Effie Gray by Suzanne Fagence Cooper

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Effie Gray by Suzanne Fagence Cooper

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Luke Marlowe
Reviewed by Luke Marlowe
Summary: Using the letters and diaries of Effie Gray, her husband John Ruskin, and second husband John Everett Millais, Suzanne Fagence Cooper has crafted a fascinating look at a woman who was truly ahead of her time, leaving her husband for love and becoming a shocking and inspiring figure in Victorian society. Involving and wonderfully vivid.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 296 Date: September 2014
Publisher: Duckworth Overlook
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780715648575

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Effie Gray was born in Perth in 1828, and knew art critic John Ruskin from an early age. When he finally decided to ask her to be his wife, she called off an engagement and happily accepted.

The marriage was a troubled one. Unconsummated, unhappy, and driven by the whims of Ruskin, things soon started to fall apart, with Effie's health suffering as a consequence. When handsome young artist John Everett Millais was taken on as a protégé by Ruskin, Effie fell madly in love, resulting in an annulment that would set her apart from large parts of Victorian society, but also make her a truly modern and remarkable woman.

I can't deny that upon picking up this book, I knew little of Effie Gray. An admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites, I had always been distracted by the rather flashier and overly dramatic lives of Rossetti and his tragic muse Lizzie Siddall. The use of letters and diaries belonging to Ruskin and Effie make this a far more intimate tale, and one that is all the more touching for it.

Previous accounts I have read regarding Ruskin and Effie tend to make Ruskin out to be a villain of sorts, a man who wasn't able to perform sexually and who punished his wife for that. This account is a lot fairer, giving light to the fact that Ruskin, whilst driven by his artistic passions, was never a cruel or callous husband, merely insensitive and oblivious to the needs and emotions of his wife.

Effie is obviously the star of this book, and comes across as a rather capable young woman constrained by the social boundaries of the time. Seeing her health decline through time is rather sad, and I feel it's a shame she isn't better known, for her actions were truly brave, and completely ahead of her time.

The legal area surrounding the annulment is particularly fascinating - I was not aware of how much women were regarded as property in the Victorian era, and it makes Effie's actions even braver. She truly was a remarkable woman. One character who also stood out, and who I would love to read more about, was Sophy Gray - younger sister of Effie. Hauntingly beautiful, her tragic life lies in stark contrast to that of her spirited sister.

Cooper is not only a fine historian, but a wonderful writer, producing a book that she has clearly invested a huge amount of time and love into. Expertly researched, she lets the characters' voices speak loudly for themselves, and this Victorian love story feels truly contemporary. The book itself ties into the release of a motion picture based around the life of Effie Gray, which is due to be released this October. I'll certainly be giving it a watch, and would recommend this book to anyone going to see it.

Many thanks to Duckworth Overlook for the copy

For those intrigued by the Pre-Raphaelites, Into The Frame: The Four Loves of Ford Madox Brown by Angela Thirlwell is well worth a read, and a fascinating portrait of Ford Madox Brown and his traumatic love life.

For those wanting another Victorian woman who was miles ahead of her time, As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson by Rodney Bolt is a funny, warm, and surprising read.

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Buy Effie Gray by Suzanne Fagence Cooper at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Effie Gray by Suzanne Fagence Cooper at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Effie Gray by Suzanne Fagence Cooper at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Effie Gray by Suzanne Fagence Cooper at Amazon.com.


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