Old Lecturer of Incalculable Age

Dinah Birch

  • John Ruskin: The Later Years by Tim Hilton
    Yale, 656 pp, £20.00, March 2000, ISBN 0 300 08311 4

Tim Hilton’s foreword to the concluding volume of his biography of Ruskin is intimate and magisterial in a way that would seem presumptuous in anyone else. But Hilton has worked with Ruskin since the early 1960s and no one has a deeper understanding of either him or his writing. In the first volume, published in 1985, Hilton made it clear that the later life was to be the real focus of his biography: ‘I believe that Ruskin was a finer writer and, if I dare say so, a better man, in the years after 1860 and especially in the years after 1870.’ Still bolder was the claim that Fors Clavigera (1871-84), then little valued and rarely read, was Ruskin’s masterpiece. Both claims are made good in this book, which ought to reshape Ruskin studies.

Not that Hilton greatly cares whether it will do so or not – one of the many ways in which the biographer identifies with his subject. Ruskin wrote with an indifference to the likely reactions of his public, such that it sometimes inclined him to think he had too many readers rather than too few. Hilton is rather more considerate of his audience. But, like Ruskin, he gives his first allegiance to an idea, or an ideal, that matters more to him than the satisfaction of cultural preferences. He shows how loyalty defined much of Ruskin’s work: loyalty to his parents, to his religion, to his country, to his love for Rose La Touche, to his memories. Ruskin’s disciples, too, were often motivated by a devotion to the remarkable mind that his books and public lectures revealed, rather than to any abstract scheme of thought. A similar devotion continues to motivate those who study him today, which can make Ruskinians tiresome, or even intimidating. At their worst, they have a tendency to look askance at anyone who doesn’t ‘know Ruskin’, by which they mean doesn’t have a close familiarity with the 39 maroon volumes of Cook and Wedderburn’s magnificent Library Edition of his works, together with an immediate ability to identify obscurities such as the ‘dear Greek princess’ (the legendary wife of the Doge Selvo, who is said to have introduced forks to Venetian society and is among the mythical women that Ruskin identifies with Rose La Touche).

Loyalty can also be a form of self – assertion. In Ruskin’s case it implies an indifference to changing tastes and values that made him repellent to the literary generation that followed him, and often makes him seem an alien presence now. The central reason is the unremittingly religious temper of his mind, sustained through changes and crises that leave the nature of his belief in the 1880s both radically different from the belief which sustained him in the 1830s and recognisably the same. Ruskin’s modern advocates have generally been embarrassed by his faith, but Hilton has now given us a more discriminating model for understanding his religion, which is one of the most persuasive strands of this examination of Ruskin’s later life.

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