Not Right for Our Rose

John Ruskin and Rose La Touche: Her Unpublished Diaries of 1861 and 1867

introduced and edited by Van Akin Burd
Oxford University Press, 192 pp., $19.95

John Ruskin and Rose La Touche
John Ruskin and Rose La Touche; drawing by David Levine

Students of the nineteenth century tell stories of bonfires or of dusty attics, horror stories by which such things as Byron’s journal or Turner’s erotic drawings are lost forever or, less often, tales of lucky preservation. This edition of Rose La Touche’s diaries is an attic story and a bonfire story both.

It is a question whether the sexual peculiarity (from the modern point of view) of Victorians or just their enormous literary and epistolary output is more to be blamed for the bonfires conducted by their relations and literary executors, but it is safe to say that where there was a bonfire, anything that seemed sexually odd got burned. Luckily. Victorian heirs sometimes had different ideas than we have about oddness, and things were overlooked, for instance by the Gladstones. The passion of John Ruskin, nearly forty, for Rose La Touche, who was ten when they met, was embarrassing to his executors, who tried to erase her from the record of his life, but a number of traces of her have remained, in the letters and memoirs of their contemporaries, who unlike us had not, as Quentin Bell puts it, the “nasty twentieth-century habit of overturning screens.”

To us, Victorian pedophilia remains the least sympathetic of quirks, and we tend most to mind the self-deception with which they adored the beauty and “purity” of little girls (sometimes boys), seeming genuinely unconscious of the prurience so perfectly illustrated in Victorian photographs, by Lewis Carroll and other pedophiles, of nice little girls, brought thither presumably by their mothers, posed seductively in off-shoulder dresses, or showing fat little thighs, and pouting.

Conventional explanations, certainly borne out by the facts of Ruskin’s or Carroll’s life, include fear of adult sexuality, the need to separate “pure” from sexual love by focusing upon such sacred objects as mothers or innocent girls, and, in the case of Ruskin, madness, a battery of excuses sufficient to enable modern biographers to discuss what his first biographers—who combined a Victorian inclination to protect his good name with a modern uneasiness about the nature of his real feeling for Rosie—do their best to cover up.

Much Ruskin material was destroyed after his death, much more has disappeared, but by good luck these small fragments of Rose’s diaries were transcribed. Van Akin Burd’s admirable presentation of them combines narrative fascination with a considerable contribution to Ruskin biographical scholarship, and introduces two new characters—first, Rose herself, heretofore so shadowy, seen and not heard. Now she speaks for herself, if not on the subject of Ruskin, at least on subjects which interested her more. Hers is a frail, affecting document in the large literature of miserable Victorian childhood, testifying in particular to the misery of evangelical religion in the lives of sensitive children.

The other interesting character is Helen Gill Viljoen, a leading Ruskin scholar who…

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