The Wider Sea: A Life of John Ruskin
The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin
The Ruskin Polygon
New Approaches to Ruskin: Thirteen Essays
Studies in Ruskin: Essays in Honor of Van Akin Burd
Letters from the Continent 1858
Ruskin and Venice
Ruskinian Gothic: The Architecture of Deane and Woodward, 1845-1861
The Poison Sky: Myth and Apocalypse in Ruskin
Raymond Fitch begins his remarkable intellectual biography of John Ruskin (The Poison Sky) by observing that Ruskin was, before all other things,
the great Victorian prophet of what we would now call the apparent deterioration of life. Stylist, aesthete, economist, moralist, glaciologist, naturalist, or nympholept he may also have been, but the compulsive current of his many works is his rising nausea at the prospect of a global slum, a depleted planet…something close to our own recurrent sense that chaos is coming again, that our culture has been blighted, that the world’s body has been infected by its mind…[and by] life’s struggle with wealth.
Here are eleven books published within recent months, 3,527 pages, more than a million words. Does this mean that people are reading Ruskin again with some dawning sense of the relevance of his gloomy prophecies—and with the strange pleasure we feel at the idea that things, even horrible things, can be foreknown?
Ruskin’s work, which is classified as criticism or, more vaguely, as “literature,” though it is neither biography, nor poetry, nor fiction, has never been widely read, and only some of it has been interesting to any one generation or faction at a time, facets of Ruskin coming in and out of fashion like phases of the moon. Today we share his regard for Turner as his contemporaries did not, but until only recently we have derided his taste for architectural decoration; postmodern architects may well be reading him on that. Brian Maidment talks about how Ruskin’s works have become a “source of authority for almost any kind of anti-industrial social melioration, a rallying place for an extraordinary diversity of ruralist, progressive, liberal, reactionary, or anti-Victorian views, many of them never remotely mindful of the original intentions of his work.” Perhaps it seems newly important to divine these original intentions; the difficulties remain apparent. Or perhaps instead of a reflection of our common yearnings, the new tide of words is mere academic coincidence, the operation of some cyclical principle that governs the ebb and flow of literary reputations or university jobs.
Or yet again, perhaps there is always a vanguard of exegetes going over rediscovered texts, like a mine squad, so that regular people may swim safely. In the vanguard scholars speak, as here, mostly to each other, and the number of knowledgeable Ruskinians, to judge from the recurrence of names in the indexes and bibliographies of these books, is small. Of these books, only John Dixon Hunt’s biography The Wider Sea, and Ruskin’s correspondence with Thomas Carlyle, edited by George Allan Cate, are apt to have much general interest, though most readers would find something or other among the many good essays in the three volumes of miscellaneous essays: The Ruskin Polygon, edited by Hunt, with Faith Holland; New Approaches to Ruskin, edited by Robert Hewison, who also contributes to a third miscellany, Studies in Ruskin: Essays in Honor of Van Akin Burd, edited by Robert Rhodes and Del Ivan Janik. John Hayman, editor of Letters from the Continent 1858, also contributes an essay in Approaches, as do among others Van Akin Burd, John Unrau, and John D. Rosenberg. Brian Maidment and Jeffrey Spear contribute to both Approaches and Polygon; the Studies volume contains essays by other distinguished Ruskinians, notably Mary Lutyens and George Landow, and by Elizabeth Helsinger, who has also written Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder, a book about Ruskin’s practices and views as an art critic.
Among all these books and essays there is inevitably some repetition of subject and approach; Lutyens, talking of Ruskin and Effie in Venice, touches on things that come up also in Jeanne Clegg’s Ruskin and Venice (and in her own previous work). Marc Simpson, talking about Ruskin’s use of serpent imagery, anticipates, or duplicates, matters that come up in Fitch’s The Poison Sky; John Hayman, talking about the theme or image of the labyrinth in Ruskin’s lectures as Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, leads us into the maze that concerns (and characterizes) Jay Fellows’s second book on Ruskin, Ruskin’s Maze: Mastery and Madness in His Art. The richness and redundancy of all this remind of Ruskin’s own writings.
Approaches to Ruskin (of which, in New Approaches, none is strictly new) divide roughly into works whose object is to know more about him—his life or the character of his mind—either in the interest of biography alone or as a way of approaching his ideas, and others which simply try to organize and systematize his thoughts, setting into some sort of meaningful order his random but brilliant discussions, whether of architecture, political economy, painting, botany, morals, religion. Because his extraordinary style was highly figurative—composed of Biblical, classical, and literary allusions and numberless recurring images—and was discursive in the extreme, it has been a continuing scholarly labor to extract his ideas and set them in an order more accessible to logic, or at least to our logic. The most modish of recent studies try to show how mere logic is not the way to approach him at all, and attempt the difficult task of explaining the method in his madness. These rearrangements of Ruskinian ideas and images, which are presumably infinite, produce, like musical notes, new compositions of, sometimes, great attractiveness in themselves, although whether any have or can produce a definitive Ruskin is still in question.
Biographies of Ruskin have been appearing since before his death, each era getting more or less the biography it wants or deserves—pious, debunking, psychoanalytic. An early work by Ruskin’s contemporary W.G. Collingwood referred to him throughout as Mr. Ruskin and barely mentioned a wife. Biographies now, of which John Dixon Hunt’s is a good one, must take account of all the awkward matters: his impotence, white marriage, dependency upon his parents, affection for little girls, madness, and these provide a challenge for anyone who would produce a sympathetic account. The commonest strategy has been to dramatize the crucial relationships of his life, rather as he himself did, as conflicts in which he is the hero-victim, someone else the villain, his domineering parents or his wife Effie, whose escape from their unconsummated marriage and subsequent marriage to the painter Millais, continues to be felt by some Ruskinians as, if not betrayal, tactlessness at least. Or there was the mother of Rose La Touche, the little girl he hoped to marry, who wrote to Effie to inquire whether Ruskin sexually could be considered a possible husband for Rose (“He is incapable of making a woman happy,” replied Effie, a revealing euphemism from a Victorian lady).
These villains take their places successively on the Ruskin stage, to be vindicated in turn by some sympathetic revisionist. If there are villains in Hunt’s evenhanded work it is the Severns—Joan Agnew Severn, Ruskin’s cousin, and her husband Arthur, who acted as his guardians during his last decade when his recurring bouts of madness had left him docile, blank, and silent, “as if the sea had closed over him,” in Hunt’s words. Hunt’s view is that their care “challenged his authority and threatened the command of himself and his concerns,” perhaps ending earlier than necessary his working life.
Ruskin biography is now at the stage where, because so much is known, a biographer must choose between writing one readable volume, depriving himself of the leisure to dramatize, quote at length, speculate, and other indulgences of a biographer less burdened by information, and plunging into a big, many-volumed Complete Life, the kind that is so worthy and so boring to read. To assemble many volumes would in Ruskin’s case be thankless because there are so many special little books that illumine particular aspects of his life—the diaries of Rose La Touche, or an account of his friendship with Kate Greenaway or the relationship of his parents to his wife’s parents, or Effie’s letters from Venice. These close-ups are so much more satisfactory, vivid, thorough, and readable that they must discourage any but the liveliest and most industrious from attempting the giant compendium; meantime the best way to read about Ruskin is to browse among the short books, especially of letters. Hunt’s treatment of Ruskin’s famous “unconversion” from evangelical Protestantism in 1858, while visiting Turin, described in a paragraph (an allotment with which, however, one would not quarrel), is somehow more touching and bleak as it emerges from Ruskin’s own gingerly description of it, carefully phrased to avoid alarming his pious parents (in Letters from the Continent 1858, edited by John Hayman):
I went to the Protestant church last Sunday, (having usually spent all the forenoon in hunting regiments)—and very sorry I was that I did go. Protestantism persecuted or pastoral in a plain room, or a hill chapel whitewashed inside and ivied outside, is all very well; but Protestantism clumsily triumphant, allowed all its own way in a capital like this, & building itself vulgar churches with nobody to put into them, is a very disagreeable form of piety. Execrable sermon;—cold singing….
Hayman has printed Ruskin’s letters only, which reminds how really much more satisfactory it is to read two sides of a correspondence, especially if, as in George Allan Cate’s edition of the letters to each other of Ruskin and the Carlyles, all are great writers and there are disputes and drama, for instance the bitter little quarrel which arose in 1867 when Ruskin in an issue of the Manchester Examiner and Times published an account of a conversation he had had with Carlyle, attributing to Carlyle some rude remarks about British workingmen (that he couldn’t walk the streets “without being insulted, chiefly because he is a grey, old man; and also because he is cleanly dressed”), statements which Carlyle in a letter to a newspaper denied making. Carlyle was angry that Ruskin would misconstrue and misreport a private conversation, Ruskin was offended that his old friend would humiliate him publicly by impugning his truthfulness.
Hunt in his biography deals swiftly with all this: “Ironically, it was precisely one of their personal conversations which Ruskin misinterpreted in public that nearly caused a final breach of the good friendship. It seems to have been quickly resolved.” But the joys for the reader are, of course, in the rhetoric, not in the facts of the quarrel:
With a Poet’s temperament,…you in yr headlong incautious way, with the best and truest intentions in the world, strode into one of the foolishest practical puddles recently heard of, and dragged a most unwitting friend along with you,—who refuses to lie there with you (especially to lie undermost, as he chanced to be), and, finding you took no steps and did not even recognize the puddle much, has striven honestly to save first himself, and then his more or less blameable compan[io]n too,—really with his best endeavour, and utmost stretch of faculty and skill, exerted in an element infinitely foreign and unpleast to him.