n recent years, the tortured, elusive personality of John Ruskin has probably attracted more attention than his works. Undergraduates may read a few of the most famous sections of The Seven Lamps of Architecture (text) or Modern Painters, if they have to; certainly only the most ardent of Ruskinians is likely to pursue the master into the chaotic writings on Greek and Egyptian mythology or the more obscure glosses on Carpaccio. Ruskin, with perhaps more reason than any other Victorian, would have been horrified at the publication of his correspondence and he was eager to be known his by public accomplishments. But even during his lifetime, the audience which responded to the accomplishments of the art critic dwindled as he turned to social reform, and his aesthetic suffered a fin de siècle reaction. The present volume of letters, superbly edited by John Lewis Bradley, is not likely to redressthe balance, for it shows Ruskin in the grip of a devastating love for Rose La Touche, a girl nearly thirty years younger than he. The affair has long been discussed, but only now is it well-documented.
Professor Bradley has patiently determined an approximate chronology (Ruskin being casual with dates), but has been compelled in some cases to accept bowdlerized transcriptions of those letters already published in the the massive Cook-Wedderburn edition of the works at the turn of the century. The great majority, however, are newly printed. As they stand in Mr. Bradley's arrangement, they form a more or less coherent narrative. In the later correspondence when the always faint possibility of marriage recedes, Ruskin turns to other concerns: the foundation of the Guild of St. George, schemes for land reclamation in the Alpine valleys, systematic careful directions to Lady Mount-Temple ("my dearest Isola") as to what she should study in Milan, Verona, and Padua. But even here his relationship with the girl appears as a subordinate but recurrent theme.
When Ruskin met her in the early 1860s, he was haunted (as throughout his life) by the disastrous marriage which had been annulled in 1854 Ruskin's mind when he writes to Lady Mount-Temple, an intelligent and philanthropic woman whom he addressesnot only as confessor but intermediary in his dealings with the girl. He sees the past as a threat to his relationship with Rose: "If [her parents]' he writes in 1866, ". . . believed one word of the one calumny abroad against me they ought neverto have let me speak to their child," and as late as 1871 he urges Lord Mount Temple to "undeceive Rose as to the points of unjust evil speaking against me." But the past is also a threat to his influenceon the public: ". . .if a on the of his The and are still in grounds impotence. charges countercharges second time an evil report goes forth about my marriage-my power of doing good by any teaching may be lost-& lost forever."
Perhaps the most shadowy figures are those of the girl's parents. It is clear that Rose herself was as unstable as Ruskin, unpredictably affectionate to him and revolted by him in turn, alternately defying and obeying her parents' injunctions, and above all morbidly religious. In the later stages of the relationship Ruskin sometimes adores her, often vilifies her; but his rapidly exhausted patience has already yielded to bitter resentment of the parents. Even granting the understandable concern of the La Touches over the passion of a man with Ruskin's clouded history, one can only explain the actions of Mrs. La Touche in particular as product of an almost desperate malevolence. There is something more than simple prudery in her allusion to the "disgusting history of [Ruskin's] past" in a letter to Lady Mount-Temple; but she went further for in 1870 she turned for evidence to Effie Millais, Ruskin's former wife who had since married the painter. Effie replied; the summary remark in her poisonous statementwas that Ruskin was "quite unnatural and in that one thing all the rest is embraced." The complications of resurrecting legal evidence on the annulment to defend himself against the parents, in addition to his usual course of lecturing and writing, brought Ruskin to a breakdown the following year. Although happiness came to him briefly when he visited Rose in 1872, the relationship speedily worsened thereafter until her death as a still-young woman in 1875.
Ruskin had once written to Lady Mount-Temple that "everyday and hour that I gain is just so much pure gain before the days of darkness." The remark was prophetic,for under repeated attacks of mental illness, his own career had only a little more than a decade to run after Rose's death. A breakdown in 1888 brought silence and final madness, though he lived until 1900. The Mount-Temples, Professor Bradley informs us, seem to have been loyal friends. At first Ruskin must have tried Isola's patience withhis pleas and his reproaches to her fornot urging his cause on Rose with more energy. But the later correspondence show the devotion and dependence of a man who (as he once told Lady Mount-Temple) wanted not love but "leave to love." Self-pity and stoicism contend, but thereare more alarming touches indicative of serious regression: letters addressed to the Mount-Temples as "Grand papa" and "Grannie" and signed "your poor little boy,"reference to dreams and serpentine visions,obsessive wordplays on Rose's name, and an inability, as in some of his later published writings, to focus on any topic for long. Yet Ruskin's voice as man and as social prophet comes through clearly in a moving letter of 1887 when he cries, "I have never yet been so hopeless of doing anything more in this wide-wasting and wasted earth unless we seize and fortify with love a new Atlantis." He had once told Isola that "the dim sight is misery-blind, one can be at rest." If Ruskin, thwarted in his search for the new Atlantis, ever found rest on a "wasted earth," it may have been in his last eleven years, but no voice reaches us then.
Poston, Lawrence. [Review of] The Letters of John Ruskin to Lord and Lady Mount-Temple. Ed. John Lewis Bradley. Athens: Ohio State University Press. Prairie Schooner (1966): 165-66.
Last modified 12 February 2018