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After seeing the film Effie Gray, about the unfortunate marriage of John Ruskin and Effie Gray, I felt as if I had tasted flat champagne. The film was but a well-drawn sketch of the marriage; it lacked depth and breadth. I did not expect the script to disappoint as it was written by Emma Thompson, who won an Academy award for her screenplay of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Anyone unfamiliar with the story would be forgiven for feeling somewhat confused by it. It needed more credible depiction, expressive, articulate dialogue, and perhaps a screened written introduction.
The alleged marital circumstances appear peculiar – they just don’t tie up. Scholars still dispute the facts. A good proportion of the seemingly relevant correspondence is missing..
John Ruskin was a controversial Victorian, a brilliant art and social critic and an artist. William Morris, Mahatma Gandhi and Marcel Proust are among those he inspired The story begins when John Ruskin, aged 29, marries Effie Gary, aged 18, at the bride’s home in Perth. Their families were related through marriage and on friendly terms. Hence, Effie had stayed with the Ruskin family (John and his parents, Margaret and John senior) in London from time to time, between periods at boarding school in Stratford, northeast London. During these sojourns John took a strong liking to Effie, but his parents did not consider her a suitable match. Although Effie was charming, intelligent and very attractive, her family were not from the upper echelons of society (neither were John’s parents; Margaret ‘s father being a publican; John senior was a prosperous sherry merchant, with a passion for art and Romantic literature). Just why Effie and John did marry each other is unknown. Did Effie marry John for money? Thomas Gray was on the verge of bankruptcy, but neither the Grays, nor Effie ever benefited financially during or after the marriage. Unquestionably, the marital relationship was unfulfilling, stoked with misery and shaded with regret; tenderness and compassion never overflowed. By many accounts Ruskin was indifferent to Effie and insensitive to her feelings; Effie felt marginalized by his possessive and oppressive parents.
Effie wanted to please Ruskin physically and intellectually; she appreciated his outstanding intellectual gifts and accomplishments. By the time they married, Ruskin had finished his studies at Oxford, undertaken several Continental tours with his parents, including visits to Paris, Brussels, Waterloo, and the Vale of Chamonix, in Switzerland. He had begun a life-long study of geology, started writing well-received poetry, discovered and begun defending Turner, and published the first two of five volumes of his widely acclaimed Modern Painters.
Remarkably, six years after the wedding, Effie managed to secure an annulment from the ecclesiastical courts on the basis of incurable impotency. This was not an easy undertaking for a Victorian woman. Whether John manipulated events to achieve this outcome is open to conjecture. He wrote that he did not consider himself to be permanently impotent. Effie noted that Ruskin’s reasons for not wishing to consummate the marriage were that he did not like children, considered that their life would be disrupted if they had a baby and that he was ‘disgusted with my person the first evening’. Saints had lived together in celibacy; non-consummation was not in breach of biblical teaching, John believed.
‘There can be no doubt,’ Clive Wilmer has suggested (see panel right)that ‘even by Victorian standards Ruskin’s sexual repression was pathological. The whole emphasis on sight in his work, valuable as the depth of it is, must surely be connected with a neurotic distaste for physical intimacy’. Probably, Wilmer comments, this was due to the overpowering possessiveness of his parents. The sexuality of adult women terrified and repelled Ruskin, and he found it easier to direct his emotions to young girls.
The film follows John (Greg Wise) and Effie (Dakota Fanning) from their wedding night, when John shows no interest in consummating their marriage, to the home of Ruskin’s parents (Julie Walters and John Suchet). At a dinner at the Royal Academy with the President, Sir Charles Eastlake (Edward Fox), and his wife, Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson), and other academicians, Ruskin attempts to convince them to allow the Pre-Raphaelites to exhibit their work, repugnant to many Academicians. The purpose of art, Ruskin contends, is not to idealize or sentimentalize but ‘to reveal the truth…to reveal God. If God is the creator of nature, then God is also the creator of decay, of disease, of ugliness. I cannot deny that Mr Hunt’s Sylvia [in Holman Hunt’s Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus] is not a person with whom Proteus, or anyone else for that matter, is likely to fall in love, but truthfulness, honesty, these are more important than mere conventional beauty. Do you understand? He was painting what he saw. I see nothing less than eternal truths. I see God.’
Soon afterwards we travel with the couple to Venice where John will write The Stones of Venice while persistently oblivious of Effie, who finds solace with new friends and an active social life. Upon the couple’s return to London Effie becomes quite ill. The doctor advises fresh air and loving attention from her husband. We then journey to the Scottish Highlands where John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) will paint John’s portrait. Despite her illnesses Effie never appears wan and weak, as one would expect, but rather robust and buxom. Her bodily movements through the Scottish terrain seem awkward and at times clumsy, which is hard to reconcile with her being one to enjoy the outdoors and leading a physically rigorous day-to-day existence. Millais is dismayed by Ruskin’s dismissive attitude towards Effie. The two fall in love, but there is no adultery.
Once back in London Effie shares her marital woes with Lady Eastlake, whom she perceives as a kindred spirit. Lady Eastlake advises her to seek legal advice given that the marriage has not been consummated. Two doctors confirm that Effie is a virgin. At the end of the film, Effie’s lawyer presents John and his parents at the front door of their South London ‘villa’ with the notification of annulment proceedings on the grounds of John's impotence. The film is sympathetic towards Effie, never implying that she has been manipulative or selfish. Ruskin’s ‘greatness’, his concern for the public rather than the personal, does not excuse his marital behaviour. Effie found true love with Millais, whom she married; they had eight children and enjoyed a long, happy and companionable marriage.
Ruth Myers deserves praise for designing the period costumes, with thoughtful attention to details such as hairstyle, cut, adornment and jewellery. The luxurious and elaborate interior settings of the privileged, such as that of Sir Charles and Lady Eastlake and of the Ruskin parents, are well crafted by James Merifield, notable for his production designs for Austenland and Little Dorrit. The exterior settings of the Scottish Highlands, areas in and around London and Venice are stunning, though a touch contrived. We see no squalor, no sense of the uncomfortable: unpleasant smells, draughty rooms, or roughness of the terrain. Paul Cantelon’s subtle, melodic score complements and enhances the pathos of the story. The film enchants, though it scratches the surface of emotion. Waves of oppression and frustration and hints of compassion pervade but not powerfully. The pace is slow. Long silences punctuate. The tears may not flow but it’s a pretty picture.