Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Effie in Venice and the Roman Spring of Margaret Fuller

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Effie in Venice and the Roman Spring of Margaret Fuller

Article excerpt

One thing leads to another.

The year 2000 marked the 100th year of the death of eminent Victorian art critic, writer, reformer John Ruskin.

Coincident with celebratory exhibits both in England and in this country, there appeared a de-mythologizing play about Ruskin that centered on his wife Effie and his protege the painter John Everett Millais. That play, "The Countess," by first-time American playwright Gregory Murphy, dramatized Victorian England's most intriguing marital scandal: the annulment of the Ruskins' marriage and Effie's subsequently becoming the wife of Millais.

"The Countess" (as Millais referred to Effie) takes place in 1853 over a period of months in the Scotch Highlands when Ruskin invited Millais to stay with him and Effie while Millais painted Ruskin's portrait. What follows is the undoing of Ruskin's pretend marriage as the tensions under which Effie lived are disclosed to Millais, and his sympathy towards her turns to an attraction reciprocrated by Effie.

Effie is portrayed in a sympathetic light-her plight is that of an attractive woman left stranded for six years in an unconsummated marriage and constantly burdened with criticisms from John and his interfering parents (who, in London, lived next door). The three Ruskins are the heavies, cruelly intimating that Effie's unhappiness was due to an instability in her that bordered on incipient madness. Ruskin pere had written to Effie's family that rather than seek society she should "try to make John's pleasures hers, to like what he likes, for his sake ... causing him no unnecessary anxiety."

I first came to know Effie Ruskin some decades before the play brought her to public attention and made her a heroine of sorts. In the mid-1960's my husband and I, and our children, spent the summer at Venice's Lido, the locale of his youth. He was finishing a novel-in-progress. I had taken along to read on the beach Mary Lutyens' Effie in Venice, an engaging account, based on the letters Effie (born Euphemia Gray) wrote to her family in Scotland when she was newly Mrs. John Ruskin and beginning a ten-month sojourn in Venice as her already famous husband gathered material for the second and third volumes of his masterly Stones of Venice. They had been married in 1848, a revolutionary time that postponed their honeymoon trip to Italy until the fall of 1849 when she was 21, 10 years younger than John.

Effie was good beach company-gossipy, witty, effortlessly name dropping for the folks back home, full of perceptive observations on the society life around her, a lively foil to the somber, serious, and quite solitary John. "Operas, drawing-rooms, and living creatures have become alike nuisances to me. I go out to them as if I was to pass the time in the Stocks. . . "he wrote his father from Venice, and Effie leaves us a sobering picture of John, in one of his rare outings sitting well back in their box at Teatro Fenice, and busily composing a chapter on chamfered building-stones during the hit ballet of the season. His sketchbook of that period, displayed at the Morgan Library in New York for the Ruskin centennial, is a wonder of skill and delicacy.

There was another side to Effie, too-the flighty one that the writer Mrs. Gaskell was to recall from their school days together: "I don't think she has any more serious faults than vanity and cold heartedness.... She really is close to a charming character." Effie's letters disclose those qualities plus a dose of snobbery as, wrapped in splendid Brittanic superiority (reminiscent of the Brits in India), she views critically the Italians about her in that period following their unsuccessful attempt to free themselves from Austrian dominion.

Effie Ruskin was a great success in Venice, where she was able to go out on her own while John's unsociability was accepted as that of an eccentric, though not so tolerantly noted by Effie who wrote her mother: "he cuts everyone on the street and never calls on anybody. …

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