Under Rose’s Rule

Tim Hilton

  • John Ruskin and Rose La Touche: Her Unpublished Diaries of 1861 and 1867 edited by Van Akin Burd
    Oxford, 192 pp, £6.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 19 812633 6

It was in the winter of 1929 that the young American scholar Helen Gill Viljoen went to Brantwood, Ruskin’s old home on Coniston Water, to pursue her postgraduate researches. In that dilapidated building, stripped of its more saleable treasures but housing still a wealth of manuscript material, she worked for some weeks: unsupervised, but advised by W.G. Collingwood, once Ruskin’s secretary and a guardian – practically the only guardian, in those days – of his memory. Viljoen, with seven years of Ruskin research already behind her, was well placed to listen to Collingwood. She rapidly realised that the view of Ruskin given by E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn in the 39-volume Library Edition, an editorial homage of a scale hither-to accorded to no English writer, was incomplete and often intentionally misleading.

Among the manuscripts that Viljoen found and transcribed in those weeks was one that particularly moved her. It was the diary of Rose La Touche, the Irish girl whom Ruskin had loved. That love, at times scandalous and always embarrassing, had been quietened in the official versions of Ruskin’s life and works, as Viljoen already knew. Ruskin’s literary executors, led by Viljoen’s compatriot Charles Eliot Norton, had burnt all that they could find that related to Rose or had been written by her. The diary must have escaped their bonfire, but in the event the manuscript was to disappear again in a year or two. Viljoen retained her transcript. As far as I know, she showed it to no one else: but when she died, in 1971, she left it in her will to another Ruskinian, Van Akin Burd.

This transcript Professor Burd has now edited, adding to it a long, knowledgeable introduction. Rose’s diaries are in two parts. The first is a juvenile travelogue, the second a spiritual autobiography written on the eve of her 19th birthday. Alone, these fragments might not seem much. In the context of Ruskin’s biography they mean a great deal. Briefly, the story is of Ruskin’s acquaintance with John and Maria La Touche, whom he probably met in 1858, four years after the annulment of his marriage; his growing love for their younger daughter Rose; his realisation that his feelings for her were romantically loving; his proposal of marriage in 1866; her asking him to ‘wait three years’; her parents’ opposition, her illnesses and mental breakdowns; her Calvinism and Ruskin’s ‘liberalisation’ of belief; partings, reconciliations, messages, further reconciliations and finally her early death in 1875. Very much of this, and of its relevance to Ruskin’s writing, has to be deduced from sources outside the Library Edition, and in particular from odd references in the many thousands of Ruskin letters that to this day remain unpublished.

Van Akin Burd has added much to our understanding of the Irish background of the La Touches, to our knowledge of the way John La Touche became converted by the Baptist Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and the way the adolescent Rose followed her father and hardened her religious will against Ruskin. Professor Burd has some telling evidence that La Touche’s conversion by Spurgeon did not take place until 1863, but I stubbornly feel that it must have been earlier, and likely as not in the great revival year of 1859. That was the year after Ruskin’s ‘experiences’ in the Waldensian chapel in Turin and in front of the Veronese painting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba: experiences which are usually taken as a turning-point in his own religious beliefs, away from Evangelicalism and towards some ‘religion of humanity’. In fact, Ruskin’s account of what he called his ‘unconversion’ was exaggerated precisely to mock at the La Touches’ belief in conversion experiences, but there is little doubt that his religious position was at odds with theirs from the beginning of their acquaintance. Ruskin’s own jocular, sparring friendship with Spurgeon could only appear frivolous to John La Touche: probably his artistic interests seemed so too. Unto this Last (1860), which owes something to Spurgeon, made Christian Socialism seem feeble and could have appealed neither to the liberal nor to the banker in La Touche. Such a gadfly might best be left with the ladies, or in the nursery. This suited Ruskin well. Only when it became obvious that Ruskin was in love with his daughter did La Touche take him seriously.

A dramatic part of Rose’s spiritual autobiography is the account of her first nervous breakdown. It began on the day of her First Communion, which her father had willed her to take without Confirmation, against her mother’s wishes. Neither parent emerges well from this episode. Because of the burning of all his letters to Rose we do not know how Ruskin reacted to it. Those were some of the most beautiful things he ever wrote, claimed Alexander Wedderburn. I have seen one sheet that survived. It is a quite viscous description of a sewing-machine. But one must follow the suggestion made years ago in Professor Burd’s admirable edition of The Winnington Letters, that in his missives to those schoolgirls one may hear the voice of Ruskin addressing the girl he loved. Of course, the fact that such letters were addressed to tender minds made all the more delicate the expression of Ruskin’s religious sense; and there is a beauty in what Ruskin says to the girls that one would not find in, say, contemporary letters to Carlyle or talks at the Working Men’s College. But Rose was harder than the Winnington girls, and her obdurate religion grew as she grew, with the result that in Ruskin’s published writing his hostility to Evangelicalism reaches a polemical height, as does the desperation of his love.

Matters were further complicated by the half-engagement between Rose’s wastrel brother Percy and Joan Agnew, who was both Ruskin’s cousin and his ward. At Harristown, their seat in Co. Kildare, while Percy wooed her, Joan was forbidden to speak the name of the man who would give her permission to marry. She and Rose got around this veto: Rose now developed the habit, never abandoned, of referring to Ruskin only as ‘some people’ or the like, never by his name. On the occasions when she wrote to him she used her old childish nickname ‘St Crumpet’, enclosed some of her devotional poems and perhaps a rose petal or two. Ruskin groaned over the verses and was sent into transports by the flowers. All such sighing can seem remote to the modern mind – one reason why it is difficult to have a clear picture of Rose in her late teens and early twenties. Was she a pious chit or a young woman of determined intelligence? Did she know anything about love? Ruskin celebrated Rose for her saint-like qualities but as one searches through the manuscripts one glimpses, often, a sprightlier person: Rose prancing down Piccadilly in a new hat, hanging onto the sage’s arm ‘like a prentice girl out for a holiday’, tickling his palm with her little finger while he tried to show her some rare missal, running up vast bills in the Shelburne in Dublin and (why?) the Queen’s Hotel, Norwood.

The other Rose is the one who would inquire of strangers how things stood between themselves and God, Rose who once made everyone at a party kneel while she led them in prayer. How bright was someone with such mad spiritual confidence? Professor Burd does not discuss, doubtless because of its problematic status, a notebook which is among the half-dozen remaining documents in her own hand. Among other matters, it summarises and comments on Ruskin’s Oxford lectures on Greek science and art known as The Eagle’s Nest. Variations from the published version suggest that she might actually have heard these quite difficult addresses. That cannot be: there must have been an intermediary. One does, however, have the impression from the notebook of a first-in-Mods-and-Greats kind of ability. That was not all: she could dazzle the Anglo-Irish undergraduate J.G. Swift MacNeill (the most likely such academic intermediary) with her beauty, wit, humane attitude to the peasants, splendid horsemanship and sundry other lovable Irish qualities.

This was in 1872, just when Rose was planning a rapprochement with Ruskin that was to end disastrously. Frustrated by her Irish horizons – the Presbyterian church at Naas, the books one might borrow in Dublin – she travelled alone to London and used the George MacDonalds to recall Ruskin from Venice. Their reunion at Broadlands and in Cheshire, as she headed back to the Holyhead boat, gave Ruskin a few days when he ‘could not hold my pen, for joy’: but the innocent Rose was frightened by letters shown to her by a relative in which (apparently) Ruskin had confessed to just those sexual crimes which had led Effie Millais to tell the La Touches that he was a ‘monster’. Ruskin’s renewed hope that Rose might marry him now entirely broke her equilibrium. On Crewe station she screamed at him, as they parted. A few days later she was in delirium, and soon enough it was clear that she was going to die.

Ruskin’s writing at last found its perfect expression, in his monthly pamphlet Fors Clavigera, when he was most torn by these events: and if Rose read Fors (a wise parent might hide it from her) she could now have seen herself metamorphosed into an emblem. Ruskin began to place on his title pages an engraving of the rose from Botticelli’s figure of Spring, ‘the clearest bit of the pattern of the petticoat... where it is drawn tight over her thigh’, while he raged about the minotaur, anger, lust, usury. This was the point when the inflammatory Fors became interchangeable with Ruskin’s Oxford lectures, a matter which gave unease to the university greybeards. It was also the time when he began to recruit ‘disciples’ among undergraduates: W.G. Collingwood, who in his last years became Helen Viljoen’s mentor, and an interesting group of Balliol men who were dissatisfied with their tutors, among them the Library Edition editor Alexander Wedderburn. We do not know what Rose thought. She was no disciple. Surely the prospect of a future existence as a colophon would be only a minor deathbed comfort. It seems that she wanted Ruskin himself, and in her last months the La Touches in effect relinquished her to him. When she raved, only he could quieten her. The last time they met Ruskin held her in his arms – Rose skeletal, her colour strangely high – while she recited ‘Jesu lover of my soul’.

That is a detail Professor Burd does not give us: he is often careful to avoid sentiment. He prefers not to conjecture about her illnesses, merely recording the common view that she was tubercular. This seems likely: I think she may also have been anorexic.

Of Ruskin’s madnesses, though, it is possible to know a great deal. What is more, those madnesses will repay much meditation. Professor Burd’s book now extends another aspect of Helen Viljoen’s studies. Her edition of the volume of Ruskin’s diaries which records his mental breakdown of 1878 was a tour de force, in which she explicated the seemingly random ‘free association’ of his journal in the days before he was found one morning, naked and exhausted, having (he believed) struggled all night with the devil. Since that writing and the demented fantasies that followed were ungovernable yet non-sexual, Viljoen felt herself well placed to estimate what she called the exceptional ‘purity’ of Ruskin’s mind. By this she really meant its cultivation; and it is just such cultivation that is now demonstrated by Professor Burd in his analysis of a previous breakdown. A few months after Rose’s death Ruskin had been persuaded by a spiritualist, one Mrs Ackworth, that she had seen the dead girl by his side. It was a vulgar fraud, but it generated in Ruskin, in Venice in 1876, a great web of association that linked Rose, whose heavenly messages Ruskin believed he received, with Carpaccio’s St Ursula, with Joan of Arc, with Proserpina and St Catherine of Bologna; while any number of other matters – natural history and early Christian history for the most part – also, quite suddenly, were understood by Ruskin to have come under Rose’s rule.

Reviewing their relationship, one sees many earlier signs of this collapse. In the first place, the course of Ruskin’s love coincided with his decline as a reasonable art critic. To an extent the two are connected. A modern critic would argue that Ruskin’s sensibility had been disabled by the fact that he grew up when, for the first time, there was no shared style between painting and architecture; and would remark Ruskin’s inability to see that Realism was not a constant but a period style, and a more fragile period style than most. This is true, but of course Rose (no art lover herself) had many ways of diverting him from objects. His energies appeared in angered self-explanation. Since this gave us the masterpiece of Fors Clavigera one feels even less inclined to listen to the amateur Ruskinians who scold him for failing to promote Impressionism. Not to demand things from him is a help in appreciating Ruskin. He often wrote books people did not expect him to write; and, latterly, ones they did not wish him to write. A true lover, he had the sense that all he penned would be for Rose. So it was. But she never asked him for a book and the one that was written to please her, Sesame and Lilies, is too deliberate a production. The crazed books are nearer to Ruskin’s real experience of Rose. In the mental breakdowns of 1878, 1881, 1883 Rose is reconciled with Ruskin, helps him to fight against visions of hell and comes to found with him ‘a farther phase of Christianity’. All Ruskin’s later books and activities must be considered in the stilly light of Rose’s posthumous tutelage. Obviously this is so in the case of the Guild of St George, Ruskin’s utopian organisation for the recovery of English life. His quite normal earlier fantasies (John and Rose Ruskin in a cottage) swelled to embrace great areas of European culture, now her territory. The last works, except Praeterita, the only one in which she is mentioned, are haunted by her. Ruskin ‘kept her memory alive’, as we say, by private rites and spiritual exercises.

The material his executors were to burn Ruskin carried around with him in a hand-some rosewood box. It contained letters, photographs, other personalia and probably Rose’s Greek prayer book. In effect, this was a kind of feretory that could be opened to stimulate Ruskin’s thoughts on many subjects not directly concerned with Rose, subjects discussed in such books as Proserpina, Deucalion, Love’s Meinie, Our Fathers Have Told Us. These fragmentary poetic treatises deal with nature, art and Christianity. But to read them with Rose in mind is to transform them in a frightening way. They seem to be unnaturally about the love that we can maintain for people who are dead.

These books were issued in parts, chapter by chapter. They were not concluded. As they petered out, Ruskin turned his attention to the writing of Praeterita, first of all by assembling the biographical fragments from Fors Clavigera. Like all true Ruskinians, Professor Burd is uneasy about Ruskin’s own story of his life. That is not because of its many inaccuracies. It is because of its desolation. The Fors passages are the best in the book because they were written during Rose’s lifetime and in anger at what her parents had made of her. They insist on the origins of Ruskin’s own cultural identity. But while prophets may insist on their ancestry they are not given to reminiscing. Ruskin, anyway, did not do it well. The book that was begun to honour Carlyle ended in an attempt to please Kate Greenaway. Kate, like everyone else in the Ruskin entourage, was determined that Praeterita should not include Rose. Ruskin’s diaries, on the other hand, reveal his plans not only to tell the story of his love for her but also to recount her ghostly influence on him. To meditate on such matters had the effect of driving him mad once more, and the little girl only just appears in the last chapter of Praeterita to be written before he was finally broken. By that time he had forgotten even how old she was. Nobody corrected him. After a while began the process of pretending that she had scarcely existed. Alexander Wedderburn wrote her name in inverted commas, ‘Rose’, as though she were only imaginary. Professor Burd has given her back something of her life.