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Ruskin – the Victorian genius who still fascinates family lawyers

The great art critic and social thinker John Ruskin described the view of the River Lune from the cemetery in Kirby Lonsdale, Cumbria, North West England as “one of the finest views in England, therefore the world”, when he saw a painting of it by JMW Turner. Thereafter, because the great man went to live in Cumbria, the beauty spot became known as Ruskin’s View, in his honour.

I’ve spent some time recently in Kirby Lonsdale, because it is a gorgeous little place. It’s about two hours drive from my home and – after parking in the Town Square and finding my way to the cemetery (being careful not to slip on the treacherous cobblestones) – gazing out over the stunning sight of Ruskin’s View makes the journey well worthwhile. It’s a beautiful place: easy to relax, wind down and chill out in.

There, it’s not difficult to forget the world chomping at the bit, the fast pace of being a lawyer on the go, or that people are going through tough and sad times. Instead, it’s possible to drift off and drink-in the beauty of the countryside, in perfect peace. Even so, plenty of people are also there to walk, stroll around the town and buy in the quintessentially English upmarket shops. The restaurants and wine bars are then full when the sightseeing is done. Yes, it’s a fabulous spot.

But it’s the connection with Ruskin that undoubtedly makes it special for me. The man is, after all, very interesting. He was one of the best known and respected thinkers of the entire Victorian age – philanthropist, art critic (a professor of the subject at Oxford), artist himself, social thinker (described as a social revolutionary), writer and poet. He was also a man of great influence architecturally and is credited in philosophy as a Christian Socialist and Victorian Sage. In addition, he was a conservationist and the origins of the National Trust can be traced back to his influence. An Oxford College is named after him too.

As a divorce lawyer, I’m fascinated by what made the man tick! Of particular interest is the relationship with his wife, Euphemia (Effie) Gray. He wrote a novel for her in 1841, when she was a 12-year-old child, entitled The King of the Golden River. This is a fantasy, similar to that produced by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) 20 years later for the young Alice Liddell, whom he immortalised as Alice in Wonderland.

Ruskin did finally marry the beautiful Effie in 1848, but the union was never consummated. The marriage lasted only six years and it appears Ruskin couldn’t bring himself to have a sexual relationship with his wife. When he first saw her naked he was so repulsed he couldn’t be intimate with her – this was emphatically not the case with Pre-Raphaelite painter Millais, incidentally, whom she subsequently married and to whom she bore no fewer than eight children! The only way out of Effie’s marriage to Ruskin was to obtain an annulment by proving non-consummation, and this she did. It was a scandal and deeply embarrassing for all concerned.

The reasons why Ruskin behaved as he did to Effie are various, but I have some theories of my own.

In Victorian times, there existed a dual morality in relation to women. They were idealised as chaste and untouchable, being placed on pedestals by men. They were literally wrapped up in masses of clothes, including silly whoops under their skirts, to spread out their attire even further, leaving them untouchable underneath. Women were immortalised as objects of desire and beauty.

Yet, on the other hand, married women were owned by the men who in theory immortalised them. Women had no rights or freedoms at all. Everything they had on marriage vested in their husband. If they were attacked, raped or brutalised by their spouses, they had no redress at all and were sent back if they ran away. Divorce by a woman was very rare indeed and if it happened at the husband’s instigation, which was much more common, she lost everything she had.

Ruskin had one other recorded love, again a child/woman, called Rose La Touche, to whom he proposed when she was 17. She declined, and died thereafter. Ruskin later had a mental breakdown.

Some biographers crudely say Ruskin was a paedophile, but I don’t agree at all. He was a Victorian, a man of his age and, as we also know from his literature, a deeply brilliant fantasist. He was a dreamer and an idealist.

I believe he immortalised women and, in his head, they were perfect, innocent untouchable and eternal. That’s why he first placed Effie on a pedestal and thereafter rejected her. She had become real and her reality was the very thing he couldn’t abide. It affected him to the point where he couldn’t even pretend or try to love her.

We shouldn’t be too surprised. This has always happened and always will. Most of us are dreamers, and some may even be as brilliant fantasists, seekers of unattainable perfection, as Ruskin.

I wonder how many people have idealised their partners, considered them the perfect match and then, in varying degrees, discovered feet of clay – and couldn’t handle the reality?

How many people have dreamed of a life with a perfect other, throwing away far too casually what they have, only to discover that the person they thought beyond reproach also had feet of clay?

John Ruskin died at his home, Brantwood, near Coniston, Cumbria of the flu. He is buried at St Andrew’s Church in the town.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. Merryn Williams says:

    You may be interested in my book ‘Effie: A Victorian Scandal’, published this month.

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