Effie: How the Pre-Raphaelite Woman Found Her Voice
It is every biographer’s dream: fifteen bulging packages tied up with brown paper and string. Effie’s family had treasured these papers for a century. Here were letters from her parents and school-friends, messages from her family in Wyoming and Western Australia, lines she wrote in Venice during her last years when she was nearly blind.
Effie Ruskin – the bright, beautiful woman at the heart of the Pre-Raphaelite world – could tell a good story.
According to Mrs Gaskell, Effie was ‘very pretty, very clever, - and very vain’ and had 27 proposals before she married John Ruskin in 1848. Florence Nightingale whispered that Effie liked to provoke her straight-laced husband by coming down to breakfast with flowers in her hair. As a young bride, Effie barricaded herself into her box at La Fenice to avoid the attentions of Russian princes. It is hard to reconcile these tales with the demure portraits of Effie sitting with her eyes lowered, concentrating on her sewing, the model wife. So what really happened in her failed marriage to the great 19th century art-prophet, John Ruskin?
Effie’s honeymoon was a catastrophe. Ruskin refused to have sex with her. For six miserable years, she kept hoping he would change his mind. When she became tearful and sleepless, Ruskin suggested that she was insane. And when she was at her lowest ebb, her husband decided she should model for his young protégé John Everett Millais. Everett’s eye for natural beauty, so Ruskin said, was unsurpassed, his Pre-Raphaelite ideals were revolutionary. He was also very handsome.
The three of them spent the summer of 1853 together in a cramped cottage in the Scottish Highlands. Ruskin ignored his wife. Everett, however, was entranced by Effie. As the rain fell outside, he drew her compulsively. In the brief moments of sunshine, they strode out together. Effie took his arm as he helped her across the stepping-stones, and gripped tighter when they slithered through the mud. But Everett saw that the Ruskin marriage was in tatters. He feared that his passion for Effie might compromise her, and miserably wrote to her mother about Ruskin’s heartlessness.
Finally, after months of depression, Effie told her parents her sad secret. Together they planned her escape. And so, one chill April morning, she packed her bags, said goodbye to Ruskin for the last time, and left him. He hoped she would go quietly.
Thanks to the cache of letters, I have discovered what happened next, when she was reunited with Everett Millais. We can follow the twists and turns of her second marriage, which lasted more than 40 years. Now I see how Effie inspired a shift in Millais’s work towards a broader beauty. And I have learnt the tragic fate of Effie’s sister Sophy, whose face shines out of Millais’s most haunting canvases. At last, the Pre-Raphaelite woman can speak out and silence her critics.
Suzanne Fagence Cooper is author of Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, Ruskin and Millais, published by Duckworth Publishers.
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