Books: Nice painting, shame about the wife

John Everett Millais, a Biography by G H Fleming, Constable pounds 20

The famous late-period painting by Millais, Bubbles, became notorious when it was acquired by the Pears soap company for advertising purposes, but perhaps there was poetic justice in this, for Millais's life was the stuff of which soap operas are made, at least in G H Fleming's account. To be sure, at the very beginning, when he formed the "Pre-Raphaelite" school with Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Millais came under attack from the guardians of taste, particularly for his painting Christ in the House of his Parents (1850). He was accused, as Zola was later, of being a purveyor of low life, and for the same reason: attempting to provide a naturalistic rendering of subject matter.

Fleming compares the brouhaha over the "Jesus as carpenter" painting to the recent controversy over Kazantzakis's novel The Last Temptation of Christ. But once the influential mainstream art critics gave his work the nod, Millais settled into a comfortable Establishment niche. Thereafter, one finds no internal struggles or metaphysical questings in Millais's life; his conflicts were all with other humans.

The bane of his life was John Ruskin. It was Ruskin's critical championship that initially led to the general acceptance of pre-Raphaelite art, and at first, Millais regarded him as a guru. Then Euphemia Gray came between them. Effie, as she was invariably called, married Ruskin but the match was never consummated; it is said that on the wedding night, Ruskin recoiled in horror from his wife's pubic hair, having previously only seen "artistic" nudes. Whatever the truth, Effie was examined medically, found to be virgo intacta, and her marriage was annulled. She very soon became Mrs Millais and bore eight children. The fact that Millais was privy to the secrets of Ruskin's boudoir seems to have unhinged the great critic, especially as Millais himself turned on him. To mask his ingratitude, Millais had to pretend that Ruskin was a monster. It was the well-known phenomenon of biting the hand that feeds. But Ruskin had the last laugh.

What happened next has to be reconstructed tentatively, since Effie's descendants burned most of her letters. At root, the Millais marriage was a Jack Spratt affair. She liked travel, he did not; he adored fishing, she did not; she was a spendthrift while he was a tightwad. Most of all, he was a passionate man who had a prodigious sexual appetite while she regarded intercourse as something for the beasts. Both parties appear to have been, at first glance, one-dimensional human beings: Millais was a painting machine and Effie a shopaholic, but Millais was a creative genius while Effie was a neurotic malcontent. The supreme test of a Millais biographer is what sense he can make of this tangled menage.

As an American academic, Fleming no doubt has to look over his shoulder at the Valkyries of political correctness. Perhaps this accounts for the curiously tentative and unsatisfactory "on the one hand... on the other," tone he adopts. Many people regard Effie as a monster of conceit, self- regard and mendacity. Ruskin grew to hate her and described her as "Lady Olivia (in Maria Edgeworth's Leonora) with less refinement, mingled with Goneril in King Lear". In case we are tempted to reply "well, he would, wouldn't he," it is worth bearing in mind the judgement of the respected literary scholar, Helen Viljoen, who found in Effie's combination of lies and humbug a perfect replica of Becky Sharp. In the light of the surviving letters Fleming does quote from, it is hard to dissent from this judgement. Effie visited Paris three times but her response on each occasion was a whinge that she did not have unlimited shopping money.

Faced with what looks like a desire to pitch into Effie, coupled with a fear of the consequences of so doing, Fleming has elected to play both ends against the middle. On the one hand, he makes a stab at an argument that Effie was a victim because she endured eight pregnancies while disliking sex. And he makes great play of the mysterious unstated illness she allegedly suffered from. He condones her increasing absences from her husband and her money-grabbing. And he takes her uncorroborated word for it that Millais neglected his children, and goes so far as to compare him in point of hypocrisy with Rousseau (both men idealised childhood but shamefully neglected actual children).

On the other hand, he tries to sympathise with Millais's exasperation at his wife's absences - which ended ultimately in the total separation of the couple - and with her spendthrift ways. At one point, he remarks of one of Effie's self-justifying effusions that it reminds him of Mary McCarthy's attack on Lillian Hellman - "everything the woman writes is false, even the words 'and' and 'the'". Fleming tries to sidestep the sexual politics involved in entering a judgement on the marriage by likening it to literary models: Millais is Jude the Obscure and Effie is Sue Bridehead, or Millais is Andrea del Sarto in the Browning poem pleading with Lucrezia. But Fleming really cannot have it both ways: "dialectical" truth through the interpenetration of opposites is not a notion many would subscribe to, and with this in mind, he really should have come down off the fence.

Such is the absorbing interest of the Millais marriage that the paintings themselves tend to get crowded off the page. Fleming's art criticism is sound without being inspired or brilliant and, in any case, he has already written a number of books on the Pre-Raphaelites. What he mostly does is to set us thinking about the Victorians. How far away they are in sensibility and sexual attitudes, almost like creatures from another planet.

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