For the last three decades, an albatross, unjustly placed there, has hung around the neck of the great Victorian genius and sage, John Ruskin, yet another recent casualty of an epoch seemingly committed to the public degradation of figures once thought to be beyond moral reproach. As in many such cases, Ruskin’s supposed offense is sexual, his accusers’ argument being that, while he fronted an image of decency throughout his life, covertly he was corrupt, someone who preyed on much weaker others—mainly young girls—so that he might sate his debased appetites.
Once such accusations were made public by a handful of inexpert “students” of his life, Ruskin’s earlier reputation as an incomparable thinker who had devoted all his days to helping others and who had penned millions of brilliant and celebrated words in that service, plummeted to depths before unimaginable. Following in the train of these denunciations came many more rebukes in more public settings (newspaper articles, book and art reviews, television series, films), all voiced by detractors who knew next to nothing about the facts of the case, many of whom seemed delighted at having learned of another previous eminent who could be regularly upbraided as a pariah and symbol of depravity. As all this transpired, whatever was left of serious interest in Ruskin’s immense body of published work evaporated, the dismissal based on a conviction that all his avowed good intentions were but a hypocritical mask worn by a closet reprobate.
Ruskin at different periods of his life. From left to right: Painting by Sir James Northcote, drawing by John Everett Millais, and a watercolor by W. G. Collingwood. The first two reproduced from the Library Edition and the the image at right courtesy of the Ruskin Museum, Coniston. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
The trouble with all these denunciations of Ruskin’s allegedly perverse erotic life is that none of them are true, as any careful examination of the plethora of surviving original documents which shed copious light on the life he actually lived demonstrates.
Making the condemnations even more reprehensible was another disturbing fact: that virtually none of the vast cache of additional biographic material just alluded to, always available to scholars, was consulted by those who had accused Ruskin of perfidious thoughts and reprehensible behaviors. In short, Ruskin’s erotic perversion is a manufacture, a reprimand created to serve the interests and reputations of a few individuals and those members of the wider public who are bent on damning anyone whom they have heard has crossed the boundaries of the culturally acceptable, however flimsy the evidence for such a traverse might be.
On all these lamentable matters, it is time to set the record straight.
The three chapters to follow do this. In the first, I systematically review the allegations of sexual degeneracy and erotic neurosis that have been leveled at Ruskin, finding all, when they are viewed in the light of an abundance of new evidence, to be wholly unsustainable. In the second chapter, I show how a pair of conspiracies conceived by those whom Ruskin had entrusted to act as judicious executors of his literary estate after his death, and whom he had instructed to tell his story without censure, resulted in a series of distorted representations of him and his emotional life which would result, as the twentieth century wore on, in the pejorative contentions rehearsed above. In the same chapter, I present, using, once again, much previously ignored evidence, a new analysis of Ruskin’s erotic life, showing how early choices he made regarding how he would comport it, all of which were designed to afford him a chance to pass through his decades without inflicting emotional (let alone physical!) harm on anyone, backfired and led, first, to suspicions of sexual peculiarity, then, later, as the existence of the conspiracies became known, to direct charges of perversity. In the last chapter, the unmerited albatross removed, I advocate a pair of approaches which, if adopted, would resuscitate the argument for Ruskin’s genius and make it tangible how that genius continues to offer great promise for assuaging many of the difficulties that continue to plague our own anxious time.
I will begin by examining the worst first: the injurious and cavalier claim that John Ruskin lusted after and desired to sexually abuse young girls.
Last modified 16 January 2019