Her wedding night went down in history and she was on the fringes of a dynamic group of young, ambitious artists, yet her biography falls flat. That’s not entirely the fault of the biographer, though. If the subject had been a man, there would be a wealth of letters, journals and other reports to wade though. However, the subject was a woman and this particular woman was desperate for a quiet, respectable life. So Merryn Williams’s quiet, respectable style suits the subject but doesn’t make a hugely exciting read.
Like most Victorian woman, Effie Gray was brought up ignorant of the facts of life, which, for her, proved disastrous on her first wedding night. As a teenager, she met the art critic John Ruskin and both convinced themselves they were in love. She with a respected man from a respectable family. He with a child on the verge of blooming into the promise of a woman with social skills he was severely lacking. He undressed her on their wedding night but failed to consummate their marriage. Baffled by his reaction, Effie agreed to his suggestion they try again when she was older. He later tried to persuade her that he was concerned for her health and feared she might become pregnant just as they were planning extensive travels in Italy. The in-laws also proved problematic. Mrs Ruskin both complained Effie was spending too much money and that dinner was not up to the quality and standards she expected. She also criticised Effie’s behaviour and manners in front of family and guests. John Ruskin also failed to fulfil his second promise to consummate their marriage. Effie struggled on, putting a brave face on her husband’s rejection and her in-laws’ bullying.
Painter John Millais approached Ruskin and asked permission to paint Effie. Ruskin agreed without hesitation and invited Millais to accompany them on their journey to Scotland as Ruskin wanted a portrait with Scottish scenery. For Effie it was a holiday from hell. In her beloved Scotland, she was increasingly drawn towards Millais whilst her husband merely wanted her not to bother him. Millais felt he’d been set up and Ruskin was practically encouraging him to have an affair with Effie. In actual fact, Ruskin was ignorant of the effects of his own behaviour and how it might look to others. At the end of the holiday, Effie and Millais agreed not to see each other. Nothing had happened, but there was already gossip about the state of Effie and Ruskin’s marriage and neither she nor Millais wanted to give the gossips material.
Effie discussed the state of her marriage with her parents, who had been aware she was very unhappy, but not why. Millais had separately told them about Ruskin’s behaviour during their trip to Scotland. Legal advice suggested Effie could seek an annulment and plans were made, with her parents’ support, for her to leave Ruskin and return home. Under English Law an annulment is not a divorce, it restored Effie to the status she had before becoming involved with Ruskin. She had to argue he was impotent and submit herself to a medical examination to prove she was still a virgin. The annulment was granted and she and Millais agreed to wait a year before becoming engaged.
Naturally Effie’s second attempt at marriage was significantly more successful than the first. Although she was not a writer or artist, she was a great communicator and always interested in broadening her experience. She learnt four languages and could strike up a conversation with anyone she met. She settled into marriage with Millais, hoping she could shut the door on her time with Ruskin.
Merryn Williams’s biography runs out of steam at this point. Little survives of Effie’s life as Millais’s wife and, understandably her family did not speak or write of Effie’s involvement with Ruskin. Effie is the focus for this book, not Millais or the Pre-Raphaelites generally. Unfortunately happy lives rarely make interesting biographies, for much the same reasons as fairytales stop at “and they lived happily ever after.”
This is worth a read if you don’t know the story. Merryn Williams’s telling is painstaking balanced, giving the facts without speculation and without taking sides.