Effie Gray: Escape from an Unhappy Victorian Marriage

In these days of pandemic and political turmoil, I’m more particular about what films I watch.  If it’s too violent or too sad, or the characters are too crazy or miserable, count me out.  Historical films with period clothing are at the top of my list.

As I was cruising Netflix, I spotted Effie Gray.  The description named Emma Thompson as the screenwriter, so that looked interesting.  As the film progressed, I got more and more upset at poor Effie’s situation. 

Effie (Euphemia Gray) had married John Ruskin, a celebrated art critic, in 1848 when she was nineteen. Ruskin was nine years older.  The two had known each other since Effie was a young girl of twelve.  Her family, the Grays, lived in the home in Scotland where Ruskin’s grandfather had killed himself.  This may have been an ominous beginning to their relationship.

Ruskin was an artist, poet, writer, philosopher, and social critic. He was patron to the young painters of the age, and to JMW Turner and the pre-Raphaelites in particular.  His works influenced other significant figures of his era, including Gandhi and Tolstoy.

At the time of their marriage, Ruskin was already a well-known figure in England. In spite of his many abilities, he apparently had big sexual problems.  Six years after the wedding, Effie was still a virgin.

Ruskin’s explanation was as follows:

“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.”  (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/29/ruskin-effie-marriage-inconvenience-brownell)

            However, Effie reported that her husband

            “had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening”. (ibid)

            In the film, Effie’s life grows more and more miserable.  She meets and falls in love with the painter John Everett Millais, a protégé of Ruskin’s.  She enlists help from a friend, played by Emma Thompson, who finds Effie a lawyer.  Two doctors confirm Effie’s virginity, and Ruskin is served papers for an annulment on the grounds of impotence.

            After the film ended, I took to the Internet to find out more about these two interesting people.  The actual facts of the dissolution of the marriage and the reasons for it are still a matter of speculation.  One biographer claims that the marriage was pushed on Effie because her father was in financial straits.  It’s also implied that Effie may have been a bit wanton, but her family destroyed much of her correspondence to protect her reputation. 

            I was delighted to learn that Effie married Millais, and they had a happy union.  She managed his business affairs and together they had eight children.  It must have been a huge endeavor in the Victorian era for Effie to extricate herself from her miserable marriage, something that required courage and strength. 

If you go to this link, you’ll find more information and some sketches of her by Millais.  I like her face. 

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