The Ruskin Family Letters: The Correspondence of John James Ruskin, His Wife, and Their Son, John, 1801-1843. Edited by Van Akin Burd. 2 vols. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973. Pp. lviii+792; 50 illus. $35.
The Ruskins and the Grays. By Mary Lutyens. London: John Murray, 1972. Pp. xiii-t-284; 12 illus. £4. [These reviews first appeared The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 73 (1974): 135-38.
t is difficult to praise The Ruskin Family Letters too highly. Several years ago when reviewing Professor Burd’s edition of The Winnington Letters for this journal, I remarked that he had given us one of the best examples of editing Ruskin since the appearance of the Library Edition half a century before. These family letters represent an even finer accomplishment, since the same exemplary presentation now accompanies far more important materials. Until the appearance of these two volumes I had assumed that Helen Gill Viljoen knew more about the details of Ruskin’s life than anyone else, but Burd, who occasionally corrects and adds to her work, surpasses Viljoen as an authority. Any future biographer of Ruskin will depend very heavily upon both these letters and the superb editorial apparatus which accompanies them. Indeed, it is not too much to assert that a finer biography than any we now possess could be written merely by rearranging this edition’s introduction and annotation. Another way of emphasizing the importance of The Ruskin Family Letters is to point out that it makes possible for the first time much-needed studies of Praeterita—one of the greatest autobiographies in our language.
After suggesting the major implications of these materials, Burd’s introduction proceeds to trace their scholarly history and then explain his principles of editorial presentation. He has followed “the Cook and Wedderburn tradition of extensive documentation,” furnishing other students of Ruskin with a mine of rich ore to work, and at the same time he has followed John Lewis Bradley in trying to make the printed version convey as strongly as possible the effect of the original documents. Therefore, he makes very few changes of spelling, punctuation, and capitalization—all of which creates a rather raw text that usefully reminds us we have before us informal, private papers.
As the introduction explains, Ruskin himself did not make use of these letters for Praeterita, and, unfortunately, students of his life and work since then have either been unable to gain access to them or simply ignored their existence. The fascinating correspondence between John James and Margaret Ruskin provides the best portrait we have yet of his parents. One thing it reveals is that Ruskin erred when he thought that his father had chosen his wife “with the same kind of serenity and decision with which afterwards he chose his clerks.” Indeed, the elder Ruskin’s abundant romantic passion, which four decades of letters convey, rather surprisingly makes this edition of family correspondence in large part a record of his love for Margaret. These letters also have much to tell us about Ruskin’s childhood and the atmosphere in which he was raised. We receive, for example, a picture of a far happier, far more cheerful family than we do from Praeterita. Similarly, these letters make the somewhat bizarre episode of Ruskin’s Oxford career, during which his mother left London to look after him, seem both more understandable and less constraining. We see Ruskin as far more of a social success than has ever before been indicated, and we observe him making his way despite-—or perhaps because of—some eccentricity. We see, perhaps less pleasantly, his mother (who rather comically picks up undergraduate slang) acting the snob.
One of the most valuable parts of this edition appears in records of the family book purchases included in various footnotes. In addition, Burd provides several important genealogical tables, a great deal of information about various family members and friends, and an extremely detailed, useful index. Fittingly, the two volumes arc extremely well designed and handsomely printed. If this superb edition has any minor flaw it is Burd’s occasional hesitancy to cite other workers in the vineyard. Thus, he is not quite accurate when he mentions Ruskin’s “unpublished” sermon abstracts, since I published important passages from these records in a book which Burd himself reviewed most generously. Similarly, when annotating Henry Melvill, whose sermons Ruskin frequently comments upon, he fails to mention either the importance of that clergyman or recent discussion of him in relation to Ruskin. Such very minor flaws, of course, do little to lessen the great value of what is clearly one of the central works of Ruskin scholarship.
Mary Lutyens’s The Ruskins and the Grays, the third of her books to draw upon Ruskin and other family papers, suffers rather badly when compared to The Ruskin Family Letters. Whereas Burd’s volumes represent the finest scholarly editing, hers are interesting hybrids of biography and editing. Thus, although she quotes a large number of previously unpublished letters, she attempts to present neither a complete correspondence nor full annotation; at the same time, she presents such an abundance of manuscript materials that her books resemble an old Victorian “life and letters” more than they do a conventional biography. Because so much depends upon the unsupported judgments of the editor, such a method demands that one gain the confidence of the reader. Working with the history of the relations of Ruskin, Effie, and Millais, Lutyens managed to present an admirably balanced view of a complex affair. Throughout, she granted admirable sympathy to all involved and offered her own interpretations while clearly showing the possibilities of others.
For several reasons this book is less successful than her earlier ones. In the first place, both Effie in Venice and Millais and the Ruskins possessed an obvious unity, one relating the letters of Ruskin’s wife during the crucial Venetian trip, the other the story of Millais and Effie. This volume, in contrast, only begins the story, preparing, as it were, for Effie in Venice. The Ruskins and the Grays, in fact, is too grandiose a title, since the book concerns itself with the families for but a few years. Part of the problem is that this book does not demonstrate what was apparently its main point—that family pressures, particularly those caused by the elder Gray’s business difficulties, were largely responsible for the failure of Ruskin’s marriage. Such a conclusion would both make the marital difficulties seem more usual, more “normal,” and would have the convenient function of justifying the rather suspect unity of her book. Unfortunately, the evidence presented does not seem to suggest that the business problems were all that important. In fact, I was surprised to observe Ruskin and Effie doing rather well amid family pressures, and I was also surprised to learn that Effie seemed quite willing to sacrifice the interests of her family for peace in her marriage. All the evidence suggests that the business difficulties, which were transitory, were pretty much an afterthought on the part of both John James Ruskin and the various historians of this episode in Ruskin’s life.
A far more important qualification to the success of this book is the fact that Lutyens’s handling of her materials seem far less sure than it did in her earlier ones. Possibly, one draws such a conclusion because this is the first of her books to cover materials that have become accessible to other scholars. Unfortunately, when one tests the accuracy of Lutyens’s judgments against other now available evidence, the results are disheartening. Now that Van Akin Burd has published many of the materials which Lutyens also had available to her, one realizes that much of her presentation is suspect. For example, looking through the extant family letters one finds absolutely no support for Lutyens’s contention that Margaret Ruskin “was constantly looking out for signs of menial instability in her son.” Similarly, there is no evidence to suggest that Ruskin’s grandfather was “dishonest,” or that this was “the reason why John James was so insistent on paying his debts against the advice of friends.” Again, all the evidence completely contradicts her assertion that “John James does not seem to have been in love with Margaret,” nor do the facts she presents demonstrate her contention that “one thing certain is that Effie concealed nothing from Ruskin during their engagement.”
Since the libraries Lutyens cites contain the materials published by Burd, one certainly expects her to have become acquainted with them. At the very least, one expects her to distinguish between guesses and those conclusions based upon evidence. She has a most unfortunate habit of presenting completely unsupported interpretation as if it were undisputed fact. Adopting the techniques of the “new journalism,” Lutyens makes an admirable attempt to get inside the minds of her subjects. Unfortunately, she often fails to notify us when she engages in these imaginative flights, thus creating the misleading impression that she has based her conclusions on clear evidence when none in fact may exist. Furthermore, she is not particularly scrupulous about the way she presents evidence. Perhaps the worst example of this kind of failing occurs in the first chapter when she quotes at length very slanderous information about Margaret Ruskin without qualification. The Ruskin Family Letters make it abundantly clear that Mrs. Andrew Gray’s opinions and remembrances cannot be trusted, but even if Lutyens did not consult the available manuscript evidence, she should at least have indicated that her source was a clear enemy of Mrs. Ruskin. Such amateurish and even slovenly handling of evidence does little to make us trust the many conjectures which Lutyens presents as if they were facts.
I believe that she is probably accurate when she makes the following analysis of Effie’s dissatisfaction: “No doubt she believed that John’s failure to consummate the marriage meant that he did not love her, and she was suffering more from a sense of unrequited love than from sexual frustration.... A woman feels what she is expected to feel by the society in which she lives, and Effie, though really wanting to be reassured of his love, was beginning to feel that she would be satisfied if she had a baby.” Accurate a guess as this may be, the point is precisely that it is only a guess, and therefore Lutyens’s confident use of “No doubt,” “really,” and other such phrases throughout the book is not quite fair.
Nonetheless, I want to make it clear that despite such serious flaws. The Ruskins and the Grays has much to offer the student of Ruskin. It is valuable, for example, to have these additional letters from Ruskin in print, and many of Lutyens’s conjectures are interesting and occasionally convincing—just as long as one recognizes they are conjectures. In addition, the evidence she offers that Ruskin disliked children is of importance, as is her use of diaries kept by Ruskin’s servant, John Hobbs. In sum, although one must handle Lutyens’s interpretations rather gingerly, the letters she prints are quite valuable and will add to our understanding of Ruskin at a crucial period in his career.
Last modified 4 May 2019