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 Clavigera3 (1871-1884) 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.
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:
She is lying on a simple pillow…. Round her head is a circular fillet, with three star shaped flowers. From under this the hair falls like that of the Magdalene, its undulation just felt as it touches the cheek, & no more. The arms are not folded, nor the hands clasped nor raised…. It is impossible to tell you the perfect sweetness of the lips & the closed eyes, nor the solemnity of the seal of death which is set upon the whole figure…. You expect every instant, or rather you seem to see every instant, the last sinking into death.
As the letter closes, Ruskin seems to step across the space separating him from the recumbent figure. The canopy that once protected the tomb had been removed centuries before Ruskin first saw it in the twilight of the darkening, empty church. He steps forward:
There is no decoration or work about it; not even enough for protection—you may stand beside it leaning on the pillow, and watching the twilight fade over the sweet, dead lips and arched eyes in their sealed close.
I have lingered over some little-known passages in Ruskin’s writings. But despite his myriad subjects—art and society, history and mythology, geology, religion, crystallography, education, botany, environmental preservation, economics, Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and the Bible—Ruskin is all of a piece, except when he fragments into madness. The peripheral and the central, the personal and the public, are bafflingly connected, like the ancient labyrinths that fascinated him. The girl who awakens from the sand as a Fury appears sometimes at the periphery, sometimes at the center, of his most memorable writing. She is very much at the center of Letter 20 of Fors Clavigera, the most daringly original of all of Ruskin’s writings, a judgment with which Tim Hilton concurs.6 Cardinal Manning comes closest to capturing the experience of reading Fors by comparing it to overhearing the beating of one’s heart in a nightmare.
Issued intermittently as a monthly series of public letters “To the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain” from 1871 through 1884, Fors is always unabashedly personal, even when its subject is the passing scene of Western Europe as Ruskin saw it in his travels or read of its varied follies and horrors in the daily newspapers. The letters range from recipes for Yorkshire Goose Pie to a libelous attack on Whistler’s Nocturnes to plans for the reparation of the ravages of industrial pollution. But their innermost subject is Ruskin’s unavailing struggle to avoid the terrible solitude of madness, to keep in touch with himself and the world by writing about both in the pages of Fors.
Despite their intimacy, the letters of Fors are patterned upon an older form, the Epistles of the New Testament. But Ruskin’s epistles are written by an elegant Saint Paul who stays at all the best hotels. Letter 20, headed “Venice, 3rd July, 1872,” is written from his rooms in the Danieli. His text is a passage from Saint James on how from the mouth of one man may issue both “blessing and cursing.” But the subtext is Ruskin’s own mouth, or his mind, which is torn between the states of blessedness and rage.
Sermons contain exempli, and Rus-kin’s example of blessedness is Carpaccio’s The Dream of Saint Ursula. Ruskin closeted himself with the painting in the Galleria dell’Accademia, where he drew countless studies of Ursula’s hair, eyes, lips. For he had begun to see in the life of the young martyred saint a type of the life of Rose. Ursula had been courted by a heathen prince; Rose, much troubled by Ruskin’s growing “heathenism,” had deferred his marriage proposal for three years, as Ursula had deferred the proposal of her prince. In the rigid stillness of Ursula’s unbending body, he saw a prefiguration of Rose’s death. Upend Ruskin’s “sleeping” Ilaria or the dreaming Ursula and you see, unmistakably, the features of Rose, a triptych of sister faces. Carpaccio in fact hints at Ursula’s impending death: a diminutive angel standing in her bedroom doorway bears a martyr’s palm, and her feet lie stiffly beneath her bedcovers. Ruskin takes Carpaccio’s hint:
The young girl lies straight, bending neither at waist nor knee, the sheet rising and falling over her in a narrow unbroken wave, like the shape of the coverlid of the last sleep, when the turf scarcely rises.
The sentence undulates, evoking the breath of life even as it foreshadows death. The turf rises, as if from a breath beneath.
In the next paragraph, Ruskin finds himself uneasily sharing a railway carriage with two American girls. As Ursula is Ruskin’s emblem of Life-in-Death, the two girls are figures of Death-in-Life, adolescent Medusas who “writhe” like serpents. “Flies and dust” cling to them as if to a corpse, as they grate cubes of sugar over lemons that they suck into a “treacly pulp.” Ruskin has transmuted sexual terror into misogynist comedy, taming his demons and turning them into art. The demons themselves he confined to his Diaries, where they begin to appear in the form of “disgusting serpent dreams.” The deadliest of all
came out into the room under a door. It rose up like a Cobra—with horrible round eyes and had woman’s, or at least Medusa’s, breasts. It was coming after me… but I…cowed it and it went back; but another small one fastened on my neck like a leech, and nothing would pull it off.7
Any single explanation for behavior as complex as Ruskin’s is necessarily off the mark, for the target is in constant, erratic motion. To his credit, Hilton offers few explanations; but he provides a staggering hoard of pertinent biographical facts that vastly enrich our understanding of Ruskin. Ruskin himself, of course, remains our primary biographical source, and his own perceptions are always keener than his biographers’. He never lies; but at times he misinterprets, as in attributing one of his “disgusting serpent dreams” to the eating of cucumbers before retiring.
In the most dramatic sentence in Praeterita, Ruskin counts among the “dominant calamities” of his childhood:
First, that I had nothing to love.
This one-sentence paragraph—fragment, rather—goes far toward explaining why Ruskin grew up in emotional fragments. It would have been truer if Ruskin had written that he was enveloped by a parental love so innocently and anxiously all-encompassing that it left him no room to love back in return. A few lines later he says:
The evil consequence of [this overprotected childhood] was not… that I grew up selfish or unaffectionate; but that, when affection did come, it came with violence utterly rampant and unmanageable.8
The biographer who gets John James and Margaret Ruskin right will likely get their son right, too. Hilton’s portrait of the elder Ruskins is a powerful corrective to the wooden figures in most earlier biographies and to their simplistic portrayals currently on stage in The Countess. Ruskin describes his mother in Praeterita as a prude. But as Hilton makes clear, she was also a passionate and intelligent prude. The two great passions of her life were her husband and her son, in that order. Years after her marriage, Margaret remembered “a night of passionate grief and tears” spent upon her bedroom floor after John James, not yet her husband, had to leave her. As an elderly mother of thirty-eight with a four-month-old son, Margaret writes to her husband, away on a business trip, in a language that echoes the Song of Songs:
At night I go to bed saying tomorrow I shall hear from my beloved I rise in the morning rejoicing that I shall soon have your letter the rest of the day I delight myself with reading it….
Better educated than Margaret, John James writes to her in a borrowed style but not with borrowed feeling:
My Dear my Lovely Margaret how do you contrive to inspire me with unfading Love to light up flames of passion that neither age nor familiarity can extinguish.
As Hilton points out, this letter was written ten years after they were married, twenty years after their engagement.
Their love for each other did not preclude love of their son, for whom they wept tears of joy when he read them choice passages from Modern Painters. John James suffered pangs of anxiety akin to birth pangs on the eve of the publication of his son’s books. Margaret fretted over his health, just as she worried over his wavering orthodoxy. At times John James sounds more like a Jewish mother than a Scottish merchant. While Ruskin was living with Effie in Venice, this cultured, keen-eyed collector begs his son to keep off the steam-propelled water taxis (they might explode) and “to write a long account of your Health—your Pulse—Meals and sleep—perspiration, etc.” And Effie writes of her amazement in finding a letter from Margaret to John “in a style almost of amatory tenderness…which only, I believe, a lover would do in addressing a Sonnet to his Mistress.”
From early childhood until he went up to Oxford at the age of eighteen, when Margaret Ruskin took rooms near his own at Christ Church, Ruskin embarked on annual Bible readings under the stern tutelage of his mother—readings that ever after shaped the cadences of his prose and his message as a social critic. They began with Genesis, ended with Revelation, then began again on the New Year with “In the beginning….” Early in Genesis they read together:
Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.
Ruskin felt shame at his own nakedness and, as we have seen, revulsion at his wife’s.
Ruskin never consummated his marriage because throughout his life he remained wedded to his parents. Their gift to the newly married John and Effie was a fully furnished house near their own, an exact, next-door duplicate of Ruskin’s childhood home at Herne Hill that he so lovingly recalls in Praeterita. When Ruskin proposed marriage to the young Rose La Touche, he did so on the Feast Day of the Purification of the Virgin, which coincided with the anniversary of his parents’ wedding.
As parental love maimed Ruskin in ways that made him forever dependent, his parents became increasingly dependent on him. The tight little nuclear family traveled through the great landscapes of Western Europe, preceded by their courier, in an enclosed carriage from which they looked out on the world. They made a point of speaking English wherever they went, keeping the world at a distance, never happier than when alone. Their travel abroad mimicked their quiet self-enclosure at home, where Ruskin as a child had sat at his little worktable—like “an I dol in a niche”—while his father read aloud and his mother knitted. Later, we see Ruskin enmeshed in the cultural world of London or the academic life of Oxford. But all his life he longed to return to “the beloved sameness and the sacred customs of home.”9
With few toys and no close playmates, feeling the unassuageable solitude of an only child, with parents old enough to be, biologically, his grandparents, Ruskin never had an intimate friend. In later life he duplicated the relationships of the primal family. He had masters—Turner taught him to see, Carlyle to preach10—and he gathered around himself a host of disciples. But the friend to whom he wrote his most anguished and revealing letters, Charles Eliot Norton, lived in America and Ruskin rarely saw him. One of Ruskin’s executors and, like Margaret Ruskin, something of a prude, Norton returned the favor of receiving Ruskin’s anguished letters—“the loneliness is very great…as if I had buried myself in a tuft of grass on a battlefield wet with blood”—by burning, upon Ruskin’s death in 1900, all of his correspondence with Rose, “perhaps the most beautiful things he ever wrote,” according to one of Ruskin’s disciples. Ruskin had placed Rose’s letters and locks of her hair in a rosewood box, a kind of reliquary that he carried wherever he went. Wood, paper, and hair all fed the pyre.
Ruskin’s letter to Norton was written in 1863, within a year of his father’s death. Hilton’s account of the relation-ship between father and son is admirably detailed and perceptive. We see the increasing strain on both sides, and the heroic civility that struggled to contain those strains. As John James’s sherry trade flourished, he increased his purchases of Turner watercolors and paintings, but not at the pace his son craved. Turner’s magnificent Slave Ship hung in the elder Ruskin’s hallway, a New Year’s gift to John which he passed on the way to breakfast and again as he climbed the stairs to his study: “the noblest sea that Turner has ever painted,” he wrote in Modern Painters, “and, if so, the noblest ever painted by man.” Yet Ruskin could not keep what his father graciously gave and he ungraciously received. Years before his father’s death, as if trying to break the ties that bound him to his benefactor, Ruskin gave seventy-three of his priceless Turner watercolors to Oxford and Cambridge. With a wit that only lightly masks his chagrin, John James writes to Lady Pauline Trevelyan that his son has begun
emptying his cases of Turners & slightly pillaging the walls carrying off my property without scruple or remorse…. I had indeed told him that his costly decorated Walls… did not accord with his Doctrines. I am now paying for my speech.
In the next twenty years Ruskin succeeded in dissipating, through costly purchases of fine art and munificent benefactions, the whole of his inherited fortune. In later life he grew increasingly dependent on Joan Severn, the young ward who came to live with him and Margaret Ruskin in 1864 and became his surrogate mother (“Di Ma” he calls her in his letters) in his old age.
When Ruskin devised chapter titles for Praeterita, he almost invariably chose not persons but places. He is above all a lover of places and aesthetic objects—of mountains and paintings in Modern Painters, of cathedrals and palaces in The Stones of Venice—which he embraced with his eyes, as he could not embrace a human form. Something of this displaced passion enters a letter of 1852 to his father from Venice, where he clambered over scaffolding and studied statuary to the neglect of his wife:
There is the strong instinct in me which I cannot analyse—to draw and describe the things I love…a sort of instinct like that for eating or drinking. I should like to draw all St. Marks…stone by stone—to eat it all up into my mind—touch by touch.11
Ruskin was more wedded to the city than to his attractive wife, who was a great hit at the fashionable balls of the aristocracy. The one marriage ended in spectacular failure; the other produced the most eloquent monument to a city in our literature.
Hilton takes us everywhere Ruskin ever traveled, into virtually every room of every house he ever inhabited, introduces us to everyone who mattered in Ruskin’s life. The two volumes of Hilton’s biography, separated in publication by fifteen years but seamlessly joined, provide an unprecedentedly rich description of Ruskin’s world, especially the nexus of intersecting lives that made up the culture of mid-Victorian London. But there are moments near the end of Volume Two when Hilton staggers under the burden of all that he has unearthed. All the dogs Ruskin ever owned appear in one long paragraph, as if penned in a kennel. Again near the end, we come upon five pages of mini-biographies, alphabetically arranged, of all the artist-assistants Ruskin ever employed, followed by briefer résumés of etchers, engravers, model-makers, bookbinders, framers, carpenters, gardeners, and the like. At such moments (and they are rare) Hilton’s biography begins to read like an encyclopedia compiled by a highly talented ferret.
Yet even as I write this I recognize its unfairness. “Lively” or “dull” fails to describe the extraordinary qualities of Hilton’s book. Take, for example, “beautiful…, tall, thin” Lilias Trotter, of whom Ruskin was, and Hilton is, very fond. Ruskin had touched Lilias’s life deeply; she ministered to prostitutes in London and in Ruskin’s old age was a frequent visitor at Brantwood, where Ruskin would read her choice bits of Praeterita. At the breakfast table she opened Ruskin’s letters and read them aloud. We learn of Lilias’s “remarkable charm”; indeed, we learn more about her than we need to know, but not more than we want to know, by the end of Hilton’s little biographical elegy: “Uncommemorated now, Lilias led the life she chose, as a missionary in Algiers, where she died in 1942.” The effect is a little like that of reading the epilogue of Middlemarch, where George Eliot tells us of the lives of her characters after the action of the novel has stopped. Hilton’s editors could easily have cut two hundred pages from his biography, but they would have destroyed its uniqueness in the process. Future biographers of Ruskin will inevitably draw on Hilton: I doubt any will render Hilton obsolete. For his sprawling, unevenly animated biography can no more be compressed than can the thirty-nine volumes of Ruskin’s Works.
The unrelenting particularity of Hilton’s narrative succeeds in demystifying Ruskin’s life even as it adds to the mystery. Nowhere do the quotidian and the uncanny more eerily intersect than in Hilton’s account of the final period of Ruskin’s wanderings along the Kentish coast—ageless, homeless, intermittently mad. Ruskin had been compelled to give up his rooms at Oxford in 1884, for his lectures had ended in farce.12 And he had made himself non grata at Brantwood, where he lived with Joan and Arthur Severn and their five young children. He smashed windows, wrestled with the gardeners, threw his dinner at Joan, who feared for her children. Nurses were hired to restrain him. He fought with the servants, then doubled their wages. One night Rose came to him and “took command of the house…she sometimes wore a death’s head instead of her own.” But the next morning he wrote to Norton that he found himself “pretty well…again (the gardeners rather dilapidated!)—and I’m going on with Praeterita rather prettily,” ending on an alliterative flourish, as if to signal his pleasure at the return of his wits.
As his condition worsened, Joan Severn took possession of his checkbook and granted him an allowance, and in August of 1887 he traveled with a servant to Folkestone, a coastal town a few miles east of Dover. There and in the neighboring resort of Sandgate he drifted from lodging to lodging over the next year. At times incoherent, he was by turns sweet-tempered, infantile, and enraged. In August of 1887 he wrote to Joan, “Me got a French peach and a French pear…wanted my di ma to put them into my mouth.” Two decades before, he had plucked ripe peaches for the young Joan in his garden at Denmark Hill; two years later, in 1889, he transforms baby talk into the hushed serenity of the close of Praeterita, where he thanks Heaven for his “Elysian” walks with Joan and his “Paradisiacal” walks with Rose “under the peach-blossom branches by the little glittering stream which I had paved with crystal for them.”
But now, adrift along the Dover coast, half-crippled, he begs lodgings at Sandgate. He had fallen, aggravating an earlier hernia, and is now fitted with a truss—“torturing hoops of steel”—as he describes the device. He writes to two acquaintances asking for “some hermitage where, under direction from my friends, I might be taken care of without alarming or encumbering their own households.” The diction is faintly Elizabethan, a note that Kent might have written to Gloucester, had he been less blunt in speech or chosen to leave his Master alone in the cold.
Nowhere does Hilton suggest the antecedent of this late-Victorian Lear, as he puts in his odd appearance at one boarding house or another, as if the lunatic king of the ancient Britons had appeared at a local pub and asked, please, if he might use the facilities. Ruskin is “bound upon a wheel of fire,” but the wheel is an ill-fitting truss.
Near the end of his wanderings, Ruskin briefly took rooms in London before he was again welcomed back at Brantwood. His whole life had become a series of anniversaries for the dead, remembered returns to once-familiar faces and places. He walked into the National Gallery and saw a young art student copying Turner’s Sun Rising through Vapour. Kathleen Olander was eighteen years old, Ruskin fifty years her senior. She had read Rus-kin’s works and he offered to give her art lessons. He told her that “Rosie had sent him,” but this did not perplex her. External accident and antecedent disposition again coincided, this time in the form of a bent old man and a devout young student. After their brief meeting, Kathleen, much moved, walked into the empty church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and, in her own words, “sat in a pew and cried for joy.”
They corresponded, Ruskin soon proposed marriage, but Kathleen’s parents forbade all further contact, as had Rose’s twenty years before. But as with Rose, they contrived to keep in touch, until Joan interceded. She intercepted Kathleen’s letters and blocked her entrance to Brantwood, where Rus-kin, after completing the triumphant close of Praeterita, was living a posthumous existence. Kathleen sought one last sight of Ruskin in the mid-1890s. Denied entrance by the butler, she walked around the grounds and saw Ruskin, facing away from her and seated alone in a French window: “I kissed my hand to him, but he never saw me. Nor did we ever meet again.”
Kathleen entered Ruskin’s life too late to appear in his works, but she almost entered my own life in 1958 in London, where she was still living, frail and nearly ninety years of age. Rayner Unwin had recently published Kathleen’s aptly titled The Gulf of Years (1953), a slender volume of Ruskin’s love letters with her own commentary. I was in my twenties and had just begun a dissertation on Ruskin. Mr. Unwin offered to introduce us. I declined, perhaps for the same reason I can no longer visit the much-altered tomb of Ilaria.
June 29, 2000
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. ↩
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.” ↩
The source of this most allusive of Ruskin’s titles is Horace’s image of “implacable Fate, the Nail-bearer” (Odes 1.35). Of its many meanings, the title finally represents the Fate that wove the tragic pattern of Ruskin’s life and, in the pages of Fors itself, his capacity to transform the seemingly fortuitous into inspired design. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
I have written at length about Fors in The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius (Columbia University Press, 1961) and in subsequent books and essays. But Hilton writes as if he believes he has discovered Fors. I recognize many of my own perceptions in his characterization of the work, but only as an unhappy parent might recognize his own best features blotched in those of his ungainly child. Yet I find myself in good company. Although Hilton is generous to Ruskin’s earlier biographers and editors, he appears oblivious of Ruskin’s literary critics. (Ruskin’s “gifts to English literature go unnoticed,” he writes, and to document this insular absurdity he cites J.L. Bradley’s “disappointing” Ruskin: the Critical Heritage. The most recent essay in Bradley’s collection dates from 1900. See Hilton, Vol. 2, pp. 312 and 610, fn. 18.) ↩
Diaries (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1958), Vol. 2, p. 685. ↩
Praeterita (Ryburn/Keele University Press, 1994), Vol. 1, Chap. 2, Sec. 50. ↩
Praeterita, Vol. 1, Chap. 2, Sec. 44; Chap. 7, Sec. 155. ↩
Tim Hilton notes the strong influence on Fors of Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850). ↩
See Ruskin’s Letters from Venice, 1851-1852, edited by John L. Bradley (Yale University Press, 1955), p. 293. ↩
Less farcical to us, perhaps, than to his audience of undergraduates and London reporters. He had inveighed against the needless cruelty of vivisection, alienating his colleagues in the sciences. And in a final lecture he had compared the smugness of modern British Protestantism to a stout little pig that stands erect on its own native dunghill. ↩