If you were Euphemia, would you choose Effie?

Euphemia Chalmers Gray
Sir John Everett Millais 
Scanned image and text by George P. Landow

On a past visit to Brantwood in Cumbria, former home of John Ruskin, a friend and I were in the dining room when we mutually experienced a very strange occurrence, which felt psychic. Heat flooded the body of my friend while I felt electrified, zingy, shivery.  I later found this which suggested we were not unique:

When I crossed the threshold at Brantwood and stood in the entry hall with its slate blue walls, Ruskin drawings on the walls, silvery waterfall just outside the door, a lump came in my throat and tears in my eyes – he was that close. The house and setting are very beautiful but somehow terribly melancholy – how could it be otherwise?  The spirit of my beloved ‘Papa John’ Ruskin is everywhere to be felt here.  Most especially in the large, light dining room which he designed himself, complete with a seven bay Venetian window which manages to achieve something of the aspect of a piano nobile transported to the frozen north. 

It was this experience which drove me to find out more about Ruskin and indeed the sad story of his marriage to the nine years younger Effie Gray.

The story of Effie (Euphemia) Gray is an extraordinary one. We tend to think of marital issues of this magnitude as being a contemporary phenomenon, but it shows that the Victorians, too, had their problems. Divorce was not easy, nor was annulment, but the latter is exactly what happened in the case of Effie Gray, who had to undertake a virginity test (to prove her marriage was celibate) to achieve it when, six years later, she was still a virgin. A letter from the time states:

Finally this last year he told me his true reason (and this to me is as villainous as all the rest), 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 is that he was disgusted with my person the first evening.

Euphemia Gray, a Scottish beauty of little fortune, married renowned art critic and philanthropist, John Ruskin, at the age of 19, only to find herself trapped in an unconsummated union. She later fell in love with his artist protege, John Everett Millais. Well, I’m not sure how ‘in love’ she fell but she certainly lost her admiration and respect for her husband, John Ruskin, so sought an alternative.

Now, the general understanding is that Effie was not bad looking, but also had a certain attraction, charm. Men liked her. She had energy and passion, an eagerness to learn, in the days when women were fairly educationally and socially constrained. Her relationship with John Ruskin seemed to begin with her admiration of his intellect and desire to go through the doors he might open. So, a bit of social climbing, maybe, in the hope of a ‘celebrity’ lifestyle. Certainly, she enjoyed balls, flirting, horse riding and the socialising that was anathema to her husband. 

John, however, is usually painted as being overly attached to his parents, who were very forthcoming in their views. He also seemed to like women on the cusp of adulthood, i.e., young. Now, we might say his predilections were a little suspect. Put in the context of the time, it seems that Victorian artists were fascinated by adolescent girls, so it is hard to know whether it is a historical/cultural phenomenon or just a tad deviant.

Either way, Ruskin and Effie married during Lent, which was his first (and a common) excuse for not starting conjugal relations. When Effie eventually questioned his lack of activity, he excused it through religion, mentioned a dislike of small babies, felt that having children would interfere with his working life and that her pregnancy would destroy their travel plans along with Effie’s girlish beauty. The decision was made to wait until Effie was 25. 

There seems to be no indication that he preferred men but apparently told Effie that he had been ‘disgusted with her person’ (see above) when he saw her on her wedding night. Additionally, he seemed a cold character, proffering little warmth in terms of even affection, preferring to spend his time with others, especially his parents, so maybe he was just not sexually active. That said, Marriage of Inconvenience by Robert Brownell (which I now must read) suggests Effie was engaged to someone else when Ruskin first proposed but agreed to marry him to save her family (her father was facing bankruptcy). It also suggests that Ruskin was initially besotted with Effie, that it was her character which put him off. However, on their wedding night, it seems Ruskin and his bride slept nude in each other’s arms! Still, some suggest physical disgust fell in the way.

Questions are raised whether this ‘disgust’ referred to her under-arm or pubic hair, removed in the paintings of classical nudes with which he was familiar, yet the pornography he saw at Oxford acquainted him well with real women with body hair. Effie married at the wrong time of the month; she was menstruating. John could not cope with flesh, and especially blood. Basically, the marriage was over before it began, though it lasted for six years, and left Effie understandably scarred whether it was physical disgust or the fact that she was too frivolous for a man like Ruskin.

She did fall for Millais, going on to have eight children by him. However, by the time they came to marry, it was suggested that Effie did so in order to regain some respectability, for annulment was a damnable state for a woman to be in at this time (think earlier, Catherine of Aragon). For example, Queen Victoria would have nothing to do with her. One gets the impression that while Effie was a loyal wife, her love for Millais seemed at times lukewarm, not the great passion we are led to believe.

Ruskin later fell in love again with an even younger beauty but her parents were not happy with the idea that this ‘impotent’ man should ruin the life of their daughter.

Despite having eight children, Effie curiously didn’t seem to like them that much. While Millais became an artist of some repute, she seemed destined to frustration in many areas of life. All in all, her life was quite a sad one, though she rejoined society, became involved in the art world and generally got on with sorting out life’s – and especially her family’s – problems.

As for her name,  it seems she hated Effie, preferring Phemy.

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