Ruskin and Effie: Harvey’s ‘The Subject of a Portrait’

In my previous post John Harvey wrote about his recent novel ‘Subject of a Portrait’, and the questions he tried to address in giving fictional life to the tangled love triangle of its central characters: John Ruskin, his wife Effie, and the artist Millais. He speculated how Emma Thompson might address these questions in her forthcoming film, ‘Effie Gray’, released here in the UK on 10 October. My own review of his novel was posted here in June.

Today my guest writer is Michael Flay, author of the novels The Watchers (2009) and The Lord (2012), and The Persian Wedding (forthcoming), all published by Polar Books (Cheltenham). Dr Flay is senior lecturer in SEN (Special Educational Needs) at a Midlands university.

The Subject of a PortraitChild abuse is an important problem in the U.K. and elsewhere. John Harvey’s recent novel ‘The Subject of a Portrait’, well contributes to understanding aspects of abuse. Perpetrators and victims have individual features and here Harvey presents one example of the former. What kind of person abuses a child? A version of Ruskin reveals the art critic as only able to relate to the female in the shape of pre-adolescent girls. His marriage to an adult woman is annulled because it was never consummated. Adult women disgust him except in terms of spiritual interchange. He sees their bodies as deformed. The novel is courageous in approaching such psychological areas with imaginative insight and detailed psychological investigation.

 

However, a scholarly commentator on Ruskin, Christopher Newall, is cited recently in ‘The Times’ (he is commenting on the forthcoming film about Ruskin) as disagreeing with the idea of Ruskin as sexually disordered. Newall’s view is that Ruskin ‘was perfectly easy’ with his wife ‘physically’ and to suggest otherwise is to contribute to a false myth or negative ‘legend’. Ruskin’s character is a subject for controversy, with several versions available. Newall prefers a purified view.

Harvey’s version is valuable in terms of the vivid fictional light cast on complex psychiatric matters that also exist in factual shape outside imaginative narrative. The Ruskin-version character is seen to encourage visits on fabricated pretexts from a young girl, a ’little maid’—‘that is the age where beauty dwells, we spoil as we grow big’. His encouragement could be referred to as ”grooming“, in current vocabulary.

Pre-adolescent girls are his preference, partly because they have no breasts (the novel suggests this) and, in his view, other sexual features are less obvious. The Ruskin figure, in the novel, has a secret collection of pictures, early photographs, of part clothed or naked, breastless young girls and other views of female children. Some of these shots were taken of children in a hotel he stays at by a clandestine, shady photographer he is in collusion with.

A disturbing, revelatory sequence in the novel comes when Ruskin gets out the pictures in order to assist in a masturbatory event. He stimulates himself also via repeated words, ‘Oh little neat dress with petit point lace’ and by pulling ‘a little girl face in the mirror’ as he watches and listens to himself. After his climax he is full of self praise, ‘John, John—was there ever potency like to yours? You are the King of the Golden River.’ His mood then switches to self disgust as he glimpses a remnant of his own semen on his body, a wish for the Lord to ‘scald my weakness’.

In a later attempt to have sex with his wife Ruskin is presented as calling up this past experience in an attempt to gain arousal, repeating words he finds erotic, ‘ Oh little pert nose and tiny waist’, and telling his wife ‘Be like twelve again’. After the failed encounter he lapses into baby language, ‘Don leave me all on my owny’.

A strength of Harvey’s narrative is that these vivid and revealing sexual crises are presented in a context of Ruskin’s other, but related, behaviours. Such behaviours include mood and attitude instabilities, revulsions towards the physical and exalted views on art and beauty. At times he seems spitefully to collude with his wife’s attraction to Millais, combining this with absolute rejection of her physically. When she attempts to have sex with him he tells her she is physically ‘misformed’ and ‘the hand of nature’ has ‘erred’ in her case. He manipulates Millais by referring to Effie as ‘my own clever monkey’, both praising and insulting her at once, possibly to get Millais to react.

An attraction to sexuality with young girls and a recoil from that kind of relation with older women is a Ruskin characteristic. The episode in which Ruskin takes the ‘little maid’ from the hotel for an outing in the wood is disturbing. Ruskin is ‘suave’ and plausible, getting the girl’s mother to give permission. Then, in the wood, come kissing games, incidents in which the girl lies on him in various postures. The episode concludes with the open comment ‘he led her beneath low branches’. It is left non-explicit, speculative, what follows, maybe nothing, more, or worse? Ruskin reflects early on in the jaunt, that such girls are ‘the art of God. He imagined her tiny shoulder blades sliding within her dress’. The later masturbation sequence reveals that Ruskin’s interest in the girls has a physical aspect and is not just a case of visual appreciation. After Ruskin’s wife has obtained her divorce from him, Ruskin continues to look out for such young girls—he notices one near the National Gallery, ‘nearly a woman but slender as string’. He considers she has an eating disorder, but ‘such’…’I could love with a grown man’s love’. His attractions have a repetitive, part obsessional aspect.

Harvey presents Ruskin’s disorder, reveals it as an individualized psychiatric case in the sense that it issues in symptomatic, cumulative ways. Here is a valuable consideration of aspects of child abuse, embedded in the context too of a specific, stressed marriage. Fiction here performs a useful function of contributing to the understanding of a non-fictional condition that exists in ‘fact’, demonstrating an abuse perpetrator in a complex web of contexts and characteristics. Beyond the theme of the abuser the Ruskin character is also representative of a man who is entirely disunified in a psychological sense. He has therefore no creative relation with anyone in the novel and is alone. At the same time he is an eminent art critic and social reformer. A suggestion here is disturbingly implicit in the narrative that an expert in any field may simultaneously be pathological in a psychiatric sense. This theme too is current in actual society. Mental disorder can occur anywhere, in the prominent and obscure alike. However, the prominent may have more options for concealment or for conveying disorder as talent, likewise for decision making or opinion forming that has its basis in defect or neurosis,

For some Ruskin’s characteristics as seen in Harvey’s novel may seem a psychological area they are reluctant to consider. The presentations of sexual behaviours and thoughts may be challenging. This is all to the good. Lawrence has commented that ‘a condition of freedom’ is that ‘in the understanding I fear nothing’. The ‘abhorrent’ and disturbing need their own attention, both fictionally and otherwise. Writing in ‘The Reality of Peace’ he continues to emphasise that the horrific or pathological needs imaginative presentation, an aim being to ‘see what it is’, to admit it  to ‘understanding’ with no elision of consciousness. Harvey’s writing fits this context, enacting Lawrence’s aim , keeping company as he does so with a minority of fiction writers who do the same, such as Pynchon and DeLillo.

 

 

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