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First Loves

John Ruskin: The Early Years, 1819–1859

by Tim Hilton
Yale University Press, 301 pp., $22.50

Either you see the point of Ruskin or you don’t. Once the Victorian age was over, he lapsed into limbo like Carlyle, with whom he has a marked spiritual and stylistic affinity, and in his own country at least became the kind of curiosity whom Lytton Strachey delighted to mock in his suave studies of the monsters—awful or pathetic—who existed before Bloomsbury brought enlightenment.

But of course the writer whom Bloomsbury idolized above all others—Proust—himself revered and translated Ruskin’s works, with which his own genius discovered a living and fertilizing affinity. It is one of the ironies of cultural cross relations that George Eliot and Ruskin should have been of such significance to a rising star of modernism in prose and the novel, in something of the same way in which avant-garde French poets like Mallarmé and Valéry had found so much to inspire them in the Romantic Ulalumes and tripping meters of Poe. But Proust did not misunderstand the real message of Ruskin, which his own countrymen so quickly lost sight of, buried as it is in tome after tome of often self-indulgent “fine” writing.

Unlike any other Victorian Ruskin perceived the essential unity of aesthetic, moral, and natural experience, and how it all fell ceaselessly on the receptive consciousness, like Virginia Woolf’s image of the shower of impressions that make up life. There is a sense in which Ruskin is indeed a modern novelist who came before his time, assembling all the materials of the new fiction without being able to give them the new shape or form, the form in which they live in the pages of Proust or Joyce. It was the novelist’s eye that noted and delighted in the little green crabs that lived in the swaying seaweed on the marble steps of a palazzo filled with Titians and Tintorettos. Great canvases and tiny crabs come together in the same focus and delicacy of Ruskinian enthusiasm.

That said, it must be admitted that Ruskin today is apt to be more informative to read about than to read, unless we skim through him in an expertly selected and skillful anthology like Sir Kenneth Clark’s. 1 The recent crop of books about him shows a desire in the present age to get to know the Victorians for their own sake and to understand them in relation to their own age rather than to our own, and Tim Hilton’s study is the most readable and sympathetic that has yet appeared. It takes Ruskin only up to his fortieth year—another forty, and those some of the most productive of his workaholic life, still lie ahead to be written about—but this biography achieves a new perspective on its subject’s character and achievement and on the well-known dramas of his domestic life. Hilton is also a professional who understands painting and the art world more than most writers and biographers who have been drawn to Ruskin. And he has gone back through the printed sources, immensely bulky as these are, to the no less voluminous mass of manuscripts—letters, notes, diaries, whole books—much of which still remains unpublished.

Ruskin’s remarkable closeness to and sympathy with his parents were unusual even for the Victorian age, and today would seem almost unthinkable, certainly undesirable. They identified with him and he with them, forming a pact that excluded the usual absorptions and developments with the aid of which most children cut themselves off and grow apart from their parents. Proust is again a significant parallel, but Ruskin was more a father’s than a mother’s boy. Hilton makes the peculiar genius of John James, the father, considerably clearer than previous biographers have done. He was one of those hard-working, thrifty Scotsmen, with great spiritual reserves and yearnings, who had a remarkable effect upon the whole civilization of Great Britain at the opening of the nineteenth century, both in increasing the prosperity of England and its overseas possessions, and in making their own capital city of Edinburgh “an Athens of the north.” He and his wife, who was four years his elder, were devout and devoted, but he worshiped literature and the arts more than he did the Bible. His own father, a failed wholesale grocer who had committed suicide, had declined to educate him for the law, so he became a clerk in a London wine business, and later contrived a partnership in a small firm out of which he eventually made a fortune. He was helped by the boom in wines, and especially sherries, which took place after the Napoleonic wars. (Readers will recall that Mr. Harding, the saintly warden of Trollope’s novel, thinks nothing of ordering a pint of sherry in a London chophouse, though he is too shy and timid to venture into any more elevated place of entertainment.)

Not uncommon for a devoted father to wish for his son the kind of career he would have wanted for himself. But the closeness of the Ruskins was such that it seemed more a question of embarking on every project together—setting out by coach for France and Italy to glut themselves as a family unit in the precocious youth’s passion for buildings and pictures. Our conception of Victorian childhood is as much out of keeping with this picture as the way of life of the Ruskin family seems unrelated to our ideas about the working of the Victorian class system. The Ruskins seem to have taken it for granted they could move in whatever circles they chose that interested them, and did so, without either snobbery or sensitiveness. When young John went up to Christ Church College, Oxford, in those days a preserve of the country’s most worldly and aristocratic young men, neither he nor his parents, who accompanied him and lived in lodgings in Oxford High Street, suffered the smallest twinge of embarrassment or inferiority. Young baronets and lords seem on the contrary to have competed for the favor of talking to and being entertained by the elder Ruskins, responding both to the kindness of the mother and the powerful charm of John James.

When it came to young love, however, things were different. The elder Ruskins were not only religious but highly romantic—Hilton quotes an almost darlingly fervid letter John James wrote to his wife, in which he refers to the “fiercer and warmer Emotions” he feels for her more every year—and their son was equally susceptible to the charms of the fair sex. He was only sixteen when he fell passionately in love with the young, sloeeyed Adèle Domecq, one of the daughters of his father’s half-Spanish partner. A year younger, and a finished flirt, she simply laughed at him. Hilton sagely remarks that “most youths desire girls before they first fall in love. John Ruskin, sheltered and innocent, experienced his sexual awakening like a blow.” He wrote afterward that it took him four years to recover, but Hilton is of the opinion that it may in reality have taken “very much longer than that.” In fact perhaps he never did recover.

Certainly the experience must have done much to contribute to the fiasco of his marriage to Effie Gray. The sad irony is that they seemed to suit each other nicely: they “got on” very well, so much so that the normal activities of marriage seemed superfluous, though they slept in a bed together like any other Victorian couple. Ill feeling at the time of their eventual separation led to all sorts of charges and recriminations—that Ruskin had never matured sexually, that he dreaded babies, that he was accustomed only to nude female statuary and was repelled by the sight of Effie’s public hair—but the real trouble seems to have been of a more commonplace kind. Brought up on Scott and Byron, whom he considered the greatest English poet next to Shakespeare, Ruskin had a wholly idealistic view of sexual passion. For him the ideal lovers would be a somewhat incongruous mixture of Byron’s Juan and Haidée and his own parents.

Of the daily grind of connubial relations he had no conception. Effie was easy to live with, and never interfered with his work. He asked no more, nor for quite a while did she, particularly since the social life of Venice and London greatly appealed to her, and in Venice there were handsome and respectful Austrian officers to entertain her while Ruskin did his drawing and measuring in the churches. But things became different when the brilliant and youthful Millais appeared on the scene. Already a highly successful painter, he was taken up enthusiastically by Ruskin, and was soon making Effie his model for the Highlander’s wife in his genre picture The Order of Release, which gives a far better impression of her sturdy Scottish good looks than does her husband’s sketch of her as a misty-eyed Princesse Lointaine.

Hilton’s leisurely and understanding manner is good at recapturing not only the atmosphere of Ruskin’s marriage and his family life, but the reasons for his youthful success as a writer and critic. He had a crucial part in what might be called the Victorian Renaissance, and the main reason, as Hilton points out, is that his natural didacticism was very much in tune with the new spirit:

It had not been said before that new artists, in relating their work and their ambitions to the circumstances of the time, should be directed by art criticism rather than by their professional teachers. Nor had it previously been assumed, as Ruskin now did, that the critic’s function was to inspire good art by unrelenting public didacticism.

That has a sufficiently modern sound. Ruskin helped to inaugurate the reign of didactic fashion which is still very much with us, but he himself saw the matter more impressively, as laying “in our England the foundations of a school of art nobler than the world has seen for three hundred years.”

A renaissance with so self-conscious a sponsor is not likely to get off the ground, and the recent revival of Ruskinism can scarcely conceal the fact that Victorian British art did not in the event come up to these high expectations. It is ironic enough that Turner, Ruskin’s first and greatest love and the greatest of English painters, belongs to a previous era and a different tradition, although Ruskin made valiant efforts to see him as the herald of the new dawn. Ruskin’s attempt to synthesize his admiration for him with his zeal for the new Pre-Raphaelitism was remarked on not unjustly by the London Times critic. “Mr. Millais and his friends have taken refuge in the opposite extreme of exaggeration from Mr. Turner; but, as extremes meet, they both find an apologist in the same critic.” Ruskin’s personal enthusiasm for Millais was, naturally enough, ended by the annulment of his marriage and Effie’s subsequent marriage to the young painter.

Like George Landow in his excellent short critical book on Ruskin,2 Hilton emphasizes his capacity, well developed among the most influential and talented Victorians, for writing about all sorts of different things together, their lordly disdain for specialization. The third volume of Modern Painters is in fact chiefly about poetry, with digressions on the Crimean War and other topics. As Hilton observes, “the Ruskinian prose is not unlike Tennyson’s contemporary verse.” He also notes as an important but “unremarked aspect of Victorian literary life” the keen interest in American literature that Ruskin took himself and encouraged in others, particularly in the work of Longfellow and Emerson; the Anglo-Saxon revival in art was, if possible, to be a joint affair on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps indeed Ruskin intuited, and expressed in his writing, certain aspects of modernism that we take for granted in Eliot or T.E. Hulme, and in Ezra Pound most of all—the continuum in which every kind of art and language lives and moves, not in terms of isolated “beauties” or special effects. There is a remarkable affinity between such typically Ruskinian writing as the long meditation on Turner’s painting The Slave Ship, in the first volume of Modern Painters, and passages in Pound’s Cantos. Both reinterpret the experience of the senses in their own version of art, placing us—to adapt George Landow’s perceptive comment on Ruskin’s genius—“within the energies described.”

Hilton’s book takes us to the end of the 1850s, a slack period in Ruskin’s life, just after his first fateful meeting with the young Rose La Touche. That meeting is described in the final pages of Praeterita, the last thing Ruskin was to write in his old age. “Presently the drawing room door opened, and Rosie came in, quietly taking stock of me with her blue eyes as she walked across the room; gave me her hand, as a good dog gives its paw.” It was an encounter that would lead to both ecstasy and anguish, and be an inspiration for much of Ruskin’s later work, and some of his best. Hilton is such a good biographer that he makes us look forward with real pleasure to reading the rest of the story.

  1. 1

    Ruskin Today (Penguin, 1982).

  2. 2

    George Landow, Ruskin (Oxford University Press, 1985).

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