16 JANUARY 1948, Page 20


A Victorian Tragedy

The Order of Release : The story of John Ruskin, Effie Gray and John Everett Millais told for the first time in their unpublished letters. Edited by Sir William James, G.C.B. (John Murray. 18s.)

"I DON'T think, poor creature, he knows anything about human creatures—but he is so gifted otherwise and so cold at the same time that he never thinks of people's feelings and yet with his eloquence will always command admiration. I cannot bear his presence ": so wrote Effie Gray to her father in March, 1854, breaking her six-year silence on the true history of her marriage to John Ruskin. In this long and heartbroken letter she told her family that it had never been a marriage at all, outlining something of the hell she had endured since her carefree April wedding at Bowerswell in 1848— the unnatural attitude, and growing cruelty of her distinguished young husband, the mischievous jealousy and possessive, superstitious attitude of his dreadful old parents. " I never saw such a trio," Effie had written, in a mournfully lighter vein a year before, " If I had bookmaking powers I could certainly write about them." But the rest of her life was spent in trying to forget about Ruskin and his parents ; nor did the official biographers of her first husband Ruskin or of her second husband Millais care to make a book, a chapter, or even a footnote about the morbid goings on at Denmark Hill, and the martyrdom of this beautiful, engaging and conventional Scottish girl. It has been left to Effie Gray's grandson, Admiral Sir William James, to vindicate his grandmother from the vulgar calumnies of the Ruskin family, and to give the public a judicious and fascinating selection from the 633 unpublished letters which bear upon the sorry story of this marriage. Most of the letters come from Bowerswell, the Gray house near Perth, but others were discovered hidden be- neath a loose floor board in John Ruskin's study at Brantwood on Coniston Water. Sir William James has provided the hooks and eyes to his selections in the form of a calm, sensible, slightly repe- titious and very dispassionate commentary on a human situation as horrifying as any Ibsen himself could have thought up. The result is an absorbing and important book. The Order of Release (Sir William's title, of course, is taken from the famous picture of Effie Gray as a Highland lass which Millais painted while unwittingly falling in love with her) is one more proof that nothing in this world is so interesting as the plain truth. The pivotal fact about the marriage, the sexual disability which Ruskin shared, for instance, with Carlyle (and which Stendhal alone in his epoch dared to tackle as the subject of a novel) was perhaps enough to doom any marriage. But it was not the whole story. Effie herself suggested that she could have gone on living with her husband " in my maiden state " had he treated her kindly, and had it not been for the insidious hostility of his parents to herself. A trained psychologist may be able to hazard how closely these two aspects of Ruskin's marriage—impotence and cruelty—were interrelated to each other : how far Ruskin's heredity (his grandfather had committed

suicide, his father seems to have been a little mad, and he himself died insane) tempered his attitude to Effie Gray. But even insanity does not explain away his vile behaviour after the annul- ment—his allegations that he had been trapped into the marriage, that he had never been in love with his wife (an argument which the fervent love-letters here printed by Sir William James forever set at rest), that she was insane or diseased and so unable to have children. Stendhal realised that passionate love and physical impo- tence can co-exist : and as Sir William several times suggests, Ruskin's love for his wife, perfectly genuine at the commencement of the marriage, his pride in her appearance and enjoyment of her com- pany might have survived had it not been for the death-watch-beetle tactics of his parents, evilly determined to get their son back even if it meant driving his young wife into some indiscretion giving grounds for a divorce. Th2 outward circumstances of the honeymoon in Scotland, their two visits to Venice, Effie's charming nature, her interest in architecture and readiness to learn whatever John wished her to know, show that the marriage did contain certain ingredients of happiness. Effie thought that if she could wrench John away from his parents' power she could save him and herself. She failed.

When the news that Mrs. John Ruskin had applied for an annul- ment of her marriage broke in Victorian London in the spring of 1854 it was a nine-day wonder. Lady Eastlake, and other supporters of Effie's, set assiduously to work to see that the real truth was known, while the " trio " of John Ruskin and his parents indulged in loud and libellous comment on Effie and her family when silence should have been their part. The general attitude was summed up by Dean Milman's wife, who wrote that she " could scarcely believe that one who could think and write so beautifully, could act so unworthily." Today, when we have perforce acquired the habit of facing up to situations before which the Victorians recoiled, we feel less shocked and indignant, and perhaps more sorrowful. The two people most directly affected • by Ruskin's conduct—Effie Gray herself and Millais, who nobly and silently loved her—found it possible to be lenient to him. Effie, who had suffered so bitterly, could pity her husband as a poor creature knowing nothing about other human creatures ; while in May, 1854, Millais wrote to a friend that he was " sure many allowances should be made for him, for he is cer- tainly mad or has a slate loose." If these two could afford to be generous, we may afford to be so too, and to approach with no prying or eager curiosity this pathetic record of Victorian tragedy ; to ap- proach it in fact with that tolerance which, to Sir William James' infinite credit, illuminates this sadly interesting book..