Whether or not you enjoyed the sensational BBC serial Desperate Romantics last year, there have been benefits for fans of  pre-raphaelite art  and history in the form of new publications.  Merryn Williams retelling of the triangle involving John Ruskin, his wife Effie and the painter, John Millais, is the first to make its way to me. I took it with me on my recent trip to London where I stayed in John Millas’s  former residence.   The other reason I was so keen to read this is that I thought Samuel Barnett as John Millais was the best thing in the whole series …. cue gratuitous photograph, courtesy of the BBC …

Now that I’ve got that small confession out of the way, (and hopefully Rossetti isn’t reading this), let’s concentrate on the book.

Whether or not you are acquainted with the scandal, this book is recommended reading.

While it follows Effie from the beginning to the end of her life, the main focus is necessarily on her marriage to Ruskin and the events that led up to its annulment and her subsequent union with John Millais.  There’s no denying that Ruskin was a strange fish, but Williams makes it clear in her prologue, that she has no desire to vilify him.  His treatment of Effie was unsanctionable, and the detail of that is found in these pages.  But how much of that was due to his upbringing, his incredible intellect?  Finally where would pre-raphaelite art have been without him? 

Effie is shown to have been a remarkable woman.  A dutiful daughter and then patient – indeed, very patient – wife.  Forced more times than not to find her own entertainment when travelling with a husband, too busy with his intellectual pursuits to tend to his wife.  He also refused to consummate the marriage because mysteriously “her person was not formed to excite passion”, although he did promise to make love to her when she turned 25. Another broken promise.

So when the neglected wife fell in love with Millais, had Ruskin purposefully laid a trap? Was he hopeful that their romance would give him reason for divorce?

The outcome is known. Effie fled Ruskin – in a very cloak and dagger operation –  before seeking and securing an annulment. Although blameless, her reputation was sullied and the stigma of this stayed with her until her death.  Also she traded a sexless marriage for another which saw her bear 8 children.  This had unfortunate consequences on her health and on Millais’s artistry.

Those are the well-known facts.  Williams augments these with selections from the letters and statements of all three, turning the sensationalism of Desperate Romantics into a deeply human drama, and a fascinating social history of the time.   I hadn’t appreciated how much distress was caused by Ruskin’s later relationship with Rose de la Touche.  Nor that the wording of the annulment meant that the marriage could have been “unannulled” had there been any evidence that John Ruskin was not ……  (I’ll leave you to fill that in at a later date.)

Williams also records the career arcs of Ruskin and Millais. Both were geniuses and it says much about the woman in the background who helped them  to their greatest triumphs.

I particularly enjoyed the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, excerpts from Middlemarch, a novel that was inspired by this real-life scandal and that has now been placed on the to-be-reread pile.  It is no wonder that George Eliot was fascinated by Effie’s story.  While Eliot chose to shun and be shunned by English society to be with the man she loved, Effie stayed put and fought for the right to a proper marriage.  

Hers is an astonishing story and Williams tells it astonishingly well.