evival in appreciation of Anna Barbauld’s achievement and a fresh understanding of the genre she helped to transform have come together to enable readers to view her work in this field in a new light. But there is still a gap in the perception of her role as a powerful force in the lives of individual children. This essay will focus on the influence of Barbauld’s children’s books in the century after their publication, concentrating in particular on the hitherto unremarked lifelong response of the child who grew up to be the art critic and cultural commentator John Ruskin (1819-1900). Ruskin’s response to Barbauldʼs writing for children is of particular interest because it is representative of many children’s responses in his century and yet unique in its length and complexity. This unique quality can be attributed to the unusual nature of his upbringing and to the special talents he possessed.
An only child born later in life to his deeply Evangelical mother, Margaret Ruskin, Ruskin was entirely home schooled. His mother undertook to protect him from the perceived evils of the public school system and to ensure that his religious education was fully developed. His father, John James, a sherry merchant, was often away, and Mrs. Ruskin appears to have been the main figure in her son’s early formal education until he was ten. The books she used reflect her awareness of recent developments in education at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the prominence given by recent children’s books to the role of the mother, she was offered a model for the educational programme she developed for her son. Hitherto most biographers and critics of Ruskin have emphasised the influence of Maria Edgeworth’s books3 Ruskin himself contributed to this impression by describing himself as late as the 1850s as a “little Edgeworthian gosling” (11.125)
But it has not been noticed that, at the same time, he also linked Barbauld’s name with Edgeworth’s as writers “to whom no man could owe more” (34.314. Ruskin’s note). Ruskin’s mother took her role as his first teacher very seriously and made it a daily task for her son to learn and recite (as part of elocution lessons, as well as for piety) many passages from the Bible by heart. As a result, he writes that the habit of “awed attention” he gave to sacred texts became so customary that he instinctively applied it to other texts. Books by Edgeworth and Barbauld can therefore be included among the “calf milk” of volumes which Ruskin recalled reading twenty times a year, describing “inconceivable contentment” in reading the same thing over and over again.6 Hence such books became examples of those “Deep Associations” that William McCarthy describes in relation to the influence of Barbauld’s books on her child readers (214). What is unique about Ruskin is that these books at once fixed him, as Collingwood, his early biographer noticed, in “certain grooves of thought” (1.21-22), and remained, not as nostalgia for childhood, but as living influences throughout his long and varied career as an art critic and social commentator. Such a response might be compared to the influence on Dickens of his childhood reading of fairy tales and in music of those echoes of children’s songs in the music of Mahler.
Among Ruskin’s earliest biographers, Helen Viljoen was the exception in her acknowledgement of the importance of Barbauld’s influence on him, but, although she published a volume about his Scottish inheritance, she did not live to publish her biography of Ruskin. Her extensive notes still survive, however, and have recently been the subject of re-evaluation.9 A disciple of Ruskin and collector of Ruskiniana, F.J. Sharp, had bequeathed to Viljoen Ruskin’s copy of Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose (1781) and the three volumes surviving today of the six original volumes of xEvenings At Home (1792-1796), written with Barbauld’s brother John Aikin. This gift led Viljoen to regard these books as foundational texts in Ruskin’s career. Until recently it has not been publicised that they can still be seen at the Beinecke Library, Yale University, with Ruskin’s childhood marks and his later annotations. Viljoen’s unpublished material on Ruskin’s early reading has been deposited separately at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.10 Looked at together for the first time, they help us to understand better the hidden history of Ruskin’s debt to Barbauld.
Ruskin’s copy of Hymns, the twenty-second edition, dates from 1821 and was published by Joseph Johnson’s successor, R. Hunter. The title page does not name Barbauld as the author but describes her as the author of Lessons for Children (1778-1779), her earlier pioneering series of books for children from two years of age upwards. Although there is no direct evidence that Margaret Ruskin used Lessons, this attribution might indicate that she was already familiar with Barbauld’s books and was following closely Barbauld’s pedagogical programme. The books were unique in their day for their child-friendly format and for offering a graded programme for the parent teaching the child. They also introduced a variety of topics which, in their range, would have particularly appealed to the young Ruskin, who, from his earliest years, was equally interested in nature, science and art and spoke of his “interwoven” mind, to which his later writing career testifies (35.56). Viljoen suspects that an anecdote in Ruskin’s autobiography Praeterita (1886), when he recalled an exception to his usual spartan diet on a day that his mother gave him “three raisins out of the store – cupboard” 12 may be a confused memory of the counting game with raisins in Lessons [cite vol & page here]. It might also be suggested that Barbauld’s mention of fireflies in Lessons [cite this too] started a train of images to which, as critics have shown, Ruskin was drawn throughout his life, as we shall see. These images culminated in the famous final passage of his last work, his autobiography Praeterita, which, among a host of complex memories, describes “the fireflies of Siena; How they shone!”, with its hauntingly applicable line: “How things bind and blend themselves together!”13
The titlepage of Ruskin’s copy of Hymns has an engraving of a child lifting up its hands to a bird in a pastoral setting with the following line from Hymn 1: “I will praise God with my voice, though I am but a little child.” Helen Viljoen records her belief that it was especially this Hymn and Hymn 9 that were integral parts of Ruskin’s childhood and remained integral to him as an adult. She suggests that Barbauld’s aims, set out in her Preface to Hymns,were fulfilled in Ruskin’s life’s work. Barbauld’s approach was to connect the child’s earliest understanding of the worship of God with all that gave him delight, as revealed in her words, through the “visible appearances of all around him.”14
Such a line of thought could be further developed. Ruskin himself wrote that the accidental conditions of his childhood were exactly right for a boy of his gifts – gifts which centred around a “peculiar fineness in the pleasure of sight” that were so strong in him as to amount to an instinct (35.628; see also 34.343). From his earliest years, Ruskin was absorbed by the visible world and became a keen observer and recorder of nature. The Hymns unite botanic detail and aesthetic observations with religion, offering a unique combination which would have specially appealed to a child with his particular interests and upbringing. In particular Hymn 6, a dialogue between mother and child, poses the question “What has thine eye observed”, after a walk in the country. The child’s purely descriptive answer prompts the question “Didst thou see nothing more? Didst thou observe nothing more besides?” The Hymn culminates in the assertion that God is “seen in all our eyes behold” (SPP 245). Subsequent Hymns describe objects in nature with careful regard to their individuality, as in Hymn 9, which also associates a walk with religious revelation: “Every leaf has a different form; every plant hath a separate inhabitant...Every painted flower…hath a lesson written on its leaves…everything speaks of him...” (SPP 250).
Hymn 6 has, it might be suggested, links with the dialogue “ Eyes, and No Eyes; or The Art of Seeing”, deeply influential for Ruskin, from Evenings at Home, which Barbauld wrote with her brother John Aikin. In this story two boys are questioned about a walk, to point a lesson on the importance of using one’s eyes. Although Barbauld’s brother John Aikin wrote “Eyes”, the similarity between it and Hymn 6 points to the shared educational methods between the two books, despite the religious emphasis of Hymns and the more secular aims of Evenings.
Barbauld’s preface to Hymns would have reinforced Margaret Ruskin’s insistence on learning Bible passages by heart, because, she writes, “they are intended to be committed to memory and recited” (SPP 237-38). Both Lessons and Hymns encouraged responsive reading by parent and child. Thus, from his earliest years, Ruskin’s literary experience came not just through passive learning but, as we shall see, was stimulated by Dissenting pedagogical methods, which Barbauld pioneered in her books for even the youngest child. Ruskin was encouraged by his parents to write, as attested by the two volumes of juvenilia in the thirty-nine volumes of his collected works. Barbauld’s emphasis throughout Hymns on the child’s developing the power of expression, as indicated in the quotation on the frontispiece of Ruskin’s copy from Hymn 1, could not fail to be part of the impact of the book: “A few years ago...my tongue was dumb...but now I can speak. When I am older, I will praise him better...” (SPP.239).
Ruskin’s urge to express himself in writing took, at one point, the form of imitating his favourite childhood reading: he composed dialogues and stories in imitation of Edgeworth’s Harry and Lucy (1825) and, in Viljoen’s view, attempted a continuation of Barbauld’s Lessons for Children and of tales from Evenings at Home.20 His imitation of the dialogic form, frequently found in these books, is of particular significance and, as will be seen, was to influence one of his own adult works, Ethics of the Dust (1866). He recalled with mock nostalgia in a letter to a college friend those “amiable dialogues between good boys and girls – Fanny and Emmy, William and George”, which were so characteristic of Barbauld and Edgeworth’s books (1.360). Barbauld was a pioneer in this form, described by contemporaries as a “new walk” and as “chit-chat”.22 Such a method of writing for children replaced rote learning and the mechanical form of the catechism. Emerging from Dissenting pedagogical methods and contemporary emphasis on the educative value of conversation, the form was used to enable children to think, as well as to imbibe information. It might also be suggested that the quality of the prose of Hymns had a lasting effect on Ruskin’s writing. Although he wrote much poetry as a child and adolescent he finally found his distinctive powers as a prose writer, but prose infused with rhythms and images which were closely related to poetry. Barbauld’s experimental prose idiom in Hymns could be seen as a unique early model.
Further passages, like that in Hymn 5, create a powerful comparison between the mother putting the child to bed and God darkening the world “that his...family may sleep in peace” (SPP 244). William McCarthy notes that Barbauld “almost slips into speaking of the deity as female in Hymn 3” (198), while Scott Krawczyk also indicates that Barbauld’s image in Hymn 5 inverts “the hierarchy typically found in such similes”, suggesting a feminised Deity (38). Might the memory of this passage have influenced Ruskin’s later attraction to female mythological figures as alternatives to Christian belief? Recent thinking about myth and gender in his writing has focused on his creation of a pantheon of female divinities, culminating in books like The Queen of the Air (1869), written in praise of the Greek goddess Athena. As Ruskin’s Christian faith declined he looked to ancient mythologies for alternatives and was increasingly drawn to a ‘womanly mythology.’26
There is a poignant coda to Ruskin’s reading of Barbauld’s Hymns. In 1889, by now a mentally frail old man who had lost his Evangelical faith, Ruskin looked back at his old copy of Hymns and wrote, in the margin of Hymn 4, mocking comments addressed to the author as “my pious friend” (later abbreviated to “m .p .f.”). This Hymn, like others in Hymns, extolled the beauty of the rose, and the image was now permanently connected in Ruskin’s mind with his tragic relationship with Rose La Touche, the young Irish girl whom he had hoped to marry but who died aged 26 in 1875, after being estranged from him. Thus, on Barbauld’s line on the rose “fully blown” Ruskin commented “not before”, an allusion to her untimely death.27
If, as has been suggested, Ruskin’s mother closely followed Barbauld’s pedagogical programme, she would have proceeded next to Evenings at Home (1792-96). This series of six small volumes was one of the most popular children’s books of the next century, and has only recently shaken off its reputation as dull and didactic. Now that it is seen as revolutionary in its aims and technique and, in many of its sections, profoundly influential on its young readers’ future lives, Ruskin’s complex response to the book acquires new interest. As Ruskin’s copy has no date, we cannot know when it was purchased. His copy, published by J. Dove, does attribute joint authorship to “Dr.John Aikin and Mrs Barbauld.” However, Ruskin never mentions Aikin in his references to the book and, like many other readers, seems to have seen his sister as the sole author. Was there a further reason why Ruskin was drawn to identify a woman as the sole author? As previously suggested, recent approaches to Ruskin and gender have stressed his attraction to female mythological figures, in later years, as bearers of authority. Might not his precedent for valuing such authority have been shaped by his mother, Barbauld and Edgeworth, who gave him his earliest lessons? Helen Viljoen, who had unique access to Ruskin’s writings before they were finally dispersed, writes of discovering an entry in a notebook which she dates as late as 1880, recording his favourite old books; along with his father’s Bible, it included ‘Mrs. Barbauld’s Evenings’.28
F. J.Sharp, who, as mentioned previously, bequeathed Viljoen Ruskin’s copy of Evenings, noted on the back of one volume his belief that only the section on “Earth and Stones” in Volume Five interested Ruskin, who had a lifelong interest in geology. In a parenthesis underneath, Viljoen commented that she disagreed. Moreover we have Ruskin’s own statement to support her view: he recalled that he did not know if any new book existed “to occupy the place of one classical in my early days called Evenings at Home,” and he wrote that he would be sorry to forget its “well-written lessons” (26.114). Since Ruskin attributed the whole book to Barbauld his response to specific sections, even those which were the work of her brother, cannot be omitted in any full account of the book’s impact on him. Indeed, recent treatment of Evenings as a work of collaborative writing suggests the attribution of authorship to specific sections may need revising and that the whole book should be seen as sharing joint aims, both ideological and educational.30
Ruskin responded to the whole range of subject matter in Evenings, reflecting the different interests of Barbauld and Aikin. The mingling of factual and moral lessons, as well as the allegorical tales, would have particularly appealed to his own “interwoven” interests. As late as 1883 he praised several stories in the book for their handling of natural history through fables that endowed animals with ‘human intelligence, contrasting their ‘true account’ of animal behaviour through ‘scientific fancy’ with the unrealistic treatment of animals in other books for children. He benefited from the Dissenters’ concern with science, which was reflected in many sections of the book, and went on to study Jeremiah Joyce’s Scientific Dialogues,31 regarded as the natural successor to Evenings and also written by a Dissenter. Ruskin read Evenings in the 1820s, after the “tensions of the war years” (in Aileen Fyfe’s words); by then it was no longer problematic for being the product of “liberal... nonconformist” circles.32 Its lack of a “specific religious creed”33 allowed it to be read by children like Ruskin whose parents came from different religious sects. Fyfe also notes that, compared with Sarah Trimmer’s An Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature and the Holy Scripture (1780), Aikin and Barbauld concentrated on “systematic presentation,” thereby training “young minds in logical methods of ordering and thinking” (287). Such an approach would also have appealed to the “naturalistic and methodical bent” of the young Ruskin (35.177). The emphasis on dialogue in so many sections of the book not only ensured understanding but also encouraged curiosity, thus offering “opportunities for further education and self- instruction” (302).
Many of these traits can be seen in one of the best known sections of the book, “Eyes, and No Eyes; or, the Art of Seeing.” The first half of the title, described by Charlotte Yonge as “almost proverbial” (33), echoes throughout the nineteenth century in many different contexts. Ruskin, like many Victorian children, took the message of the section deeply to heart. The piece describes how two boys, Robert and William, both take a walk along the same route and are questioned later by the tutor, Mr. Andrews. To Robert, the walk is very “dull”, but William describes how he hardly took a step that did not delight him, opening his handkerchief to reveal plants picked up on the way. He is encouraged to describe his experiences, and he proceeds to tell about the variety of sights seen, including natural objects, the landscape with its historical elements, and the impression made on him by the sunset. The tutor, having criticised Robert for his lack of interest, ends the dialogue thus:
One man walks through the world with his eyes open, and another with his eyes shut; and upon this difference depends all the superiority of knowledge the one acquires above the other... While many a vacant youth is whirled throughout Europe without gaining a single idea worth crossing a street for, the observing eye and enquiring mind find matter of improvement and delight in every ramble in town and country. Do you, then William continue to make use of your eyes; and you, Robert, learn that eyes were given you to use.38
In Mr Andrews’s closing words on the impercipient “youth whirled through Europe” can be seen an attack on the elitism of visual experience produced by the Grand Tour; William’s example, by contrast, offers a world open to all. Unlike his more famous namesake, this William does not keep his visual experiences to himself but is encouraged to share them with others and to speak for himself about them. This turn in the dialogue illustrates the Dissenters’ educational philosophy of active learning, which Barbauld and Aikin had already imbibed and which deeply influenced later educationalists such as the Edgeworths. A tributes from a Victorian geologist, Archibald Geikie, illustrates the lifelong impact of this aspect of the story. He recalled how
Every step was to me a subject of engrossing interest. I tried myself to make similar observations and was delighted in particular to recognise the movements of a lapwing ...To this day, such is the permanence of early associations the swoop and the scream of that bird overhead…reminds me of my lifelong debt to the Evenings at Home.39
Embryonic scientists may have taken from this dialogue the importance of observing nature. Charles Kingsley, however, recalled placing a different emphasis on the section, saying that the dialogue encouraged him to want to be “Mr Eyes and not Mr No Eyes”,40 thus extending its message beyond the visual.
In view of his own unusually “interwoven” interests, Ruskin would have been specially responsive to the variety of visual experiences that the boy William described, including botany, ornithology, landscape and its history, all experiences central to Ruskin’s future concerns. In William’s rapturous passage on the sunset, a lifelong source of fascination for Ruskin, can be seen not just a naturalist’s eye, but a detailed aesthetic response: “I got to the high field next our house just as the sun was setting, and I stood looking at it till it was quite lost. What a glorious sight! The clouds were tinged purple and crimson and yellow of all shades and hues, and the clear sky varied from blue to a fine green at the horizon” (Evenings 4.110)
In later years Ruskin’s growing belief in the vital importance of education gave new life to his response to the story’s pedagogical aims. When, in the 1870s, he laid out plans for setting up the schools for his projected ideal community, the Guild of St. George, he recommended the story of “Eyes, and No Eyes” as a model teaching aid, saying that “no discipline is of more use to a child’s character, with threefold bearing on intellect, memory and morals, than the being accustomed to relate accurately what it has lately done and seen...”. He points out that “Eyes” had two aims. First, it “illustrate[s] the difference between inattention and vigilance.” Second, the account William gives of his walk and its discoveries is “an exercise in narration”, which is “separate” and which Ruskin praises for its “lucidity, completeness and honesty of statement.” He uses William’s story as an incentive to encourage “children to take pride in giving a full account of the events of the day.” Showing how closely he had observed the pedagogical methods of Evenings At Home, he describes the role of “parent or tutor” in guiding the child’s narration through questions, “lopping exaggeration, investigating elision, guiding into order, and aiding in expression” (29.503).
Furthermore, we can link this passage with one from the 1850s, which also reflects William’s account and its effect upon Ruskin’s belief in the validity of children’s direct experience, as opposed to the mere acquisition of knowledge, which he felt distorted modern education:
Consider how we regard a schoolboy fresh from his term’s labour. If he begins to display his newly acquired small knowledge...how soon do we silence him with contempt! But it is not so if the schoolboy begins to feel or see anything. In the strivings of his soul within him he is our equal; in his power of sight and thought he stands separate from us, and may be a greater than we. We are ready to hear him forthwith. You saw that? You felt that? No matter for your being a child; let us hear. [11.73]
Such passages recall one of the most quoted of Ruskin’s aphorisms on the importance of sight, which takes on a new dimension in the light of his comments on the twofold nature of the story’s aim: “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way...to see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one” (5.333).
For Ruskin seeing is not enough; communicating a visual experience was equally important and, to him, the message of “Eyes” acquired increasing relevance in an age which offered far greater opportunities to ordinary people through travel than the elite experience of the grand tour, to which the tutor in the story finally refers. Central to Ruskin’s life’s work was the desire to share his capacity for understanding art, architecture and nature, whether in Venice, in a Swiss landscape, or looking at a Turner painting. Yet, although seeing and telling were important elements in Ruskin’s aphorism, the second part of the statement was of equal weight, equating seeing clearly with “poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.” Here can be traced the influence of those passages in Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose, where sight assumed a spiritual dimension. Sight, as a spiritual phenomenon, was to be a cornerstone of Ruskin’s later beliefs (27.346-47). These elements come together in an incident he recalled in 1872, on a train from Venice to Verona. Echoing the blindness of the boy Robert in “Eyes”, Ruskin watches two American girl tourists, as they enter the carriage and pull down the blinds: “And so they went on their way with sealed eyes – infidel eyes…”46 Further echoes of “Eyes” appear in one of his most anthologised chapters in Modern Painters (1860), Volume V, significantly entitled “The Two Boyhoods”, which compares the early visual experiences of two boys, Giorgione in Venice and Turner in Covent Garden, and their response to the visual worlds into which they were born (7.374-88).
Yet another reflection of Ruskin’s sense of connection to Evenings at Home may be suggested by the very title of his guide book, Mornings in Florence (1881), designed to remedy the neglect of the impercipient observer abroad.48 Ruskin repeatedly used the idea of the observant and unobservant individuals that is the subject of “Eyes”, without acknowledging his source. He used the comparison not for scientific purposes but to express his own interest in art; that, and his attention to draughtsmanship, are demonstrated in this passage written in 1838, when he was nineteen and embarking on his earliest defence of artistic activity:
Let two persons go for a walk, the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane...and meet an old woman in a red cloak. There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals .The one will see a lane and trees, and come home again, having nothing to say or think about it...but what will the sketcher see?...from the most insignificant circumstances, from a bird on a railing, a bridge over a stream, a broken branch, a child in a pinafore, or a waggoner in a frock, does the artist derive amusement and speculation. [1.28]
But as Ruskin’s social concerns develop, we can trace how the purely aesthetic interpretation of these passages develops. By 1850 he was deeply involved in promoting the importance of art to an industrialised society that gave the workman no outlet for his creative impulses, a view famously expressed in the chapter of The Stones of Venice (1850) titled “On the Nature of Gothic” (7.374-78). By the 1850s Ruskin was teaching drawing at the Working Men’s College in London. A listener recorded his words in a lecture, as, explaining to his audience how they could enrich their visual experience even in the ugliness of an urban setting, he used again the comparison between two reactions to the same scene:
Now remember that I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see. Two men are walking through Clare Market – one of them comes out at the other end not a bit wiser than he went in; the other notices a bit of parsley hanging over the edge of a butter-woman’s basket, and carries away with him images of beauty, which in the course of his daily work he incorporates with it for many a day. I want you to see things like this. [15.xx]
Ruskin did not, however, agree with technological expansions of visual power, firmly believing in the unaided powers of sight, which he called “the Aspects of things” (5.387). Citing “Eyes, and No Eyes”, he suggests in 1875 that “if it were written now it would be called Microscopes and no Microscopes” (26.114).His deprecation of microscopes can be linked with his disapproval of the introduction of vivisection in Oxford, which prompted his decision to resign as Slade Professor in 1885. Thus, until late in his life Ruskin referred to this section of Evenings in contexts that go far beyond the responses of his contemporaries; as he wrote, he “would be sorry to forget” this one of the book’s “well-written lessons” (26.4).
Other “well-written lessons” in Evenings at Home Ruskin continued to regard seriously, long after childhood, as his criticism of his society developed. While he came to believe that the eighteenth century’s technological innovations led to the destructive materialism of the nineteenth century and he even criticized “Mrs Barbauld, Miss Edgeworth, Adam Smith, and Co.” (34.314). for promoting those innovations, even in this he may have been remembering Barbauld’s dialogue “On Manufactures.” He singles out the invention of gunpowder as evidence of modern technological vanity and, in a note, quotes from the section in Evenings titled “The Ship”, which describes gunpowder as one of the greatest inventions of modern times. Gunpowder seemed to Ruskin to exemplify “all modern conceit and error respecting manufacture and industry, as rivals to Art and Genius” (34.314n).56 In these words he seems to recall the distinction Barbauld makes in “On Manufactures” between the man who mechanically manufactures and the artist who makes pictures, described as an “effort of genius” which “no one who has not his ideas” can do.57
Ruskin goes on to deliver his greatest praise for Evenings as a whole, writing that he considered it and Edgeworth’s Harry and Lucy “works of real genius, and prophetic of things that have yet to be learned and fulfilled” and regrets that “in the substance of what they wisely said,” they had not “been more listened to” (31.4n). He especially admired Barbauld’s dialogue “Things by their Right Names”. To Ruskin there appeared an inconsistency between “The Ship” and “Things”, for he was unaware of the attribution of the first to Aikin and the second to Barbauld; but, as Michelle Levy notes, the same characters appear in both sections, complicating Lucy Aikin’s attributions and suggesting the closeness of Barbauld’s and Aikin’s collaboration.59 What appeared contradictory to Ruskin is the result of his jaundiced view of progress in the later nineteenth century, a view not so apparent in Barbauld’s era.
“Things” can be placed in the company of Barbauld’s discourse Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation, written in 1793, the same wartime decade as Evenings. Both the dialogue in Evenings and passages in the discourse have the same aim: to get both the child reader and the adult to understand the need to “translate this word war into language more intelligible to us. When we pay our army and navy estimates, let us set down so much for killing, so much for maiming, so much for making widows and orphans...” (SPP 312).
More specifically, in the dialogue Charles asks his father for a “pretty” story about a “bloody murder”, which turns out to be a shocking description of a real battle. To read the whole interaction gives an opportunity to see an extensive example of how Barbauld’s “chit-chat” technique encourages the child to re-evaluate the use of language:
CHARLES. Papa you grow very lazy. Last winter you used to tell us stories, and now you never tell us any; and we are all got round the fire quite ready to hear you. Pray dear Papa, let us have a very pretty one.
FATHER. With all my heart-What shall it be?
CHARLES. A bloody murder, papa!
FATHER. A bloody murder! Well then-Once upon a time, some men dressed all alike....
CHARLES. With black crapes over their faces.
FATHER. No; they had steel caps on :-having crossed a dark heath, wound cautiously along the skirts of a deep forest....
CHARLES. They were ill looking fellows, I dare say.
FATHER. I cannot say so; on the contrary, they were tall personable men as most one can see:-leaving on their right hand an old ruined tower on the hill...
CHARLES. At midnight, just as the clock struck twelve ; was it not, papa?
FATHER. No; it was on a fine balmy summer’s morning;-they moved forwards, one behind another....
CHARLES. As still as death, creeping along under the hedges.
FATHER. On the contrary-they walked remarkably upright ; and so far from endeavouring to be hushed and still, they made a loud noise as they came along , with several sorts of instruments.
CHARLES. But they would be found out immediately.
FATHER. They did not seem to wish to conceal themselves: on the contrary, they gloried in what they were about.-They moved forwards, I say, to a large plain, where stood a neat pretty village, which they set on fire.
CHARLES. Set a village on fire, wicked wretches!
FATHER. And while it was burning, they murdered twenty thousand men .
CHARLES. O fie! Papa! You don’t intend I should believe this ; I thought all along you were making up a tale, as you often do; but you shall not catch me this time. What! They lay still, I suppose, and let these fellows cut their throats!
FATHER. No, truly, they resisted as long as they could.
CHARLES. How should these men kill twenty thousand people, pray?
FATHER. Why not? The murderers were thirty thousand.
CHARLES. O, now I have found you out! You mean a BATTLE.
FATHER. Indeed I do. I do not know any murders half so bloody. [SPP 291-92]
It is significant that it is left to the boy, not the adult, to make the connection between murder and battle: “O, now I have found you out! You mean a battle...”
It is surely noteworthy that Ruskin, so late in life, singled out this dialogue for special praise. Its method of playful yet deeply serious analysis of the meaning of words became one of his own favourite ways of combating the language of conventional religion and political economy, as he evolved from an art critic to a critic of society. He could have found the same technique at work in other dialogues by Barbauld in Evenings (1814 ed), including “On Manufactures”, which emphasises how “a great deal of the delicacy of language depends upon an accurate knowledge of the specific meanings of single terms...” (2.105). “A Lesson in the Art of Distinguishing”, also by Barbauld, is about the difference between describing a horse and defining it and closes with these words: “Remember ...that nothing is more useful than to learn to form ideas with precision, and to express them with accuracy; I have not given you a definition to teach you what a horse is, but to teach you how to think (2.140).
Other sections by Aikin question what is really meant by words like ‘hero’ or ‘conqueror’ and, such sections together form a characteristic strand that contributes to the radical learning experience offered by the entire book. The authors’ joint concern with the true meanings of words chimed with, or awakened, interest in young Ruskin, who recalled in his autobiography how he “always had a way of thinking with [himself] what words meant” (27.68). The ground was thus laid in childhood for his growing interest in etymology and for his associated belief in the importance of close reading of texts, as demonstrated in his writing of the 1860s, when he turned to criticise society as well as art. The best known passages relating to this conviction can be found in his lecture on books and reading, later published as part of Sesame and Lilies, titled “Of Kings’ Treasuries.” There he urges his reader to “…get into the habit of looking intensely at words, and assuring yourself of their meaning…” He writes of the “masked” nature of words, which are “droning and skulking about us in Europe just now”, spreading “deformation” instead of “information”, teaching “catechisms and phrases at school instead of human meanings.” These are words “which nobody understands, but which everybody uses, and most people will also fight for, live for, or even die for, fancying they mean this or that...” (18.64-66). Such passages link Ruskin with Barbauld and her brother in their equal awareness of the necessity, in Michelle Levy’s words, of “demystifying” the “reality behind names.”66
By 1876 Ruskin continues to believe that “the first education of a man is to use his language accurately” and that even clergymen “have so long been in the habit of using pretty words without ever troubling themselves to understand them...” He grew to believe that the reformation of language could not be separated from the reform of society, and that “the study and art of words” had “the intensity of a moral purpose” (29.569; 28.566, 17.399). It is in his writing about economics that Ruskin shows himself particularly indebted to the example of Evenings at Home, in its interrogation of the meanings of “economic metaphors” like “ cost” and “price” in relation to war (135) Ruskin questions in books like Unto This Last (Levy 1860) SPP and Munera Pulveris (1863) the true meaning of the economists’ use of words like ‘value’ and ‘wealth’ in an industrial society, where productivity has bought such misery to the producers and where prosperity is narrowly and selfishly defined, without comprehending the true nature of a nation’s wellbeing. Thus, he draws a semantic distinction between political economy, which he defines as contributing to the “riches and well-being” of the “polis”, understood as the state, and “mercantile economy”, which is wholly concerned with “ merces” or “pay” and getting rich, and which depends on power over the “labour of others”.69 Just as Barbauld and her brother were contending with the vocabulary of jingoism in the wartime world of the 1790s, so was Ruskin looking critically at the language of utilitarianism. Substituting for its slogan concerning the greatest happiness of the greatest number, which was, he believed, interpreted to mean the ownership of the largest number of material things70, he produced his own definition: “There is no wealth but life...that country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings...” (17.105).
Although it is doubtful if Ruskin would have known Barbauld’s essay Thoughts On the Inequality of Conditions (c.1800), he would have found an anticipation of his own convictions in its insights into the relationship between “the prodigious accumulation of wealth” which “generates power”, confined to one section of the community and which takes from workers “the natural reward of their labour” (SPP 3). William McCarthy has noted how much, in an essay like this, Barbauld forecasts later ideas, and Ruskin should be added to those names that developed the same line of thought (387).
It was in the late 1850s and during the 1860s that Ruskin was able to put into practice with an actual child audience his ideas about education and the importance of defining words. His book Ethics of the Dust (1866), written for school girls, can be seen as his most direct tribute, after the childhood continuations of Edgeworth, to his “calf milk” of books; most particularly it recalls in its form and content Evenings at Home. Uniquely among his writings, it is shaped in the form of a quasi-dramatic series of ten dialogues, ostensibly to instruct the girls about mineralogy, though it moves, as Sarah Atwood points out, “seamlessly”>70 from scientific information about crystal formation to allegory and moral questions (109). Thomas Carlyle, who was almost the only complimentary contemporary reader, described how it “twisted geology into morality, theology... mythology” and made “fiery cuts at political economy” (quoted Atwood, 103-104). It has been regarded as without parallel even in a writing career like Ruskin’s, which defied so many categories.76
Recent responses to Ethics have, however, enabled it to be seen not as an eccentric aberration but as sharing many of Ruskin’s deepest concerns at this time. It can now be placed alongside the two essays, “Of Kings’ Treasuries” and “Of Queens’ Gardens”, which were collectively entitled Sesame and Lilies (1865) and were also concerned with education. Both books have now been related to Ruskin’s later plans for the schools of his projected ideal community, the Guild of St. George, which appeared in the series of letters known as Fors Clavigera, written intermittently from 1871 to 1884. The pupils for whom Ethics was written attended a progressive girls’ school in Cheshire, Winnington Hall, founded by the formidable Miss Margaret Bell, who could also be seen as another of those figures of female authority, like his mother and Barbauld, who influenced his life. Ruskin’s visits to the school over several years must have prompted consideration both of contemporary theories about education and of his own, very different, early learning experiences. Ethics of the Dust, which developed from the drawing lessons he started giving at the school and soon extended to lessons on science and religion, thus, again, reflecting his “interwoven mind” and creating the unique nature of the book. Between visits he corresponded with the girls, and his letters, not published until 1969, revealed the special kind of interactive pedagogical methods that Ruskin shared with books like Evenings at Home and which, have again, only recently been appreciated.77
The outcome of the correspondence and conversations may have prompted the dialogue form of Ethics of the Dust. The form allowed Ruskin to take the child and the adult’s parts in a combination that enabled him to relive his own childhood and his subsequent adult role as “an old lecturer”, as he calls himself in the book. Plato has usually been cited as the source of this form, but we recall that Ruskin remembered “those amiable dialogues” from his earliest reading. Greg Myers is the only commentator on Ruskin to have appreciated the link between the dialogue form of Ethics and the books of his childhood, like Evenings; Myers notes that, in the book, Ruskin was reviving in the 1860s “an already old–fashioned form” which had been popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Myers empasizes Edgeworth’s Harry and Lucy, mentioning Evenings only in passing and without seeing it as a pioneer in its field which inspired the Edgeworths or being aware of the extent of Ruskin’s tributes to Evenings.77 Since Myers’s article, new readings of Ethics have rehabilitated its importance for Ruskin’s ideas about education, which have only recently been more sympathetically regarded.79
But none of these recent readings have pursued the link between Ethics and Ruskin’s “calf- milk” of books, such as Evenings. In his first lecture, “The Valley of Diamonds”, Ruskin seems to be directly recalling an early piece from the first volume of Evenings, “Travellers Wonders”. In both passages Sinbad’s adventures in the “Valley of Diamonds” from the Arabian Nights are cited, and both lead to a contrast between its fantasy and real experience. In Evenings, Captain Compass’s children have been “vastly entertained” whilst he was “abroad” by Sinbad’s adventures. The captain answers Little Jack, who hopes for a story like this because “I think ...you must have met with things as wonderful”, by saying he never saw the “black loadstone mountain, or the valley of diamonds.” He proceeds to tell them about apparently exotic people and places and only at the end does the girl Betsey, like Charles in “Things”, cry “I have found you out. You have been telling us of our own country...all this while.” The adult’s role, here as elsewhere in the book, is to “make you sensible that we daily call a great many things by their names, without ever enquiring into their nature so that…it is only their names and not the things themselves” (1.22-32) that the children know.
Ruskin, following the same pattern, begins Ethics of the Dust by asking Isabel and Florrie what “make believe” they have been enjoying that afternoon, and is told that “we were lost in the ‘Valley of Diamonds’.” This prompts him to question them about their fantasy voyage. He leads them into an extended moral allegorical world, where diamonds are viewed as fatal traps. Like Betsey in Evenings, Ruskin gives another girl, Sibyl, a response to the hidden message in the fantasy with a similar insight: “I think we understand it now...” Like Captain Compass, Ruskin brings his listeners back to reality by showing them the “great ugly brown stone” in which lie buried “the fatal jewels”, thus initiating their mineralogical lessons. The mingling of science, allegory and moral distinctions continue throughout the rest of Ethics, recalling the miscellaneous mingling of similar forms throughout Evenings. Of particular note are the allegorical visions of a female saint, like St. Barbara, and female pagan deities, such as Athena, also pictured as Neith, an Egyptian goddess. Ruskin makes these figures into central images of authority, especially apt for his female pupils and, we might think, also for a book that is his tribute to the woman writer who gave him his earliest lessons.81
As in the correspondence in the Winnington letters, Ruskin’s aim through the dialogic method is to develop the girls’ mental independence, so that they will not get into “false states of feeling” by using “words without a clear meaning”, in the spirit of Barbauld’s “Art of Distinguishing” (Winnington Letters, 179). Ethics, as radically as Evenings in its day, questions the pressing issues relevant to Ruskin’s era, particularly those related to the conventional doctrines which were uncritically accepted by, or even imposed on, the girls, such as the notion of inherent wickedness, self-denial and self-sacrifice, and what makes for virtue. In response to their frequent requests for dogmatic answers, he suggests they themselves “should be like the fireflies in the allegory he had created in the chapter on the “Valley of Diamonds’” and “find your own way in twilight by your own wits” (18.368n6).
The critic Alfred Ainger, writing in 1905, made a distinction between Evenings and Edgeworth’s stories for children (1.371). Although he praised Edgeworth’s work for its capacity to instil “moral good sense”, he reserved his greater praise for the power by which the children’s books by Barbauld and her brother stimulate the child’s “moral imagination.” Ruskin’s lifelong response to these books offers a unique testimony in support of Ainger’s belief. Describing the growth of the primrose in Proserpina (1875), Ruskin might have been recalling the effect of these books on his own adult life: “The green leaves unclose the [flower’s] points [which] grow and grow and throw themselves wider at last into their perfect rose. But they never leave their old nursery for all that; it and they live on together; and the nursery seems part of the flower” (25.261).
Last modified 29 December 2015