She was involved in a famous Victorian scandal that nearly broke her. Yvette Huddleston reports on a new biography of Effie Gray.
The Scottish beauty Effie Gray was at the centre of a great – if somewhat scandalous – Victorian love story. Married to art critic John Ruskin at the age of 19, she endured an unhappy marriage for six years before falling in love with Ruskin’s protégé the pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais.
Famously Ruskin was “so disgusted by her person” – and there has been much speculation about exactly what it was that repulsed him – that he refused to consummate the marriage.
The love triangle aspect of Effie’s life has been depicted in plays, novels, short stories and television and radio adaptations, it has also inspired a new film – scripted by Emma Thompson and starring Dakota Fanning as Effie and Greg Wise as Ruskin – which opens today, but a book by York-based author Suzanne Fagence Cooper focuses on what happened after the end of Effie’s marriage to Ruskin.
“Effie was married to Millais for more than forty years,” says Fagence Cooper. “I am fascinated by Millais’ success – he became one of the most celebrated artists of the late 19th century – and I wanted to see how Effie helped in his success.” The author was greatly assisted in her research by unprecedented access to private papers. “I contacted the Gray family and they said they had hundreds of letters that had never been seen outside the family and that was the point at which the book went from being something relatively small scale to something much bigger because I could really show the whole of Effie’s life, not just the six years she was with Ruskin.”
In England before 1857 a divorce could only be granted by a special Act of Parliament so Gray was in a very vulnerable position and it took courage to do what she did – which was to seek an annulment. It was granted after an invasive medical examination and court proceedings. “She didn’t want to be a pioneer, she didn’t want to be a radical and a revolutionary but she got pushed into a corner by Ruskin,” says Fagence Cooper. “She felt she could never be fulfilled until she had a family – and it was quite clear that wasn’t something Ruskin wanted. He seemed to want to implicate her in relationships with other men and if people started gossiping about her, then her reputation would be spoilt and she would have no status in society.”
Gray was fortunate in that she had the unswerving support of her parents – something which was also unusual at the time. “In her father’s letters he comes across as a very imaginative man, I really enjoyed reading his letters and found him great company,” says Fagence Cooper. “Her parents knew that the relationship with Ruskin was going badly wrong and they wanted to save her – even if all she did was come home to live with them. I do admire them for that.”
The letters also reveal their progressive attitude towards Effie’s sister Sophy’s mental health problems. “She was anorexic and the family had the courage to write about it and try to help Sophy and not just lock her away – they tried to find a way for her to recover.”
The marriage between Gray and Millais was long, happy and mutually respectful, and one in which Gray made a valuable contribution to her husband’s career.“Effie was managing Millais’ studio,” says Fagence Cooper. “And helping to get commissions, finding him models, sorting out his correspondence, trying to make contact with patrons and using the studio and their house as a selling space.”
Gray was an impressive woman in many ways – not least in her refusal to be broken by her painful experience with Ruskin. “She had a great deal of resilience,” says Fagence Cooper. “She didn’t just knuckle under and accept her role as a put-upon wife – she knew there was something better for her.”
• Effie Gray by Suzanne Fagence Cooper, published by Duckworth Overlook, £8.99. The film opens in cinemas today.