Those of you that know me will be aware that over the last two months or so I’ve been trying to trace my family tree. It’s an amazing journey that I expect I’ll be on for a while because there are always new things to explore and new data being uploaded to the internet. I’ve found newspaper articles about my ancestors, photographs of their WW1 military service records, even copies of books written by the authors in my line. It’s been incredible and also very emotional. The night I read about a distant ancestor who had lied about his age to enlist in the army during WW1, married a girl on home leave and then died six months later at Flanders, leaving behind a pregnant wife, I cried for about 2 hours straight over the sadness of it all. It’s hard not to count our blessings that we live in a time of relative peace, where our young men don’t have to make the sacrifice our forefathers did. It seems ridiculous to cry for him but I’m glad I could honour his memory with such feeling. All these years later, someone still cares that he died fighting for a better world.
Probably the most intriguing and romantic twist of my journey so far has been the mystery of my maternal grandfather’s mother, my great grandmother Maude. She’s been a complete enigma. According to family lore, she was the illegitimate child of someone in the peerage and was shipped out to South Africa either as a newborn babe or still in her mother’s womb (not clear on that part and I haven’t seen or found a birth certificate yet). Her circumstances would seem to support this – her “adoptive parents” had been servants in England but arrived in the Cape Colony with enough money to send her to an expensive private and, most importantly, Catholic school. Here’s where things get even more interesting. At some point, whilst researching the family tree, a distant family member has linked her as the child of Admiral Sir William Milbourne James. I haven’t seen the supporting documentation for this yet, but I’m hoping to soon be sent the papers where this was deduced from.
Sir James was the grandson of the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais and his wife, the inimitable Effie Gray, so of course when I learned a film had been made about her, I had to go and see it. This woman, who might be my great-great-great-great-grandmother, led an extraordinary life. She was one part of a love triangle that scandalised Victorian society because she was one of the first women ever to seek an annulment of her marriage to her first husband in order to marry my great x4 grandfather, who happened to have been the star pupil and commissioned painter of her first husband. The Ruskins were well to do socially and were active at the court of Queen Victoria until the scandal. Afterwards she was tarred in society as being some sort of reckless harlot and it’s only in recent years that the truth has emerged as a result of the publication of letters written between Effie and Millais, describing the torment of her marriage to Ruskin.
I’m not quite sure what I expected when I went to see the film. I think I thought it would be a bit of sad stuff about her marriage, how she freed herself and then her love affair with Millais. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. The film is dark, very dark, and it tells only the first part of this story – her marriage to John Ruskin. It ends with him being served the papers to attend at court for their annulment.
I managed to distract myself from some of the more disturbing aspects of the story by getting involved in the visual aspects of it. It’s filmed in a strange way – much of the scenery and setting is grim and dark, foggy outside and gloomy inside. There were several scenes where it looked like they were recreating the paintings, the way the light was arranged to fall on faces and settings. Light is something that almost has a character of its own in the film. It was also very grainy, as though it was shot in an old fashioned way, giving it a sense of timelessness. The costumes and houses were lavish and opulent (that blue and black wallpaper at Denmark Hill!!), with first prize for costuming going to Lady Eastlake, played by Emma Thompson, who wore some gorgeous creations.
I couldn’t avoid it forever though and came out of the film with an almost unbearable ache of sadness for Effie. John Ruskin was a dark and twisted man who was uncaring most of the time and outright cruel for the rest. It wasn’t stated explicitly, but it was hinted at in various scenes, that he had some sort of unhealthy fascination with children. He’d known Effie since she was a young girl and his refusal to touch her in any way seemed to be about the preservation of her innocence, as though he could force her to remain a childlike doll for all eternity. It was a terrible situation for her to be in and I felt for her as any woman would, regardless of whether or not she is my ancestor.
But in a way that made it worse. There were so many parallels between our lives, in the situations we found ourselves in, that I left with an ache in my heart that after six generations we’re still making the same mistakes. There’s a sense of kinship in that, but also a deep wellspring of sorrow and, yes, anger at a world that makes it okay for these situations to exist. I don’t have children but the very idea that future generations would keep repeating this vicious cycle breaks something in me. Does it never end?
I think it’ll take a while to process the film, to decide how I feel about it once I’ve untangled my self-reflection from it. If there is a second part to it, though, I’ll be first in line to buy my ticket. It would be nice to see her happiness now that I’ve experienced her torment.