In the following passage from >Marriage of Inconvenience Brownell offers a convincing explanation of the decision by Ruskin (or both Ruskins, as they were after the wedding ceremony) not to consummate their marriage but wait until Effie's twenty-fifth birthday. Most interesting perhaps is his brief discussion of abstinence in some famous Victorian marriages. — George P. Landow

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nce the decision not to consummate had been made, it was easy to think up any number of reasons why it was a good idea, Effie was anxious about her family's finances, John was not a healthy man, the newly-weds intended to travel abroad, Effie might have to climb 'Swiss hills', John did not want babies because he had to work. Given the circumstances immediately after the wedding it was probably a relief to both of them. For Effie there would be time to come to terms with her new relationship with John. For his part John would have had time to register his disappointment over what had just happened to him and to ponder his moral response. The situation in which he found himself must have caused him to examine his true feelings. That John might not have wished to make love to a woman when he discovered she had married him primarily because of her fathers impending bankruptcy could seem prosaic compared to the more lurid speculations of John's enemies, but at least there is evidence to support it. John later told George MacDonald that “he was nor the man to claim intimate relations, to him most sacred, without the only justification for them, namely that of loving the woman beyond anything in heaven and earth.”

For most present day readers the whole idea of abstaining from sex is such an alien concept chat this fact alone seems to label John as abnormal, and he is judged accordingly, as if it would have been more normal if he had forced himself on a distraught and unwilling Effie. However, at that time abstinence, restraint and even celibacy were preached, and even practised in certain circles, as a matter of principle. The practice of restraint: was not restricted to those Romantic survivors of the Eglinton Tournament who practised courtly love, there were also socio-economic reasons why the upper classes should set an example for the toiling masses. The current economic model was underpinned by Malthusian ideas about over-population and the subsistence wage. Sexual abstinence by the poor was regarded as a bulwark against a glut in the labour market and therefore in their own best interest. There were also practical reasons why women should wish to avoid childbirth. In the 1840's deaths in childbirth, though not as prevalent as once thought, were depressingly frequent. By the 1850s several aristocratic marriages — for example those of Lady Waterford and her nieces Lady Pembroke, Lady Brownlow and Lady Lothian — remained suspiciously childless. Given the moral and religious character of these grand ladies, artificial birth control is ruled out and non-consummation must be concluded. The beautiful Louisa, Countess of Waterford conducted a lifelong correspondence with John. Yet another childless married aristocrar. Lady Mount Temple, was one of John's closest friends and staunchest defenders. [178-79]


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 [Review in the Victorian Web].

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Last modified 13 March 2014