As you will know from my previous comments on the subject, I have concerns about the universally acknowledged truth of the Ruskins’ marriage. As much as I am excited to view the film due out this year (any excuse to see some Pre-Raphaelitism), what is it that I am expecting to see?
Based on Desperate Romantics, I should expect to see mean, weird Ruskin not sleeping with his stunningly beautiful wife, mainly out of weird spite. What a giant weirdo. Poor old Effie is then rescued by a man who is willing to sleep with her and gallops off into the sunset on his giant stallion of all things carnal. Hurrah all round. Ruskin goes even more weird and dies. The end.
Well, okay I may be boiling things down to the nub of the matter but isn’t that what we are left with? After all, what else do we know of Effie, John and their marriage?
|Dakota Fanning in Effie, due out this year|
I wonder what Mrs Ruskin/Millais would think, given that after almost 160 years after her annulment and marriage to Millais, all we think about when we think of Effie is that her first husband never had sex with her. How appalling that the woman’s entire life is condensed down to something someone else didn’t do to her. Not only that, it is like Effie sprang to life the moment that Millais noticed that Ruskin wasn’t doing what a husband should.
|Effie Ruskin (1851) G F Watts|
It’s curious that, if we are feeling kind, we charge Ruskin only with neglect of his wife, rather than actual cruelty, as if he simply forgot to get into bed with her. Evidence can be found that he did notice her beauty. Before Millais decided she was a stunner, Ruskin had already had George Richmond, G F Watts and Thomas Richmond draw his beautiful bride, plus made a sketch himself. The portrait by
Watts was never liked by Ruskin (or so he said in the 1870s). He wrote to Watts that he had tried to make her appear an angel, which she was decidedly not, which all sounds like sour grapes. He passed the picture to Effie through a third party and it remained in the Millais family until ending up in Wightwick Manor. She actually looks rather like a child in the picture, which reminds me rather of D G Rossetti’s image of Georgie Burne-Jones. Ruskin preferred ’s portrait (left) of her from 1851, which makes her look more grown up, if a little traditional (and doll-like, as Effie complained). Thomas Richmond
It was just after the
portrait that Millais came into the Ruskins’ life, and the legends begin, but rewind with me for just a moment, back to that wedding night. Richmond
|Effie with Foxgloves (1853) J E Millais|
Yes, I know, by taking about how everyone is talking about it that still counts as talking about it, but I think we can be fairly certain that in the new film, it will be talked about. At length. Even shown. Heavens, explicit scenes of the Ruskins not indulging in conjugal unpleasantness (as it is known in the
household). How will that get past the censor?! Anyway, due to his not sleeping with his wife, Ruskin has been labelled as the following at one point or another: gay/paedophile/frightened of pubic hair/frightened of menstruation/impotent/any number of variations. We have no proof of any of these. Not a scrap. He never decided to write an essay ‘Why I Never Done my Wife’ nor told anyone a damn word by way of explanation. For the last 160 years we have seemingly turned ourselves inside out trying to find reason in his actions subsequent to his failed marriage : his friendship with Rose La Touche, his male friendships (God help you if you are a man who is friends with other men!), his dislike of nude paintings (that is pictures of women in the nude, not actually pictures painted in the nude, although I’m guessing he probably wouldn’t have liked that either), a fragment of a letter that said that he didn’t like Effie's nudity when he saw her on their wedding night. We know that she wrote a letter to Rose’s mother when she heard that Ruskin was fond of the girl. Never do we raise our eyebrow and mutter ‘Jealous cat’ or judge Effie. In all of her dealings with Ruskin, she is the passive victim – so shaken by her marriage that she would suffer from insomnia for the rest of her life. Walker
|Ruskin: 'I'm sure I've forgotten to do something...'|
What of Ruskin? His depression is well documented, and reading his correspondence you get the impression of a man who was happy with something one moment then plunged into despair with it the next. The Whistler trial undoubtedly broke him, finally, but he is a man who is a gift for both supporters and critics alike (not that, these days, he has many supporters), seeing as he often says and does the most contrary of things. I think Ruskin has suffered from that most Victorian of complaints: not talking about his problems. Actually, I find this warms me to the man. Yes, he is difficult, contradictory and should not have been allowed to marry anyone, but we do not have his side of the argument, only his detractors, loud and clear. Would it help if we found out he was gay? Would we understand him more, feel sorry for him, trapped in a world where he would have been forced into a life he could not embrace? How about if he was mentally ill? I must admit my support of John Ruskin is due to sympathy for his periods of despair when so much was expected of him both by others and by himself. Do we even try to understand him? Will either of the two films (yes two, the second has no release date as yet) attempt to show him as sympathetic? Isn’t it a better story to show a poor young, attractive girl trying to get her old husband to try and sleep with her? Look at silly Ruskin not sleeping with his beautiful wife, what a fool!
|Millais Family 1865|
After six undoubtedly miserable years of marriage, Effie mercifully went on to have many decades of blissful happiness with Millais. John Ruskin continued between periods of happiness and despair, but no-one ever talks about what damage the marriage may have done to him. At the moment, what we know of Ruskin was that he was controlling and sexually cold. A new book on the marriage, A Marriage of Inconvenience by Robert Brownell, promises us new information of their marriage. I await the evidence with great interest, but in the meantime, as far as I can see Effie will always have won the battle because she had the last, and only, word on their marriage.