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.

Ruskin was brought up as an Evangelical Protestant, and the foundations of his religious nature were laid in the meticulous study of the Bible in which his mother directed him. He never had any time for the pinching Puritanism of much 19th-century Dissent, and like many of his generation, he lost the dogmatic certainty of his childhood belief in the wake of the mid-century revolutions in scientific research and Biblical scholarship. But he didn’t lose the habit of worship. Nature, art, history or myth could furnish the material for reverence. So could literature – the Bible especially. Ruskin’s incisive readings of Biblical texts form an impressive corpus, often ignored by his modern readers. The point, as Ruskin saw it, was not so much that attending to the Bible could lead to proper Christian practice: it directed the mind to the admiration of values beyond those of self-interest. He grew increasingly impatient of sectarian quarrels as he aged, and less and less inclined to identify with any church. The distinction he made was not between Catholics, Protestants, Muslims or Jews, but between those who worshipped a God or gods, and those who worshipped themselves. The beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, like the myths of the Greeks, stood alongside Christian tradition as he redefined his religious views in his later years.

Ruskin’s political doctrines, insofar as they have the coherence to be called that, were rooted in his allegiance to the quiet and hierarchically ordered life that he recalled from his childhood in Herne Hill. But they were also formed by his love for Rose La Touche. A great deal of speculative misunderstanding has surrounded the unhappy story of Ruskin and Rose, and Hilton sets matters straight with notable delicacy. Rose was ten when Ruskin met her in 1858; she had reached early adolescence by the time he realised he was in love with her. Once made, it was a commitment that never faltered. In one of the last things he wrote in the autobiographical Praeterita, long after her early death, Ruskin remembers her: ‘Rose, in heart, was with me always, and all I did was for her sake.’ Hilton makes clear that Ruskin’s love for Rose – though tender and intense – became part of his personality rather than an active relationship. It was absorbed into the world of his perception. What he wrote about her in Praeterita parallels what he had previously written about Verona: ‘She has virtually represented the fate and beauty of Italy to me; and whatever concerning Italy I have felt, or been able with any charm or force to say, has been dealt with more deeply, and said more earnestly, for her sake.’ After Rose died in 1875, Ruskin connected her with Verona because of the city’s association with Shakespeare’s Juliet. In ‘Dust of Gold’, one of the late numbers of Fors Clavigera, Ruskin remembers Friar Lawrence rebuking the parents’ grief at Juliet’s death:

                            Heaven and yourself
Had part in this fair maid; now Heaven hath all.

Hilton speculates that it was anorexia, induced by religious fasting, that killed Ruskin’s Juliet, for it was Rose’s chief wish that both she and her lover should be fit for Heaven. No one can be sure. But Rose’s piety, often of a destructively arid kind, was certainly one of the motives for Ruskin’s movement towards a more comprehensive understanding of religious belief in the 1860s and beyond.

Such belief is consistent with Ruskin’s thinking about the natural world. Here it is worth going back to the Greek princess. Ruskin wrote about her in St Mark’s Rest (1877), at a time when his head was full of his lost Rose. He sees the austere 11th-century Doge Domenico Selvo as an idealised image of himself, or what he might have become: ‘a perfect man, as I read him ... capable at once and gentle, – religious, and joyful, – in the extreme’. But the heroic Doge, soldier and merchant, had a weakness.

Flaw he had, such as wisest men are not unliable to, with the strongest – Solomon, Samson, Hercules, Merlin the Magician.

  Liking pretty things, how could he help liking pretty ladies? He married a Greek maid, who came with new and strange light on Venetian eyes, and left wild fame of herself: how, every morning, she sent her handmaidens to gather the dew for her to wash with, waters of earth being not pure enough. So through lapse of fifteen hundred years, descended into her Greek heart that worship in the Temple of Dew ... The beautiful work done in St Mark’s during the Greek girl’s reign in Venice first interpreted to her people’s hearts, and made legible to their eyes, the law of Christianity in its central harmony with the laws of the Jew and of the Greek: and gave them the glories of Venetian art in true inheritance from the angels of that Athenian Rock, above which Ion spread his starry tapestry, and under whose shadow his mother had gathered the crocus in the dew.

In The Queen of the Air (1869), Ruskin had written about the defiled rivers and lakes of modern Europe – ‘waters of earth being not pure enough’. That book goes on to reflect on Greek mythological concepts of Athena, and her connection with reverence for pure air and dew. Athena wears, Ruskin tells us, a crocus-coloured robe (hating all drabness). St Mark’s Rest includes a consideration of a translation of Euripides’ Ion, which refers to a girl gathering crocuses – ‘as an English girl would have let them fall into her lap’. Ruskin’s Fors letter for February 1873 is called ‘Crocus and Rose’.

Rose’s spirit presides over the late Ruskin, in many intricately inward ways. This is what he wanted while she was alive, and, more fervently and sometimes more wilfully, after her death. Such a wish is hardly sane. The dizzying complexity of the writing that tries to invoke Rose’s presence often approaches the borders of the rational. There are many occasions when it passes beyond them. As Hilton says, ‘the evidence of Ruskin’s approach to delirious madness has no parallel in English writing nor, probably, in the writing of any other culture.’ In the diaries, letters and published works, Ruskin’s mind tilts from literature into mania, though it is never possible to point to the exact moment when the transition takes place. It has been argued that it was the nature of Ruskin’s life, hectic with work and punctuated by disappointment, that drove him mad. I think this is a mistake. It was primarily an inherited disorder: his paternal grandfather went mad, and eventually cut his own throat. Perhaps it was the remembered horror of that event that protected Ruskin from the thought of suicide, which he never considered. Throughout his life his moods veered between elation and despair. The marvellous creativity of his mind was inseparable from its tendency to obsession and recklessness, constructing brilliantly innovative patterns of thought which, from their earliest days, carried the seeds of their own disintegration.

This is no reason why we should value his thought any the less. Victorian gentlemen of a particular kind – successful and complacent – patronised Ruskin. Dean Liddell of Christ Church was among them (‘He may be a great Drawing-Master, or a great artistic Poet, – as he is – has been, – never anything more. – Voilà mon avis’). Charles Eliot Norton, at Harvard, was another. Those who have read the correspondence between Ruskin and Norton with indignation, and there is no other way of reacting to it, will derive a good deal of pleasure from seeing Norton – ‘sly’, ‘suspicious’, ‘capable of unreasoning hatred and malicious interference into other people’s affairs’ – get his come-uppance in Hilton’s book. The real problem with Ruskin, as such men understood him, was that he was flighty, even effeminate. Hilton quotes the view of a contemporary that he had ‘a woman’s soul in a man’s body’. Versions of this opinion were frequently expressed. His emphasis on faith, on feeling, on nature, on the family – even his taste in contemporary painting, which was for watercolour – identified him with the feminine rather than the masculine. Women were not slow to notice this. Despite his occasional fulminations about the domestic limitations of their role, they felt their status to be enhanced, rather than diminished, by his authority. Many of his most devoted followers were intelligent women, and Ruskin derived much comfort from their company, as they did from his.

As Ruskin’s life darkened, such comfort was badly needed. He grew old quickly. In 1866, at the age of 47, he is already describing himself as the ‘Old Lecturer (of incalculable age)’. This was in The Ethics of the Dust, written for children. What was a playful pose soon became reality. He began to think of himself as an old man in the mid-1870s, after Rose’s final illness and death. By the early 1880s, he seems a very venerable figure indeed. It is something of a shock to realise that he was only 65 when he brought Fors to an end in December 1884, and 66 when he resigned his Oxford professorship the following spring. Gladstone, ten years older than Ruskin, still had years of purposeful life left in him. Repeated bouts of madness had damaged Ruskin’s mind irreparably. The decline of the final years makes a bleak story, often passed over in uncomfortable silence by biographies. Hilton tells it in full, with a frankness that risks diminishing Ruskin. But in the end, the accumulated detail invests the last days with unforgettable pathos.

Why should we still be interested in Ruskin? The question has repeatedly, and quite reasonably, been asked in this centenary year of his death. It is not easy to answer. We may study Ruskin for what he has to teach us about 19th-century painting, or about Turner. We can enlarge our knowledge of architecture or of Venetian history from him. We should read him for a fuller understanding of Victorian culture, or to investigate the intellectual roots of those who were influenced by him. We can enjoy and learn from his writings on geology, or the Bible, or mythology. All important and legitimate reasons, yet none will quite do. Ruskin is not a wholly reliable art historian: his views Turner, for instance, are sometimes misleading. His interpretation of architectural history can also be confusing, and there are safer ways of learning about medieval Venice than by reading about his Greek princess. His understanding of mythology is incomplete, his geology is amateur. When writing on these matters, as the professionals who have come after him have often reprovingly noted, Ruskin’s real subject is himself. That, however, is the best reason for reading him today. He had an extraordinary mind, without rival in the diversity and richness of its learning, and the breadth of its generosity.