‘Everett sat with his back to the window, the cool spring sunshine falling over his shoulder on to the canvas. Effie watched him as he ordered his materials….’
Then he moved towards her. He asked her to sit facing him, and then gradually turned her, so that her face was nearly in profile. A gentle shadow fell across her right cheek and a strand of hair brushed her temple. She went to tuck it behind her ear, but Everett stopped her. It softened her fine features. So they began.
I first encountered the story of Effie Gray in one of my favorite nonfiction reads in recent years: Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose. Effie’s story is the stuff of headlines: beautiful young woman marries distinguished scholar! Wed for five years; marriage never consummated! Resulting annulment causes sensation and scandal!
The annulment was granted in 1854. The following year, Effie Gray and the painter John Everett Millais were married. (They’d already been in love for some time; she had been modeling for him while she was still married to Ruskin.) Effie eventually had eight children by her new (and obviously far more satisfactory) husband.
My impatience was amply rewarded. Told here in greater depth than in Rose’s survey-style volume, it’s a cracking good story, as I suspected it would be.
Here are the main dramatis personae:
In her book, Suzanne Fagence Cooper provides a window into the most intimate aspects of Victorian domestic arrangements. This fascinating era in British history and social life, which would seem to have already been so thoroughly parsed and anatomized by historians and novelists as to have yielded up nearly all of its secrets, is still a repository of further unexpected revelations. Cooper tells us in her acknowledgments that in January of 2009, Sir Geoffroy Millais, a descendant of John Everett Millais, made available a fairly large portion of the family’s papers by lending them to the Tate Gallery Archive. “For the first time in a century, Effie’s letters from her father and mother, her sisters and her children could be seen by someone outside the family.” Cooper adds, with gratitude, that she was given “privileged access” to these documents. (Every biographical researcher’s dream, I would imagine….)
I assume that the availability of this new information is at least partly responsible for the UK artistic community’s renewed interest the turbulent lives of this extraordinary trio. In addition to Cooper’s book, we have not one but two films on this subject in the works. The first out of the starting gate (UK release date June 2012) will be Effie, written by Emma Thompson and starring Dakota Fanning as Effie, Tom Sturridge as John Everett Millais, and Greg Wise as John Ruskin. A terrific cast has been assembled for this production. In addition to these three stars, the film will feature Derek Jacobi, Robbie Coltrane, Claudia Cardinale (!), and David Suchet. Emma Thompson herself takes the role of Lady Eastlake, Effie’s enlightened and supportive friend in the latter’s time of troubles. Here’s the full line-up for Effie. (Greg Wise, who played Willoughby in the 1995 production of Sense and Sensibility, is currently married to Emma Thompson. This is the sort of celebrity factoid greatly beloved by Your Faithful Blogger.)
Also in the pipeline is the aptly titled Untouched, due out next year. This version will star the almost-too-beautiful Keira Knightley and Rufus Sewell, the latter day heartthrob – he sure made my heart throb, anyway! – of the three Aurelio Zen films.
Obviously the subject of the marriage-in-name-only between John Ruskin and Effie Gray gives off tantalizing, titillating sparks. But there’s much more to this story, incorporating as it does the Pre-Raphaelite sensibility and a number of other aspects of the world of the arts in Victorian times.
Having said that, I cannot resist quoting John Ruskin’s statement to his lawyer regarding the source of his trouble with Effie:
“It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.”
Well, golly; how’s that for a vote of no confidence! (See my post on Parallel Lives for Phyllis Rose’s speculation as to the possible cause for Ruskin’s repugnance at the sight of Effie’s “person.”)
For your viewing pleasure: a John Everett Millais gallery: