Although I’ve never really experienced it firsthand, I don’t doubt the old adage that “revenge is sweet”. Those of us who don’t have a vindictive nature can still appreciate the art of “payback” as spectators when it involves other people. In plays, novels, movies, in the news when criminals or corrupt public officials are hauled off to jail, most of us take pleasure in retribution for the bad guys. Or if not a “bad guy” per se, maybe just a big fucking jerk who had it coming. In his treatment toward his wife Effie Gray, 19th century art critic John Ruskin was such a jerk. And Effie’s subsequent life choices, one by one, slowly but surely, extracted sweet, sweet revenge.
Euphemia “Effie” Chalmers Gray was born in Scotland in 1828. Her family and the Ruskins were well-acquainted and Effie first met John when she was just twelve years old. He was an only child who was very close with his parents. Some might say abnormally close. As Effie grew into a vivacious, outgoing, very attractive young woman, Ruskin began to court her. He composed romantic love letters and poems and seemed head over heels in love. They married on April 10, 1848.
Painting of Effie Gray by Thomas Richmond:
The union of Effie Gray and John Ruskin disintegrated immediately, and when I say “immediately” I mean it literally, as in their wedding night. To Effie’s great humiliation, Ruskin rejected her sexually and the marriage was never consummated – not that night or any night. But they remained married, for a time.
So what was the problem between the newlyweds? John Ruskin is considered a great “thinker” and “critic”, a brilliant, intelligent man. But he clearly had a very, very stupid and naive streak in his psychology. Apparently he had spent so much time gazing upon artwork that idealized the female form – smooth, hairless, flawless sculptures and glorified figure paintings- that he actually believed that real women were supposed to look that way. So when he first saw Effie’s naked body, he recoiled in horror. What a moron.
Scholars and art historians have speculated as to what the offending bodily characteristic might have been. Most seem to think it was Effie’s pubic hair, something John Ruskin apparently thought women didn’t possess Others suggest it might have been menstrual blood, in which case Ruskin, the so-called “brilliant” man of letters, needed a basic course in human biology.
Effie Gray wrote to her father about their failed marital relationship:
He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April.
“disgusted with my person”. Effete, callow, uppity John Ruskin was “disgusted” by his wife’s body. How pathetic.
And here’s Ruskin’s version in a statement from his annulment proceedings:
It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.
That statement reeks of arrogance and misogyny. This is clearly a cold, shallow man of superficial values and warped concepts of sexuality. Rather than address his own issues – his sexual orientation or problems with intimacy in general – John Ruskin opted instead to embarrass Effie Gray, and place the blame of his male inadequacy squarely on her. He was neither a man nor a gentleman. He was just an asshat.
Five years of marital misery passed, with Effie trying desperately to make the best of it, all the while feeling shunned and rejected by her husband, trapped in a horrible union. She kept herself busy with travel and social functions. But it wasn’t until John Everett Millais came along that she finally caught a glimpse of what happiness could be.
John Everett Millais was one of the foremost painters of the Pre-Raphaelite school. He was also a good friend of John Ruskin. In 1853, he asked Effie to pose for him. Isolated and denigrated in her marriage, Effie jumped at the opportunity. Even Ruskin himself supported the idea. The result was a famous work entitled The Order of Release, which depicts a woman freeing her husband, a Scottish rebel, from jail while holding their child.
An outstanding painting with a powerful narrative The Order of Release works on many levels – movement, emotion, composition. It was a great hit when exhibited in London that year and solidified Millais’ reputation.
Effie and Millais became close during their work together. She grew comfortable enough to confide in him her marital woes and express her profound unhappiness. When the three of them took a trip to Scotland together, Effie and Millais continued to bond even while Ruskin was around. A bona-fide “love triangle” was in the works. And Milllais, after listening to Effie’s stories about Ruskin’s treatment of her, came to despise his friend and mentor.
Effie couldn’t take it anymore and confronted John Ruskin about their miserable marriage. She wanted out, and was deeply in love with Millais. But dissolving the union would not be simple. A divorce in Victorian England was complicated and costly. With a strong support system of family and friends, Effie decided to pursue an annulment. But even that wouldn’t be easy. Depositions had to be given, papers had to be filed, and accusations would fly. On top of all that, Effie was required to endure the indignity of a physical exam to prove she was still a virgin.
Effie filed for annulment on the grounds of Ruskin’s “incurable impotency”, a perfectly accurate charge in my opinion. Ruskin counter filed by accusing Effie of “mental imbalance”, adding that he feared to have sex with her because if she became pregnant their children risked inheriting her mental illness. What a lying, toxic prick. I hate this guy!
After much ugliness, gossip, and public scandal, the marriage of Effie Gary and John Ruskin was mercifully annulled in 1854. Then in 1855 Effie married John Millais and, over the next 14 years, bore him eight children. EIGHT children. Well, well, well, not bad for a physically “disgusting” woman. Obviously Millais found her capable of arousing “passion”. And as far as we know, none of the children had mental problems.
Given that this was the Victorian Age and therefore oppressive toward women, Effie was barred from most circles due to her annulment, a virtual “scarlet letter” of shame. But in spite of being branded an outcast, Effie’s new life with Millais was a rewarding and successful one, and the social ostracism was a small price to pay for having John Ruskin out of her life for good.
Throughout their marriage, Effie continued to model for John Millais, serving as his artistic muse. Here she is in Peace Concluded, representing motherhood and domestic bliss:
John Ruskin, being the small, petty man that he was, began to give Millais’ work negative reviews after he married Effie. As if motivated purely by spite, he labelled Millais’ art a “catastrophe”. No John, your defective psychology is the “catastrophe”.
But the saga doesn’t end there. Years later, a 50 year-old John Ruskin sought to marry a 17 year-old girl named Rose La Touche. Ew. Just ew. Anyway, Rose’s parents were rightly concerned about Ruskin’s interest and contacted Effie Gray to get inside information on the old pervert who was trying to marry their daughter. Effie Gray told them the truth – that Ruskin was a weirdo and an asshole (probably not the words she used!). Hence the engagement was broken off, and Ruskin never married, or tried to marry, anyone ever again. Praise the lord!
The icing on the cake in this tale of karmic retribution is Ruskin’s final screw up, this time in his professional life. A libel suit was brought against him by the artist James Whistler. The trial and negative publicity destroyed Ruskin’s reputation. He fell into a state of mental derangement and died in 1900. Though Effie died three years earlier in 1897, she still got the last word. What’s that other old adage, about how “the best revenge is living well”? Then well played, Effie. Well played
Effie again, in her later years, painted by her husband John Millais:
The Scandalous Women blog has an excellent, more detailed account of the Ruskin/Gray/Millais affair. I recommend it.
Also, I was pleasantly surprised to discover this article from The Guardian about a feature film in the works. This is incredible! The wonderful Emma Thompson has written the screenplay, and the terrific young actress Carey Mulligan, who was just nominated for an Academy Award for the film An Education, is cast as Effie Gray. I’m loving this! The article is super interesting, so please check it out.