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The Devil & Mr. Ruskin

1.

The most striking moment in the two volumes of Tim Hilton’s massive, quirky, often moving biography of Ruskin occurs not on, but between, two of their nearly one thousand pages. Filling the whole of a marginless right-hand page, an 1851 daguerreotype shows the young Effie Ruskin in the third year of her never-consummated marriage to Ruskin, who was then thirty-two. Demure, shapely, finely dressed by her wealthy in-laws, she sits with head sharply cocked to the left, as if straining to read the facing page. She looks mildly miffed, as well she might, for the text describes the young Ruskins’ visit to Robert and Elizabeth Browning, after which Elizabeth remarks in a letter to a friend, “Pretty she is and exquisitely dressed—that struck me—but extraordinary beauty she has none at all.”

Ruskin’s reaction on his wedding night was more extreme: he recoiled from Effie’s body in disgust. From the medical examiners’ report, introduced at the hearing that resulted in the annulment of the marriage, we know that Effie was still a virgin “naturally and properly formed” and there were “no impediments on her part to a proper consummation of the marriage,” a judgment in which John Everett Millais evidently concurred, for Effie Millais bore him eight children in thirteen years.

In his deposition Ruskin testified that although his wife’s “face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion.” Ruskin’s guarded language conceals a deeper revulsion. “Person” is a euphemism for Effie’s nude body, the same word Effie uses (and doubtless heard Ruskin use on their wedding night) in a letter to her father on the eve of her flight from Ruskin:

He had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and…the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening.

Effie was twenty years old at the time of her marriage. Ruskin’s delicate full-face drawing of Effie made at this time, or possibly a year or two later, reveals the features of a pretty young girl of perhaps fifteen, the age at which she had been taken by her parents on a visit to the elder Ruskins’ home. Ruskin never mentions his wife in Praeterita (“things past”), his autobiography. But she appears briefly in its pages in the only form that ever pleased him, the unnamed “little girl” for whom he wrote the popular fairy tale The King of the Golden River. Years later Ruskin sketched the young Rose La Touche, with whom he had fallen in love. Rose was in her early twenties: the sketch depicts the face of a child of twelve or thirteen.

Our interest in Ruskin’s personal pathology would profit us little were it not that the pathological and the pro-foundly sane are interwoven throughout his writings, and those writings have helped to shape our world. Ruskin wrote at one of the last moments in our history when a single mind of the very first rank could take as its province the whole range of Western culture—its art and architecture, its literature, science, politics, ethics, and economic organization—and leave a mark on everything it touched.

Ruskin’s first major work, Modern Painters (1843-1860), brought about a renovation in visual sensibility for an entire generation that had immured itself in pictorial conventions and visual clutter. Charlotte Brontë’s experience on finishing Modern Painters is representative: reading the work gave her a “new sense”—sight. Ruskin opened once-jaded eyes by arguing that J.M.W. Turner’s radically new portrayal of nature, above all the daring freedom of his seascapes, re-created the infinite complexity of nature more faithfully and forcefully than had ever before been captured on canvas.

Between the earlier and later volumes of Modern Painters, sandwiching them in as a kind of giant parenthesis, he wrote two books on the more socially implicated subject of architecture (we experience art in the unnatural silence of a gallery; architecture confronts us on the streets). The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) marks an important moment in the history of the Gothic revival in England and America. In our own century Ruskin’s insistence that all vital and beautiful design derives from organic forms decisively influenced the young Frank Lloyd Wright. William Morris described the central chapter of the central volume of The Stones of Venice (1851-1853)—“The Nature of Gothic”—as “one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century.” The chapter contrasts the inventive freedom of the Gothic artisan with the enslavement of the modern laborer to the repetitive processes of industrial production.

Ruskin completed Modern Painters in the same year in which he published Unto This Last—1860—the exact midpoint of his life. His great assault on the barbarism of laissez-faire capitalism, Unto This Last marks his transition from critic of art to critic of society. But the same incisive moral intelligence informs the whole of his writing career. His different works often speak to different audiences. Not surprisingly, his disciples often make strange bedfellows, quite like adjacent chapters in certain of his books. Both Proust and Gandhi discovered themselves in discovering Ruskin. Gandhi wrote that reading Unto This Last “marked the turning point in my life.” And Proust, who revered Ruskin as the “gate” of his inspiration, claimed to know Praeterita by heart. Tolstoy, who as novelist and social visionary straddles the worlds of Proust and Gandhi, praised Ruskin as one of the most remarkable men not only of Victorian England “but of all countries and times.”1

No other major English writer is so persistently autobiographical or has so successfully transmuted private pathology into great art. When Ruskin’s nightmares usurp his waking life, as they did increasingly after 1878, he becomes certifiably insane.2 Yet in the last decade of his writing life, he creates two supreme expressions of his genius, Fors Clavigera^3 and Praeterita (1885-1889).

His later writings are remarkable experiments in style and genre that both express and contain his madness. The Devil who sprung at him in the guise of a cat, as he lay naked and raving on his bedroom floor in February of 1878, had long been poised to leap. For the Devil, in the form of a Fury, had appeared to him twenty years earlier, in the summer of 1858, as he gazed at a beautiful young girl of ten or twelve, lying absolutely motionless on a heap of sand. He writes of her lying “half-naked, bare-limbed to above the knees, and beautifully limbed” in a letter from Turin that must have startled his parents. And he returns to her—or rather she returns to him—“a vision that has never quite left me”—in The Cestus of Aglaia (1865), a series of lectures on art. Ecstasy and terror are the great underlying themes of his most powerfully charged prose, and here they surface in the guise of a Sleeping Beauty who awakens as a shrieking Fury:

She was lying with her arms thrown back over her head, all languid and lax, on an earth-heap by the river side…one golden afternoon in August, years ago. She had been at play…and had thrown herself down to rest, full in the sun, like a lizard. The sand was mixed with the draggled locks of her black hair, and some of it sprinkled over her face and body, in an “ashes to ashes” kind of way; a few black rags about her loins, but her limbs nearly bare, and her little breasts, scarce dimpled yet,—white—marble-like—but, as wasted marble, thin with scorching and rains of Time. So she lay motionless, like a dead Niobid…. Black and white she lay, all breathless…

Ruskin has brushed her with mortality—she lies “breathless,” sprinkled with ashes—and then transforms her into a piece of statuary, a “dead” Niobe, whom Zeus had turned into stone. Suddenly, disturbed by her playmates, the girl rises with a single spring “like a snake,” and shrieks in anger, Alecto-like, Fury-like, “with a shriek so shrill that I put my hands upon my ears.” Ruskin covers his ears but cannot avert his eyes.

Earlier in the same year, in 1858, he met the young Rose La Touche, the beautiful, precocious, ten-year-old daughter of a landed Anglo-Irish family. Rose had inherited her parents’ devout Evangelicalism; her meeting with Ruskin coincided, with disastrous consequences for them both, with his loss of the Evangelical piety he had inherited from his mother and had quietly renounced—in Praeterita he calls the experience his “unconversion”—in the same year (1858) and in the same city (Turin) where he had seen the nearly naked girl lying on a heap of sand.

Soon after Rose and Ruskin met, he wrote of her in a letter to his father as if she were her own effigy: “She [has] such queer little fits sometimes, like Patience on a monument” and walks “like a little white statue through the twilight woods.” In 1866, on Rose’s eighteenth birthday, Ruskin proposed marriage but Rose, disturbed by his growing unorthodoxy, postponed her answer for three years, by which time her illness rendered any answer moot.

In the year before Rose died, emaciated and insane, at the age of twenty-five, Ruskin cradled her head as he knelt beside her hospital bed. He had sketched her in delicate profile, as if in sleep, perhaps in death. Her head seems to float, the line of her chest so faintly drawn that it vanishes into the shaded background. Her shoulders are bare; no trace of clothing is visible; nor is there any hint of her breasts. Tim Hilton suggests, rightly I believe, that Rose was anorexic, a suggestion reinforced by her years of fasting as a spiritual discipline and by a letter of Ruskin’s to Carlyle in the year before her death: “The girl whom I’ve so long been devoted to [is] half-mad and half-starved.” Ruskin is not exaggerating. Years earlier her mother had described Rose as “frightfully emaciated” and suffering from “mysterious brain attacks.” Anorexia nervosa first appeared in medical journals in 18734 but it has yet to be definitively linked either as a cause or an effect of psychosis. However, it frequently has clear physiological consequences in addition to emaciation: the suppression of menstruation and the underdevelopment of the breasts. With cruel irony Ruskin’s deepest wish had been granted: Rose died half-child, half-woman.

2.

In a caveat to his future biographers, Ruskin cautioned that we are made into what we later become only by those external accidents that are in accord with our inner nature. The whole of Ruskin’s life may be read as the extraordinary meeting of external accident with antecedent disposition. Before he saw the “marble-like” girl lying in the sand, before he met Rose, their meeting had been prefigured thirteen years earlier, in 1845, in the Church of San Martino in Lucca. There he saw, and ever after remembered, Jacopo della Quercia’s exquisitely sculpted effigy of the young bride Ilaria di Caretto (defaced in 1989 by a barbarous restoration).5 In Praeterita he writes of “the sleeping Ilaria” as a revelation in his understanding of art. And in his close-up study of her head, drawn in 1874, he renders della Quercia’s delicate chiseling of a lock of her hair as if it were still moist from the fever-flush of death. In his profile drawing of the dying Rose, also made in 1874, he transposes the floral fillet that rings Ilaria’s forehead into the lace-like coronet that circles Rose’s hair. But it is in a letter to his father, written thirty years earlier, that we feel the full force of Ruskin’s gaze as he seeks to touch Ilaria with his eyes:

  1. 1

    For Morris, see his Kelmscott Edition of “The Nature of Gothic” (George Allen, 1892), Preface, p. 1. For Proust, see Lettres à une amie… (Editions du Calam, 1942), p. 14, and Marcel Proust: A Selection…, translated by Gerard Hopkins (Wingate, 1948), p. 54. For Tolstoy, see Derrick Leon, Ruskin:The Great Victorian (Routledge &egan Paul, 1949), p. 581.

  2. 2

    The most remarkable feature of Ruskin’s dementia is its intermittent severity in combination with seemingly total recovery. Ruskin’s paternal grandfather had been a melancholic and a suicide, and his parents, first cousins, had reason to fear a recurrence in their son. Hilton subscribes to the diagnosis of Max Harper, a professor of psychological medicine: “manic depressive illness or schizo-affective psychosis” (Vol. 2, p. xix). Ruskin was severely depressed as an undergraduate at Oxford and intermittently thereafter. Mania is evident in his grandiose schemes for reclaiming the wastelands and taming the turbulent rivers of Western Europe: “If I die, I will die digging like Faust.”

  3. 4

    Misdated as 1879 by the usually accurate Hilton. His description of Ruskin as a “paedophile” is also clinically accurate but subject to possible misinterpretation. There is no evidence that Ruskin ever sexually touched a body other than his own. In a bitter letter to Rose’s parents years after Effie’s marriage to Millais, she wrote that Ruskin was “unnatural” and “utterly incapable of making a woman happy.” In a surprisingly candid letter to a mutual confidante of both Rose and himself, Ruskin asserted his physiological capacity for orgasm. He confessed to being “another Rousseau,” i.e., he masturbated.

  4. 5

    See James Beck’s Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business, and the Scandal (Norton, 1993), pp. 22-23. Beck describes the unrestored Ilaria as perhaps “the most beautiful effigy of a woman in all of Italy.” Ilaria now appears half-mummified, the locks Ruskin once lovingly drew, smoothed and waxen. Ruskin had argued in The Seven Lamps of Architecture that all “restoration” is a lie, that our duty is not to repair but preserve the paintings and monuments of the past. His writings are precursors of the preservation movement of today.

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