Effie Gray’s Revenge

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 πŸ™„ 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 πŸ™‚

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.

39 thoughts on “Effie Gray’s Revenge

  1. Andrew says:

    Wow – what a story. Sounds like it will make a great movie.
    The painting by Thomas Richmond is really beautiful.

  2. Fabulous, Claudia. I can’t imagine how you continue to dig up these biographical details. Ruskin was clearly a closet queen. I love the Milais painting “in her later years.” Can’t wait for the film.

    • artmodel says:

      Jean,

      I had the same thought about Ruskin being closeted. Sure sounds like a possibility.

      The Millais portrait at the end is excellent, and I find Effie’s expression very interesting. She is both serious and content, a triumphant woman πŸ™‚

      I am really excited for the film, especially because Emma Thompson is involved. Love her.

      Thanks for commenting, Jean!

      Claudia

  3. DaveL says:

    Very interesting post. But please tell me, how do you really feel about Ruskin? πŸ˜‰

  4. I see what you mean! I had heard the pubic hair story, but not the rest of it. I’ve read very little Ruskin; I’ve heard that his early stuff, particularly the laudatory writing about Turner, is kind of embarrassing – but the mature work struck me as really revelatory in its understanding of art. I’ve been meaning to read more; and let’s not forget that Proust is said to have lifted Ruskin’s ideas wholesale for “Remembrance of Things Past”! So he’s got that going for him. I guess the conclusion I have to reach is that, as with so many people, he had his good side, which was dazzling, and his bad side, which was a real fricking doozy. Thinker: genius. Man: douche.

    Remind me to lend you sometime Whistler’s “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies” – a book-length compilation of back-and-forth insult slinging between Whistler and his critics. The man was hilarious, and pleased to get in a fight…

    • artmodel says:

      Daniel,

      It’s interesting that you mentioned Ruskin’s connection with Proust’s book because I read “Remembrance of Things Past” in school and liked it a lot. Now the whole thing is tainted!!! (just kidding).

      That compilation of the Whistler writings sounds good. He was quite a pugnacious guy from I understand.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  5. Jennifer says:

    A muse that I know something about, having long been interested in the Pre-Raphs and read quite a few books on them. The forthcoming film sounds most interesting, with a very challenging task ahead, to put both sides of the story. I’ve never seen the ‘domestic bliss’ painting before – it’s looks a real case of ‘up yours Ruskin (and society), with Effie boldly looking out of the picture with a straw hat halo!

    • artmodel says:

      Jennifer,

      The film should be a fascinating project, and they have enough source material to work from on both sides.

      I hadn’t noticed the “halo” appearance in that painting. Thanks for pointing it out!

      Claudia

  6. After reading this I did a little googlin’ of John Ruskin. The first thing that hit my eye were these two quotes:

    “When a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a pretty small package.”

    and….

    “Of all the pulpits from which human voice is ever sent forth, there is none from which it reaches so far as from the grave.”
    John Ruskin

    • artmodel says:

      JIm,

      LOVE IT!!! Those are great! The first one especially is perfect. Ruskin should have looked into himself with that one.

      Thanks for finding/sharing those quotes πŸ™‚

      Claudia

  7. Oh thank you for this wonderful piece of social history. I laughed at Ruskin’s expense and Effie’s eventual happiness. grins

  8. Brian says:

    Fascinating post Claudia…and I can see from the post count, others think the same! I can’t wait to see the movie.

  9. Merryn Williams says:

    My book ‘Effie: A Victorian Tragedy’ is published by the Book Guild at the end of May. I don’t think Ruskin was QUITE as bad as you have said – just deeply neurotic – but I do very much share your sympathy for Effie.

    • artmodel says:

      Merryn,

      Yes, I admit that I beat up Ruskin pretty badly in this post πŸ˜† I just found myself really, really disliking the guy. I also couldn’t find anything that would redeem him, in my mind at least. But of course you’re right. He wasn’t exactly a monster! Just neurotic as you said. I only wish he had been more honest and empathetic about the situation.

      Victorian women endured a terrible amount of repression and humiliation. Those marriages were prisons, and I feel like so many intriguing, creative women had their spirits, individuality, and ambitions subjugated. Effie’s story is one of those great triumphs. I am fascinated by her.

      I’m excited for your book!! And very honored that you posted a comment here on my little blog πŸ™‚ Do you have any feelings about the upcoming movie? I’m very interested to see its treatment of this story.

      Thanks for commenting Merryn!

      Claudia

  10. Merryn Williams says:

    Hello Claudia!
    The aim of my book was to tell Effie’s story from her point of view and to defend her reputation, because she has been attacked so often by admirers of Ruskin and Millais. I went to her home in Perth, Bowerswell, which is not very much changed, and it gave me a better idea of the sort of person she was. I did try to be fair to Ruskin, who was a kind and generous man on his own terns – but quite impossible to live with.
    ‘Desperate Romantics’ was a travesty but I feel sure that the film ‘Effie’ will be good as Emma Thompson is involved.
    Do order my book for your library!
    Best wishes,
    Merryn

  11. Mercedes S. says:

    Carey Mulligan has been replaced by the more age-appropriate Saoirse Ronan.

    • artmodel says:

      Mercedes,

      Thanks for the casting update! I have heard of Saoirse Ronan but am not too familiar with her. So I looked her up on on IMDB and she seems perfect to play Effie. There’s a real resemblance there!

      Claudia

  12. Ewan Lamont says:

    Ruskin had an upbringing which possibly created difficulties for him as he had few childhood companions to relate to and learn from. He was perhaps a victim of his overly religious parents who tried to insulate him from bad influences.

    I seem to remember that the French Impressionist Monet concurred with his views. His “Political Economy of Art” can still be read with interest today; I am reminded of it by installations of ephemeral materials and wonder how these conceits are to be conserved.

  13. Erin says:

    I heard there is to be another film, titled ”Untouched” starring Keira Knightley.
    I am by far more excited for Knightley’s performance as Effie then of Dakota Fannings.
    Fanning can act but she never seems to put in the amount of emotion that is needed aka ”The Runaways”. Cherie Currie was badass, based off her own memoir and her own emotional struggle.
    I don’t think Dakota got the emotional feel for Cherie or that she had the stage precence needed for that role. I think casting wise for that role ”Taylor Momsen” Would have been the better fit. Because Dakota could not pull of mentally disturbed drug addict Cherie Currie. She could pull of a drunk but thats about it.
    I Hope she does justice to Effie, but Who knows. I just see her as to much of a goody goody to play the role. and think it will be rather unconvincing.
    Based On Keira’s acting in movie’s such as ”The Duchess” and ”Atonement” I believe she will be perfect for the role of Effie.

    • artmodel says:

      Erin,

      Thanks for the info! Keira Knightley is an excellent actress, sounds like good casting. I haven’t seen The Runaways but I heard it was just average. Dakota Fanning is making the transition from child actress to adult actress and that can be tricky. I still think of her as a young girl!

      Thanks again for your comments!

      Claudia

  14. B says:

    Great article! I strongly recommend Suzanne Cooper’s “Effie” for a detailed discussion of Effie’s relationships with both Ruskin and Millias. For those who want to learn more of Ruskin’s career and his tormented on and off relationship with Rose La Touche (tragic in itself, in that La Touche died young from an unspecified illness and this in part caused Ruskin’s mental decline) Tim Hilton’s biography is a wonderful, though hefty, read.

    While I’ve enjoyed some of Ruskin’s works over the years, it can’t be disputed that he allowed his parents to play a significant role in the issues in his marriage. Not only were they overly possessive of their son, they openly criticized Effie, and often seemed to imply that she was “not up” to their son’s standards, even though she was a successful hostess and promoter of Ruskin’s work, the same way she was later with Millias. The wedding night wasn’t the cause, merely a symptom of Ruskin’s unusual attitudes towards emotional intimacy, sex, and childbirth. Ruskin allowed himself to be convinced that his wife’s mind was diseased, rather than being understanding of her frustration at being a healthy young woman with sexual desires and a wish to have children. stuck in a marriage where she lacked sexual and emotional fulfillment. Ruskin might well have been a virgin and an aesthate, but he wasn’t as naive as many presumed, having attended University and seen naughty drawings and behaviors. He could and did have good platonic friendships with numerous women, but quite obviously could not translate his better qualities into sustaining a healthy romantic or sexual relationship.

    • artmodel says:

      B,

      Thank you so much for the reading suggestions and your great comments! I learned a lot from what you wrote. It’s amazing to me that this now three year-old post still gets so many hits! There is clearly a lot of interest in Effie Gray and her relationship with Ruskin. I’m really glad you enjoyed my little piece. But like you said, there are extensive, detailed works on the subject by great authors.

      Claudia

  15. Jen says:

    So I’ve just watched the movie. Which sent me streight to Google because I’d never heard of this woman. This story is so much more interesting than the movie! They captured her emotional torment quite well but left out the better parts of her personality? There were interesting real life events left out, seemingly in favor of cinematography, silence and a super depressing musical score. I was really surprised to see that Emma Thompson had written the screenplay, as I adore her. I don’t think Dakota Fanning was right for this role either. I hope that Kira Knightly made that other movie, but I fear that she would play Effie too “crazy” and thus blur the line between emotional distress and Ruskin’s assertions that she was mad. Okay, my little rant is over. Lol

    • artmodel says:

      Jen,

      Rant away, that’s fine! I haven’t seen the movie yet but I think your comments are informative. It got mixed ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. I too am an Emma Thompson fan and would have expected a good screenplay. Dakota Fanning is a talented actress but if she was miscast, like you suggested, that can be a problem.

      Thanks for dropping in to share your comments!

      Claudia

  16. B. says:

    I finally was able to see the film. Just my opinion, but it may have been better as a miniseries – I thought the actors were fine, but the story needed more fleshing out (on U.S. cable, that would have translated to more disrobing and a casual tryst in Venice by Effie!) I would have loved seeing Emma Thompson play the role of Ruskin’s mother – Julie Walters depicts her as the mother in law from hell, and in real life she certainly was a force to be reckoned with but both of Ruskin’s parents were more compelling characters, as was Ruskin himself. No hour and a half film or four hour miniseries really can illustrate all of the complexities, but it was entertaining and if it encourages someone who doesn’t know much about a historical figure or era to do some research, good!

    The film doesn’t strike a good note on it, but Ruskin and Effie, when given enough time to themselves, at times had an amicable relationship that could have developed into a better appreciation of one another. It never would have been a lovestruck, passion fueled marriage, they both married each other for pragmatic reasons and Ruskin, at his best, was too dedicated to his work to probably ever have become a devoted lover or father, but there was the chance that an affection and understanding could have slowly developed between the two, if Ruskin hadn’t allowed his parents to be so possessive of him. (Hilton’s book discusses the hardships and long courtship and separation that Ruskin’s parents had to endure, which goes a long way in explaining why they became so possessive of their only child).

    Effie wasn’t the intellectual that Ruskin was, but she was intelligent (actually far more socially intelligent than Ruskin) and capable who was stifled in different ways in both of her marriages. She certainly was happier with Millais but his dislike of travel abroad (something both she and Ruskin enjoyed) greatly disappointed her. I don’t think she missed Ruskin, but she did seem to miss the travel, intellectual and social life she was exposed to during her marriage to him.

    Sorry for such a lengthy post, but I don’t regularly encounter people who have an interest in Effie, Ruskin or Millais. Again, a great blog on a woman who is usually kept in the shadow of both of her more famous husbands!

  17. Bob Watters says:

    Is Living Well the Best Revenge an old adage? CalvinTopkins used that as a title for his book on the Murphys, friends of the Fitgeralds. I am going to reexamine the book and see to whom if any the sentence is accredited to. I loved your ew,
    ew. and I can just see your tight pursed lips when you say it!

    • artmodel says:

      Bob,

      I don’t say “ew” much in real life but I use it on the Internet! This Effie Gray post still gets many views. A lot of interest in her.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Claudia

  18. Erica says:

    Ruskin was a creepy, pampered little pet. Like many other Victorian men, we can either damn him for his times or his character. In Ruskin’s case, the latter is more than appropriate. He was a paedophile. He was an arrogant and stupid man.

    What I don’t understand is the constant search to find out WHY he was repelled by gentle Effie, and WHY he was such a cad to visionary artists like Whistler. The search for why he behaved as he did has taken on the whiff of “excuse”. It was her pubic hair. It was her body odor. It was her menstrual blood (despite there being no evidence in her VERY frank letter to her father of any such thing). What a repeated dissection of her hapless predicament all those years ago! It wreaks of modern misogyny. He had strokes and brain damage–some syndrome–that excuse his casual destruction of Whistler. But he was busy destroying artists long before that. Whistler, though,–that brilliant artist–took him to court and tried to explain the whole of modern experimental art to a judge’s taste grown soft on a steady popular diet of Pre-Rafaelites. His valiant efforts went nowhere, but I love him all the more for it.

    The truth is that John Ruskin was an ignorant fraud. He was a “critic” because he SAID he was a critic, and everybody was taken in. For the life of me I don’t know why he is still studied. A sociopath is a sociopath is a sociopath. I don’t give a DAMN what he found objectionable in adult women or real art. Effie Gray, with her loving second husband and her bouncing children filling her house with life and love, was well shot of him.

    • artmodel says:

      Erica,

      Thank you for your passionate comments about Ruskin. I apologize for the late reply! I sometimes forget to stay abreast of new comments on old posts. This particular post still gets many views! You’re correct that we often excuse behaviors due to the times – and Victorian mores and social standards were vastly different from today’s obviously. But on the other hand, individuals are individuals and are responsible for their “character” as you put it. Ruskin’s reputation is rife with controversy. And yes, the court battle with Whistler is rich material, and you interpreted it astutely as a battle of artistic sensibilities. Whistler was a cantankerous guy, but truly a great artist. One of my many favorites.

      Effie Gray’s life inspires strong feelings among women, rightly so. I’m sure you’ll agree that we would not want to travel back in time and live during the Victorian age. Almost every biography I read of a woman living in that period contains struggles, cultural taboos, and social restrictions that piss me off.

      Again, thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  19. Paolo Marini says:

    We must remember that Ruskin’s attitude towards Millais’ work could be laudatory even after the divorce affair; as far as “Peace concluded” is concerned, he wasn’t afraid of claiming that “Titian himself could hardly head him now. This picture is as brilliant in invention as consummate in executive power”.

  20. JMM says:

    IMHO, he was a pedophile. He first met Effie when she was 12.

    And his second attempt at marriage was with a 17 year old girl who he met when she was 10.

    Can we say ‘grooming’?

  21. Kim Scarrott says:

    Wow, enlightening! Well done, Effie Gray, sweetly victorious. Ruskin does not hold much ground after reading this. Thanks.

  22. Iona says:

    A charming, funny and very informative article!

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