Edison, EM Forster, and Effie Gray

Electric_Avenue_by_Baron_Corvo,_The_Sketch,_1895
Electric Avenue in 1895

Thomas Alva Edison, inventor, businessman, and electricity pioneer, died on 18 October 1878, so today let’s look at a couple of Edison and electricity-related London streets, starting with Electric Avenue in Brixton.

This is another of those ‘what it sounds like’ names. This was opened as a 19th-century late-night shopping street, complete with electric lighting that was designed to be adequate for evening shoppers: “lined with shops, with a lavish display of electric light everywhere”.

In the following century, Guyana-born singer Eddy Grant had a 1983 hit with his song Electric Avenue, which by then was still a market street; his song referred to the 1981 riots in the Brixton area.

But back to Edison, who set up a company that was headquartered in Queen Victoria Street, near Cannon Street. Cannon Street takes its name not from artillery but from candlestick makers, and Queen Victoria Street takes its name from, well, Queen Victoria.

Queen Victoria Street, which runs from Cheapside to Victoria Embankment and is roughly parallel to the Thames, was originally part of Sir Christopher Wren’s plans for rebuilding the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666. However, it was more than two centuries before the street was built; it was officially opened in 1871 and was fitted with the first permanent electric lighting system in the City.

Also on this day, in 1910, EM Forster published Howard’s End. Forster, who was born in London, loathed the city when he was young; in an essay entitled ‘London’s a Muddle’, he says: “I used to denounce her for her pomp and vanity, and her inhabitants for their unmanliness and for their unhealthy skins”.

But, he went on to say, time had tamed him and, “while it is not practicable to love such a place…one can love bits of it and become interested in the rest”. He lived in Brunswick Square in London from 1930 to 1939. The square, built in 1795, was one of many places named in honour of Caroline of Brunswick, who suffered such a disastrous marriage to George IV.

John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic and champion of the pre-Raphaelites, was born in Brunswick Square. Ruskin’s wife, Effie Gray, who was painted by the pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, filed for and received an annulment to her marriage on the grounds of non-consummation due to Ruskin’s impotence.

Ruskin, for his part, claimed that he was not impotent but that Effie’s body was, in effect, as repulsive as her face was beautiful. Theories are that, on their wedding night, Ruskin may have been repulsed either by Effie’s pubic hair or by the fact that she may have been menstruating. As one source puts it: “The complex reasons for the non-consummation and ultimate failure of the Ruskin marriage are a matter of continued speculation and debate.”

A 2012 movie about the Ruskin’s doomed marriage, has recently been released; scripted by Emma Thompson, the movie’s release was delayed due to two lawsuits regarding claims of copyright infringement.

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