In 1854, the gossip in London society was all about the collapse of art critic John Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray. Not even the recent war in the Crimea was as titillating a topic. Nobody could talk about anything else. The matter was the hot topic at dinner parties for months as people eagerly chewed over the details. Ladies whispered about it in the drawing rooms, while men muttered over it while sipping brandy and smoking cigars at their private clubs.
It was a far cry from the happy day when Effie married Ruskin on April 10, 1848 in the drawing room of her parents’ home in Perth. The Ruskins and the Grays had known each other for years. Effie had first met Ruskin when she was twelve and he was twenty-one. When Effie attended boarding school in Stratford upon Avon, she stayed with the Ruskins’ enroute. When her younger sisters came down with scarlet fever, the Ruskins kept Effie until the contagion had passed. When Effie was almost 19, and Ruskin 28, they became reacquainted when she came to London for a visit. Ruskin was already famous as the author of 2 volumes of ‘Modern Painters.’ He was supposed to have been courting Sir Walter Scott’s granddaughter Charlotte, but Ruskin soon had eyes only for Effie.
Ruskin’s parents didn’t attend the wedding of their only child, prevented by the Chartist demonstrations; at least that was their excuse. Although they liked Effie, they really didn’t want Ruskin to marry because they didn’t want to share him. Effie and Ruskin’s wedding night at Blair Atholl in Scotland was a disaster. Both of them were virgins and ignorant of the mechanics of the bedchamber. Ruskin soon came up with arguments against sex, that it would ruin her figure, that babies were ugly. Later he would claim that Effie was mentally ill, which meant that any children they had would be mentally defective. Effie later wrote to a friend after the marriage had broken down that Ruskin had looked at her like she was deformed. Apparently he was used to seeing statues and drawings from classical antiquity where women were denuded of pubic hair. He found it shocking when he caught a glimpse of Effie’s naked body.
But it wasn’t just the lack of physical intimacy that ultimately tore them apart. Ruskin had problems with emotional intimacy as well. When he and Effie were apart, he wrote beautiful love letters to her but when they were together, he treated like an old, neglected pair of slippers. Ruskin’s first loyalty was to his parents not his wife. They had been in their forties when he was born. As a child, he had no playmates because his parents worried they might be a bad influence on him. When he went to Oxford, his mother went with him, taking rooms nearby where he had tea every afternoon. Effie’s father had suffered a financial reversal before the wedding and couldn’t provide Effie with much of a dowry. Ruskin’s father, a wealthy sherry merchant, settled 10,000 pounds on the couple to give them an income, and paid the lease on a handsome house. Because of this they had certain expectations, and they felt that Effie wasn’t grateful enough. They constantly criticized her, complaining either she was too social and keeping Ruskin from his work, or not social enough when she refused to come down to a dinner party they had arranged for Ruskin to introduce him to some important people, because she was ill. Effie, the eldest daughter in a large, close-knit family, had a hard time dealing with this. She was also vivacious, social, practical, and worldly, the exact opposite of Ruskin. When Effie went home with her mother to recover from a bad cold, Ruskin went on a 9 month trip with his parents to the Swiss alps, a trip he had originally planned on taking with Effie.
Finally Effie convinced Ruskin to move to Venice, which he had longed to do. In Venice, Effie had more freedom; she could attend social functions alone without censure. She threw herself into the social whirl there to compensate for the emotional hole in her life, while Ruskin devoted himself to what would become his book ‘Stones of Venice.’ Venice was also filled with dashing Austrian officers, some of whom took a fancy to Effie. However, she always made sure that her behavior was correct, never giving anyone too much encouragement.
When they returned to London, Effie was once again isolated while Ruskin worked out of his old study at his parent’s house because the light was better. They also had dinner with his parents every night since they had no chef due to budget constraints. Effie had no carriage of her own, so she wasn’t free to see her friends at will. Effie was no silent martyr to all this. She began to complain to her friends about Ruskin’s treatment of her.
In 1853, John Everett Millais asked Effie to sit for him. Millais admired Ruskin enormously. Ruskin had been an early supporter of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, writing an admiring article in the Times of London which came at a crucial time in the careers of Millais and his fellow painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt. Now 25, Millais had been a child prodigy, one of the youngest students ever at the Royal Academy of Art. Ruskin was flattered by Millais’ request. He also had selfish motives; it would keep Effie out of his hair while he worked. The resulting painting was called “The Order of Release.’ The painting depicted a Scottish soldier whose wife presents the order for his release to his jailer. When the painting was exhibited it was a great success. After the exhibition, Ruskin invited Millais, and his brother William to join them on a holiday in the Scottish highlands. Accommodations were tight in the rented rooms in the little thatched cottage that they shared with a schoolteacher and his wife.
While they were in Scotland, Millais started painting Ruskin’s portrait but the rain kept interrupting his progress. The two men forged a friendship that summer, debating aesthetics and painting technique after supper. Millais and Effie also grew closer as they spent time together. He began to give her drawing lessons, impressed by her talent. Effie, on her part, mothered him, worrying about his health, cutting his hair when it grew too long. She soon began confiding in Millais about the state of her marriage. And Millais found himself falling in love with her. Ruskin wasn’t blind to the situation, but he was used to men falling in love with his wife. He assumed that Effie would let him down gently. It didn’t occur to him that Effie might return his feelings. Guilt and grief began to eat Millais up. Effie, on the other hand, had had enough. Five years of pent up anger could no longer be denied. She confronted Ruskin about the state of their marriage, telling him that the pain of eternal torment couldn’t be worse than going back home to London to live with him. By October, the trio had gone their separate ways, Ruskin and Effie to Edinburgh where he had several lectures to give, while Millais stayed at the cottage to paint. Her younger sister Sophie came down to London to stay with her for awhile. The situation had gotten so bad between the couple that Sophie ended up getting caught in the middle, as everyone used her as a sounding board. Divorce was not a possibility; it could only be achieved by an Act of Parliament which was expensive. Separation was the best that Effie could hope for but she worried about being a burden on her parents.
Effie’s good friend Elizabeth Eastlake was instrumental in getting Effie to tell her parents what was going on. At first Effie resisted out of pride and embarassment. After she finally confessed all, her parents immediately sought legal advice. The first ray of hope, it turned out that an annulment was possible. The catch was that Effie would have to undergo the embarrassment of an exam to determine her virginity. It was decided that Effie would return home for a visit during which Ruskin would be served with papers. But what Ruskin didn't know was that her parents had come down to Scotland to get her. Effie went back with her mother while her father met with her lawyers to prepare the case. Two lawyers visited the home of the Ruskins and presented John with the citation, and a packet from Effie containing her keys, her wedding ring, and a letter explaining her actions.
Effie was very lucky to have Elizabeth Eastlake come to her defense when the gossip. With Effie’s consent, Lady Eastlake dropped tidbits of information that made it clear that Effie was innocent party and that Ruskin was the one to blame. Although she tried to blacken his name, no doors were closed to him, although his friends avoided him for awhile. Ruskin, meanwhile, was not exactly hiding out. He continued to go out and about in public as much as possible, which was the opposite of his usual behavior. He even insisted that Millais finish the portrait of him that he had started on their Scotland trip which Millais found agonizing. For Effie, facing the prospect of the physical exam and having to give her deposition caused a hysterical paralysis that lasted for ten days.
Ruskin had no further contact with either Millais or Effie. He tried to stay friends with Millais but was rejected. When he later became engaged to Rose la Touche, a teenage girl he’d known since she was ten, her mother was concerned, and wrote to Effie, who informed the family that Ruskin had been an oppressive husband. The engagement was broken off to Ruskin’s disgust.