John Ruskin: The Early Years 
by Tim Hilton.
Yale, 301 pp., £12.95, May 1985, 0 300 03298 6
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‘When I was an undergraduate in the early 1960s,’ Mr Hilton writes, ‘I was asked to understand that an interest in Ruskin was as foolish as an enthusiasm for modern art.’ This is incomprehensible, until it is observed from the cover note that Mr Hilton was at Oxford. Even so, either he was very unlucky or this is an example of that interesting and recurrent phenomenon in which a new generation discovers a well-known writer in its own terms and as it were originally. Mr Hilton goes on to speak – with reference to work in Oxford in the mid-1970s – of ‘the avant-garde of the new Ruskin studies’.

Whether, in the present case, this is anything more than a familiar generational promotion is difficult to decide, for an odd publishing reason: ‘The present biography differs from its predecessors in placing its emphasis on the later rather than the earlier years of Ruskin’s life. 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.’ But this statement is from the foreword to John Ruskin: The Early Years, 1819-1859 – the only volume so far issued. The general judgment seems to me to be right.

What might meanwhile be useful is to reflect on the changing perceptions of Ruskin, from the vantage-point of this latest and evidently serious reconsideration. Much depends, there, on whether ‘Ruskin’ is shorthand for some two hundred and fifty published texts, with a possible annexe for thirty volumes of diary and forty volumes of thus far collected correspondence, or whether it is the simple name of a remarkable and complicated man. If we hold that theoretical issue in suspense, it is easy to see where Mr Hilton’s emphasis falls. ‘A knowledge of his life, rewarding in itself, is also the best way to approach his books.’ The reasons given are that the books ‘are without exception personal’; that they are ‘neither straightforward nor self-explanatory’ and have ‘an especial unlikeness to anyone else’s writing’; that ‘they rarely conform to the classic genres.’ There is exaggeration here, but part of the emphasis is just. Ruskin’s forms are often unusual, and in several interesting cases original. What we know of the life is not only the direct matter of some of the writing but also strange enough to attract the attention of others besides conventional biographers, as in the case of Sartre on Flaubert. It is here that the problems begin.

The theoretical issues can’t be left in suspense, but something may be said, first, about the relevant historical context. It seems there has been a major shift of interest, in the last twenty years, from literary criticism to biography, just as, forty years earlier, there was a major shift from literary history and history of ideas to criticism. Certainly it is often now implied that biography is the most acceptable – and within that term most serious – contemporary form. But in the case of the English 19th-century writers, and then with special force in the case of Ruskin, there is a further, aggravating tendency. Their common presentation, in their own and in immediately residual terms, was as moralists and sages. As such, by the 1920s, in a demoralised generation, they were targets for demolition.

At the beginning of the century Ruskin and his development by William Morris stood as a landmark in ideas about art and society. He was, as is so often reported, the writer most mentioned as an influence by the new Labour Members of Parliament. But by 1932, to take only one example, his social criticism was being confidently placed as ‘a passing-on of the indictment of Effie, a suit for nullity proclaimed against England’. Through the facts and the gossip about the unconsummated marriage to Effie, and about the infatuation which began with the nine-year-old Rose La Touche, Ruskin became a case which exactly fitted the para-Freudian preoccupations of that sector of the culture which has persisted, in amber or whatever, and with a certain dominance, from the 1920s to the 1980s. And indeed what else might be said when Ruskin himself had written: ‘Rose, in heart, was with me always, and all I did was for her sake’?

Well, there are in practice many other things to say. The problem about the particularising biography of a very unusual and innovative individual is not only in the matter of internal relations between the life and the work: it is at least as much in the frequency with which such figures become generally influential and even, in certain basic ways, representative. This was the most interesting intellectual element of Sartre’s vast project of inquiry into Flaubert. At that most serious level it failed, but it is still the kind of inquiry that has to be tested, if necessary to destruction. Meanwhile, however, a wholly different line of inquiry, into the same essential problem, was at the very margins of intellectual life. Unfashionably, this inquiry began from the structures within which, in certain kinds of historical situation, very unusual individuals, easily put down as eccentric or deviant, become central figures of the dynamic realities of their time.

This movement from subject to structure occurred, in relation to Ruskin, with the identification of a movement first dismissed and now being re-examined as ‘romantic anti-capitalism’. The case has its evidence. A whole succession or even tradition of writers were influential opponents of industrial capitalism and, in a rather different way, of bourgeois society, and one common factor in their opposition was their conviction that the art they valued was incompatible with any such social order. Thus their precise positions as artists or as valuers of the arts were the factors through which they expressed a critique which was also being powerfully made from political and economic positions, and which became sufficiently general to give some sense of centrality.

It is clear that this analysis can be reduced to simpler positions: that artists at any time are hostile to an everyday commercial and materialist world (which seems markedly less true); or that artists at any time are singular, even eccentric or deviant, personalities, these features then enclosing them (which when we read modern biographies of others than artists doesn’t seem distinguishingly true either). But the central historical argument is now fairly widely known. There was the disadvantage, until recently, of a lack of contact between the English-language examples and studies and the equally important Continental, mainly German examples and studies. Moreover, until the 1960s, mainline Marxists, down to Lukacs who in some phases actually belonged to this tradition, treated this whole phenomenon as interesting but adolescent, correctly observing that much of it went on into authoritarian or fascist radicalism, but failing to observe that it raised questions which the Marxist analysis had brushed aside or simply failed to notice and which were to return, in crisis, after half a century of Communism. In any case, however, this was a way of seeing Ruskin among others, with others: the personal particularities still there but not in themselves decisive; alternatively the particularities – as eccentricities or deviances – reinforcing the original exposure as artists. They could appear as victims at many levels of the whole social order: a diagnosis now remarkably extended by its application to the positions of all or almost all women.

Is it unreasonable to expect of a new biography of Ruskin that it will address these profoundly difficult questions and the several serious alternative interpretations? Probably so, for very little of the structural and general historical analysis could be accommodated within the received biographical form. It is tempting to say that a group described as an avant-garde might have approached some of them, but a new generation working within conventional forms is never really likely to be that. What has to be settled for is more familiar but of course still useful: some new facts and texts, from sustained research and new availabilities.

I cannot see that this account of the early years will change the mind of anyone who knows even a little about Ruskin. But there are two or three useful areas. The opening chapters on his parents and paternal grandfather are detailed and interesting, mainly because they tell the story in proper historical time. What is usually remembered is that Ruskin was the only son of a wealthy sherry merchant, of the firm of Ruskin, Telford and Domecq. But the father, John James, had been working since the age of 16, as clerk and salesman, to get to this position: his marriage to his cousin delayed by his father’s debts, she 37 when she married and rising 39 when John was born. When we later see this son bought in as a gentleman-commoner to Christ Church, with his parents taking lodgings in Oxford to be near him, and then accompanied and supported through all his early travels and writings, it is difficult to forget the earlier parental formation.

The point is to some extent general: the median formation of the Early to Mid-Victorian artists who are now important to us is second-generation commercial bourgeoisie: this, moreover, at a stage before the schools and universities had been reorganized to accommodate and direct this precise group. Thus the gentleman amateur, the dilettante patron – and among these some very original writers and artists – were at a pivotal moment in English culture: launched and supported by bourgeois trade but not yet flattened into professional and business routines and conformities. There is irony in the fact that Ruskin – like Morris, the son of a wealthy bourgeois – should become a central figure in the rejection of mainline bourgeois values. But this was not, as it sometimes was later, a matter of revolt against parents: it was, by what is only an apparent paradox, what their bourgeois parents had in some ways prepared them for – to be sure, as the parents saw it, by access to the aristocratic styles and values which the hard-worked fortunes were there to provide. The complex subsequent history of this formation, with Ruskin and then more thoroughly Morris reaching out to a new social base and order – confident visionaries who were also deeply guided by an idealising retrospect beyond and before capitalism – would be central to any adequate analysis of their influential intellectual development.

Within the more conventional scope of a biography there is an interesting if necessarily incomplete account of Ruskin’s decisive encounters with Turner. It could be said that this is where Ruskin learned the difference between a working artist and a conventionally cultivated man. Turner is not only ‘greatest in every faculty of the imagination ... at once the painter and poet of the day’ but also ‘highly intellectual, the powers of the mind not brought out with any delight in their manifestation, or intention of display’: a decisive and lasting distinction. This was one master, who at some point slighted him. Another, Carlyle, whom Ruskin referred to as his master, is, by comparison, indistinct in the biography, beyond passing references, and this connects with a general weakness in analysis of the complex of ideas and influences, of a general social kind, which Ruskin both reworked and remarkably developed.

Doubtless there will be details of this development in the volume on the later years. It is a matter of the detailed advocacy of a position which had been developing since Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge, original mainly in its exploration of the position in painting and architecture; and in its relation of these processes to (manual) work. ‘The art of any country is the exponent of its social and political virtues. The art, or general productive and formative energy, of any country, is an exact exponent of its ethical life.’ Often applied negatively, against the social order of that time, this position is also the base from which radical social change would be fervently if often diversely recommended. It is in reaching for its principles and its agencies that Ruskin’s later work is important, and what Mr Hilton indicates he can tell us about this work, and especially about the neglected and vast Fors Clavigera, should ensure his second volume a welcome.

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