[This review first appeared in the 2014 issue of Companion, the official publication of The Guild of St. George. It has been shared with readers of the Victorian Web with the permission of The Companion’s editor, Stuart Eagles. —  George P. Landow.]

Illuminated initial I

once began a review of Francis O’Gorman’s Late Ruskin: New Contexts (Ashgate, 2001) with this sentence: “Here’s a good book.” It’s an assessment I stand by. But Robert Brownell’s new book is eminently deserving of that same sentence. Arriving as it does amidst the ongoing, always vexing, skein of misunderstandings, partial truths, and predictable condemnatory remarks, which, like a school of hungry sharks, circle certain aspects of Ruskin’s story, the publication of Marriage of Inconvenience comes to the surface like a breath of fresh air for anyone interested in serious contemplation of a critical moment in that story.

For what distinguishes this book from all earlier efforts purporting to give us “the truth” about what “really happened” during Ruskin’s star-crossed union with Euphemia (“Effie”) Chalmers Gray, Marriage of Inconvenience brings with it the authority of a writer who has taken the time to patiently hunt down all the available original documents pertaining to that story, the majority of which have been overlooked, ignored, or given cursory attention by prior authors, documents relating to the inception, troubled duration, and ultimately catastrophic (mostly for Ruskin) termination of this infamous coupling sans coupling. In short, Brownell is the first scholar to have really done his homework on this complex subject. The result is a book which, carefully read and considered, should go most of the distance toward discrediting the misunderstandings, toward putting the needed flesh on those partial truths, toward—once its findings are absorbed by those who write in the popular arena—silencing the knee-jerk condemnations mentioned.

I first met Robert Brownell at the Ruskin 2000 Conference at Lancaster University. After we had heard each other’s papers (his questioning the then prevailing interpretations of Ruskin’s marriage, mine stressing the cover-up, after Ruskin’s death, of extensive biographic information thought “too sensitive” by Joan Severn and the editors of Ruskin’s Library Edition, E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn), he told me of his desire to undertake the research which would be needed to get to the bottom of the marital story. My own work on Ruskin having been inspired by the study of Helen Viljoen’s massive biographic legacy at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York and my awareness of the Morgan’s immense holdings of Ruskin holographs almost never consulted by those writing on his life—including over a thousand letters which the Morgan purchased from the Millais family, letters which I knew to contain hundreds of pages pertaining to the marriage—I suggested that, if he were ever to get to his desired end-point, it was essential that he come to New York. Happily, he chose to do just that, and the result is a book that is, by far, the best that has ever been written on this pivotal event in Ruskin’s life.

(This is the moment to underscore the necessity of cross-Atlantic archival research for anyone interested in writing accurately about Ruskin’s days in the future. As mentioned, the Morgan’s Ruskin archives are vast, including, in addition to its huge holograph collection, the entirety of Viljoen’s unpublished materials on Ruskin’s life—over 40 huge boxes filled with transcripts of still unknown letters, 34 chapters of her incomplete biography, and dozens of other boxes filled with notes cross-referencing virtually every theme on which her subject wrote, or place which he ever visited. The Beinecke Library at Yale also has an immense holograph collection, including the entirety of the all-important Ruskin family letters, only a portion of which have been published. Other major collections are at The Huntington Library near Los Angeles and The Ransom Library at the University of Texas, Austin. Because of prior writers’ inattention to these critical materials, the definitive Ruskin biography has yet to be written.)

Significant as Brownell’s overseas perusal was, his investigative research did not end there, nor did it end with examination of the usual UK Ruskin archives (though he mined all these). To complete the story with as much accuracy as possible, he undertook other studies: of Scottish and English law as these pertained to the time frame of the Ruskins’ marriage and annulment; of long-ignored, but intensely apposite, information at the National Library of Scotland. All these (and other previously little used) sources were then woven into a rich tapestry of chapters which, it is a pleasure to say, answer convincingly all of the major questions and dispel all of the rumors commonly attaching to “the most famous marriage of the British nineteenth century.” Having said this, I turn to a specific aspect of Brownell’s argument, one which is frequently the subject of uninformed discussion in both discourse and print, as an example demonstrating how his account sets the story aright. As is well known, for the six years the union endured, the Ruskins never consummated their marriage. About such reticence there has been much speculation, almost all of it arguing that Ruskin was the blameworthy party: he was appalled at seeing that Effie had pubic hair (having seen only nude classical figures of women before), by her “person,” by her body odor, by the “fact” that she was menstruating, and more. Taking all of these “arguments,” Brownell makes it clear that no evidence worthy of the name exists to substantiate any of them (178). Consider, briefly, two.

One: The notorious “pubic hair” argument. The interpretation sources in Mary Lutyens (Young Mrs Ruskin in Venice, 1966, p. 21). Despite the fact that, evidence having come to light showing that Ruskin was nowhere near as innocent as she first imagined, and despite the fact that, in a second book, Lutyens rescinded the suggestion (Ruskin and the Grays, 1972, 108-9), the claim, bruited about in the popular press, quickly became—and remains—one of the most damaging of the critiques leveled against Ruskin, an indicator, not a few believe, of his “sexual abnormality.” But Ruskin, Brownell, presenting evidence previously missed or understudied, shows, was neither sexually abnormal nor incapable. Indeed, before the marriage, previously unpublished holographs make it clear that he fully expected to have children with Effie.

Two: The argument that Effie’s “person” was off-putting. Adding fuel to the belief that Ruskin was sexually abnormal was the use, in both his own and Effie’s descriptions of what had gone amiss in their union, of the word “person”: he saying, in one place, that there were “certain circumstances in [my wife’s] person” which checked ardour; she averring, in another place, that her new husband, on that chaste first evening, was “disgusted with my person”. What could such comments possibly mean? Most commentators have guessed that they were further indices of Ruskin’s sexual oddness. But Brownell, again citing new evidence, explains that, by the time their wedding night arrived, Ruskin was newly in possession of incontrovertible knowledge that Effie’s character—“person”—was not as he had thought it to be. The real reason he refused to “make Effie his wife,” Brownell explains, was primarily moral, a consequence of his discovery that the union had been engineered by her father, George Gray, and, more critically, that Effie had been well-aware of the subterfuge. Thus: Gray, having over-speculated in a railway shares investment, was in dire financial straits, straits so dire that he was on the verge of losing all, including the family home. In which anxiety-riddled space, it was hardly lost on him that, if his daughter married the famous young author courting her, not only would his family gain considerably in status, there was every reason to believe that the Grays would reap significant financial benefits. As happened. Not long before the marriage, John James Ruskin, the writer’s rich, sherry-importing father, settled £10,000 (a very considerable amount at the time) on Effie so that she might have her own income. Given that there is good reason to believe that Effie used some portion of this largess to help her strapped father, Brownell argues that the intensely moral Ruskin, who always said that he would only have sexual relations with someone he loved unconditionally, once he learned that he and his parents had been duped, might very well have lost, as he himself said, any impulse he might have had regarding consummation.

The book brims with such new interpretations. At every stage we find a deepening of our understanding of the story—whether we are reading about the couple’s courtship, their unhappy time in Venice following the marriage, or the (in)famous trip to Brig o’Turk in 1853 when the Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais (who, at Ruskin’s invitation, had accompanied his patron and Effie to Scotland), fell madly in love with his benefactor’s wife (and she with him), such liaison becoming the event which precipitated the sundering of the marriage, a severance which, by then, both Effie and Ruskin fervently desired (about this dissolution Brownell paints a much more nuanced picture than anyone before).

About these new interpretations, one reservation (see Chapters XIX-XXI). In his analysis of the Ruskin-Effie-Millais events, Brownell tells us that, having been concerned about his wife’s flirtatious relationships with other men for some time (the couple’s months in Venice having produced much evidence to this effect), by the time the excursion to Scotland occurred, Ruskin, convinced that the marriage was untenable, had begun keeping an “evidential diary,” a notebook which, if the boundary relating to marital fidelity was breeched, could be used in a court of law. Brownell contends that, wanting something of the sort to occur, Ruskin laid a trap for Effie and Millais, intentionally putting them in each other’s way time and time again during their days in Scotland. When the inevitable occurred and the handsome young painter and the beautiful woman who was then regularly posing as a model for his paintings fell in love (though without sexual congress), the trap sprung and Ruskin was able to produce documented evidence of the meetings which led up to the couple’s compromised position that could be used as evidence in moving the unhappy union toward its end.

This interpretation is difficult to reconcile with the sense, shared by many students of Ruskin, that, in him, we have an instance of one of the most intensely moral men who ever lived, a man who, as a matter of deepest personal principle, day-in, day-out, never lied, stole, or tricked—anyone, anytime, anywhere, even when he knew that such probity might cost him severely. As occurred, both during the time of and the years following the marriage’s annulment. For, while Ruskin remained resolutely silent, Effie and others vilified him in both the public and private arenas for his marital “failings.” (Effie’s later condemnation of Ruskin in the late 1860s as an “unnatural man” to Rose La Touche’s parents played a major role in destroying his chance to marry Rose, the true love of his life.) In addition, we have Ruskin’s categorical statement that he did not lay such a trap for the young lovers (see p. 429). In which context, an alternative interpretation, which would support the idea that Ruskin would never compromise his ethical beliefs, might be entertained: that, while he almost surely did keep an “evidential diary” (never found; Brownell’s determination of its existence derived from various remarks in holographs exchanged between the principals), it was kept, not as a part of a crafty plan, but “in case” (even “in hope”) that transgressions might occur which would make a legal ending to the marriage possible.

But this, as I said, is a matter of interpretation. As for the rest, the singular point I want to stress is this: that this is an extremely important work on Ruskin’s life, a book that systematically dispels many of the myths that have sullied Ruskin’s reputation for more than a half century, a book that corrects and adds depth to all the rehearsals pertaining to this ill-starred marriage in all the major (and minor) biographies, a book that shows that all the playwrights, opera composers, filmmakers, and scandal-seeking columnists who have produced the poorly thought through, often intentionally sensationalistic, versions of the Ruskins’ union are in error. It is, in short, a book not to be missed. A book of significance.

Related Material

Bibliography

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.


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Last modified 13 March 2014