‘The Subject of a Portrait’, ‘Effie Gray’ & the Ruskin Marriage

John Harvey, author of The Subject of a Portrait, a review of which I posted HERE in June, is my guest for this post. He writes about his novel exploring the tangled relationships between Millais, the subject of his portrait, Ruskin, and Mrs Ruskin, Effie, in the light of the forthcoming film about this troubled triangle of characters.

It’s a curious thing to find yourself telling the same story as someone else, and at the same time — like overhearing a person, in the next room, saying the same thing that you’re saying. For my novel The Subject of a Portrait, about the marriage of John Ruskin and ‘Effie’ (Euphemia) Gray, came out this July, and in August there was a screening of Emma Thompson’s new film on this subject, Effie Gray, which is scheduled for release on 10 October. Since I have not yet seen the film I cannot comment directly, but — following my own engagement with the Ruskins — I am interested to see how Emma Thompsons’s script handles some key questions, and I thought I should record these questions before I do see, or read reviews of, Effie Gray. These are questions raised by the original historic events. They matter for anyone retelling this story, and are I believe interesting in themselves.

Both Effie Gray, and The Subject of a Portrait, feature the trip to the Highlands which Ruskin and Effie made in 1853 together with the young PreRaphaelite painter John Everett Millais — when Millais was to paint a portrait of Ruskin, and when Millais and Effie fell in love. The Ruskin marriage was still, after five years, unconsummated. But no one knows exactly ‘what happened in the Highlands’. Queen Victoria, when she heard the story, thought that everything had happened there.

One question is: what was happening inside John Ruskin? For the Ruskins did not travel to Scotland with only a handsome young artist for company — that would have looked odd to the Victorians and perhaps to anyone. Millais’ brother William came with them. But once they had settled, Ruskin let William stay in their hotel, and rented a tiny cottage where there was just room for him to sleep on the sofa while Millais and Effie slept in tiny bedrooms to either side of him. Ruskin loved this arrangement though Millais and Effie were not delighted. Effie wondered whether Ruskin wanted to get her ‘in a scrape’.

Ruskin treated his wife both oddly and badly. To a contemporary eye what may be most interesting is the monomania in Ruskin’s passion for the body of a child: he had fallen in love with Effie when she was twelve and it seems he could not bear the fact that by the time they married, she had a woman’s body. Not that Ruskin ever explained exactly why he disliked her ‘person’. He did invite her to believe she was wrongly ‘formed’, so that his sexual failure was in some sense her fault. When she protested he decided she was mad — and wrote to tell her father that his daughter was insane. And he insisted they pretend to live like a normal married couple.

The Subject of a PortraitActually there was nothing wrong with Effie’s body, as the physicians found when they examined her during the annulment of the marriage. The deformity — and deformity of mind — was in Ruskin. But why and how did Ruskin come to be so? Because it was not just a matter of high-Victorian puritanism. The pathology of Ruskin was more particular. Contrary to the verdict of the court of annulment, it does not seem that Ruskin suffered from ‘incurable impotency’. He protested at this suggestion, and let it be known that he practised ‘the vice of Rousseau’ — masturbation — and that he had some vigour in that department. Certainly he did not desire his wife, or any other grown woman, so far as we know. He was attracted to very young girls, and in one letter he advises a friend as to the wiles he might use to win a kiss from a tiny girl. But I don’t think one should think of him as a Victorian Rolf Harris. The case is different. He liked to write letters to some of his friends in baby talk, so one could wonder — is the true ‘tiny girl’ inside Ruskin himself? In our time the performance artist Grayson Perry dresses up and performs a little girl called Claire, who he says is his alter ego. And psychologists say it is possible for a person to suffer arrest, emotionally, at a very early stage where the infant psyche is neither boy nor girl. But it was hard, in the nineteenth century, to face such things openly.

I should not simplify the human mystery of Ruskin’s make-up. He was also capable of playing the authoritarian husband: he told Effie once that he would ‘beat her with a common stick’. Clearly he had his contradictions: he called himself both ‘a Tory of the old school’ and ‘a red-hot Communist’. He also is, and by a large margin, the greatest critic of art this country has produced — and he does write very wonderfully about art. It is obviously not easy to get to the root of such a person, you have to guess and imagine, and that is why I am interested to see how Emma Thompson — and her husband Greg Wise, who plays Ruskin — read his character.

There is again a question about Effie. What did she think about her marital situation? This is a real question, because although it was possible for a young Victorian wife to be extremely innocent and ignorant about intimacy, it is odd if Effie was so totally innocent since her best friend in London was Lady Eastlake — that is, the wife of Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, the Director of the National Gallery. Lady Eastlake was an intellectual figure in her own right, a traveller and an author — and she was both the daughter, and the sister, of ladies’ doctors, of obstetric physicians. In The Subject of a Portrait, at one point, Effie asks Lady Eastlake to examine her. And it is the part of Lady Eastlake that Emma Thompson has chosen to play, herself, in Effie Gray, so I am interested to see at what stage Emma Thompson advises Effie about obstetrics.

There are further questions as to Effie. If she and Millais fell in love in the Highlands, why did she go back with Ruskin to London — only to run away later? She did not need to hurry back, because her parents lived in Perth, and she could very well have said, I shall stay with mama and papa and come home later. She visited them easily enough at other times. The fact that she did go home with Ruskin, only to take off later, raises two questions: how much did happen in the Highlands? And what happened later, in London? Was there communication — were there secret meetings — between the lovers? Or were they wholly cut off, knowing nothing of what each other felt, so Effie had to take her decision blind, in the dark? As the story proceeds, Effie does develop a remarkable independence, and an ability to survive, and to grow.

And the PreRaphaelite prodigy, John Everett Millais? For reasons of time, Millais could paint only the background of his portrait in Scotland — for actually, though this now-famous painting is a portrait of Ruskin, Millais painted Ruskin in later, in his studio in Gower Street in London. There were regular sittings. But what on earth did Ruskin and Millais say to each other then? Did Millais give signals, did Ruskin know, that the artist loved his wife? It is clear also that Ruskin liked Millais quite tenderly, but with an ambivalence, so you wonder, was he more attracted to the artist’s brilliant talent or to his youthful glamour? After the annulment he wanted Millais and himself to go on meeting and collaborating, regardless of the fact that his ex-wife was now Mrs Millais. Those sessions in the studio must have been extraordinarily charged, like chapters in Dostoevsky where momentous intensities hang over the quiet talk of two people in a room. I am not Dostoevsky, but still one has space in a novel to imagine such talk, and I have tried to do that. Of course a film must have a different economy, and obviously has many fewer words than a novel. In any event, I am interested to see how Emma Thompson and Greg Wise manage the relation, not only of Effie with Millais, but of Millais with Ruskin, because Ruskin was a hugely important figure for any young painter, whether or not the painter loved Ruskin’s wife. And Millais was, by a large margin, the most talented young artist whom Ruskin, as an art lover and art critic, was ever to meet.

I have said that Effie Gray, and The Subject of a Portait, tell the same story. But it cannot be quite the same story. Even if the narrative is based on real life, still the people in it have to come alive, and sound like living people, in a film or in a novel. And if they are to come alive, they have to have some freedom to go their own way. Also, if you have an idea for a character in a film or a novel, then I think you must be free to pursue that idea as far as it can lead you. What’s the use of half-measures, in a work of imagination? But if you do push your idea as far as it will go, your picture may be more extreme than the reality actually was. I don’t know what Emma Thompson does with John Ruskin, but there have been some critical rumblings in Ruskinian circles. And it may be some admirers of Ruskin will also be dismayed by my portrayal of him — though I am an admirer too, and simply think one must try to understand his pathology. Because ‘pathology’ is the word.

The main point is that the relation between a historical figure and the fictional portrayal of a historical figure cannot be ‘identity’. Maybe their relation can be like that of siblings. Emma Thompson’s Ruskin, and my Ruskin, cannot be Ruskin, the real Ruskin, but perhaps they can be as it were like Ruskin’s brother — or like his bad brother. In science fiction people speak of ‘parallel universes’, and a historical film or a historical novel can only at best be a ‘parallel universe’, it cannot be the actual historical universe. Emma Thompson’s Victorian universe, and my Victorian universe, may or may not be quite parallel to history — or to each other. And this is why I am so interested to see how she tells the story in her film. For every retelling of an event that really happened — however fictitious — may still shed light on the original event. In this case, on the history of a famous wife’s unhappiness, and her search for happiness, in one marriage — or another.

John Harvey

The Subject of a Portrait is published by Polar Books, Cheltenham 2014

 

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  1. Pingback: Michael Flay on John Harvey's 'The Subject of a Portrait'

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