had someone in mind; her affection for the young artist John Everett Millais was understood by those who knew her best.Everett Millais was not the first to have fallen in love with the young Mrs Ruskin. Elegant, entertaining and light on her feet, she was much in demand at dinners and dances. In the early days of their marriage Effie had many admirers, and John positively encouraged her social success. From his point of view, if she was invited out for supper or to the theatre, he had more space to write. He had even reassured her parents when, in 1852, some gossip had reached their ears about her friendship with Clare Ford, 'a sort of man about Town'. John had praised her shrewdness in detecting the slightest impropriety. He even suggested that she was more likely to be labelled a prude than aflirt. He believed that, under Effie's influence, Ford had become more responsible; she had already persuaded him to give up the high life and move to a quiet job in the country instead.Effie's abili...

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