London, 1854: a scandal shakes the good society of the Victorian era, who loved to gossip over bed matters of those who washed their dirty linen in public. That was a case upside down though, in a sense that instead of adultery in this story the marriage had never been consummated in 6 long years.
On the 25th of April 1854 the young and beautiful Euphemia Gray, called Effie, got on the train with her younger sister Sophie, assured that she would have left for never to come back her marital house. Her husband, the famous Art critic John Ruskin maybe had a sigh of relief, even though he was aware of the scandal that that choice would have gone with.
Euphemia Gray – painting by Thomas Richmond
Effie Gray and John Ruskin got married when John was 29 and her 10 years younger. The pretty Effie, daughter of a prolific well-off Scottish couple, was beautiful, loved fancy balls and parties as well as being pursued. John was the opposite: only child of an ancient couple of overprotective parents, with a extremely religious mother that did not leave him not even when he entered the College of Oxford, moving in with him.
A young John Ruskin – George Richmond, 1843
John had a solitary yet culturally stimulating youth. His insecure character though alternated great enthusiasm to stages of depressions, and had difficulties with the women. Effie and John met up when she was 11 and kept a fraternal long distance correspondence. He proposed to her but she was already in a relationship with a soldier who had left for a mission in India. Her father Gray was not in a particularly positive situation due to his wrong investments which made him risk the bankrupt. Setting up a marriage with the wealthy John was a better solution to mend the economy of the family. In fact the union was fruitful: Ruskin father deposited 10,000 pounds to Grey’s family even though neither him not his wife attended the wedding.
John Ruskin – self-portrait 1861
What happened exactly on their wedding night is not allowed to be known, but the wedding was not consummated ever. In the London salons there were many people giggling at Ruskin’s words:
“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”.
To what those “circumstances” were referring to was never possible to be specified. The least malicious ones thought it was due to an aversion to children, of some religious distorted belief, or the aesthetic desire to not ruin the beauty of Effie with pregnancy. Some less nice ones would hypothesise that during the wedding night Effie was found during her menstruation and he was disgusted by it, or the fact he found out that women had pubic hair too, far from the smooth skin that the classical marble statues would show. In a letter to her parents, Effie said “he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was”.
Picture of Effie Ruskin by John Everett Millais, 1853
The writer Robert Brownell in his book “Marriage of Inconvenience” imagined a completely different theory. Ruskin was aware that Effie did not marry him for love and he waited, to carry out his duty as husband, for a sentiment to grow from her side. A vain hope because Effie did not accept that situation, that anyway she could not discuss with anyone, and barely accepted the continuous interferences of his parents who by the way were still supporting her family.
Photography of Effie Gray – 1860 circa
In the meantime Ruskin became one of the most influential Art critics of Britain, able to modify the aesthetical taste of his epoch. The couple stayed in Venice for long periods twice. He studied thoroughly “The Stones of Venice” and she accepted the court of many Hapsburg officials present in the city. The rumour of her cheerful conduct, enlarged even further by the story of a duel between the husband and one of those (caused by a theft), arrived all the way to London.
Ruskin, maybe tired of that marriage grabbed a favourable opportunity that arose. One of his protectees, the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, accepted his suggestion to take Effie as a model for a painting. With the permission of her husband, painter and model spent many hours alone and started a sort of platonic relation which Ruskin was hoping for.
Painting of John Everett Millais by George Frederic Watts, 1871
His attitude mixed with the one of his parents suggest an intention of discrediting the woman in everybody’s eyes. Even that painting, where a scandalous woman with bare foot was represented, fuelled those rumours despite Effie gave only her face, let alone all on her husband’s request.
The order of release – John Everett Millais, 1853 (Effie Gray as model)
Unhappy of the result, Ruskin hosted Millais to spend his holidays together with them in Scotland, with the excuse he wanted a painting but in reality without missing an opportunity to leave the two on their own. The tactic that Ruskin was adopting was the one of inducing his wife to ask for the annulment of the marriage for lack of consumption. That solution would have been more advantageous for two motives: the expensive nature of divorce (at the time the average of divorces per year was barely 4), and the annulment, even when he was the guilty party, did not include the obligation of him undergoing a medical examination. Let alone the fact that news of such kind was generally not reported by the press.
Painting of Effie Gray by John Everett Millais, 1873 circa
Ruskin succeeded in his intent: the wife requested the annulment of her marriage but the procedure became the most gossiped fact in London salons. In 1854 the judges accepted the request of Effie Gray, checked by two doctors who confirmed her virginity, explained with the “incurable impotency” of Ruskin.
In the end, despite the scandal, Effie did the right thing, most likely. Perhaps the Ruskin family, considering that the lady was not incline to betray her husband, were about to demonstrate her mental illness, condemning her to a terrible destiny. Charles Dickens did something along those lines with his own wife.
Who eventually lost his mind was him, John, that innovative man not only in the arts but also in social life, so visionary and solitary. When he turned 39 he fell in love with Rose La Touche, child of just 9 years old. An impossible love which terminated with the death of her, maybe for anorexia when she was 27, and the retirement of him in a countryside dwelling, where he spent his last days in a frenzy until the 20th of January 1900.
John Ruskin, 1894
Effie’s life had a better outcome: she married John Everett Millais, she actively contributed to his success by nurturing the right social relationships and in the meantime she gave birth to 8 children. She died in 1897 but she had the late satisfaction of being welcomed to the Royal court after 40 years of ostracism: the puritan English society, queen Victoria included, always considered her an adulterer for that second marriage.
What a Victorian woman was supposed to do was making due, accept in silence and perhaps end up in an asylum for hysteria (…).