Author Dr Cooper’s role in bringing Effie Gray scandal to big screen

The poster for Effie Gray, the movie.
The poster for Effie Gray, the movie.
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By Graham Chalmers

The film is rarely as good as the book, they say, so how hard must it be to see your words transferred from the page to the big screen?

Effie Gray author Suzanne Fagence Cooper.

Effie Gray author Suzanne Fagence Cooper.

In the case of author and eminent historian Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper and new period drama Effie Gray, not at all really.

This former curator at the V&A in London, who now lives in Nun Monkton, is very happy with Emma Thompson’s enthralling version of one of the Victorian era’s greatest car crashes – the scandalous marriage between beautiful young Scottish socialite Effie Gray and famous art critic John Ruskin.

“It’s extraordinary that all these great actors would want to be part of the story. Dakota Fanning and James Fox, David Suchet, Tom Sturridge, Derek Jacobi, Robbie Coltrane, Greg Wise and Emma, herself.

“Julie Walter’s performance is a complete revelation. It’s the nature of things that the film has to alter details here and there but I’m delighted with the way it’s turned out.

“I get the same feeling watching it as I got from watching Room with a View when that first came out in the 1980s.”

Despite an impressively wide-ranging career, the new movie is actually Emma Thompson’s first original screenplay.

Though she had the idea for the film before reading Dr Cooper’s book Effie Gray: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, Ruskin and Millais, Thompson and husband Greg Wise were in touch with Cooper from the start of the process in 2010, swapping notes and seeking suggestions as the script developed.

“Emma’s been great. I’m on the credits, which is thanks to her. I was invited on set and to the London premiere and after-show party. We were dancing the salsa with Claudia Cardinale. It’s lovely that they see me as part of the whole project.”

It’s not the first time the likably enthusiastic Dr Cooper’s historical expertise and the movie world have crossed paths.

Last year saw this graduate of Oxford University and the Courtauld Institute of Art acting as historical consultant on another Victorian literary drama, The Invisible Woman starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas.

But chatting to her over a Fat Rascal and coffee in the genteel setting of Bettys in RHS Harlow Carr, I can tell Effie’s story is of more than purely academic interest to her.

A member of the Fawcett Society, an organisation set up in 1866 to campaign for women;s rights, Dr Cooper sees the struggles of the resourceful young Effie as part of a larger story of women’s struggle for independence.

“I was interested in Ruskin first but that drew me towards Effie. She was just 20 when she married Ruskin who was then 29.

“She wasn’t interested in politics. She didn’t want to be a radical but Ruskin didn’t live up to his part of the bargain in any way. She felt she had to take a stand.”

The unravelling of relationships is usually a complicated business, that of Gray’s and Ruskin’s spectacularly so.

The legend is that one of the greatest thinkers of the Victorian age was repulsed by the physical side of marriage and failed to consummate it.

Eventually, Effie fell in love with someone else - Ruskin’s own protégé, the Pre-Rapaelite painter John Everett Millais - whom she married after having the marriage annulled.

But things may not have been quite as simple as that, as anyone who’s read the pro-Ruskin case in Robert Bronwell’s book Marriage of Inconvenience will already be aware.

There’s a lot to sort out - the family angle, the financial angle and the Scottish angle, a whole torturous maze of clues.

Having been given exclusive access to Effie’s family letters and diaries while writing her book, it’s clear Dr Cooper knows the ins and outs of her doomed marriage better than anyone except, perhaps, the couple themselves.

“There are two versions of the story. There are some who support Ruskin and say Effie was ambitious and just after his money and it’s true she was an adventurer and was flirtatious.

“But Effie had no idea Ruskin was going to deny her of children or a household establishment of her own. I believe Ruskin should never have married. He could not cope with the idea of a relationship of adult equals.

“It’s not a simple truth, which is why we are still talking about it and making films 150 years a later.”

As she talks, the bright-eyed passion for the subject burns in Dr Cooper’s eyes as if Effie and Ruskin were sat next to us having tea.

“I’ve waited for four years for the film to be completed. It’s very exciting to see it come out. Effie and Ruskin are not just figures in history. These people really did live and breathe. We should respect that reality.”