Effie Gray’s physical flaw

In a previous post (see here) I wrote that Effie Gray posed as a model for “The Eve of St. Agnes”, a nineteenth century interpretation of Keats’s ballad.
The painting was the work of Millais and at the time Effie was his wife.

Euphemia Gray, affectionately known as Effie, met John Everett Millais while she was the wife of John Ruskin, the great artist, architect, poet and political thinker of the Victorian age. Five years had already passed since their wedding but she was still a virgin, Ruskin had persistently put off consummating the marriage because he had been shocked by a flaw in her beautiful body. (see here)

His explanation of why he didn’t fulfil his marital duties was: “It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.” (1)

For her part, she too, in a letter to her father, wrote that her husband found her “person” repugnant: “He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April” (2)

While married to Ruskin, she modelled for Millais, and the they fell in love. Her brother, among others, later claimed that Ruskin was deliberately encouraging their friendship in order to compromise her, as an excuse to separate.
Their marriage was annulled on the grounds of his “incurable impotency” in 1854. after two doctors had attested to Effie’s virginity.

In 1855, she married John Millais, became the manager of his career and often collaborated with him in choosing his subjects. She gave birth to eight children in the early years of their marriage, which lasted 41 years.

But what had made Ruskin decide not to consummate their marriage?
During his courtship he had sent her a lot beautiful letters and he had looked forward to her twenty-fifth birthday to be able to marry her.
What went wrong? What were those “certain circumstances” he mentioned during the annulment proceeding?

They have been the cause of much salacious speculation.
According to some conjectures, he was perturbed by her menstrual blood and its odour but the most fascinating and accepted theory is based on the tragic difference between idealised images and reality.
Ruskin’s interaction with the female body came only from studying smooth, white, classical statues, and the wedding night was a failure because he was disgusted by a weird sight, he noticed that his young bride had pubic hair!

↪️ A physical flaw is often only in the eye of the beholder.

(1) “Potrà sembrare strano che io abbia potuto astenermi da una donna che per la maggior parte della gente appariva così attraente, ma sebbene il suo viso fosse bello, la sua persona non era fatta per eccitare la passione. Al contrario, c’erano alcuni dettagli nella sua persona che la impedivano totalmente.”

(2) “Ha addotto varie ragioni, odio per i bambini, motivi religiosi, desiderio di preservare la mia bellezza, e, infine, quest’ultima anno mi ha detto la sua vera ragione … che aveva immaginato che le donne fossero molto diverse da quello che vedeva in me, e che il motivo per cui non ha fatto di me sua Moglie era perché era stato disgustato dalla mia persona la prima sera, il 10 aprile ”

Image: Google Art Project – Sir John Everett Millais (1856) Peace Concluded – (model Effie Gray)

37 thoughts on “Effie Gray’s physical flaw

  1. Thanks again Luisa for a wonderfully informative and intriguing post.
    It is quite horrible that Ruskin could grow up and not know anything about the reality of life.
    Seeing women as a beautiful piece of marble or ivory that would miraculously produce offsprings I presume.
    How did he grow up?
    The comment about Barbie dolls amuse me as my daughter and her two friends often played with their Barbies. There was a problem when it came to marriage as there was only Ken. I bought her ‘ Action man’
    so she declared him the future husband of her Barbie. 😊.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. What a beautiful memory of Barbie’s marriage adventures!
      As for the power of the idealized image, I think it underlies many of the sick behaviors of our teenage girls, who fail to resemble the models that fashion and media offer them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And in modern times Barbie dolls have changed their shape, slimmer, less curvy, smaller breasts: they look more like the fashion models of these days. Always idealised, but no more a Pamela Anderson lookalike from the 80’s.. more of a Jennifer Lawrence.

        Liked by 1 person

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