Robert Brownell's hefty, beautifully illustrated volume, which provides by far the fullest, most detailed examination of Ruskin's failed marriage, sympathetically portrays both parties in this sad story — Euphemia Chalmers Gray and John Ruskin. Although clearly an advocate for Ruskin, he also defends Effie, reminding us that
Collingwood, who knew John for a quarter of a century and had unrestricted access to all the papers at Brantwood for his biography, came to the conclusion that Effie was “a charming girl placed in difficult circumstances.” The present author is of a similar opinion. Effie should not be judged too harshly for agreeing to this mismatch. It may even be possible to regard Effie's decision to marry John as a selfless act performed in order to save her family from very real suffering. Even without this pressing commitment Effie would not have been the first bride to trade her charms for wealth and a celebrity lifestyle; nor would she be the last. 
Furthermore, Brownell points out that the woman Ruskin married “had been away from her parents and in fashionable society for virtually the whole of her teenage years. She had developed from a child to a woman largely without the restraining influence of her family” (90). As a result, she became “sophisticated and fashion-conscious” young woman with “highly developed social skills and a penchant for flirtation. She lived for dressing up, gossiping, dancing, flirting, balls and young men. She was also a fearless and stylish horse rider” (90). In other words, bringing these two people together was a recipe for disaster, since the way they “had been brought up had made them almost precise opposites” (90). Opposites, they say, attract, and they did here for a year or two but then . . . As Brownell later puts it, “John could and often did forget his troubles by working. Effie left her troubles behind by going out to balls and parties. Socialising made John ill: it cured Effie. Knowing how much she loved socialising, he had continually worried that she would find it difficult to adjust to her new life” (194).
Two of Ruskin's self-portraits and two of Millais's drawings of Effie. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
Brownell is not only sympathetic to Effie but he also demonstrates that Ruskin on occasion can be a very unreliable witness to his own history, reminding us that we cannot always trust Praeterita, Ruskin's brilliant autobiography. By this statement, I do not mean that Brownell finds Praeterita untrustworthy because it leaves out matters, such as the courtship, marriage, and annulment in question, since Ruskin explicitly states he will only concentrate on memories that give him pleasure. Rather he makes clear that Ruskin can provide misinformation about his life. For example, Praeterita contains Ruskin's famous statement that as a child he desperately wanted a pet, something to love: “I had nothing animate to care for, in a childish way, but myself, some nests of ants, which the gardener would never leave undisturbed for me, and a sociable bird or two; though I never had the sense or perseverance to make one tame.” How sad, how pitiful! One of my children who was allergic to cats and dogs briefly had a clam as a pet, but a bunch of ants . . . — this is even worse. And it's not true, for as Brownell points out, “In fact he had a complete menagerie of animals. Beginning when he was four, the family letters mention a sheep, a dog, a kitten and the Shetland pony. He also inherited 'Dash', the Richardsons' spaniel” (43). Moreover, his parents adopted his orphaned cousin Mary, who was then fourteen, so “the ten-year-old John effectively had a sister from this time on” (39). The question, of course, is what made Ruskin mis-remember his childhood as so devoid of things to love?
We learn many things about Effie, John, and their families in Marriage of Inconvenience — for example, that she hated the nickname “Effie,” — her preferred nickname was “Phemy” (72) — and that she was engaged to someone else when she accepted Ruskin's proposal for the sake of her family (105, 114-15) and had “understandings” with half a dozen other men. Brownell's discussions of the railway investment panics of the 1840s do a particularly fine job explaining the exact economic situation in which Effie's father found himself — almost certain bankruptcy — and his excellent scholarly detective work about a contemporary political crisis in France also explains why the Gray's situation so worsened on one particular day that Effie saved her family when she unexpectedly called back Ruskin and accepted his proposal of marriage just days after she had rejected him.
Marriage of Inconvenience also provides a convincing history of their courtship, relationship after marriage, year of happiness, and later falling out. In the first place, Ruskin did not find himself forced into marriage by his parents — probably the opposite is true — and Ruskin, who had fallen in love several times before, was deeply in love with Effie. “To modern readers,” Brownell remarks, his “surviving love letters to Effie appear alternately self-doubting, adolescently passionate, condescending and wisely prophetic. There are some excruciatingly embarrassing passages, but one thing is certain: he was absolutely besotted with Effie.” (123). More important, despite all the unfounded notions that Ruskin found himself disgusted by Effie's body on their wedding night, his surviving letters — and Effie's later testimony under oath — tell a very different story: Ruskin and his bride slept nude in each others arms! Marriage of Inconvenience convincingly argues that much of the speculation about Ruskin's sexuality derives from misunderstanding a single word in Ruskin's later remark that “although 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” (465; emphasis added). According to Brownell, Ruskin uses the word person both about himself and others to mean personage or character and not body. Brownell argues, “Despite not having consummated the marriage, . . . it should not therefore be assumed that no physical intimacy took place,” after which he quotes the following letter Ruskin wrote when they were apart:
I expect a line from my dearest love to morrow at Sens: Do you know, pet, it seems almost a dream to me that we have been married: I look forward to meeting you: and to your next bridal night: and to the time when I shall again draw your dress from your snowy shoulders: and lean my cheek upon them, as if you were still my betrothed only: and I had never held you in my arms. God bless you, my dearest.
Brownell next draws three conclusions, all of which contradict facile assumptions about Ruskin's sexuality: “Firstly that he remembered the first night of the honeymoon with pleasure which would not have been the case if, as Admiral James suggested, he had been repelled by her body. Secondly that he was looking forward to experiencing her naked body again, which, again, would not have been the case if he had found her disgusting. Finally, he was still strongly attracted to her.”
Ruskin's next letter, Brownell explains, makes clear that “Effie replied to this letter at some length, referring specifically to their honeymoon: ‘My Darling Effie,” Ruskin writes, ‘I have your precious letter here: with the account so long and kind - of all your trial at Blair Athol - indeed it must have been cruel my dearest: I think it will be much nicer next time, we shall neither of us be frightened.’” Both Ruskin and Effie stated that they would not consummate the marriage until she reached her twenty-fifth birthday, in large part because Ruskin planned to travel abroad and wanted to avoid the risk of her pregnancy. So what happened next? When apart, Effie closes letters to him “Goodbye my dearest love” (137). Moreover, when writing to her mother early in their marriage, she praises her husband for his tact and generosity: “I send you ten pounds. . . . John does not like to know anything about my money after he gives it to me which is very delicate in him because he knows very well that I buy or send you a little present now and then he says the money is entirely my own & he would be very sorry if I had not a little over for anything I desired“ (212-13). Moreover when writing from Venice, she again praises him, telling her mother that her companion
Charlotte is just saying she thinks of writing a pamphlet on what a husband ought to be and giving John as a model, which he really is. I never saw any person so free from petty faults and narrow mindedness although peculiar in many ways. His gallantry of behavior to us both is most charming and he is so considerate and thoughtful for me that I am sure Papa would be quite delighted if he saw how kind he is. [273; also 276, 280-81]
Effie briefly tried to assist Ruskin in his researches, but he knew that she would be much happier in society, and in Venice he encouraged her to socialize. Brownell, who believes their second stay in Venice “seems to have been very much Effie's decision, although John had already planned to do some work there,” concludes that whether either of them consciously set out to do so
during their stay in Venice, John and Effie had conducted a very radical experiment in marital relations on the continental model. Whether this was by design or accident is not clear. What is certain is that for her part Effie found the experiment extremely rewarding and was reluctant to leave. No other conclusion can be drawn from her letters home. For most of the time in Venice she and John had indeed lived virtually separate lives. If her letters are anything to go by she had very little interest in her husbands work. She only referred to his book once and never mentioned its title. She assumed that John was also quite content with the way they were living and it would seem that she intended this lifestyle to continue after the couple returned to London.
So what went so disastrously wrong? What made Ruskin who had looked forward to his young wife's twenty-fifth birthday decide he would not consummate their marriage? What, in turn, made the woman who had praised him as the perfect husband suddenly hate him? Their stay in Venice, which had seemed a perfect a place for them both to carry on their approaches to this unconsummated marriage, saw Ruskin's opinion of his wife change dramatically.
Taking into consideration all the available evidence on this Venetian episode, the facts seem to be these. Because of the difficult nature of the relationship with her husband and because of the mismatch of their two characters, Effie was left in a tricky social limbo which her flirtatious character made even more dangerous. The peculiar circumstances of the Venetian occupation surrounded her with lots of young men short of dancing partners and accustomed to solving problems with violence. Over time Effie had made several enemies amongst her erstwhile admirers by unintentionally but predictably raising hopes, arousing jealousy and thereby causing unpleasantness, and, less predictably, death and injury. The same political naivety which endeared Effie to the Austrians also made her unpopular with the locals and with her servants. . . . What began as a generous impulse on John's plan not to thwart her enjoyment of activities in which he himself had neither time nor inclination to indulge, soon turned into a very dangerous game indeed as they both realised that the marriage was never going to develop into a loving relationship. [343, 316].
As far as I can determine, Effie's involvement with some dangerous characters, the theft of her jewels, and her general conduct seems to have awakened Ruskin to the realization that she was not then nor would she ever become the woman he wanted as a wife and mother of his children. Brownell also argues that Effie's naive insensitivity to the political situation in Venice also caused problems:
Falling out with influential members of the Austrian army was not a wise move, especially since Effie had made sufficient enemies on the other side. Being more interested in men and balls than politics she, unlike John and his servant George, had always been a great enthusiast for the Austrians. Whilst her husband spoke Italian and kept his social contacts with the Austrians to a minimum, she spoke German and was constantly attended by the Austrian military. Effie seemed blissfully unaware that her handsome young Austrians were professional men of violence who had just waged a brutal and bloody campaign across Northern Italy, had besieged and shelled Venice and were regarded by the defeated Venetians as their bitter enemies. . . . Consorting with the forces of a violent occupation had to be done diplomatically when your house servants were the ones being occupied, Effie, however, even had a dress made in the Austrian colours ot orange and black. Her young Italian music master made it very clear to her that he did not enjoy teaching her when she was wearing it, nor would he have appreciated being asked by Effie to play music by German composers. The cook too seems to have become disaffected . . . [328-29]
I don't find this line of reasoning all that convincing in respect to the couple's relationship to one another, though it's possible that the general situation drove a wedge between Ruskin and his wife.
I find Marriage of Inconvenience's careful examination of the legal end of their marriage as informative and convincing as its analysis of evidence about the courtship, marriage, both families, and the social, political, and economic contexts it examines. Because Euphemia Gray and John Ruskin married in Scotland, where the divorce laws were much easier for a man who wanted to end a marriage than they were in England, Ruskin could have easily divorced his wife. He could charge her with misconduct or adultery without having to name the adulterer. According to Brownell, Ruskin, who had begun to keep a journal noting his wife's conduct, had the means of obtaining a divorce but did not wish to subject either of them to a public scandal. The marriage was annulled on grounds of Ruskin's supposed sexuality incapacity, and by making sure he was out of the country when the case was heard, he did not have be examined or contest Effie's petition. Oddly enough, even if the man in question later had a child by another woman, that did not invalidate the annulment, but Effie may not have known that, and she thought it in her family's interest to prevent Ruskin's marriage to Rose La Touche, mistakenly assuming that such would cancel the annulment.
The annulment was supposed to provide an easy way out for both parties, but Ruskin hadn't taken into account the fierce hostility of the Eastlakes, who were looking for an opportunity to humiliate the man who had so criticized the director of the National Gallery. Another point occasioned by the fact that the marriage took place in Scotland: because the marriage laws of England and Scotland differed, one could not annul a Scottish marriage in England, so the annulment may well have been illegal!
- Another review of this book (James Spaes)
- “For Godsake be done with railways and shares!” — the Railway Panics of the 1840s
- “The Dark Shadow”: Consumption (tuberculosis) in the families of nineteenth-century writers
- Robert Brownell on Ruskin's unconsummated marriage
Brownell, Robert. Marriage of Inconvenience: John Ruskin, Effie Gray, John Everett Millais and the surprising truth about the most notorious marriage of the nineteenth century. London: Pallas Athene, 2013.
Last modified 13 March 2014