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.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?