First Loves

John Ruskin: The Early Years, 1819–1859

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

John Ruskin
John Ruskin; drawing by David Levine

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…

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