One thing leads to another.
The year 2000 marked the 100th year of the death of eminent Victorian art critic, writer, reformer John Ruskin. Coincident with celebratory exhibits both in England and in this country, there appeared a de-mythologizing play about Ruskin that centered on his wife Effie and his protege the painter John Everett Millais. That play, “The Countess,” by first-time American playwright Gregory Murphy, dramatized Victorian England’s most intriguing marital scandal: the annulment of the Ruskins’ marriage and Effie’s subsequently becoming the wife of Millais.
“The Countess” (as Millais referred to Effie) takes place in 1853 over a period of months in the Scotch Highlands when Ruskin invited Millais to stay with him and Effie while Millais painted Ruskin’s portrait. What follows is the undoing of Ruskin’s pretend marriage as the tensions under which Effie lived are disclosed to Millais, and his sympathy towards her turns to an attraction reciprocrated by Effie.
Effie is portrayed in a sympathetic light—her plight is that of an attractive woman left stranded for six years in an unconsummated marriage and constantly burdened with criticisms from John and his interfering parents (who, in London, lived next door). The three Ruskins are the heavies, cruelly intimating that Effie’s unhappiness was due to an instability in her that bordered on incipient madness. Ruskin père had written to Effie’s family that rather than seek society she should “try to make John’s pleasures hers, to like what he likes, for his sake. . .causing him no unnecessary anxiety.”
I first came to know Effie Ruskin some decades before the play brought her to public attention and made her a heroine of sorts. In the mid-1960’s my husband and I, and our children, spent the summer at Venice’s Lido, the locale of his youth. He was finishing a novel-in-progress. I had taken along to read on the beach Mary Lutyens’ Effie in Venice, an engaging account, based on the letters Effie (born Euphemia Gray) wrote to her family in Scotland when she was newly Mrs. John Ruskin and beginning a ten-month sojourn in Venice as her already famous husband gathered material for the second and third volumes of his masterly Stones of Venice. They had been married in 1848, a revolutionary time that postponed their honeymoon trip to Italy until the fall of 1849 when she was 21, 10 years younger than John.
Effie was good beach company—gossipy, witty, effortlessly name dropping for the folks back home, full of perceptive observations on the society life around her, a lively foil to the somber, serious, and quite solitary John. “Operas, drawing-rooms, and living creatures have become alike nuisances to me. I go out to them as if I was to pass the time in the Stocks. . .” he wrote his father from Venice, and Effie leaves us a sobering picture of John, in one of his rare outings sitting well back in their box at Teatro Fenice, and busily composing a chapter on chamfered building-stones during the hit ballet of the season. His sketchbook of that period, displayed at the Morgan Library in New York for the Ruskin centennial, is a wonder of skill and delicacy.
There was another side to Effie, too—the flighty one that the writer Mrs. Gaskell was to recall from their school days together: “I don’t think she has any more serious faults than vanity and cold heartedness. . . . She really is close to a charming character.” Effie’s letters disclose those qualities plus a dose of snobbery as, wrapped in splendid Brittanic superiority (reminiscent of the Brits in India), she views critically the Italians about her in that period following their unsuccessful attempt to free themselves from Austrian dominion.
Effie Ruskin was a great success in Venice, where she was able to go out on her own while John’s unsociability was accepted as that of an eccentric, though not so tolerantly noted by Effie who wrote her mother: “he cuts everyone on the street and never calls on anybody.” Still Effie enjoyed her life in Venice with its relative freedom. It would be a different story on her to return to England to the new home at Herne Hill that John’s parents had chosen and decorated for them, and that Effie described as “inconceivably cockney after Venice.”
At age 13 the precocious and indulged John Ruskin had received the gift of a poem entitled “Italy” illustrated by the painter Turner. That gift, he recorded, established “the entire direction of my life’s energies.” He loved Italy, but not Italians, and Effie, in Venice, followed suit. A realist, she saw that Austrians dominated the social life of Venice while Italian society had retreated in proud defiance to their palazzi, so she muffled her once declared Republican sentiments and quickly fell in with the occupying forces. She became adamant against Italy’s independence declaring Italians not capable of governing themselves. Such a stance led me inevitably to compare Effie to her contemporary, the American intellectual Margaret Fuller, who was in Italy at the same time as correspondant for Horace Greeley’s Herald Tribune, and had completely identified herself with the cause of Italian freedom and unity.
“It is a time I always dreamed of,” Margaret wrote home to her friend William Henry Channing in the spring of 1848 when rebellion had broken out all over Italy and the determination for national unity was forged. The worthy Channing in the posthumous memoirs of Margaret Fuller to which he contributed, recalls her “. . .enveloped in a shining fog of sentimentalism. . . . I. . .suspected her of affecting the part of a Yankee Corinne . . . .”
Channing was referring to Corinne, or Italy, the novel by Mme. de Stael much admired by women like Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The character Corinne, who symbolized the ideal qualities of a romanticized Italy, dies of unrequited love for Lord Nelvil after her half-sister Lucile, personifying the colder, more Philistine England, wins him. There is on the one side the brilliant light, the sensuousness and exuberance, the hedonism and emotion of the classical Mediterranean world and on the other the reserved, inward-looking, conscience-bound rectitude of the misty, melancholic, moralizing Protestant north. It’s tempting to hazard here that Effie, in some respects, is Lucile to Margaret’s Corinne. Certainly Corinne (as also George Sand) was a heroine to Margaret’s taste—a personage who ended tragically because she possessed superior ideals, talents, passions, and sensibilities. Fuller’s own unforeseen star-crossed love and tragic end makes the comparison with Corinne even more compelling.
It’s too easy to make Margaret Fuller a figure of fun: the first of America’s emancipated women and a blue-stocking supreme, she was surcharged with intensity and decisiveness as with some noxious and formidable intellectual electricity. Commanding in conversations, plain in looks but mesmerizing in manner, she put off many of the New England transcendentalists with whom she associated. It was years before poor Channing, her devoted friend, could even bring himself to be introduced to her. Hawthorne distrusted her instinctively and notes ironically in his diary the day Emerson came to tea “full of Margaret Fuller who. . .he apotheosized. . .saying that she is the greatest of women, ancient or modern, and the only person in the world worthy of consideration.”
She did nothing to diminish her legend, accentuating her intensity by a strange, unremitting blinking of her eyelids and pecking movements of her head when conversing that were noted by her contemporaries. She dressed with a certain unconventional dash that showed her independence of prevailing standards. Margaret Fuller was a prophet of self-realization, and a convinced supporter of the parity of sexes. “Let them be sea captains if they will,” she wrote in the 1840’s, challenging women to realize their full potentials in whatever fields they should choose. All of which, when viewed with her daguerre type likeness, might leave one with the unflattering impression of an eccentric filled with fanatic, feminist propensities. But early on Margaret had taken her own measure and decided to be “bright and ugly,” to fulfill herself according to her own lights not those of convention. She was an idealist—a woman of great intellect, courage, spiritual purity and strength, of whom, at the end, it can be said that although her writings are now mainly forgotten, she was and remains “a great woman writing.”
An overpowering personality, she managed, however, to couple her resoluteness with generosity, idealism, and warmth. Even the grudging Hawthorne was affected by the scope and breadth of her personality. Two of his heroines, Zenobia from The Blithedale Romance and Miriam from The Marble Faun, show Margaret’s own traits of impetuousness, exoticness, and extraordinary intellect and have, from the start, been identified with her. She initiated in Boston a series of “Conversations,” the nearest thing to a literary salon on the western side of the water, translated Goethe, was editor of the first Dial magazine, wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century and other books, and became the first woman columnist on Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, friend and equal of all male literary figures of the day.
In London, at the home of the Carlyles, on the first lap of her European trip, she had met exiled, melancholic Giuseppe Mazzini dressed in black, “in mourning,” he said, “for my country.” There was an immediate meeting of souls. Crossing into France, Margaret met George Sand, and also Adam Mickiewicz, Polish poet and exiled patriot, who had admired her from afar through copies of The Dial that he had obtained and circulated among his friends. Upon meeting her, he discovered “the only woman to whom it has been given to touch what is decisive in the present world and to have a presentiment of the world of the future.”
Finally, in her 37th year, Margaret arrived in Italy in the spring of 1847, and it was, in fact, the spring of her life. She was in Rome, the city she was to love above all others; she had met the young Marquis Ossoli, a man 10 years her junior and quite unequal to her in education and intellect, but one whose liberal views coincided with hers; she had come off her “intellectual stilts” as Mrs. William Story, a fellow American resident in Rome, was to put it. Margaret would write home the touching words of her humanization: “Art is not important to me now. . . I take interest in the state of people, their manners, the state of race in them. I see the future dawning . . . .”
Margaret had not only found in Italy the right soil for her heroic aspirations, she had also fallen in love with Ossoli. There is much biographical wonder at her union with a man so unlike herself, but then she was said by all who knew her to have had the gift of drawing unsuspected strengths from people, of divining their best and most hidden qualities. That she elicited great devotion from Ossoli is apparent throughout their relationship; he unswervingly allied himself to her and her republican views at the cost of alienating himself from his family and then suffering exile from his country. They became lovers when she was living in Rome and she bore him a son clandestinely in Rieti. During the siege of the ill-fated Rome Republic of 1849 they conducted themselves with valor—she, as the directress of a hospital for the wounded as well as the sustainer of Italy’s cause for unification in all her newspaper articles back home, and he an officer of the Republican troòps. Then, fleeing the reactionary Papal government when it returned to power, they settled in Florence, where Margaret finally met Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a woman who matched her both in erudition and in ardor for the cause of Italian unification. Ossoli and Margaret secretly married in Florence and eventually made the decision to return to her homeland, only to perish tragically along with their child in a shipwreck off Fire Island almost at journey’s end.
Hawthorne is harsh with Margaret, pitiless in his judgments on her love story. He sees her only as the homely, intellectually-proud, eye-blinking old maid of Cambridgeport, and his diary seethes with rancor in his scorn against her and her unconventional romance with Ossoli whom he characterized a half-idiot and nothing of a gentleman. In a puritanical rage he is appalled that Margaret should succumb to physical attraction. Providence, he winds up, “had been only too kind to her to allow her to perish together with her ridiculous husband, and the child.”
But Hawthorne’s crabbed account of Margaret and Ossoli was written eight years after their deaths and based on second-hand gossip. Others who personally knew the couple speak of them in admiring and generous terms, and it is clear from Margaret’s letters that she did not throw herself at Ossoli but resisted his courtship, even leaving Rome for a few months with the intention of returning home, for she clearly perceived the differences between them and dreaded the future “social inquisitions” should they marry. Despite the obstacles, they found in each other the great tie of their lives; their brief time together was her supreme joy, and is reflected in her writing Emerson, “Italy has been glorious to me. . . .”
Quite a contrast to Effie Ruskin in Venice. Compare their photos and it’s Effie whom one would suspect of high romanticism with her pretty, young, soft looks, her elegant garb. When the Ruskins called on the Brownings, Elizabeth described his “naturally sprightly wife” as “pretty and exquisitely dressed.” If Effie seemed flighty, it was, says author Mary Lutyens, because she loved socializing with fashionable people more than ideas. Indeed, her letters are remarkably alive and give a vivid picture of the Venice of her time.
Margaret, instead, descends upon Rome a good bit older, alone, and constrained to constant, exhausting brain work to make her living. For her it was ideas—even ideals—that mattered. Then, consider the difference in living arrangements—the Ruskins at first in the plush Danieli Hotel, where in Suite #32 (before the ugly present-day annex was attached to the original palazzo) John was afforded a view of the tower in Piazza San Marco from his dressing room; then in the even plusher, private palazzo known as Casa Wetzlar, which is now the Gritti Hotel. Margaret Fuller took a plain, unheated bed-sitting room on the Corso followed by equally modest quarters at #60 Piazza Barberini, an address that no longer exists.
Again, consider who their friends were and where their sympathies lay: Margaret was the friend and admirer of women like George Sand and the political activist Princess Belgioiosa and men like Mazzini and Mickiewicz—unconventional individualists; Effie’s closest friend in Venice was the Austrian officer Paulizza who had planned and carried out the bombing of the city, and she considered being invited to a ball for Field Marshall Radetzky, who consolidated Austria’s dominion in North Italy, her greatest social triumph.
But appearances deceive. It was Margaret who was the romantic despite the strained angularity that gave her the mien of a New England school-mistress, while Effie was the very proper bourgeois social climber, gathering names of the great and rich to fill her letters back home. The Ruskin parents were to claim that it was John’s position and wealth that attracted her to him, which may be true, but he was also a most attractive man, reddish-haired, blue-eyed, “of compelling voice and speach as well as charm of manner.” And, of course, a genius. Living a celibate marriage for six years while waiting for John to “marry” her as he promised he would on her 25th birthday (a promise never kept because he, used only to marble statuary, was repelled by the body of a living woman), Effie prudishly and prudently gathered admirers and gallants around her for social convenience.
In Rome Margaret’s relationship with Ossoli fulfilled her nature. She was a proud, passionate woman who wanted to live out her nature without settling for a half-life. She wanted what men naturally have: the full life of both emotional attachment and intellectual pursuits. The intellectual never squelched the romantic in her, and that part of her nature came to the fore when she finally got to Europe, declaring, “I must die if I do not burst forth in heroism or genius.”
Effie kept her nature under close guard, playing the requisite Victorian game until Millais’ support sprung her release. Effie lived by the rules in established society; following her annulment from John Ruskin in 1854 and marriage to John Everett Millais in 1855, she was able to devote herself to eight children and ample domestic concerns in a life of conventional privilege and placidity ruffled only by the fact that Queen Victoria, shocked at the spectacle of a wife leaving her husband (no matter just cause), refused to receive Effie Millais at court until Millais on his deathbed asked this of the queen.
Intriguing is the contrast in Effie’s and Margaret’s personal lives, as well as their totally different approach to what was happening in Italy when they were both there. Italy in 1848 was that patchwork of separate states and rulers that it had been for centuries. Austrian prime minister Prince van Metternich, the prime sustainer in Europe of a status quo that had been temporarily upset in the beginning of the century by Napoleonic nationalism, dismissed Italy offhandedly during the 1815 Congress of Vienna as a mere “geographical expression”; and at the same backward-looking Congress, he parcelled out the northern half of Italy (which had been briefly united under Napoleon) to Austrian overlords. “Italy” then consisted of the Piedmontese kingdom of Sardinia; the duchies of Parma, Modena, Lucca, and Tuscany; the Papal States; the Kingdom of Naples; San Marino and Monaco, while the Lombardy-Venetia region (containing the old Venetian republic) had been annexed outright to Austria. Conquer and divide. Yet nationalism was an irrepressible force and even the seemingly immovable Metternich knew it. He accurately foresaw that, despite the first trouncing of the nationalist rebels in 1848 and the return by 1849 to “as-before” conditions, such forces had been unleashed in Europe that would eventually and permanently undo the Congress of Vienna’s dismemberment of that continent.
Margaret Fuller, though she and Ossoli gambled their future on their cause and then came out on the losing side in 1849, also knew clearly which way the winds were blowing. The Pope had fled Rome and, after 17 years of exile in England, Mazzini had returned to proclaim a republic. While still under siege in Rome, Margaret Fuller wrote Emerson of her certainty that Mazzini’s animating effort for Italian freedom, though it fail the first time, must at length prevail: “His country will be free.”
Six months later, the two short-lived Republics of Rome and Venice having capitulated to foreign enemy forces, Effie in Venice emerges from her letters as the most short-sighted and unconcerned of reactionaries. She came to remind me of the American tourists Van Wyck Brooks depicted in his Dream of Arcadia, those who came to Italy in the 19th century so full of their private Arcadian dream that they didn’t see, didn’t care, whether Italy itself were dead or alive.
The Ruskins lived well in Venice, provided for by John’s father, the wealthy wine merchant. They lived on the Grand Canal, kept servants, and maintained a tone which permitted Effie entry into the highest society. The facts of life did not occupy them—not earning a living, not the plight of the Italians, nor any of the other exploding realities in Europe during that turbulent era when Marx and Engels were preparing their manifesto. Margaret and Ossoli, on the other hand, lived lives encompassed in unrelenting reality—impoverishment, hardship, the need for dissemblance and escape.
Yet with all their privations, and in total contrast to Effie’s accounts of life with John, Margaret and Ossoli had a genuine companionship based on simple pleasures. Before their real trials began, they delighted in riding out to the Roman Campagna with a bundle of roasted chestnuts, finding a modest osteria for wine and bread, and returning to the city in time to see the monuments gilded by sunset. Writing to her mother of Ossoli, she had ended her praise of him with the words, “In him I have found a home. . . .” And always rational, she had added, “I do not know whether he will always love me so well, for I am the elder. . . .” Even when they had lost everything and, having been expelled from Roman territory, were passing the winter in Florence before embarking upon their fateful trip to America, Margaret, now Marchesa Ossoli, managed to write, with a kind of ironic gallantry and no trace of self pity, “So let us say Grace to our dinner of herbs.”
When John Ruskin married Effie on the tenth of April 1848, the rebellion and unrest that had begun with uprisings against the King of Naples (know as “Bomba”) has spread like brush fire throughout the rest of Europe, toppling puppet princes, coercing half-hearted reforms from rulers who hoped thus to survive the conflagration, and sparking the concept of national unity among the continent’s hodgepodge of states. Barricades had gone up in Paris in February leading to Louis Philippe’s abdication; insurrections followed in Austria, Germany, Poland, and Hungary, and then Venice declared itself a Republic independent of Austria. The “Metternich system” was crumbling all over Europe, and the Venetian Proclamation in particular caused a change in the Ruskin honeymoon plans.
John wanted to take Effie through his beloved Alps, his chosen “bournes of earth” to Italy. But two weeks after his marriage, he was writing Miss Mitford:
I should be very happy just now but for those wild storm-clouds bursting on my dear Italy and my fair France, my occupation gone, and all my earthly treasures (except the one I have just acquired and the ever-lasting Alps) periled amidst “the tumult of the people,” and the “imaginings of vain things. . . .”
What he loved in Italy was her past; he could turn his eyes from her present with complete indifference, even disdain. In 1848 he was the vigorous celebrant of beauty and the noble moral purpose that he saw revealed in it. Five years earlier, at only 24, he had achieved fame with the first volumes of his Modern Painters and his championship of painter Joseph Turner and the pre-Raphaelites. Much later, after the dissolution of his disastrous marriage to Effie, he would turn his great powers to the scene of men and engage himself in the life of his times as passionately as, before, he had celebrated the past.
Because Venice, to the admiration and wonder of the world, managed to hold out against the Austrians for a year and a half, falling finally in August 1849 to a dread combination of cholera, slow starvation, and Austrian bombardments from the mainland, the Ruskins did not arrive in Venice until November of that year. With the fall of Venice, the last of the rebel cities to go, the revolt of 1848—49 was finally stamped out and travel resumed. John Ruskin was arriving in Venice for the fourth time, but it was Effie’s first visit, and she had the good fortune to arrive as few tourists since have done—under sail from the mainland. The railway bridge across the lagoon, only inaugurated in 1846, was out of action from both Austrian bombardment and dynamiting by the retreating, beaten Venetians. One can endorse Effie’s preference for an entrance into Venice by water rather than by train over a causeway, but not her sentiments over the question of the bridge’s existence in the first place.
If I was Radetsky [she wrote her mother], not one stone of it should be left on another. It completely destroys your first impressions of Venice and it cost the Italians 150,000 lire, and no good has come of it so far and the everlasting shame besides of turning half their Churches into Mills because they can’t be troubled to keep them in order, covered with invaluable frescoes of Titian, Giorgone, the Bellinis and others and giving all that money for a Railway bridge. . . .
Effie is unfair; it wasn’t a question of Venetians neglecting their gloriously frescoed churches in order to build a bridge: they had been taxed by the Austrians to pay for it, since it would facilitate Austria’s own dominion over the city. But that is typical of Effie’s irascibility. As she saw it, the Venetians had been punished for their attempt to overthrow law and order, and, though they were paying dreadfully, pay they must. She could have no patience with their futile patriotism.
Effie is in a sense reflecting John’s own stern views as expressed in his Stones of Venice; that is, that the national and individual integrity of a people shows itself in their art. Thus, the glorious Gothic architecture of Venice reflected her highest state of virtue and vigor while the Renaissance and, worse, 17th-century Baroque, mirrored the corruption and stagnancy into which the Serene Republic had fallen. Venice fell through her loss of moral purpose, her dedication to luxury and decadence, said Ruskin. He overlooked other, more complex economic and historical causes and had history fit his art theories, which were one, at that time, with a deep religious belief. Thus he saw Venice’s reduced state and her subjection to Austria as her just desserts for having left the path of a past piety and purposefulness. In a celebrated passage from Stones of Venice, Ruskin leads the reader by his glorious prose through a labyrinth of Venetian calli, until the moment of radiance when St. Mark’s Square opens before one; and there Ruskin bitterly contrasted the wonder of the square and its basilica with the squalor around it—those crowds of dirty, wretched, idle Italians who lounged indifferent and unseeing against the very portals of their sublime past.
But Effie didn’t simply parrot John. She had a sturdy Scotch independence of mind, a perceptive eye for all that was going on, practical good sense, and a realistic, non-sentimental mind. She was also high-spirited, one of the few who took her own oar occasionally on the Grand Canal or, in those days, swam off the deserted stretch of dunes and berry brambles that was the Lido more than a century ago. So her favoring the Austrians was not only absorbed from her husband’s principles but was simply good sense: in Venice in 1849 it was the overlords who were giving balls, receiving in their palaces, attending the opera, observing Carnevale, strolling in Piazza San Marco to the tunes of their military band; the great Venetian families, impoverished by their efforts to sustain their revolutionary Republic, stayed out of sight. So, too, mostly did John. Effie, far too lively and fashionable to do likewise, joined the Austrians. She was one of few English residents of Italy to do so, along with Mrs. Trollope (Anthony’s mother).
So while John was otherwise occupied—a diary entry notes: “I was all the afternoon on the ledge of the traceried window of the Doge’s palace. . .”—Effie was left to her own devices. Although one of her letters home did describe John lying full length along the altar of St. Mark’s, measuring, while the curious looked on, what she mainly recorded for the family in Scotland were the grand balls she attended, what everyone wore, and what attentions were paid her by Austrian and Hungarian nobles. She had abandoned her study of Italian to plunge into German, only to find, once she arrived, that Austrian society in Venice unaccountably spoke French.
The pinnacle of Effie’s social triumphs came when she was received by Field Marshal Radetzky himself and was given his autographed picture. When her Austrian friends protested with her that all the instigators of the 1848—49 troubles had taken refuge in England where public opinion was on their side against Austria, she replied that such opinion did not reflect the upper classes, and, moreover, she was not English but Scotch.
The view from the island was different; as Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, wrote to his attache in September, 1849:
The Austrians are really the greatest brutes that ever called themselves by the undeserved name of civilized men . . .[with] their atrocities in Galicia, in Italy, in Hungary, in Transylvania . . . I do hope you will not fail constantly to bear in mind the country and Government which you represent and that you will maintain the dignity and honour of England by expressing openly and decidedly the disgust which such proceedings excite in the public mind in this country.
Unbeknown to Lord Palmerston, his foreign policy was making Effie quite cross because of the strain it put upon her in polite society where she kept running into Austrians and Hungarians who delighted in teasing her on her government’s views. “I have no patience with our Ministry either in religion or politics,” she fumed in a letter to her parents, “and our country is surely in a very bad state not to be able to furnish a more upright man than Lord Palmerston to manage foreign affairs and keep up the English character.”
Although Effie could not float down the Grand Canal to her parties without seeing evidence on almost every palace facade of the recent Austrian shellings, she is not moved. Her interest, in fact, is engaged with the ingenuity shown by her Austrian attendant Paulizza who devised the method of aerial shelling, and she scolds at the instances of Italians who still resist and fight out against the occupiers. She watches, as if at a theater performance, the burning of the so called Patriots’ Money, which had been issued during Manin’s provisional government and guaranteed by rich Venetians. Couldn’t she visualize through the smoke of the burning money (and to the tune of the Austrian band) the burned-out hopes of the Venetians, the bankruptcy faced by many of the city’s oldest families, the decay of palaces, the loss of estates?
In Florence the Brownings had rejoiced at the Tuscan uprising in 1848 that had forced the Grand Duke Leopold first to grant a constitution, then to flee. Despite the first trouncing of national aspirations, they held faith in an eventual free and united Italy. Even John Ruskin, no longer married to Effie when new unrest came to Italy in 1859—60, was, by then, definitely allied to Italy’s cause, although not as confident as the Brownings that an Italy united would be the end-all and be-all of Italy’s hopes.
John Ruskin had not contested Effie’s annullment action in 1854. He was to undergo his famous “unconversion” at Turin in 1858, recorded in a beautiful passage of his autobiography, Praeterita. His interest had turned from mountains to men, from art to society. Like Margaret Fuller, he too, but in another sense, had come off his stilts. He saw Italy proclaimed a nation in 1861; in 1866 Venice and the Veneto were ceded to her, and with the taking of Rome in 1870, national unification was completed.
Yes, one thing leads to another. By way of Effie and Margaret, I was led to consider how aloof can a stranger be to the national situation going on under his nose in the foreign country that gives him hospitality. Or how involved can one get without going native? And yet perhaps in a world that must fast lose restrictive concepts of nationalism, a human being can identify with other human beings in whatever part of the globe. Margaret Fuller was no less an American for championing the Republic Italian cause; rather, she thereby lived out her American principles.
Effie, however, during her stay in Venice, nicely summed up 19th-century Arcadians—those Anglo-American tourists who went to Italy to see the art and picturesque attitudes of peasants and to keep well removed from the life and passions about them, viewing the scene as through a glass rosily. How Margaret Fuller scorned those tourists who came “ready trained to that mode of reasoning that affirms that, because men are degraded by bad institutions, they are not fit for better.” She contrasts them with the few Americans living in Italy who “take the pains to know whether it is alive or dead, who penetrate beyond the cheats of tradesmen, the cunning of a mob corrupted by centuries of slavery to know the real mind, the vital bloom of Italy . . .” And she concludes these observations to Emerson with the telling statement, “I listen to the same arguments against the emancipation of Italy that are used against the emancipation of our blacks.”
The Arcadians, who strongly support the comforts and progress of their own country, preferred an Italy that was unprogressive because it was more picturesque that way; it was still Arcadia. Not for a moment back home would they have lived in the conditions that gave Italy what they called its warmth, its humanity, color, natural simplicity, genuineness.
The Arcadians are still around; I recall an American student in Bologna doing research on a 15th-century topic. At the time of the Florence floods in 1966 she was not one of those participating in a shuttle service set up between Bologna and Florence for students who wanted to help salvage the immersed books and manuscripts, the archives and catalogues of the ravaged Florentine libraries. Other American students in Bologna did so, however, alongside Italian students and others. As one American explained when he was interviewed on TV pulling books out of the mud filling the National Library, “It’s the civilized thing to do.” Exactly. Arcadians, however, see it differently, they have not a feel for here and now; our Arcadian was not interested in dirty, tiring work in the cold and mud. She had come to Italy, she said, to study the books, not to rescue them. Later she did get to Florence to pick up bargains among the flood-damaged wares in a curious resemblance to Effie Ruskin, more than 100 hundred years earlier, buying very cheaply an exquisite piece of Venetian lace from a woman who, having lost much in the war, was reduced to selling off family treasures. It was, perhaps, the same piece of Venetian lace Effie described as adorning her wedding dress when she married Millais in 1855.
Effie did return to a united Italy in 1865 with Millais, and ironically, she then complained in a letter home that Everett, bored at sightseeing, was not a great companion. She died in 1900 as Lady Millais and through the recent play has become a personage in her own right, not simply wife to two famous men.
Margaret Fuller lives on in memory. At the foot of the Janiculum hill where battles were fought for the freedom of Rome, streets of this tranquil residential area are named for the heroes of the 1849 uprising. And one tree-shaded walk winding up toward the heights where the Rome Republic was defended bears the name Viale Margaret Ossoli Fuller. There, in the city of her soul, she is remembered as a hero.