The Letters of John Ruskin to Lord and Lady Mount-Temple
The Art Criticism of John Ruskin
Thirty-odd years ago when psychiatric terms seemed so helpful R. H. Wilenski remarked that Ruskin was always victim of a manic-depressive malady. The diagnosis still seems relevant to Ruskin’s five love affairs, with Adèle Domecq. Charlotte Lockhart, Euphemia Gray, Rose La Touche, and Kathleen Olander. But the despairing letters he wrote to the Mount-Temples about Rose prove that a clinical description is no more conclusive in Ruskin’s case than in Hamlet’s, for when seen from the patient’s angle, the clinical can be transformed to the tragic. Indeed, Philip Rieff has warned us that the clinical approach is like a comedy of knowledge, offering a therapeutic solvent for anguish.
There is a profound difference between the tragic disaster of Ruskin’s love for Rose and the clinical comedy of his marriage to Effie, a misadventure recorded in 1947 by Effie’s grandson. William James, who quoted some of the 633 letters found behind a loose board in Ruskin’s study and in the cellar at Bowerswell. This wedlock was comedy partly because Jack finally had Jill—Jack being John Everett Millais the painter, who simply waited until 1854, when the courts annulled Effie’s marriage to Ruskin on the ground that she remained virgo intacta. The matrimonial drama opens on a farcical note with Ruskin’s letters to Effie: “My own Effie—my kind Effie—my mistress—my friend—my queen—my darling—my only love.” It continues with his mother’s advice about Effie’s dresses, and it ends with a quarrel when Effie “for the first time showed causeless petulance towards my mother…The matter in question was indeed one of very grave importance—being a wish on my mother’s part that I should take a blue pill when I went to bed.” Effie at last desperately wrote her parents that John had “no intention of making me his Wife—He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally…that he 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.” Ruskin’s later claim to “purity” was his “having never touched a woman.”
The clinical becomes the tragic in Ruskin’s tormented devotion to Rose La Touche, exhibited fully in his letters to his confidants, the Mount-Temples. Of these 234 letters so scrupulously edited by Bradley only fifty-four have previously been printed wholly or in part in Derrick Leon’s great biography of Ruskin. John first saw Rose in 1858, when he was thirty-nine and she was nearly ten, and he loved her agonizingly until she died, out of her mind, in 1875. These abandoned, shameless letters to Mrs. Cowper-Temple (Philè or Isola he calls her) have a single theme: “I have had no thought within me—ever since—but it was in some part of it hers…It drove me quite wild.” He would lie down at Rose’s gate to have her “tread upon me all day.” Meanwhile Rose, herself driven by repressions and religious notions of purity, and periodically forbidden by her…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.