The most striking moment in the two volumes of Tim Hilton’s massive, quirky, often moving biography of Ruskin occurs not on, but between, two of their nearly one thousand pages. Filling the whole of a marginless right-hand page, an 1851 daguerreotype shows the young Effie Ruskin in the third year of her never-consummated marriage to Ruskin, who was then thirty-two. Demure, shapely, finely dressed by her wealthy in-laws, she sits with head sharply cocked to the left, as if straining to read the facing page. She looks mildly miffed, as well she might, for the text describes the young Ruskins’ visit to Robert and Elizabeth Browning, after which Elizabeth remarks in a letter to a friend, “Pretty she is and exquisitely dressed—that struck me—but extraordinary beauty she has none at all.”
Ruskin’s reaction on his wedding night was more extreme: he recoiled from Effie’s body in disgust. From the medical examiners’ report, introduced at the hearing that resulted in the annulment of the marriage, we know that Effie was still a virgin “naturally and properly formed” and there were “no impediments on her part to a proper consummation of the marriage,” a judgment in which John Everett Millais evidently concurred, for Effie Millais bore him eight children in thirteen years.
In his deposition Ruskin testified that although his wife’s “face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion.” Ruskin’s guarded language conceals a deeper revulsion. “Person” is a euphemism for Effie’s nude body, the same word Effie uses (and doubtless heard Ruskin use on their wedding night) in a letter to her father on the eve of her flight from Ruskin:
He had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and…the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening.
Effie was twenty years old at the time of her marriage. Ruskin’s delicate full-face drawing of Effie made at this time, or possibly a year or two later, reveals the features of a pretty young girl of perhaps fifteen, the age at which she had been taken by her parents on a visit to the elder Ruskins’ home. Ruskin never mentions his wife in Praeterita (“things past”), his autobiography. But she appears briefly in its pages in the only form that ever pleased him, the unnamed “little girl” for whom he wrote the popular fairy tale The King of the Golden River. Years later Ruskin sketched the young Rose La Touche, with whom he had fallen in love. Rose was in her early twenties: the sketch depicts the face of a child of twelve or thirteen.
Our interest in Ruskin’s personal pathology would profit us little were it not that the pathological and the pro-foundly sane are interwoven throughout his writings, and those writings have helped to shape our world. Ruskin wrote at one of the last moments in our history when a single mind of the very first rank…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.