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The World of the Pied Piper

My dear Miss Greenaway—I lay awake half (no a quarter) of last night thinking of the hundred things I want to say to you—and never shall get said!—and I’m giddy and weary—and now can’t say even half or a quarter of one out of the hundred. They’re about you—and your gifts—and your graces—and your fancies—and your—yes—perhaps one or two little tiny faults:—and about other people—children, and grey-haired, and what you could do for them—if you once made up your mind for whom you would do it. For children only for instance?—or for old people, me for instance—

What Kate Greenaway could do for Ruskin soon became evident. He was still haunted by the memory of Rose La Touche, who had died four years earlier, and as Rodney Engen points out, “Under the Window abounded in suggestive images: drawings of pink roses, bowls of rose blossoms, a girl in a pale frock clutching a bouquet of roses (‘Will you be my little wife, If I ask you? Do!’).” He wanted original drawings, sketches, and watercolors of pretty young “girlies” (his term), the more of them the better. For the rest of his life Kate recognized this need and kept Ruskin supplied with what an unsympathetic modern critic might describe as soft-core kiddie-porn—though Ruskin’s public position was that her drawings expressed an almost spiritual ideal: “the radiance and innocence of re-instated infant divinity showered again among the flowers of English meadows.” Apparently he never repaid Kate Greenaway for any of these gifts, some of which took days to complete—though he was a rich man, and she an overworked artist struggling to support not only herself but her parents.

All pornography, even of the most rarefied and decorous kind, appears to be subject to a law of diminishing returns. After a while, a new and slightly different version of the same stimulus is necessary in order to produce the desired response. If this were not so, one copy of Hustler would last its purchaser a lifetime, and most of the shops in Times Square would be out of business. The pictures of pretty “girlies” that Kate Greenaway sent to Ruskin aroused almost embarrassing raptures of appreciation, but more were always wanted. If he thought only of himself, he once wrote, “I could contentedly and proudly keep you drawing nicest girls in blue sashes with soft eyes and blissful lips, to the end of—my poor bit of life.” Even the most delightful of her figures, however, seemed to Ruskin to have one fault: they were overdressed.

He wrote to her persistently on this topic:

Will you—(it’s all for your own good—!) make her stand up and then draw her for me without a cap—and, without her shoes,—(because of the heels) and without her mittens, and without her—frock and frills? And let me see exactly how tall she is—and—how—round. It will be so good of and for you—And to and for me.

But Kate Greenaway was deeply prim; she might spend days working on a present for Ruskin, but she refused to undress her figures.

Though his need for Kate’s drawings was private, Ruskin’s enthusiasm for her work soon became public. In a lecture at Oxford in 1883 he spoke of her “genius” and “tried to convince his amazed audience that Kate ranked among the most important of old master and contemporary artists.” To understand the effect of this we must imagine someone like Kenneth Clark speaking at Harvard on the genius of Norman Rockwell. Privately, Ruskin went even further: writing to thank her for a hand-painted Christmas card, he remarked, “To my mind it is a greater thing than Raphael’s St. Cecilia.”

At other times and in other mental states Ruskin was quite aware that Kate Greenaway was not yet the equal of Raphael. He took on the task of correcting her “little tiny faults” and directing her artistic career as he had in the past, unsuccessfully, tried to direct those of other artists, among them Turner, Rossetti, Millais, and Burne-Jones. In Kate Greenaway’s case he was no more successful, but he was more readily obeyed. He complained of the clumsiness of her drawing and demanded that she make detailed realistic copies of plants, rocks, and domestic objects (“When are you going to be good and send me a study of…the coalscuttle or the dust pan—or a towel or a clothes screen—“). She accepted his criticisms humbly, and carried out his assignments conscientiously, but without any noticeable effect on her published work. The studies she did for Ruskin are largely without interest, and show that his dedicated scolding had only succeeded in temporarily turning a gifted professional illustrator into a mediocre and conventional Victorian art student. Fortunately, Kate Greenaway was wise enough not to abandon the style and the subjects that had made her famous.

Patrons of porn shops are notoriously unwilling to make eye contact with the proprietor, let alone to form a close acquaintance; and Ruskin showed a similar reluctance to meet Kate Greenaway. Though he wrote to her as “Sweetest Katie” and signed his letters “loving J.R.” it took him two years to propose a meeting. Before he came to tea in her studio Kate Greenaway was so nervous she almost wished she had not invited him; but the visit was a great success, and from then until his death he was the most important person in her life.

In 1883 Ruskin was sixty-three, and to the disinterested observer a person of no particular charm. Beatrix Potter, who met him a year or so later, described him in her diary as a “ridiculous” figure, untidily dressed and “not particularly clean looking”—in other words, as a dirty old man. Nevertheless he had many female admirers of all ages, and he soon also became the focus of Kate Greenaway’s affections. She was deeply flattered and excited by Ruskin’s praise, thrilled by the intimate, playful tone of his letters and conversation, and awed by the willingness of this famous man to consider her as a friend and a pupil. As Rodney Engen shows, she was soon thoroughly in love, and regarded Ruskin with an almost religious reverence. Men like him, she wrote to another friend, were “far above and beyond ordinary people” and she hoped that “whilst I possess life I may venerate and admire with unstinted admiration, this sort of noble and great men.” After she had spent a month visiting Ruskin in the country, she confided to his cousin, Joan Severn, “Words can hardly say the sort of man he is—perfect—simply.”

Ruskin, on the other hand, was in love with Kate’s work, not with Kate herself. She was no graceful Greenaway “girlie,” but a plain, dumpy, dowdy spinster of thirty-six, with a working-class background, a shy, nervous manner, and a pronounced lisp. The resulting tragicomedy was of a sort familiar to all painters and writers who do not have the good fortune to be as handsome, charming, and eloquent as their work. This happens fairly often, since many—perhaps most—artists are partly motivated by a wish to create something superior to themselves. As a result, fans who meet them for the first time often feel a pang of disappointment, expressed in remarks like, “He was smaller than / older than / fatter than I thought he’d be,” or “She didn’t say anything all that interesting.”

The relationship between Ruskin and Kate Greenaway was an uneven one in both senses. He lectured and teased, praised and criticized; he asked her to stay with him in the country and then withdrew the invitation; he promised to visit her studio and then made flimsy excuses, or came only briefly and spent all his time there flirting with her child models. As Engen puts it, “he wanted attention, but on his own terms; while he urged her to write often, he stressed the importance of his own silence.”

Rodney Engen, like most biographers, is a partisan of his subject, and indignantly accuses Ruskin of having “played a cruel game with Kate’s emotions; his letters encouraged her with lavish praises; then, when she became too affectionate, he became cool and turned away from her.” This, on the evidence given, does not seem quite accurate. Ruskin’s treatment of Kate Greenaway was cruel, but it was not a deliberate game: rather it was the result of his mental instability, his recurring attacks of depression, and his constant fear of madness. Kate apparently did not understand how precarious his mental health was, or why, when he would not come to see her, he remained in contact with other—usually younger, prettier, and less emotionally exhausting—admirers.

In fact Ruskin, though flattered, was also embarrassed and perhaps even frightened by the intensity of Kate’s feelings for him, and by the alternately demanding and pleading tone of her letters. “My dear Kate,” he wrote in 1886,

there is not the remotest chance or possibility of you or anybody else in London seeing me this year and if you begin snewsing [sic] and probing again—I close correspondence on the instant…. You ought to have known my heart world is dead—long ago.

A definite rejection like this certainly might have made Kate Greenaway’s life easier, if it had been consistently maintained; but Ruskin, unbalanced as he was, and eager for her drawings, blew hot and cold. Sometimes he refused even to open Kate’s letters; a few weeks or months later he might write to her so warmly and intimately that all her hopes would revive. Like Kate’s father in her childhood nightmare, he showed her first one false face and then another.

It was during this period that Kate Greenaway began to write a series of awkward and often unfinished, but deeply felt love poems, of which only a few have ever been published. Her first biographers print several of these verses, while assuring the reader that they had nothing to do with Kate’s life; rather it merely “pleased and soothed her to work out a poetic problem…. The case was not her own.” Rodney Engen, who takes the opposite view, seems to be nearer to the truth. The poems do not suggest someone who is pleased and soothed:

Nothing to do but part dear
Oh love love love, my heart
Is slowly breaking and coldness creeping
Nearer into my every part.

During this same period of emotional turmoil Kate Greenaway produced her two most unusual books. The first one, A Apple Pie, published in the fall of 1886, was much larger in format than most of her work, and the figures were also larger and more active. Perhaps significantly, the drawings had never been submitted for Ruskin’s approval, though she usually consulted him about all her major work. The Mother Goose rhyme she had chosen to illustrate describes the struggles of a group of alphabetically named individuals (in her pictures, mainly little girls) for the possession of what she pictures as an outsize pie.

A apple pie
B bit it
C cut it…
F fought for it
G got it
H had it
J jumped for it
K knelt for it….

In the traditional versions, K “kept it.” That Kate should make this change perhaps suggests that she felt herself to be in a one-down position, having to beg for what she wanted.

It may not be too far-fetched to view this large pie as John Ruskin, and the children as his various “pets” and admirers competing for a share of his attention as they so often did—and in the end literally eating him up. Whether or not Ruskin got the message, his reaction to A Apple Pie was very hostile. According to Engen, “He considered the project a personal affront, an insult to their friendship,” and wrote Kate Greenaway a series of scathingly critical letters. In fact, A Apple Pie is one of Kate Greenaway’s most attractive books; it has a boldness of design and energy of execution that is missing in much of her work.

The next uncharacteristic Greenaway project, The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1888), was undertaken with Ruskin’s approval and under his supervision. He was in favor of her plan to illustrate Robert Browning’s poem in a somewhat Pre-Raphaelite style and with a palette dominated by rust, ochre, and olive tones instead of her usual pastels. He sent her copies of his favorite paintings as models, and also exercises in perspective, which she carried out conscientiously but without noticeable result.

To illustrate any text is also to interpret it, and Kate Greenaway’s edition of The Pied Piper is an excellent example of this process. In Browning’s poem the Piper is an eccentric trickster figure, “tall and thin / With sharp blue eyes, each like a pin”; Greenaway pictures him as a kind of romantic hero: pale, dignified, melancholy, and mysterious, with a resemblance to portraits of Ruskin that can hardly be accidental. (The echo between the titles of these two books—Pie/Pied Piper—may be mere coincidence. It might be noted, however, that Kate Greenaway had already thought of illustrating Browning’s poem in 1885, and had written to him for permission to do so. In this case it would be the Piper who turned into a pie, and not vice versa—which makes more sense.)

As Browning tells it, The Pied Piper is a moral fable. The burghers of Hamelin hire the Piper to charm away the rats that are plaguing the town; but once the rats have been drowned in the river they refuse to pay him. In revenge he plays a different tune, which draws all the children of Hamelin skipping and dancing after him. This enchanted procession (consisting, by my count, of 128 girls and only 46 boys) follows the Piper out of town and into a mountain crevice that supernaturally opens to receive them. Browning never reports what was inside the mountain. One child who was too lame to keep up with the rest says later that they were promised “a joyous land…. Where waters gushed and fruittrees grew / And flowers put forth a fairer hue”; but of course these promises may have been as illusory as the visions of tripe and pickles with which the Piper lured the rats to their doom. The final lines of the poem provide a matter-of-fact moral:

So, Willy, let me and you be wipers
Of scores out with all men—especially pipers!

Kate Greenaway’s illustrations, however, make good on the Piper’s promises. She added a final scene, reproduced as the frontispiece and cover of her book, which shows the Pied Piper sitting and playing in a springtime orchard, while beautiful Greenaway children dance round a tree and others embrace him. Ruskin, who followed this project closely, “supervised her work on this one scene with unswerving dedication.” “Yes, that is just what it must be,” he wrote, “the piper sitting in the garden playing. It perfects the whole story, while it changes it into a new one.” He tried to get her to undress at least some of the children: “I think we might go the length of expecting the frocks to come off sometimes”; but Kate, as usual, ignored this hint. She did however follow Ruskin’s instructions in substituting flimsy white dresses and wreaths of flowers for the heavier, darker clothes in which the children had left Hamelin. So the “new story” was made to end with the Piper surrounded by beautiful girlies in what Ruskin called the “paradise scene” and said represented his idea of heaven. Kate, in this story, is nowhere—unless perhaps we are to imagine her as the lame boy left outside the mountain.

The Pied Piper, in this view, would represent a final act of self-sacrifice on Kate’s part: an acceptance of the fact that there was no place for her in Ruskin’s life except as the provider of images that might comfort him and lift him out of his increasing melancholy. But she was denied even this satisfaction. As Ruskin’s mental condition worsened, even her drawings did not always cheer him up; sometimes they seemed only a painful reminder of how much he had lost. When she begged for news, he asked if she realized how sad he always was, “how the pain and failure of age torment me—what an agony of longing there is in me for the days of youth—of childhood—here every one of your drawings is as of heaven into which I can never enter—?” Gradually, as he sank into the depression and confusion of his final years, he broke off relations with her completely. Kate Greenaway, however, never abandoned Ruskin; during the nine years of silence before his death she continued to write to him and to send him drawings and watercolors.

For Kate Greenaway too the last years of the century and of her life (she died in 1901) were hard ones. She was lonely and often ill, and her drawings were going out of fashion in a world that had discovered Aubrey Beardsley and the Impressionists. Yet she had, and still has, her passionate supporters. Many of her books remain in print today, and nice little girls all over the Western world can be seen wearing versions of the styles she made famous. To the general public she is probably much better known than John Ruskin. Even the most major criticism is time-bound, and speaks mainly to its own contemporaries; but the most minor work of art, if it creates a true secondary world, can seem as fresh after a century as on the day it was made.

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