Emma Thompson's film Effie, with Dakota Fanning in the title role as Ruskin's teenage bride, is released in May. Photograph: Joel Ryan/AP/Press Association Images
What reverberated then and now was that the reason given for ending the union was non-consummation. But what really snagged in the public consciousness was Ruskin's explanation of why he didn't fulfil his marital duties: "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."
Those "certain circumstances" have been the cause of much salacious speculation. The reasons mooted range from his aversion to children, his religious scruples, a wish to preserve Effie's beauty and to keep her from exhaustion so they could go Alpine walking, to a revulsion with body odour and menstruation. Effie herself was the inadvertent source of the most famous of explanations: Ruskin, she said, "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".Brownell says it was money and fear that Effie would attempt to pass off the pregnancy of a lover as his own. Effie had married him for his money, at the request of her father, who had recently lost his own fortune. Clever Ruskin, then, refuses to consummate for 7 long years, in order that his wife not have an opportunity to deposit a cuckoo's egg into a cuckhold's nest. Thus his mother kept his lively young bride under constant surveillance. Eventually she'd get tired of it and she'd divorce him and he wouldn't have to give Effie any money. He deliberately threw Effie in Millais's way.
He says, "Mrs Gaskell, who was at school with her, remembers Effie collecting admirers as a hobby." However, as a commentator corrects, Elizabeth Gaskell, 18 years older than Effie, couldn't have been a schoolmatee of Effie's.
I don't buy Brownell's revisionist version of the couple's failed marriage, but pre-Raphaelite art, the artists who made it, and the era out of which they emerged, have been an ongoing interest my since I was in high school, so you can lay money on it -- I will be in the audience to watch this movie.