Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais By Suzanne Fagence Cooper: A Review

Author Suzanne Fagence Cooper reads from her novel Effie Gray.

U.S. Book Cover

Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Press; Reprint edition (June 21, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0312581734
ISBN-13: 978-0312581732

UK Cover from 2010. 
I love this cover it's beautiful. 

Effie Gray, a beautiful and intelligent young socialite, rattled the foundations of England's Victorian age. Married at nineteen to John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the time, she found herself trapped in a loveless, unconsummated union after Ruskin rejected her on their wedding night. On a trip to Scotland she met John Everett Millais, Ruskin's protégé, and fell passionately in love with him. In a daring act, Effie left Ruskin, had their marriage annulled and entered into a long, happy marriage with Millais.

Suzanne Fagence Cooper has gained exclusive access to Effie’s extensive and previously unseen letters and diaries to reveal the reality behind this great Victorian love story. A major critical reassessment of the Victorian art world, the book addresses the careers of Ruskin and Millais from a new angle, with Effie emerging as a key figure in the artistic development of both men. Effie, her sisters and daughters appear in many of Millais’ most haunting images, embodying Victorian society’s fears about female sexuality and freedom. 'Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais' is a compelling portrait of the extraordinary woman behind some of the most beautiful and celebrated pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Effie Gray

What I thoroughly enjoyed about this novel was the fact that the author went to great lengths researching the life of Effie Gray and those around her. What she didn't expect was to be given, by surviving family members, boxes of correspondence of the Gray, Ruskin, and Millais'.
Could you ask for anything better as a writer? As a result, Effie Gray comes to life before your eyes. The reader takes a genuine interest in the life of this young innocent Victorian girl who meets John Ruskin early in young adulthood thinking he is the answer to all of her romantic dreams. How mistaken she was. John Ruskin although fond of young Effie never truly was physically attracted to her. He never truly fell in love with her. So, why he decided Effie was the girl to marry, no one will ever know. The treasure trove of letters only touches upon various moments throughout their six year marriage. The letters give a wonderful glimpse into the mindset of Effie Gray but what provides other clues are the extraordinary Pre-Raphaelite paintings of second husband John Everett Millais whom she called 'Everett'.

The Gray Family and John Everett Millais at St Andrews, studio photograph, 1855.
From left to right: George Gray Jnr. with John and Albert, Sophia Gray (Effie's mother), Jeannie with baby Everett, George Gray snr. (Effie's father) with Alice and Sophy, Melville, Effie and Everett Millais sitting and standing together far right. Private Collection.

The love story truly begins in Scotland during a working vacation for The Ruskin's when John asks Millais to come along. In a tiny cottage in The Trossachs of the Highlands in Scotland, a young, still virginal, married Effie Gray falls in love with a young handsome painter Everett. Everett pays attention to her, enjoys spending time with her and their friendship gives her the confidence and courage to divorce John Ruskin. As a woman during the Victorian age, this was unheard of and legally could not have occurred without the support of biological family members of the long suffering wife as well as other factors.

John Ruskin

I never truly understood the reasons why John Ruskin made most of his life decisions. Although, he seemed to be ruled by religion and his medieval themed love of nature and art. This took precedence over marriage and any type of physical and sexual relationship.

The author uses Millais' Pre-Raphaelite paintings, of which Effie modeled for most of them, to bring their love story to life, as well as, providing a fundamental understanding for the depth of their love for each other.

This might have been my favorite aspect of the novel and something which has not happened to me before. Being able to look at paintings that you've known and loved for years with 'fresh eyes'. Having read the letters between Effie and her parents she provides background anecdotal information as to the how, why, and where the paintings might have taken place shining a fresh light on its surroundings and reasons for being!

King's Bedroom, Knole, Sevenoaks, Kent, England

Effie's correspondence tells us that after they were married Everett took Effie to Knole in Kent and painted her standing in the middle of the King's bedroom: "In the autumn of 1862 Everett returned to a subject that brought to mind the early days of their love. He wanted to paint a new version of The Eve of St. Agnes. Sending the children away to her parents, Effie and Everett were free to begin work on the picture. Everett had found the ideal background, the King's Room in the great house at Knole in Kent. Dominated by a shadowy curtained bed, this would be Madeline's chamber. In his poem Keats described a young woman dreamily disrobing, unaware that her lover Porphyro was watching her, unseen. Everett puts his audience in Porphyro's hiding place. He offers a glimpse of Madeline 'loosening her fragrant bodice', with her shimmering skirts sliding from her hips. The blue and silver of her gown glints in the moonlight. She thinks she is alone in the vast room. She is bare shouldered in white linen and lace" ( P.151) Effie Gray US Edition Hardcover.

If you are curious or just want to learn a bit more about the lives of John Ruskin, Effie Gray, and John Everett Millais, I urge you to pick up this novel. If you love Pre-Raphaelite art then this is a no brainer, buy it!

Please feel free to leave any questions or comments,


rutkmi said...

Ruskin is such an odd and complex man. He is so pivotal in the development of the PRB as such an influential art critic but he is so childlike and undeveloped in his personal life. Effie always seemed to me a wise, risk-taking and full-of-life person. I look forward to reading this book to get a fuller picture of her. It becomes clearer to me that the women in the PRB circle, some of whom paid a dear price, are the glue and inspiration for these amazing works of art.

Kimberly Eve said...

Thank you Seeker for such a wonderful comment. I wholeheartedly agree!
I hope you enjoy the novel. Especially, getting to know Effie better!

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