A lot of us men idealize women, especially the women we love. I'm guilty. Unfortunately, when the woman falls short of our ideal, which inevitably happens, things can go very wrong. In most cases, we come to realize that our beloved is just as human as we are, and we go on to love her with all her imperfections. Yet sometimes the idealization can go too far. Take the famous case of the critic John Ruskin and Euphemia "Effie" Gray (the model in the painting at left, Peace Concluded, by John Millais). Ruskin had fallen in love with Gray when she was very young, and had written the fantasy novel, The King of the Golden River, for her when she was twelve. They married when she was 18. According to Gray, he was an oppressive husband. That wasn't unusual. What was unusual was that Gray was still a virgin five years after her marriage.
Ruskin had championed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists and had taken a special interest in the painter John Everett Millais. Effie Gray had posed for a Millais' painting, Order of Release (right). Millais then accompanied the Ruskins on a trip to Scotland, where he fell in love with Effie. She had her marriage to Ruskin annulled on grounds of non-consummation and subsequently married Millais.
Why had Ruskin refused to make love to his wife? In a letter to her father, Effie wrote, "He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason... that he 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 10th April." And Ruskin confirmed it in a statement to his lawyer during the annulment proceedings: "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."
What was it about this beautiful woman that so repelled Ruskin? Mary Luytens, in a biography of Ruskin, suggested it was pubic hair--he expected her to look like a classical Greek statue underneath her clothes. Other historians have suggested menstrual blood or body odor. We shall never know, but I think Luytens' theory makes the most sense.
And there's one more bizarre note to this story: Millais painted this portrait of Ruskin while he was in love with Effie: there must have been an incredible strain between the two men, but they stoically finished the portrait.
The story of Ruskin, Gray, and Millais has inspired a number of stories, plays, films, and even an opera. Check out Wikipedia for the particulars.
Although it's very much a Victorian tale, it's a reminder to those of us who idealize the beloved in body, mind, or personality. These beautiful beings are just as human as we are. (Peace Concluded and Order of Release uploaded from WikiMedia; Ruskin's portrait uploaded from Victorian Web.