Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais by Suzanne Fagence Cooper is an impressive research about this fascinating and legendary “love triangle” of the contemporaries. I would like to accumulate more information as regards the concept and idea of the Pre-Raphaelite art beforehand; apart from that, this is a satisfying read being ample to resonate and interconnect with themes and ideas on some novels I have read by Wilkie Collins alongside other Victorian social novels, and non-fiction on notable lives of Caroline Norton, and Josephine Butler in these years. I found that these authors and activists were definitely the vanguard in expressing state and welfare of Victorian women. This biography makes the concerns for women in the nineteenth century alive on paper, and elaborates the state of females according to their domestic and social spheres. Particularly, I could sense the ideologies and perception shaped by both sexes of the time that contributed to the birth of passive and vulnerable Victorian women in real life.
Passivity of body and mind of a married Victorian women
I watched Effie Gray the movie around a year ago. I thought the court case and content of the annulment in 1854 was not detailed enough. The movie also deliberately makes John Ruskin such a villain and put Effie into the incarceration that trod her life and youth for the whole six years, with Effie saying that “he never touched me“. Not until I read this biography do I realize the brevity of this procedure was due to the fact that Ruskin never argued and vindicated his case. Nevertheless, I find the essence of passivity is underlined in this sentence in the movie as well as the book regarding the “weaker sex”.
“I often think I would be a much happier, better, person if I was more like the rest of my sex in this respect.” – Effie Gray
First of all, I don’t want to say who it was to blame, and suspecting that “there is hardly a girl’s school in this Christian kingdom where the children’s courage or sincerity would be thought of half so much importance as their way of coming in at a door; and when the whole system of society, as respects the mode of establishing them in life, is one rotten plague of cowardice and imposture…” – lines from Of Queen’s Gardens, written in the 1860s, was implicitly stating the flaws of girls including his former wife. Effie might be marrying Ruskin for his fame and intellect, she could be as frivolous as that of what her father-in-law had stated; on the other hand, Ruskin, who was full of idealized thoughts and ideology, could be so frustrated that Effie did not live up to his expectations of fulfilling wifely duties. Whether it was because of (a) Sexual impotence, (b) married during Lent term, (c) avoiding intercourse to get prepared for travelling through the continent, or (d) Ruskin’s disappointment of the desire of female body that actually underlined the reasons for the unconsummated marriage, the reason was uncertain.
However, it should be noted that in the case of Effie’s side, her mother kept being confined fifteen times (only eight survived childhood) until she was 47, and with her life being in a state of indisposition (she was even contracted cholera once) reflected the heavy occupancy and poignancy of domestic duties, or the maternal martyrdom, that women need to assume of the time. As in many case, including the marriage of Dickens’s family, fulfilling maternal love and duties constitutes a Victorian marriage. (It reminds me of the views of Margaret Sanger that “endless childbearing was ‘tyranny'”, that women should have a say to control her own body so as to lay the “key to the temple of liberty”). In this case, the courageous and monumental act of Effie to seek for an annulment provided additionally on the ground of her publicity. A married women should be traditionally regarded as unassuming and submissive to her husband, but it involved her initiation to undergo procedures to prove her virginity in this marriage on both the women’s moral and physical aspects, and it was rare in this case of women to seek a separation from the husband even in the case of violence and adultery (even in 1857).
Apart from that, the resentment endured by both families as being told from the correspondence throughout these six years of their in-law son and daughter echoes the clinging relationship of Mrs Thornton towards John in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell – her son ended up being her only ownership under the entity of the feme covert of the marriage. He was her only expectations of accomplishment and hopes. (Child Custody Act, Caroline Norton)
John Ruskin (1819 – 1900). Artist. Writer. Lecturer. Teacher. Critic. Scholar. Social Reformer. Philanthropist. Before reading this pamphlet, little I knew about John Ruskin. To me, he was the antagonist who was infamously embroiled himself in the love triangle between Effie Gray, his wife, and one of the founders and associated members of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whom he once gave infallible support and high accolade – John Everett Millais. There’s a movie adapted from the biography by Suzanne Fagence Cooper I watched some months ago, about the cold feud and annulment of their unconsummated marriage in 1854. He afterwards in 1858 encountered an innocuous teenager and student named Rose La Touche whom he might be endlessly swooning over, and which love became a source of inspiration for Nabokov’s Lolita (1955).
Apart from Ruskin’s personal life and sexual encounters, he was often mentioned as sources of conversations and arguments between the characters in George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893). Essay entitled Sesame and Lilies andRuskin’s School of Thought were often controverted and affronted by Rhoda’s idea of women’s independence, as being one of the singletons and partner in Miss Barfoot’s office situated on Great Portland Street – possibly based on the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women between 1858 and 1860,
I have much more sympathy with the new idea that women should think of marriage only as men do – I mean, not to grow up in the thought that they must marry or be blighted creatures. My own views are rather extreme, perhaps; strictly, I don’t believe in marriage at all. And I haven’t anything like the respect for women, as women, that you have. You belong to the Ruskin school.
John Ruskin was also recited in Mr. Widdowson’s lecture to his wife,
Woman’s sphere is the home, Monica. Unfortunately girls are often obliged to go out and earn their living, but this is unnatural, a necessity which advanced civilization will altogether abolish. You shall read John Ruskin; every word he says about women is good and precious. If a woman can neither have a home of her own, nor find occupation in any one else’s she is deeply to be pitied; her life is bound to be unhappy. I sincerely believe that an educated woman had better become a domestic servant than try to imitate the life of a man.
All these kinds of negativity make me want to delve into something which might do him justice (in my opinion). Well! Reading John Ruskin’s two essays is delightful as well as an enlightenment. It’s by far my favourite Little Black Classics among the other 4 that I bought (well, for Henry Mayhew’s one, better get yourself London Labour and the London Poor instead!). In the essay entitled Traffic (trafficking and goodies exchange), he stated that stakeholders wished to consult him, a “respectable architectural man-milliner”, regarding the guidance of construction of the Wool Exchange in Bradford; but he got them in preparation by trenchantly saying that, no, although he wouldn’t wilfully offend them by declining this invitation to deliver a talk in the Town Hall in 1864, he simply would not care less about the Exchange of theirs, because “they don’t”; but what his thoughts to eclipse all other issues were that “all good architecture is the expression of national life, and character; and it is produced by a prevalent and eager national taste, or desire for beauty”; that “Taste is the ONLY morality”. What someone liked basically would be telling who they were. Means of critique also ncluded outside ornaments like the love of pictures, statues, furniture, and architecture. In this case, if one is engrossed with entities which “proposes delight in perpetual contemplation”, he is considered as having a good taste (that included devouring a Turner’s picturesque pictures). Of course it’s misery to binge into Newgate Calendar as a literary pastime. This concept is quite inspiring.
There’s so much to talk about, so many examples and analogies. What he then said was that England, apart from its iron-working industries and competition against other European vice, there’s the fourth religion of Christianity practicing there, and it was the worship of “Goddess of Getting-on”, or “Britannia of the Market”. “Architectures are principally built to her: railroad-piers, warehouses, exchanges!” This Getting-on and gathering place had a motto and heroism attached to it, which he should regard it as absolutely a preposterous ridicule, it’s rather selling than supplying, “quartering one’s self upon them for food, stripping them of their clothes”, to put the this trait simply, it’s merely but gravely a competition for the “bravest”, “wittiest”, and strongest” in the commerce marketing with doing businesses dishonestly. In this case, CHANGE was needed.
Following those trodden ways of wisdom, which are pleasantness, and seeking her quiet and withdrawn paths, which are peace; — then, and so sanctifying wealth into ‘commonwealth’, all your art, your literature, your daily labours, your domestic affection, and citizen’s duty, will join and increase into one magnificent harmony.
In the end, the Wool Exchange was constructed in the style of Gothic Revival and that was advocated and supported by Ruskin accordingly.
The Roots of Honour is another essay included in the Little Black Classics, which examines the flaws of modernity and system of political economy in mercantile businesses that defied the inborn quality of social affections and empathy. The piece is great as well, especially pleasant to mention Dickens’s works in order to observe master-servant relationships, for example, Esther and Charlie in Bleak House and Miss Brass and the Marchioness in Master Humphrey’s Clock; and Ruskin’s favourite,Hard Times.
All in all, I really like this pamphlet, full of metaphors and examples. Though he might not be right on gender issues, but there’s something in his views to look at in relation to art and society. In the end, I would like to include some passages of “the fatal lecture” in The Fallen Leaves by Wilkie Collins. It’s a lecture delivered by Amelius Goldenheart in the hall of Hampden Institution. Goldenheart’s devout belief in Christian Socialism is distinctive in the novel and controversial. Some might think it’s one of the reasons credited with the unsatisfactory reception in public and critics of the time. Moreover, I would like to include it because John Ruskin was one of the supporters of Christian Socialism among the Pre-Raphaelite circle, and a teaching fellow of the Working Men’s College. Enjoy! 🙂
“Ladies and gentlemen, thoughtful people accustomed to watch the signs of the times in this country, and among the other nations of Europe, are (so far as I know) agreed in the conclusion, that serious changes are likely to take place in present forms of government, and in existing systems of society, before the century in which we live has reached its end.
All that I can now attempt to do is (first) to point out some of the causes which are paving the way for a coming change in the social and political condition of this country; and (secondly) to satisfy you that the only trustworthy remedy for existing abuses is to be found in the system which Christian Socialism extracts from this little book on my table—the book which you all know under the name of The New Testament.
Look at our Commerce. What is its social aspect, judged by the morality which is in this book in my hand? Let those organised systems of imposture, masquerading under the disguise of banks and companies, answer the question—there is no need for me to answer it. You know what respectable names are associated, year after year, with the shameless falsification of accounts, and the merciless ruin of thousands on thousands of victims. You know how our poor Indian customer finds his cotton-print dress a sham that falls to pieces; how the savage who deals honestly with us for his weapon finds his gun a delusion that bursts; how the half-starved needlewoman who buys her reel of thread finds printed on the label a false statement of the number of yards that she buys; you know that, in the markets of Europe, foreign goods are fast taking the place of English goods, because the foreigner is the most honest manufacturer of the two—and, lastly, you know, what is worse than all, that these cruel and wicked deceptions, and many more like them, are regarded, on the highest commercial authority, as ‘forms of competition’ and justifiable proceedings in trade. Do you believe in the honourable accumulation of wealth by men who hold such opinions and perpetrate such impostures as these? I don’t! Do you find any brighter and purer prospect when you look down from the man who deceives you and me on the great scale, to the man who deceives us on the small? I don’t! Everything we eat, drink, and wear is a more or less adulterated commodity; and that very adulteration is sold to us by the tradesmen at such outrageous prices, that we are obliged to protect ourselves on the Socialist principle, by setting up cooperative shops of our own.
…that aspect presents one wide field of corruption and abuse, and reveals a callous and shocking insensibility on the part of the nation at large to the spectacle of its own demoralisation and disgrace.”“I am sorry I have made you angry with me,” he said, smiling. “The blame for this little disturbance really rests with the public speakers who are afraid of you and who flatter you—especially if you belong to the working classes. You are not accustomed to have the truth told you to your faces. Why, my good friends, the people in this country, who are unworthy of the great trust which the wise and generous English constitution places in their hands, are so numerous that they can be divided into distinct classes! There is the highly-educated class which despairs, and holds aloof. There is the class beneath—without self-respect, and therefore without public spirit—which can be bribed indirectly, by the gift of a place, by the concession of a lease, even by an invitation to a party at a great house which includes the wives and the daughters. And there is the lower class still—mercenary, corrupt, shameless to the marrow of its bones—which sells itself and its liberties for money and drink.
Do not, I entreat you, suffer yourselves to be persuaded by those purblind philosophers who assert that the divine virtue of Christianity is a virtue which is wearing out with the lapse of time. It is the abuse and corruption of Christianity that is wearing out—as all falsities and all impostures must and do wear out. Never, since Christ and his apostles first showed men the way to be better and happier, have the nations stood in sorer need of a return to that teaching, in its pristine purity and simplicity, than now! Never, more certainly than at this critical time, was it the interest as well as the duty of mankind to turn a deaf ear to the turmoil of false teachers, and to trust in that all-wise and all-merciful Voice which only ceased to exalt, console, and purify humanity, when it expired in darkness under the torture of the cross! Are these the wild words of an enthusiast? Is this the dream of an earthly Paradise in which it is sheer folly to believe? I can tell you of one existing community (one among others) which numbers some hundreds of persons; and which has found prosperity and happiness, by reducing the whole art and mystery of government to the simple solution set forth in the New Testament—fear God, and love thy neighbour as thyself.”