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THE 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.1
Shocked 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.'2
Effie 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 ability to attract young men did not always have such positive results. On a visit she made to Verona two Austrian officers fought a duel over who should dance with her. One was left nursing a severe sabre wound. Effie treated it as a joke, saying it was absurd how 'these young men think as little of Duelling as they do of smoking a cigar'. However, as her relationship with her husband began to unravel, her desire to walk the tightrope between friendship and flirtation became increasingly risky.
At the critical moment in their marriage, John decided to champion a group of rebellious young artists who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He approved of their attempts to paint with innocent eyes, going to nature 'in all singleness of heart', as he had suggested in Modern Painters, 'selecting nothing, rejecting nothing and scorning nothing'. It seemed that this band of artistic brothers had responded to his rallying call. John asked the most precociously talented of the Brotherhood, John Everett Millais, to join them on holiday. As both Ruskin and the handsome young artist were christened John, Effie took to calling Millais by his middle name, Everett. My account of their story will follow this family tradition.
In July 1853 Everett and the Ruskins rented a cottage near Glenfinlas in Perthshire. John wanted Everett to paint him there, choosing a 'lovely piece of worn rock, with foaming water, and weeds, and moss, and a noble overhanging bank of dark crag' as a backdrop. It was to be the archetypal Pre-Raphaelite picture, a detailed study of natural forms combined with a portrait of the art movement's most vocal supporter. But Everett also made numerous sketches of Effie. He painted her sitting beside a waterfall, or quietly sewing, with foxgloves tucked into her hair. He also helped Effie with her own drawings, took long walks with her in the evenings and sheltered with her under a shawl, waiting for the rain to stop. She read Dante to him and even cut his hair.
That summer Everett was well placed to see the cracks in the Ruskins' marriage: the cottage they all shared was tiny. John slept on the sofa, while Effie and Everett each had their own little closet, five feet by seven, to sleep and dress in. Everett was over six feet tall, and in a bedroom 'not much larger than a snuffbox' he claimed he could open the window, shut the door andshave, all without getting out of bed. Despite the discomfort, he chose to stay close to Effie rather than sleep at the inn with other members of their party. As he admitted to a friend, 'these chilling mountains make one love little soft, warm, breathing bodies'.
After returning to London in the autumn, Everett became increasingly troubled by what he had seen that summer. He began to fear that John Ruskin was 'a plotting and scheming fellow' who had deliberately left him alone with Effie to force her into a compromising position. Before long, Effie was also worrying that her husband was deliberately trying to get her into a 'scrape'. By Christmas, Everett had decided that he should warn Effie's mother about 'the wretchedness of her position'. Writing to her on 19 December 1853, he complained of John's selfishness and the way he constantly pointed out his wife's shortcomings. In his haste to catch the post that night Everett let something slip: he knew why Effie was so unhappy. She had already told him the secret of her failed marriage.
So Effie became the heroine of a great Victorian love story. Her life reads like a novel, full of colour, sensation, despair and romance. Her first husband was a damaged genius, her second a handsome rebel. We can chart her journey in every detail, thanks to a vast collection of correspondence treasured by her family since her death. Fifteen bulging parcels of letters, tied up in brown paper and string, were lent to the Tate Archive in 2009. Inside the wrappings lay the raw material for this book. It was a biographer's dream. In the coming chapters, every landscape, every tête-à-tête, every ball gown, is drawn from these astonishing original sources. There has been no need to make anything up, or to embroider the facts. It was all there, down to the last ribbon, waiting to be discovered in the archives.
We hear Effie's voice directly. She writes several times a week to her parents, telling them about her highs and lows. Through the letters we learn about her travels, the sights and smells of her home, her dance partners, her miserable marriage. And later she describes her hopes for the future with Everett and the daily struggles of motherhood. We also hear the other side of the conversation. The tales told by her father guide us through Effie's world, as he keeps her up to date with family news. Sometimes George Gray sounds like Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, escaping to his study to avoid the fallout from his daughters' love affairs. Mrs Gray's letters are harder todecipher. Her handwriting is rapid and spidery. Effie's mother held on to an old habit from before the days of the penny post: to save paper she crossed her letters, writing first in one direction, then when she had filled up the sheet, turning the paper through ninety degrees and adding more lines. Her notes become networks of overlapping words. Trying to read through one layer to reach the other can be almost impossible. It makes us remember that they were written for Effie's eyes and not for ours. But almost miraculously, when we most need to hear her version of events, Mrs Gray's handwriting suddenly becomes legible. From her accounts, we can piece together for the first time the tragic story of Sophy, Effie's sister, and discover why this young girl haunted Everett's art.
Of course there are gaps and mysteries. The letters offer only glimpses of Effie's life, like parts of a jigsaw puzzle that have to be fitted together. But section by section we build up a picture of the past. Sudden snapshots-the look on John Ruskin's face as he falls in a haystack, or Everett's voice as he reads Keats aloud one wet afternoon-add light and shadow. Occasionally we find a message that does not slide neatly into place. Who was the girl who signed herself 'AE', writing to Effie in the dead of night, asking for news of a lover? She said she 'thought of Effie while she read under a Plane tree on Sunday afternoon'. We never find out.
There is also the problem of knowing how the story ends. When Effie boarded her train in the spring of 1854, she had no idea what would happen next. Winning her case against John Ruskin was not guaranteed. There was nothing inevitable about her marriage to Everett. She might have gone back to Bowerswell and disappeared for ever from the public stage. We can look forward to the next part of her life, but for Effie it was a terrible leap of faith. There is another downside to the historian's gaze. We spend a lot of time with Effie's family. In particular, we grow to love her father through his letters, enjoying his humour, admiring his humanity. And yet we see the diminishing pile of correspondence in the parcel. We know he will die in January 1877. Mr Gray feared the end was coming, writing to his daughter that he knew no one could 'lengthen his days artificially'. Still, he was not quite ready to go when he did.
The letters and diaries allow us to walk with Effie, observing sixty years of Victorian life through her eyes. She is good company, a witty fellow traveller through Victoria's world. It is a pleasure to overhear her dinner-partyconversation, or picnic with her by a Scottish mountain stream. She is also a witness to an extraordinary time of upheaval. The teeming city of London is her home for most of her adult life. This place is the focus of world attention, the site of spectacular events like the Great Exhibition of 1851, and Effie is right there to give us her impressions. But she is not just a witness; she is also an agent of change. Her own actions in leaving John Ruskin mark her out as a woman who is willing to defy expectations. She helps to reshape Victorian femininity.
Effie was only one woman among millions, but she showed that it was possible to regain control of her life. With the help of a supportive family, she refused to remain in an increasingly abusive relationship. She suffered physically and mentally, but was able to rebuild her self-esteem in a successful second marriage. While Everett painted, she was in charge of domestic arrangements-running the household, organising parties, managing correspondence. Together they made a great team. His virtuosic technique and 'manly' personality combined with her charm and organisational skills to create a flourishing artistic practice.
Victorian art was a serious business, and Everett and Effie were in the vanguard of a revolution that transformed the status of artists. Until the mid-nineteenth century, most painters hovered on the margins of polite society. Even J.M.W. Turner, the greatest living artist of the 1840s, lived in a house that was unheated, bare and miserly. Effie was shocked by the squalor when she visited him in 1848. Compare this with Everett's studio-home, described in 1881 as a bright and substantial palace. Effie expected to entertain in style. Her social respectability was reinforced in 1885 when the Queen made Everett a baronet. This was an unprecedented honour for an artist.
Perhaps Effie's legacy is best seen in the lives of her sisters and daughters. It is their faces that gaze out at us from Everett's most haunting paintings. They embodied Victorian society's fears about female sexuality and freedom. But their generation also reaped the benefits of Effie's own step into the unknown in the spring of 1854. These young girls grew up in a world where women could begin to choose for themselves. For the first time they could hop on a bus or cycle to work. They might go to university, or train to become doctors. They could even become professional artists, breaking into the masculine stronghold of the Royal Academy schools. Effie never intended to be a pioneer. In fact she fought hard to rebuild her own respectable reputationand defy her critics. But whether she liked it or not, she gave hope to countless women who had suffered silently.
When Gladstone was once asked about Effie's story, he replied, 'Should you ever hear anyone blame Millais, or his wife, or Mr Ruskin, remember there was no fault. There was misfortune, even tragedy: but all three were perfectly blameless.' It is time to find out if the Prime Minister was right.3
EFFIE. Copyright © 2010 by Suzanne Fagence Cooper. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.