From Effie Gray, Lizzy Siddal and Janey Morris to later muses Georgie Burne-Jones and Mary Zambaco, their images were immortalized on canvas, while their extraordinary lives remained largely unexamined. Yet these 'stunners' and their artists wove a surprisingly modern web of friendships, romance, envy and betrayal. Alongside younger artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, their bohemian existence shocked and thrilled nineteenth-century England in equal measure, and the relationships they formed transformed British art for ever.
In the words of author, Henrietta Garnett, "a 'stunner' is a nineteenth-century slang coined by Gabriel Rossetti (DGR), generally referring to a woman of exceptional beauty, glamour, and charisma."
'Wives and Stunners' is a group biography concentrating on Effie Gray and her marriage to Ruskin and then Millais, Rossetti and Siddal and his affair with Jane Morris, the marriage of William and Jane Morris, Mr. and Mrs. Burne-Jones, as well as Pre-Raphaelite model Annie Miller's affair with painter, William Holman-Hunt.
Let's begin with John Ruskin and Effie Gray. The usual story of how Effie and Ruskin met is told here with some added dimension of both their childhoods. For instance, not knowing much about John Ruskin, it was fascinating to learn that he was an only child whose father, John James Ruskin, suffered from manic depression. I wonder if this trait was passed down to his son, John? The author, Henrietta Garnett, also says that Ruskin's parents were first cousins (its making sense now). Ruskin's mother, Margaret Cox Ruskin, was deeply religious teaching him the Bible through daily readings and memorization exercises young John would be made to take. He loved it and religion became a daily study and lifelong passion. However, Effie Gray's childhood was idyllic compared to young John's. She grew up in the Scottish Highlands with many siblings and for the most part had a stable upbringing with loving and supportive parents.
Of course, the author details the ups and downs of the troubled Ruskin marriage with no discrepancies that I came across. All the usual details about the terrible wedding night that was anything but sexual or romantic. Garnett gives the usual reasons for Ruskin not making love to his new bride on their wedding night i.e. her pubic hair, possible odor and even menstruating swollen body could have completely turned him off! It seems Ruskin had not exactly an idealized view of the female nude but he did expect a painted nude body type personified! Poor Effie. The divorce story is here as well, detailed again with precision although how factual is up to someone much more studied on the subject. Garnett does attribute Effie's wanting a divorce down to her meeting and falling in love with John Everett Millais and her keen intelligence on divorce proceedings!