On Reading Ruskin: Prefaces to 'La Bible d'Amiens' and 'Sésame et les Lys' with Selections from the Notes to the Translated Texts
In November of 1880 A.C. Benson was a boy at Eton, and president of the school’s literary and scientific society. As such, he was deputed to meet a distinguished guest speaker:
There were at that time some quaint survivals at Eton,…but the figure before me seemed to have come from a previous century. As I remember, his tight-waisted dress-coat had a velvet collar, the sleeves were long, and the delicate hands that emerged were enveloped in long, somewhat crumpled cuffs; and he showed a soft and many-pleated shirt-front over a double-breasted waistcoat. I think he wore a long gold watchguard.
His hair was thick and grizzled and grew very full, especially over the forehead; he had large side-whiskers and bushy eyebrows; the face was extraordinarily lined, and the big mouth, with a full underlip, gave him a tenacious and, I thought, a rather formidable air. He was standing in silence, and the matron was too much awed to speak. However, she called me by name, and said faintly, “Benson, this is Mr. Ruskin.” Ruskin extended his delicate hand and shook mine very warmly and cordially. And as he did so, he gave me a delightful smile from his pale blue eyes, and set me at my ease at once…. He talked a little of the future, and asked me what I thought of doing in the world, all kindly and confidingly…but there was a sense of strain and weariness in the background. Then he said that he must rest a little and be quiet, and that I might fetch him just before eight. He smiled and nodded, and then sate, leaning his brow upon his hand.
Later in the evening, Benson continues, Ruskin faced his audience and
began in his thin high voice, very clearly and audibly, but with a formal and monotonous cadence and intonation, what I afterwards recognised in The Bible of Amiens, the beautiful and scornful description of the railway-station and the tall warehouses and smoking chimneys, and the slender, lovely minaret of the cathedral rising behind all…. There is little of it that I remember; there was much that I did not understand, for the whole was lacking in coherence and logical connection; but it was an inspiring, appealing, intensely moving performance. I felt that he was a great man, with great and beautiful beliefs passionately held, yet both oppressed and obviously unhappy. He was contending with something, perhaps a vulture gnawing at his heart, like Prometheus…. At the end he looked old and weary. Then he was thanked and cheered to the echo. He listened patiently enough, but with no satisfaction.1
How much did Proust, who two decades later was to translate The Bible of Amiens, understand of the man who made such an impression on Benson? His writings on Ruskin, which principally are his prefaces to The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies, now appear in English for the first time. A team of translators has been at work, and Richard Macksey’s long essay is a sophisticated account of the relation of the French to the English writer. Although his structuralist approach has a novel ring, Macksey is not a pioneer in this field: biographers and critics alike have always known that Proust’s devotion to Ruskin had some crucial effect on him. They have found it difficult, however, to describe what that effect was.
The general view holds that Proust’s Ruskin studies, following hard on the composition of Jean Santeuil, enabled him to stand back from that enormous, insufficiently purposeful work of his apprenticeship, and thus prepared him for the aesthetic control of A la recherche du temps perdu, of which Jean Santeuil was a foggy, uncrystallized rehearsal. Given such an interpretation, we might hope that the singularity of Proust’s enthusiasm—for Ruskin was hardly known in France—would allow us a special insight into the novelist’s development. But such an insight is hard to find; and Macksey’s book, useful though it is, does not solve the Proust-Ruskin enigma. It also conceals or ignores some puzzling matters. Macksey and his collaborators pay no attention to the Ruskin books Proust knew or claimed to know. They assume that Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens was an accepted English classic, which it was not, and is not; and they believe that Ruskin’s other books were readily available to Proust, though in truth he could have had only a vague idea of their contents. The question of Ruskin’s influence—or so it seems to a Ruskinian—is weirder, and ultimately more baffling, than these Proustian editor-translators will admit.
The lecture Benson heard at Eton—so like a recitation, or the performance of some personal ritual—was a draft of the opening pages of The Bible of Amiens. But it was not the first part to have been written. The origins of The Bible of Amiens were a little odd, and bequeathed considerable peculiarity to the book itself. It was the result of a request by a governess, Janet Leete, for a simple book of English history that she could give to her pupils. Janet Leete was a reader of Fors Clavigera, Ruskin’s monthly pamphlet addressed to “the workmen and labourers of Great Britain,” and she was wondering whether she had the character to join his utopian and mystical organization, The Guild of Saint George. She had not met Ruskin, but her letter began one of those friendships by correspondence in which he dazzled, cajoled, and bewildered his followers. His letters to Janet also revealed the instability of his mind and his crazed attraction to spiritual young girls. Renaming her “Jessie,” he wrote to her with ardor, although she had “begged him not to picture me as a girl but as a plain woman of 28,” and began to make excited plans for her book. This was in the aftermath of his mental breakdown of 1878. The subject of the book changed when Ruskin was on a recuperative holiday in northern France in the autumn of 1880. He then announced to Janet that he had decided to begin with some sketches of French rather than British history.2
This background explains why parts of The Bible of Amiens, which asks its readers to color maps, or to fill them with fleur-de-lis, seem to address very young children. It also helps us to understand the bizarre parody in the first chapter, in which Ruskin recounts the history of King Lear as it might be written in a children’s textbook if the story of the play were literally true:
The reign of the last king of the seventy-ninth dynasty closed in a series of events with the record of which it is painful to pollute the pages of history. The weak old man wished to divide his kingdom into dowries for his three daughters; but on proposing this arrangement to them, finding it received by the youngest with coldness and reserve, he drove her from his court, and divided the kingdom between his two elder children.
The youngest found refuge at the court of France, where ultimately the prince royal married her. But the two elder daughters, having obtained absolute power, treated their father with disrespect, and soon with contumely. Refused at last even the comforts necessary to his declining years, the old king, in a transport of rage, left the palace, with, it is said, only the court fool for an attendant, and wandered, frantic and half naked, during the storms of winter, in the woods of Britain.
Hearing of these events, his youngest daughter hastily collected an army, and invaded the territory of her ungrateful sisters.
And so on: after which Ruskin imagines “violently black and white woodcuts” to illustrate the blinding of Gloucester and the strangling of Cordelia (though in the play she is hanged) before immediately changing the subject to a denunciation of the modern rational spirit, writing in sardonic style of how
scientific selfishness, with proper telegraphic communications, and perfect knowledge of all the species of Bacteria, will entirely secure the future well-being of the upper classes of society, and the dutiful resignation of those beneath them.
This last passage is rather in the manner of Fors Clavigera, a publication dense with slighting allusion to current intellectual affairs. The Bible of Amiens had taken over some of the functions of Fors, which had been suspended after Ruskin’s breakdown; and, like Fors, it assumed knowledge of Ruskin’s cultural enemies—Gibbon, or Dean Milman of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, with whom Ruskin had quarreled about architecture, in Venice, thirty years before.
This alone would have made it a difficult book for Proust to follow, and much else in Ruskin’s history guide is confused or obscure. So why did Proust pick this book to translate? How could he have hoped to reproduce Ruskin’s changes of manner, his sudden leaps from the felicitous expression that Benson heard to the stabbing interpolations whose English tone is close to derangement? Macksey’s introduction is not helpful here. He has comments about the general nature of translation but says nothing about the nature of Ruskin’s original book. In this omission he follows other Proust scholars, who have never inquired why the young French writer, in his novitiate as a Ruskinian, and with next to no knowledge of English, did not decide to spend his energies on a more straightforward work. The Seven Lamps of Architecture, for instance, might have offered itself to Proust. It is concerned with French Gothic, is of manageable size, and is sane. We cannot quite say this of Ruskin’s later works. In all literature, there is not such an ample and tangled record of a mind in disarray, approaching and retreating from madness. Proust’s adoption of The Bible of Amiens should have immediately thrust him into the literary and personal problems of this writing; but he seems to have been quite unaware that such problems existed.
Proust began to think seriously about Ruskin at Evian-les-Bains in 1899, when he was still in his twenties. There, on Lake Geneva beneath the mountains Ruskin so often described, he felt a desire to look at the Alps “avec les yeux de ce grand homme,” and wrote to Paris to ask his mother for a copy of Robert de la Sizeranne’s Ruskin et la réligion de la beauté. This short introductory work contains a passage from Praeterita, Ruskin’s autobiography, describing his first visit to Switzerland. On Proust’s return to Paris, Macksey relates, he spent “busy weeks” in the Bibliothèque Nationale, “studying the texts of Ruskin then available in French.” This sounds assiduous; but Macksey does not say that, since Ruskin had always forbidden translation of his books, his writings in French could be read in an hour. At this date they consisted only of snatches in La Sizeranne’s book and in J.A. Milsand’s L’Esthétique Anglaise (1864), together with a fragment from The Seven Lamps of Architecture quoted in an article in the Revue Générale in 1895. Other extracts had appeared in the Bulletin de l’Union pour l’Action Morale; but Proust would already have known these, for he was a subscriber to the Bulletin, which was edited by his old teacher Paul Desjardins.
This was all. Although he was in pursuit of a writer whose collected English works amounted to some seventy or eighty volumes, Proust could go no further. The argument advanced by Proustians is that he now worked even harder at his Ruskin studies. But their evidence is thin. We know that he changed libraries and went in search of Ruskin books at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. There was an accommodating system at the Ecole, it seems, for a note of Proust’s dating from December of 1899 asks the librarian whether he could find a copy of The Queen of the Air. If so, Proust writes, he might have the gentillesse to send a message to his concierge: it would reach him before the day’s work started, for “je ne m’éveille guère avant 2 heures.”
For Macksey, this little note shows that Proust was in a period of “intense Ruskin studies…moving from reliance on La Sizeranne to an exploration of the original English texts.” Might we not as readily deduce that he was in an intense period of lying in bed? Attempts to interpret Proust as a diligent postgraduate are not likely to be convincing, and it seems to me that they divert us from the interesting egotism of his homage to Ruskin. It is a fact of life and of literature that great writers accept influence on their own terms; and the ambition that now arose in Proust, which surely bears on his development as a French writer, was to learn to translate Ruskin without learning English. A certain amount of posing deceit, and a great deal of collaboration, were essential to this exercise. In February of 1900 Proust announced that he knew The Seven Lamps of Architecture and Painting, The Bible of Amiens, Val d’Arno, Lectures on Architecture, and Praeterita, and furthermore knew them “par coeur.” Macksey accepts this. But the claim is unbelievable, as anyone who consults these bulky and complex works may discover. Proust simply could not have understood them. Even a few years later, after his version of The Bible of Amiens appeared, a friend remarked that he would have had difficulty in ordering a chop in English. Another asked him the direct question about the translation: “Mais comment faites-vous, Marcel, puisque vous ne savais pas l’anglais?”
He persuaded other people to do the work for him. The real translator was his mother. She prepared a literal version of Ruskin’s text and copied it out into school exercise books. This version was rewritten and nuanced by Proust in collaboration with his friend Marie Nordlinger. Since Marie must have been the only real link between Proust and a knowledge of Ruskin it is regrettable that we are not now given more information about her (in fact we are given less) than is to be found in George Painter’s classic biography of the novelist. Marie was a cousin of Proust’s friend Reynaldo Hahn. In the last years of the century she was an art student in Paris, mixing easily and happily in the Proust circle. She was not, however, a parisienne. Her home was in Manchester.
For Ruskinians, this grim, wet, northern city has a twofold significance. In Ruskin’s later writings it is condemned as the home of all that is evil in modern industrial England. But Manchester was also the home of the first “Ruskin Society,” whose members would read and discuss the utterances of the Master of the Guild of Saint George. They also lent and exchanged his works among each other: they had to, for in his last phase Ruskin’s books were issued in pamphlet form, chapter by chapter, were deliberately made expensive, were not sent to the press for review, and were not to be found in bookshops.
Marie Nordlinger perhaps had some of the considerable knowledge and bibliographic expertise that we occasionally find in members of the Ruskin societies. A little of her relationship with Proust can be gleaned from his letters to her, which she published privately in Manchester in 1942. She expanded the introduction to this rare Lettres à une amie in a lecture twelve years later; but by this date her memories of Proust and Paris at the turn of the century were somewhat repetitious. As far as I know, Marie’s life remains unexamined. But we are aware that she was a model for Albertine in A la recherche du temps perdu—a woman so mysterious and so bold, it will be recalled, that the novel’s narrator imagines that she might even have had an affair with a racing cyclist. It is not gentlemanly to speculate about someone’s life on the basis of a foreign fiction. Nonetheless one has the feeling that Marie may have recalled more about Proust than she wished to record.
Marie, la fleur de Manchester, in Proust’s admiring phrase, discussed the translation with him word by word by word and introduced him to parallel passages in Ruskin’s other books. She was not the only collaborator: he used other people too. But they were not as direct a route to Ruskin as Proust, Painter, and now Macksey suggest. For instance, if Proust wrote to Alexander Wedderburn about Ruskin, then he did so to clear permissions for the translation (Ruskin’s foreign-language editions began after his death in 1900). Wedderburn had known Ruskin since 1874, but this precise and reserved lawyer would not have discussed him beyond the limits of his duties as a literary executor.
A more curious case is that of Charles Newton Scott, whom Proust thanks for help and who is identified by Painter, and therefore by Macksey, as a friend of Ruskin’s. The present writer keeps a file on Ruskin’s acquaintances. It is not complete, but I think it unlikely that Scott knew Ruskin. Proust himself may not have known Scott very well, for he refers to him as “the poet and scholar to whom we owe The Church and Compassion for Animals and The Epoch of Marie Antoinette, two fascinating books, full of knowledge, feeling, and talent, which should be better known in France.” Maybe so: but Charles Newton Scott was not responsible for the first of these books. I venture that Proust was thinking of L’Eglise et la pitié envers les animaux, the work of Louise Amour Marie La Roche-Fontenilles, the Marquise de Rambours, who no doubt ensured that her little book, when it was published in 1898, had some circulation in both compassionate and fashionable quarters; and one imagines that it found its way onto Proust’s bookshelves, and thence into the eddies, ripples, and slow-moving currents of his extraordinary memory, where it would have dissolved, along with so much else, in the subterranean reservoir of things, books, and people that might or might not have importance to him, at some future date when he would write his novel about his own past life.
The question of Ruskin’s reputation and influence is especially confused because he bestowed so much on the wave of English self-education at the end of the nineteenth century yet was not studied in universities. Furthermore, he was an impossible model for young writers. For Proust, however, who cared not at all about improving himself or changing the world, Ruskin provided an aesthetic example that was not the less potent for being remote and half-understood. Proust sensed that Ruskin perceived the whole world in its aesthetic aspect: this was not true, but no matter. And while he considered this phantasmal Ruskin he developed the confidence with which he was to absorb other people, and all their experience of art and life, into his own artistic egotism.
Proust’s introductions to Ruskin are very far away from the English books. They are, of course, introductions to Proust himself. As such, they have much fascination. To anyone who knows the original, Proust’s translation of The Bible of Amiens is disappointing: it lacks Ruskin’s pathetic but frightening personal note—the sense of the tortured, exhausted man that Benson caught—and its preface is full of blague. But the introduction to Sesame and Lilies, Proust’s second translation in collaboration with Marie Nordlinger, is beautiful. Its memories of childhood reading have all the perfume of so many similar passages in A la recherche du temps perdu. Macksey points out that Sesame and Lilies, which was addressed to young people, concerns “reading as an invitation to a conversation with great minds.” The solipsistic preface to the translation speaks of “the charming childhood reading whose memory must remain a benediction for each one of us…. What it leaves in us above all is the image of the places and the days when we did this reading. I have not escaped its spell: wishing to speak about it, I have talked about everything but books, because it is not about them that this reading has spoken to me. Proust writes completely as himself, and of himself. It is a preface that really need not have been attached to a book of Ruskin’s.
A. C. Benson, Memories and Friends (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924), pp. 27–31). ↩
Janet Leete showed her correspondence with Ruskin to E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, the editors of the Library Edition of his works, who decided that the letters should not be published. They are preserved in transcript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, at Ms. Eng. Letts C44. ↩