If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. — W. I. Thomas, early twentieth-century sociologist
John Ruskin an 1879 watercolor by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, R. A. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Click on image to enlarge it.
In 1985, in the first volume of his life of Ruskin, Tim Hilton, author of general interest books on Picasso, Keats, and bicycling, was the first to expose and label a previously overlooked, downplayed, or avoided aspect of his subject’s life. Without offering either any substantial evidence or anything resembling a definition of the term, he pronounced Ruskin . . . a pedophile. Hilton told his readers that, however admirable the genius who was his book’s focus may have been in many areas of life (as teacher, brilliant critic of art and society, faithful friend), in one way he was decidedly not deserving of applause: for, when it came to matters sexual, it had to be said, and said without palliation, that John Ruskin was sexually perverse, someone who obsessed about and harbored erotic desires for young women and little girls (Early Years, 253-54).
Half a decade later, another biographer, Wolfgang Kemp, perhaps following Hilton’s lead, informed his audience that Ruskin was a “nympholeptic.” (288) The word derives from “nympholepsy,” originally indicating “an ecstasy inspired by nymphs.” Today, it more commonly refers to “a passion or desire aroused in men by young girls” (OED). (Because Kemp offers no explanation of why he chose the term and the fact that it is mentioned nowhere else in the scholarly or medical literature on sexual orientations, I do not refer to it again.)
Eleven years later Catherine Robson underscored these verdicts: “Ruskin’s,” she wrote in Men in Wonderland, “is a story of sexual irregularities”. Indeed, she said, Ruskin “was one of the two ‘notorious girl-lovers’ of the Victorian age” (the other, as her title implied, was Lewis Carroll). After quoting examples from a few Ruskin letters and a handful of his works to justify her characterization, she informed her readers that, even though some of the passages she cited refer only to Ruskin’s fascination with the beauty of young girls, there could be no mistaking their “erotic charge,” and concluded that, despite the fact that she could supply “no evidence that he sexually abused little girls” and inaccurately stating that the “dynamics of his encounters with real girls…remain essentially unknowable,” she concluded that “Ruskin, the famous Victorian sage, was also Ruskin, the infamous Victorian pedophile” (122; cf. 13, 97), a much disturbed man for whom “pre-pubescent girls” were “the most beloved objects [in his] world” (181). Evidence of Robson’s fundamental unreliability appears in that forceful “infamous”: since no Victorians ever charged Ruskin with lusting after young girls, much less of sexually abusing them, she seems to have made up out of whole cloth that reputation. More importantly, like Hilton, she provided neither a definition of nor any systematic evidence supporting her use of this most derogatory label.
Two of Ruskin’s Self-Portraits, the first reproduced in the Library Edition, the second courtesy of the Pierpont Morgan Library. Click on images to enlarge them.
Early in the 1970s, before the accusations of pedophilia arrived, Ruskin had been the exemplar used, most famously by Kate Millet (“Debate”; Sexual), as an instance non pareil of the nineteenth century belief in “dual spheres,” an ideology that championed male dominance. Men, Ruskin said in his lecture “Of Queens’ Gardens” (1864), were the gender which, by virtue of its intrinsic nature, was charged with the responsibility of culture-building—making war, governing, thinking deeply; in contrast, women, possessors of a different intrinsic nature, were more suited to home-building. It was a bifurcation, Millet and others argued which, by definition, disallowed the full development of women’s potential and humanity, forcing almost all of them into the secondary and less powerful roles of family creators and maintainers. Millet’s thesis generated many, sometimes heated, responses both in support of and in challenge to it, some focusing on whether or not Ruskin deserved the symbolic status of “intransigent gender traditionalist” he had been accorded: cf. (among others) on the support side, Lloyd; Pierce; on the revisionist side, Birch; Sonstroem; O’Gorman (“Manliness”). It is possible that this widely public argument made later proposals that Ruskin was disposed to the sexual exploitation of little girls and young women less surprising.
Irrespective of the fact that serious problems exist with the “evidence” Hilton and Robson offer for their damning characterizations of Ruskin, their accusations managed to inflict serious damage on his still estimable reputation, particularly in the popular press once their label started to appear in widely circulated media (book reviews, magazine articles). The allegation that he was sexually debased had an immediate and highly deleterious effect, unexpectedly making this once intensely applauded Victorian au currant once again by transforming him from “one of those nineteenth century British geniuses whom no one reads anymore” into what Hilton and Robson averred he was: something heinous, a pedophile. Indeed, once the word, “pedophile” was out, it spread not unlike a virulent virus, quickly assuming “pride of place” as the more sensational of the two usual denigrations of his character.
The second critique fixes on his mental illness, the argument being that the highly reported imbalances of his later years (for which there is copious evidence) were of genetic origin and tainted his life and behavior to such an extent that serious consideration of his work was not likely to be time well spent. Employing an analytical framework similar to that which will be used here — namely, a study of the core psychiatric literature on mental illnesses — I have shown (Spates, “Dark Night”) that no reliable evidence exists to support the “genetic hypothesis,” while considerable evidence does exist that supports an “environmental hypothesis,” i.e., that Ruskin’s mental illness was occasioned by the accumulating effects of a series of untoward life experiences.
In 2000, the second volume of Hilton’s biography was published, to wide notice. While the author continues to write as though Ruskin was a pedophile, he does not use the word again in his text. (I will return to this point.) But whether it was used or not was of no moment. As far as the academic community and wider public were concerned, It was as though the long-ignored, invisible elephant in Ruskin’s infrequently visited room, repugnant though that beast was, had been dragged into the truth-telling bright light at last. Indeed, so strongly has the indictment of “pedophile” become affixed to Ruskin, that almost always when he appears in print (cf. a recent biography, Ballantyne, 185) or when his name arises in conversation today, it is de rigueur to focus on—or at least reference—his sexual debasement, as the following examples show.
In his New York Times Book Review of Hilton’s second volume, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Oxford, Valentine Cunningham, chose—despite the fact that over the course of the nearly nine hundred pages that comprise Hilton’s treatise Hilton devotes fewer than a dozen pages to discussing and evidencing Ruskin’s pedophilia1.--to direct his readers’ attention thus: “[A]mong its many valuable offerings, this book [provides] an arresting record of Ruskin’s crippling obsession with little girls—at schools he endowed, in London parks, by the Italian wayside, in the studio of the illustrator Kate Greenaway,” all indices, this reviewer says, of Ruskin’s “indelible failure to get beyond a fixation with pre-pubescent girls.”
A second instance comes from a review of an exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery in which Ruskin’s aesthetic theories and profound influence on England’s greatest nineteenth century artists were emphasized (Hewison et al). Written by Adrian Searle, art critic for Britain’s Guardian Guardian newspaper, the review reads in part: “Patriarchal and patronizing as much as he was perceptive and passionate, Ruskin sticks in my craw… A good part of [this show, which aims] to rehabilitate [him, tries] to reclaim him through the understanding of his complexity, through sympathy for his upbringing, and through the breadth of his influence. It involves embracing too, Ruskin the sexual failure [and] evangelical moralist… But must we [also] embrace mad old Ruskin with his infantilist baby-talk2 and obsession for little girls?”
The passage of decades has not diminished the deprecations. Consider as an instance the following by-remark which appeared more than a decade after the two examples just cited, in the first paragraph of another Guardian article, a piece lauding Ruskin’s no-holds-barred critique of the dehumanizing effects of laissez-faire capitalism: “Scorned for years as a crank, a reactionary, and a sexual deviant,” David Barnes writes, “could it be Ruskin’s time again?”3 One Ruskin scholar, Rachel Dickinson, has summed up the situation perfectly—if poignantly: “If someone knows just one fact about Ruskin [today], it relates either to his annulled marriage or to his interest in girls.” (36)
Ruskin’s Grave in Coniston Churchyard. Photograph by the author.
To illustrate the truth of the remark consider a story: Not long ago I was in Coniston, the lovely Lake District village just three miles from Brantwood, Ruskin’s home during his final three decades. I was there to give a talk at The Ruskin Institute on the continuing significance of his Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) for modern builders. The night before the lecture, I was at one of the village pubs for dinner, a venue situated just a few feet from Ruskin’s grave in Coniston Churchyard. I struck up a conversation with a local man. When asked why I was in town I said I was to give a talk about Ruskin’s architectural theories the next day. To which news, he responded, “Well, no offense taken mind you, but I have heard that he was a very strange man, that he and his wife had no ‘relations’ (as they say!), and that he had a strong sex attraction to little girls.” I replied that, on the basis of recent research, we now knew that there were good reasons for explaining why the marriage was not consummated and that there was no evidence proving that he ever did anything shameful to little girls. My acquaintance thought about this for a moment and said: “You say you are a researcher?” I nodded my affirmation. He went on: “Well then, don’t you think it would be better if the judgment was made from the point-of-view of someone who is more objective about Ruskin?” I replied that I wasn’t sure what he meant because I had taken the considerable amount of time required to read thousands of Ruskin’s letters as well as the letters of others who might have known and commented about what he had called Ruskin’s “strangeness,” and that, as a result, I could say with confidence that what I had just said was true, adding that, because I had done this work, I thought myself pretty well-informed on these sensual subjects. “If you reject what I say because I am not objective enough,” I said, “who would be objective—yourself perhaps?” To which idea he swiftly demurred: “Oh, no,” he said, “Not me. I know nothing about it really, except what I’ve heard. But it seems to me that, if more than a few people are saying that he was odd in such ways, there must be something to it.” Hearing in his inflection that there was no likelihood of modifying his view, the remainder of our exchange focused on how lovely Coniston and its surrounding region were.
I use these examples for another reason—as emblems illustrating how allegations of Ruskin’s perversity have resulted in an all-but-universal amnesia of his once highly envious reputation as one of the nineteenth century’s greatest minds. So deep is this forgetting, it is as though, today, nothing of interest remains but his supposed erotic transgressions. The examples just related area are all drawn from the United Kingdom. But the same pejorative responses find regular voice across North America. Thus (keeping my chance meeting with the man in the Coniston pub in memory), over the course of the past three decades, it almost always happens that when I meet literary scholars or members of the public who have heard, however faintly, of Ruskin and express my abiding interest in him and speak of my great admiration for his work, the response that comes back is nearly knee-jerk in nature: “But,” these conversationalists say, shock and censure in their voices, “Wasn’t he a pedophile?” Or: “Wasn’t he impotent and horrified when he first saw his wife’s pubic hair?” Or: both. After which, the discursive door shuts (one can almost hear a mental lock sliding into place) and one is left with the uncomfortable feeling that, merely by being interested in, let alone being an enthusiast regarding, Ruskin, one must be a bit strange oneself. In other words, where once Ruskin’s name, heard, was a clarion call to thoughtful discourse on noble and vital matters, it now almost invariably signals the entry of a disgraced deviant. It is as if his deriders had just been waiting in their different locations on different continents for him to appear so that they could stalwartly express, whether in word, tone, or accusative glance, their loathing of him as the embodiment of the kind of behavior which no civilized person should ever exhibit; as, we shall later learn, they were!
What makes these accusations the more disquieting is the fact that, when the arguments and evidence offered by Robson and Hilton5 in support of the contention that Ruskin was a pedophile are examined, we find little justification given for the designation and scant evidence presented to confirm the charge—especially in Robson’s case.
For instance, although she uses the term often, nowhere does Robson provide her readers with a definition (let alone a scientific one) of pedophilia despite the fact that it is one of the crucial concepts around which her characterization revolves.6 As evidence of Ruskin’s supposed disturbance (94-97, 120-128), she references a handful of his letters in various works, such as Burd’s Winnington Letters and Sawyer (neither of whom suggest the existence of inappropriate sexuality) plus a pair of letters in the Ruskin archives (220n33). For the rest, she relies almost exclusively on textual readings of one of his small books of the 1860s, The Ethics of the Dust (a collection of allegorical afternoon teas where, in the guise of an “Old Lecturer,” Ruskin explains the deeper meanings of minerals, life, and society to a coterie of young girls at an English finishing school) and on some comments found in his autobiography, Praeterita.
Although Robson presents a plausible central argument that some young boys of Ruskin’s class were socialized into much closer identification with girls than their own sex (hence her subtitle, “The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman”), no evidence whatever is offered in support of her bizarre claim that “we have [now] learned enough to find the appearance of girls in Ruskin’s autobiography, as in his life, is no laughing matter” (96). Similarly, she presents no evidence which would justify her labeling him a “sexual adventurer,” someone whose story is one of “sexual irregularity” (97). Given the thinness of argument and paucity of evidence offered to buttress this claim of worrisome disturbance, especially when (as we shall soon see) the examples she does provide are set beside other original documents pertaining to the same events—documents which, had she consulted them, would have afforded a much more benign interpretation—what Robson provides hardly suffices for her conclusion that her subject harbored a life-long, unhealthy attraction to pre-pubescent girls!
Tim Hilton’s decision to label Ruskin a pedophile in his biography is more serious. Although his two volumes have justly received sharp criticism for his failure to consult the treasure troves of unpublished Ruskin letters and other biographic materials outside the U. K., it is in many ways one of the best, if hardly authoritative, biographies we have. Coming to grips with what he regarded as recurring evidence, particularly as it appeared in some of Ruskin’s letters and a lecture, he proclaimed that in Ruskin’s case, pedophilia was a late arriving malady, one not uncommon in men in their forties whose marriages had failed and who, as old age loomed, lived lives both lonely and isolated (Early Years: 253-4). As an instance of this determination, Hilton provides his readers with what he presumes is a pedophilic image from a lecture of the 1860s wherein Ruskin reports having suddenly come across a nearly naked poor young girl of about ten or twelve lying on a hill near Turin, Italy. That the encounter disturbed him, Ruskin freely says, but what its true meaning was, he says he is not sure (see LE 19.82-85). Notwithstanding, Hilton reports—accurately—that this image of a sensual, nymph-like girl will reappear in Ruskin’s later diaries and in a last series of lectures delivered at Oxford in 1884. In which repetitive context, it can be viewed as an emblem of his disturbance. Although pedophilia “became a part of [Ruskin’s] character only gradually,” he writes, an “attraction to young girls was in Ruskin’s sexual nature to the end of his life.”
What’s above is all that Hilton tells us about Ruskin’s malady in his first volume. (Immediately after the paragraph just summarized, he turns to a discussion of his subject’s religious convictions.) No definition of pedophilia is given, no scientific studies describing the disease are cited, his assumption apparently being (as in Robson’s case) that mere mention of the disorder is sufficient and that further elaboration is unnecessary.
In his second volume, Hilton has more—but not considerably more—to say about Ruskin’s interest in girls. It was, he writes, a focus which waxed and waned. In some places where he indicates this interest, he appears to be saying, without, as noted above, writing the word, that the examples are indices of pedophilia. Only once one in his long volume does he print the term: in the index (645). There he encloses “paedophilia” [British spelling] within quotation marks, adding the phrase, “and interest in young girls.” No explanation is given for this mode of specifying. (The first volume index does contain a reference to paedophilia.)
But, when one studies the passages listed in the index, one finds them to be an anomalous mix. While some do indeed evidence Ruskin’s interest in pre-pubescent girls, others point to an interest in older girls, while still others focus on an attraction to beautiful adult women. Making such a review, one is struck by a number of things: of how little space is given over the course of Hilton’s two volumes to the charge that his subject was sexually aberrant; by the fact that, like Robson, he never defines the malady or uses any accepted psychiatric authority to justify the labeling; and by the fact that the evidence offered in support of his determination is delimited, variant, and never systematically discussed. Moreover, and as we shall soon find, much of this evidence, given a broader knowledge of the holographic archives, can be quite differently interpreted. In sum, what Hilton offers as argument and proof of Ruskin’s sexual deviance, though somewhat more extensive than Robson’s, is just as dubious.
To put it succinctly: Both of the principal authors who have said unambiguously that Ruskin was a pedophile have built their cases on scanty evidence unsystematically collected.
Nevertheless, as we have learned, that more systematic desiderata—a scientific definition of pedophilia accompanied by a multiple examples making its presence indubitable—were lacking in such works hardly mattered. As soon as the word pedophile was uttered, the odious cat fairly leapt from its gloomy bag and Ruskin was summarily marched to that special dungeon which, in both academic and public realms, is kept at the ready for impounding the pernicious, a vault so secure that, once confined to it, escape is all but impossible, whether the prisoner now in durance is there justly or as a result of an indictment too hastily made.
Some have contended the contention. Acknowledging Ruskin’s attraction to girls, biographer John Batchelor (201) says that Ruskin “does not in fact fit the pattern” of a pedophile. But, despite the fact that, later, Batchelor cites a letter (315) which might suggest an unhealthy interest in young females, this author, apparently also assuming that we know what he means when he uses the word, does not tell us just what “the pattern” is that Ruskin fails to fit and writes no more about the condition.
More helpful is Sharon Weltman who, in the final chapter of Performing the Victorian, tackles the accusation of pedophilia head-on. Well-aware of the determinations that Ruskin was a pedophile, she argues (112), first, that such a pejorative classification can be little more than speculation because, when we consider the evidence, we find that, in Ruskin’s case, there really is no evidence, for the simple reason that “we know virtually nothing about his sex life, other than he had none.” Second, she questions the wisdom of applying such a harsh label backward in time, particularly when that distance is more than a century and a half ago, for the obvious reason that those doing the labeling cannot help but judge the presumably deficient soul from the cultural context of their own time, a practice known as “presentism.” While we, products of a cynical, sexually-obsessed, era, may be unsettled by images of someone of Ruskin’s stature gamboling about on lawns with young girls,7 Victorians weren’t: “Why aren’t such things just as they seem?” Ruskin’s contemporaries might have asked, noting our rolling eyes and censorious looks (cf. Robson: 97), to wit: innocent encounters? While we may be appalled and presume the worst when we read that, at a party (as Ruskin recalled the event in Praeterita), “the door from the nurseries opened” and Rhoda Liddell entered, “as exquisite a little spray of rhododendron ferringeum as ever sparkled in Alpine dew” (LE 35:505-6; cf. Robson 94-5), Victorian brows didn’t arch: “Why would anyone think anything perverse lurked here? In his usual clever way, Ruskin is just likening Rhonda to a beautiful flower. We have no reason to believe that he ever mistreated any girl.” The real problem, Weltman wisely reminds us, is that we moderns have been culturally conditioned to assume that, as adults, people will be “heterosexual or homosexual or, to complete the dialectic, bisexual”. What upsets us she says “is that Ruskin’s ‘love life’ does not fit any patterns we are familiar with…” (114; my italics). Consequently, to alleviate the uncomfortable feeling such observations create and simultaneously relegitimize the correctness of the sexual patterns we accept as normal, we damn the different. (I will return to this important issue in the second chapter.)
Rachel Dickinson is more direct, arguing for an alternative reading of some of the evidence Robson uses to indicate Ruskin’s sexual culpability. After reprising Weltman’s argument about the dangers of applying modern concepts like pedophilia to behaviors transpiring in a long ago epoch, she analyzes a number of remarks in Ruskin’s letters which, from Robson’s perspective, incriminate, but which, viewed from a different vantage, lose that tenor.8 In her view, what Ruskin really was seeking in the girls and young women he was attracted to was a special sort of friend (or series of same), a girl who was not yet sexually active but who was, for her age, emotionally and intellectually mature, someone lovely to look at with whom he could both have fun and be serious, someone who helped him create the innocent and sweet childhood he felt he had missed. Only girls possessing such qualities interested him. Such attractions are anything but damning, she writes: to “adore another as a reflection of one’s idealized self is not necessarily to sexualize the other.”
Still, she says, some letters do seem to indicate sexual interest. One Ruskin posted to his friend, the artist Kate Greenaway, on 6 July 1883 (cf. Batchelor: 315). One of the things that had attracted him to Greenaway’s art was her delicate drawings of children. As their friendship deepened, as had been the case with other young artists he had taken under his wing, Ruskin began to instruct Greenaway on ways to better her technique. Here he comments, first, about a drawing of a sunset she has sent, then he remarks on three drawings of “sylphs” which arrived in the same post:
I’m beginning to really have hopes of you. This terrific sunset shows [great improvement]. Now, do be a good girl for once and send me a little sunset as you know now how to do it—reversing everything you used to do.
[As to those drawings of sylphs: Since] we’ve got so far as taking off hats,9 I trust we may in time get to taking off just a little more—say, mittens—and then—perhaps—even—shoes!—and (for fairies) even—stockings—And then—
My dear Kate…it is absolutely necessary for you to be—now—sometimes, Classical.10 I [send back to] you—though heartbreakingly…one of those three sylph [drawings] this morning.
WILL you (it’s all for your own good!) make her stand up—and then draw her for me without her hat—and without her shoes (because of the heels)—and without her mittens, and without her frock and frill? And let me see exactly how tall she is—and how—round.
It will be so good of—and for—you—and to—and for—me.
On the letter, after the word “round,” Joan Severn, Ruskin’s caretaker cousin at Brantwood, intercepting the letter before it left for London, wrote in pencil: “Do nothing of the kind.” To which, Ruskin, discovering Joan’s interpolation before the letter posted, rejoined, on the reverse side: “That naughty Joan got hold of it—never mind her—you see, she doesn’t like the word ‘round’—that’s all.”
Joan Agnew Severn. by John McClelland. Half-plate glass negative, 1890s. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London NPG x12187.
Interpreting, Dickinson argues that, while it is clear that Joan objected to Ruskin’s plan for drawing Greenaway’s sylph in ever less attire, “it is not clear whether [her objection was raised] because it reflected [to her] an indecent, pornographic urge on Ruskin’s part or because [she knew that] such images excited him on a mnemonic, associational, and aesthetic level which might unsettle his mind”11—an important reminder because, during the entirety of his friendship with Greenaway (throughout the 1880s), Ruskin’s mental state was delicate and Joan was perpetually on the lookout for anything which might induce another of his attacks. Apropos Ruskin’s rejoinder, Dickinson explains that, for some time, he had been interested in girls’ waists and whether they were round or oval. “But the symbolic association of this fascination with waists,” she says, “is not necessarily sexual. Rather, the idea of waists which were allowed to be naturally ‘round’ or ‘oval’—without the unnatural constraints of corsets and stays—is representative of freedom. It is also typical of the free-flowing dresses worn by girls and boys at the time Ruskin himself was an infant.” Her point is that this letter “which may be unsettlingly suggestive when read in isolation [as we have just done!], forms part of a shared pattern”, a pattern which, she says, is essentially asexual and aesthetic, a pattern that possesses none of the “pedophilic” inclinations implied by some writers. On the basis of her thorough familiarity with this major collection of intimate letters (over 3000), Dickinson concludes: “I don’t believe that he was a pedophile in the sense that we now mean it.”
But none of the above settles the matter of Ruskin’s alleged immorality—in either direction. Dickinson points to the reason: For just what is “a pedophile in the sense that we now mean it”? None of these authors, whether making or challenging the case for Ruskin’s turpitude, tells us. All use the word, none define it, none appeals to any known clinical, medical, or psychiatric authority on the condition or tests what we know of Ruskin’s supposedly reprehensible behavior against such an authority to determine whether or not he can be said, unequivocally, to have had this less than happy orientation.
The omissions are serious, because, as we know too well from recent, terrifying headlines, pedophilia is not only a real thing in our world, it is, when practiced in its most virulent form on the innocent and vulnerable, a practice which maims its victims for life, a practice which is, from any civilized perspective, monstrous. From which viewpoint, it makes little difference whether the cases contending whether Ruskin was a pedophile or not are weak or strong. The real issue is whether he was one. Hence, there is no help for it but to embark on a careful study of the malfunction hoping that, when that effort arrives at its conclusion, we will be able to say definitively whether he was a “sexual adventurer” driven by a malicious “desire for…little girls” (Robson: 97) or that he was, when it came to matters erotic, something very much milder.
In an earlier essay (“Dark Night”), I argued that, for more than a century—to the detriment of his personal reputation and perception of the enduring relevance of his works—Ruskin’s mental illness had been misdiagnosed because not one of the many who asserted that he suffered from this or that inherited (always the claim) cerebral debility had taken the time to examine the scientific and medical literature pertinent to the disease they said he had. The problem could be solved, I said, if we did just that—turn to modern medical understandings of mental illnesses and analyze the data pertaining to the illnesses from which he was supposedly suffering. Doing this, it became possible for the first time to choose between the two contending interpretations of his turbulence: that it was an inevitable manifestation of a defective genetic trait or the outgrowth of a series of untoward life events. The evidence for the second view proving persuasive, it then became possible to isolate the historic and personal triggers which became the noxious fuels kindling his descent into ever-worsening bouts of depression—accompanied by severe psychotic episodes—from which he suffered during the last quarter century of his life.
I propose to use that same approach here, my intent being to resolve the issue of whether Ruskin’s interest in young women and girls was predatory or harmless, to determine, more specifically, (i) whether he was a pedophile or, if he did not have that most heinous of sexual afflictions, to decide (ii) if he had some other dangerous sexual infirmity or (III) sexual neurosis. While I am sensitive to the argument that we need to be wary of utilizing scientific categories that have emerged in our era to interpret behaviors which occurred in earlier cultural settings where different understandings of what constituted proper adult-child or male-female relations may have prevailed, I do not accept the proposal that we must shun all attempts at cross-era analysis because of a presumption they will be in error. The proof will be in the pudding.
The established authority in the field of abnormal sexual behavior is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition. According to DSM-5, “pedophilia” is one of a series of sexual dysfunctions belonging to a general biomedical category, “paraphilia” [from the Greek, “para” (“outside or different from the norm”), and “philia” (“love”)]. Paraphilias are defined as “any intense and persistent sexual interest, other than sexual interest in genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, physically mature, consenting human partners.”12 There are two types: “courtship disorders,” including voyeurism, exhibitionism, and frotteurism, and disorders directed at “target preferences,” including sadism, masochism, fetishism, and pedophilia. As a class, paraphilias cause “distress or impairment to the individual” and/or “personal harm, or risk of harm, to others.” To determine whether an individual is a paraphile, two criteria must be detected: Criterion I determines whether the defining characteristics of the illness are extant (e.g., an erotic focus on children or exposing one’s genitalia to youngsters), while Criterion II determines if the interest has resulted in destructive consequences (e.g., serious distress, impairment, harm). In DSM-5, “A” and “B” are the designators I label here “Criterion I” and Criterion II.” Given that similar A and B designations are used for the criteria identifying pedophilia (see next paragraph), it seemed reasonable to make the change. Legal definitions of pedophilia are considerably less detailed than the medical definition examined here. For instance, the definition given at Cornell University Law School’s website tells us that a pedophile is: “An [individual with an] abnormal obsession with children as sex objects. A person who acts upon this obsession, by molesting a child, taking explicit photographs, and performing other acts specified by law, is guilty of a crime.” Similar legal definitions exist in the UK.
The word “pedophilia” also derives from the Greek: “pedeiktos” (children), plus, as noted, “philia,” or “love.” Hence, by definition, a pedophile is someone whose sexual impulses are characterized by a powerful erotic interest in children or prepubescents. Technically, all children—i.e., those who have not begun to develop secondary sexual characteristics—are prepubescent. However, given that some pedophiles focus only on girls who are on the verge of such changes and the additional fact that DSM-5 uses both terms, I retain both designations. To determine whether someone is a pedophile, DSM-5 says that three criteria must be observed and notes that a fourth is commonly present. These are: (A) “Over a period of at least six months, he13 must have experienced recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children, generally aged 13 years or younger”; (B) “The individual has acted on these sexual urges or [the] fantasies cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty”; (C) “The individual is at least 16 years of age and at least 5 years older than the child or children” in question; and (D) the individual makes “extensive use of pornography depicting prepubescent children,” this being the “commonly observed” criterion (697-98). In short, from the viewpoint of any victim or society, anyone diagnosed as a pedophile has to be regarded as a very worrisome, frightening, and dangerous individual.14 Regarding the applicability of these criteria to Ruskin, saving one (C) for later remark, I consider them in reverse order, rehearsing the evidence which bears on the possibility of any criterion pertaining to him.
We begin with D, the criterion that notes that pedophiles typically make “extensive use of pornography depicting prepubescent children.” It can be dispensed with quickly. I am aware of no evidence indicating that Ruskin ever possessed or even knew that such depictions existed. We do know that, while an undergraduate at Oxford, he was exposed to some of his classmates’ pictures of “naked bawds” [adult women] and know further that he was repelled by the images (Burd, “Buckland”: 308-9). In short, there is no reason to think that what DSM-5 notes is the most “commonly observed” indicator of pedophilia relates to him.
Turning to Criterion B—that the suspected pedophile has acted on his urges and fantasies by making sexual contact with a prepubescent child—in the immense reservoir of epistolary material surviving, whether penned by Ruskin himself or by others who knew him well, nothing suggests that such contacts occurred. (Both Hilton and Robson acknowledge this point but, having no modern psychiatric definition to hand, do not recognize the importance of its absence for weakening their arguments.)
The closest thing we have to what might be considered “evidence” linking Ruskin to this criterion is discussed by Hilton (Later Years: 537-39). In 1886 and 1887, he hosted at his home, Brantwood, a series of Saturday classes for children, almost all of whom were girls from Coniston, a time when his hold on sanity was tenuous. (In 1886, he had experienced his fourth psychotic attack and, all who knew him well agreed, had not yet fully recovered).
While no report indicates problems attending the classes of 1886, the same is not the case for the gatherings occurring in the spring of the following year. During one, a life-long lover of dancing, Ruskin encouraged the children to do just that: dance. It was not long before, with youthful exuberance, his guests began to move from slow toward more rollicking movements, movements which some, including Joan Severn, his caretaker cousin, thought unbecoming. “Innocent in themselves,” Hilton writes in his description suggesting his subject’s interest in girls, these “romps too often excited Ruskin’s mind, especially when he was tense about other matters.” Perhaps not surprisingly, it was not long before word of the frolics and boisterousness got out and gossip about the odd behavior displayed by “funny old Mr. Ruskin” (Harker: 569)15 was being bruited about Coniston. Learning of the chatter, and already thinking that perhaps the assemblies should end, by the end of May, Joan cancelled them. Seeing nothing but enjoyment in the get-togethers, Ruskin seethed and in no uncertain terms upbraided his cousin for meddling. Subsequently, their arguments (over numerous matters), mounted to such a fever pitch that Joan, in anger and fear of what, in his unsettled mental state, her cousin might do, and her family decamped for Herne Hill, Ruskin’s childhood home in London.
But are the Saturday classes evidence of Ruskin’s erotic interest in young girls as Hilton implies? Additional evidence allows us to consider them in alternative light. First, no reports tell us that any “unbecoming behavior” beyond dancing transpired. Given the children’s ages and lack of worldly experience, it is doubtful, even in their most exuberant expressions, that there would have been anything overtly sexual about their movements. Second, not a few of Ruskin’s letters of the period report that his encounters with children gave him welcome relief from his incessant work and tenacious depression (Spates, “Dark Night: 21f.). As one piece of evidence (among others) regarding this, consider a remark in a previously unpublished letter Ruskin sent his dear friend, W. G. Collingwood. Recently, he tells “Collie” on 8 June 1886, “I am getting up a good lively relationship with lots of schoolgirls again and feel more myself than for ever so long… I’ve a nice safe ‘distraction’ in five children who open [the] gate for me at Colwith…Joseph, Annie, Charlie, Elizabeth, and Dinah, the oldest [about ten]” (Janet Gnosspelius Collection, Cardiff University). Note that this group of young friends includes two boys. For him, such encounters were a tonic salubrious and guiltless, “safe” (his word), not in the sense of protecting him from temptation, but from the ceaseless pressures of his authorial life that always heightened his mental anguish.16 Third, the classes and their meaning can be regarded from yet another viewpoint: not as events indexing an unhealthy sexual interest, but as what they were, classes, congregations with didactic intent, chances for Ruskin, ever the teacher, to provide those who came to them with information that might prove useful in later life.17
Reflecting on these classes, the author, L. (“Lizzie”) Allen Harker (560)—who, in earlier years, had been one of Ruskin’s “pets” and who now, with her husband, James Allen Harker, a professor at The Royal Agricultural College in London, were were regular visitors to Brantwood — wrote: “Every Saturday, a dozen or so of other mountain lassies, aged from ten to fifteen,18 came for a ‘lesson.’ These lessons were positively encyclopedic in their scope, ranging from the varying lengths of fir cones to the correct position on the map of ‘Riblah in the land of Hamath’19… Whether the girls understood much of the lessons…I do not know, as I have never seen any of them since. But they assuredly enjoyed themselves tremendously, and that was what he wanted… The little girls were none of them in the least afraid of him, seeming to regard him with a maternal sort of indulgence rather than awe…” This eyewitness account by an adult in attendance gives us no inkling that anything untoward occurred.
Nor, are moments misspent if, in this same context, we consider other facts. First that, as a result of Ruskin’s ongoing mental unsteadiness, Joan was for all intents the real Master of Brantwood, overseer not only of her eminent cousin’s local and national reputations, but the reputation of Brantwood itself. It would it have hardly been lost on her that any diminution in the public standing of either cousin or home would redound on herself and her family, a consummation devoutly not to be wished (cf. Dickinson: 39-40). As well, and as noted above, there is very good reason to believe that, as a result of his severe psychotic attack of the prior year, any erraticness Ruskin exhibited during the classes was a residue of that disturbance, as the following suggests.
In the calmer, more self-reflective moments that followed Joan’s departure for London, Ruskin’s contrition over his churlish behavior, behavior which seemed to create an unbridgeable chasm between them is patently on display in some pathos-laden letters he sent her. In one, posted on the 29th of June, he reports that he has called in his usual physician, George Parsons, to see if the doctor might be able to help ease his agitated state of mind. But Parsons, he says, can do nothing. The awful truth is that “no one can help me now. I have lost—what might have been twenty years of happy life with you. Oh, my Doanie…for me to inflict this!” In another letter (15 June), he tells her that she has “never…really known how [much] I loved you—and the desolation of all sweetness to me in garden or wood for want of you has been the saddest thing I have ever known in all this life.” In a third missive, sent 27 June, he laments: “Alas, my mind has come back—as the waves of the Red Sea, and [I know that] this state of things cannot last much longer: Do with me what you think best. [Signed] Your poor Donie” (Dickinson 237-8, 235, 237). “Doanie” and “Donie” were, respectively, “Joanie” and “Johnny,” the pair’s “baby talk” names for each other.
However touched Joan may been by the confessions and cries, she remained adamant that she and her cousin could live together no longer. And so, Ruskin having given her permission, she decided that it was best that he go elsewhere while she, her husband, the artist Arthur Severn, and their children moved back to Brantwood. To effect this result, at the end of August, she and Arthur drove Ruskin to Folkestone on England’s south coast, exiling him, apparently permanently, from his home. There and in nearby Sandgate he would live, alone, miserable, and often deranged, until he embarked on his last disastrous trip to the Continent the next spring. It was only after his mind collapsed for a fifth time near Venice in late 1888, and his desperation for her care became pitiable that Joan relented, went to Paris, bringing him back to Brantwood where, save for one brief outing, they would both live until his death on 20 January 1900.
In addition, convincing evidence exists suggesting that the Saturday classes were, when considered in the context of the three decades Ruskin lived at Brantwood, decidedly a-typical, especially when it came to the presence of girls and young women, some of whom stayed there for extended periods. As an instance, consider the visit in 1885 of Peggy and Rosalind Webling. Earlier that year, Ruskin, who adored the theater, happened to see the sisters, well-known child performers of the time, on stage in London. Loving their vivacity, he asked their parents, whom he knew, if they would all like to come to Brantwood. As it happened, only Peggy, then fourteen, and Rosalind, her slightly older sister, came. Thirty years later, Peggy recalled their weeks in the Lake District: “Just before I was ten years old, I first saw John Ruskin—[whom we quickly came to call] our beloved ‘Fidelity’—whose affection was perhaps the strongest influence of my youth.” The month Rosalind and I spent at Brantwood, she reported was “the most memorable…of my childhood…” Even now, she continued, there “are times when a chance word, the half-forgotten verse of a poem, a faint perfume, will bring it…back to me as if it were but yesterday”. Throughout the visit, the “companionship of the Professor [Ruskin]…gave me an abiding sense of happiness that one only knows in the deepest and best emotions of life”. She ended her recollection by describing a normal day: “It is early morning at Brantwood. The sun is gleaming on the still waters of the lake. I shake the glistening dewdrops from a handful of harebells that we have gathered for the Professor. [Together] we will row and climb today. We will rest in the soft shadows of ‘Rosalind’s Bower’ in the little wood. We will read and paint in the study. We will romp in the hay fields. We will laugh with the earnestness of youth. We will watch the darkness of night fall over the lake and shore, until the garden is a mystery of scent and silence and the wood beyond it an enchanted forest. Then we will spend the quiet evening in the restful light of candles, listening to [Mr. Ruskin read Sir Walter Scott’s] ‘The White Lady of Avenal.’ It will be a beautiful end to one of the most beautiful days of life” (43, 47, 49, 65).20
Ruskin reading Walter Scott to Joan Severn, Alexander Wedderburn (?), and Laurence Hilliard in the Dining Room at Brantwood. Arthur Severn. Watercolour. Courtesy of the Ruskin Foundation (Ruskin Library, Lancaster University).
The points to emphasize here are three. First, Webling’s description is typical of the reminiscences of the girls and young women whom Ruskin entertained at Brantwood; second, in none of the recollections do the authors (who, at the time of writing, are adults) include even the mildest of hints that their host was interested in them sexually; always when they were together the central theme of their day was sweetness and fun; third, none of those who have contended that Ruskin was sexually disturbed seems to be aware that such alternative accounts of his experiences with children and girls exist.
To conclude our discussion of Criterion B (someone who has acted on his urges and fantasies by making sexual contact with a child or prepubescent): as was the case with Criterion D, not a shred of evidence has been found that might suggest that it concerns Ruskin.
We turn to Criterion A, the index which specifies that, over a period of at least six months, the person suspected of being a pedophile must have had “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children.” While there can be no doubt that Ruskin sometimes thought about girls and young women over extended periods of time and, on occasion, mentions in letters and conversations children he has seen or been with, I am aware of none that contain evidence demonstrating that he was consumed by such fantasies, urges, or behaviors.
To which, it might be countered that pedophiles, pointedly aware that their erotic fixation on prepubescents is unacceptable in the world’s eyes, would surely make concerted efforts to hide the predilection. Why would Ruskin not have engaged in such obfuscations?
One of the lessons one learns when studying Ruskin is that, as a result of his deep internalization and acceptance of the legitimacy of The Ten Commandments as a child, he never dissembles. While he sometimes does not tell the whole truth (because he judges it will do someone harm), he never lies. Indeed, when one reads his works and letters, one is repeatedly struck by his statements that his sole intent in writing is simply to tell the truth, anything less being a betrayal of his charge to live as an ethical human being.
“A laudable position,” might come the retort. “But there is often a wide difference between what one says publicly and does privately. If we examine the second realm, we may find that less commendable thoughts swim beneath the surface.” In which light, consider:
Over the long course of his long private and public life, Ruskin wrote tens of thousands of letters. Concerning the totality, he often said that he had no objection to anyone reading any of them. As one instance, here is a comment he included in one of the public letters he addressed to the working people of Britain in 1876: “I never wrote a letter in my life which all the world are not welcome to read, if they will” (LE 28.449), a stance easy enough to take because in none of them did he think there was there anything disgraceful to find. For comparison, consider this comment in a letter sent his friend, James Smetham, in 1860: “I never wrote a private note in my life to an human being which I would not let a billsticker chalk six feet high on Hyde Park Wall, and then stand in Piccadilly and say, ‘I wrote it’” (LE 14: 462). For a similar statement written in 1887, see Mills, 77.
And so, when we read letters like the one cited earlier wherein he asks Kate Greenaway to redraw her sylph wearing, in each new rendition, fewer clothes, and find, among those thousands of other letters, nothing more titillating than this (pretty tepid stuff, especially when comparing such comments to pedophilic images in wide circulation today), we can be pretty well assured that we have read the worst, consider it all but certain that more damning evidence is not likely to exist (Dickinson: 206-7). For other letters of the time containing similar erotic references, see 203-5). In her analysis, Dickinson concludes that such expressions were not, in essence, sexual in nature, but, instead, were indices of an “aesthetic and symbolic” model of girls and young women Ruskin long cherished. When I asked Dickinson, who has studied the whole collection,if she knew if any of the thousands of still unpublished letters that Ruskin sent Joan contained sexual content more salacious than those cited here or which were included in her book, she said that she knew of none that might belong in that category (email exchange: 19 January 2018). I do wish to make it clear here, however, that I believe that such letters do express, however reservedly, sexual interest, an erotic attraction which, as will be argued, is both natural and not indicative of perversity.
Turning to his almost thirty diaries, each of which records his quotidian concerns over an extended period of time, we find the same dearth of incriminating evidence. While a few diaries have been lost (the one for 1860, for example), the holographs (all but a few are at The Ruskin Library) of those which are extant span virtually the entirety of his working life. My conclusion from reading some of them is that they contain almost no references to girls and young women and that the few references that do exist are innocuous—not quite what one might expect in personal journals never intended to see the light of day. An email exchange with David Sorensen, who, with Frances O’Gorman, is digitizing the entirety of the diaries, and who, as a result, is familiar with them all, confirms this impression. (An incomplete, and hence unreliable, version of the diaries was earlier published by Evans and Whitehouse.)
Take the “Doubting Thomas” hypothesis to its extreme. Entertain the thought that, despite a dearth of any direct evidence supporting it, our subject did in fact harbor licentious feelings for some of the female children he knew. Certainly this seems to be Hilton’s suspicion when referencing some letters Ruskin sent Joan in 1882:
We have found that, excepting a few disagreements (e.g., the Saturday classes and their subsequent falling out), Ruskin loved and trusted his cousin. As a result, he frequently included his most uncensored thoughts in the missives he sent her. In the letters referenced by Hilton, a sexual element seems present (Later Years: 436-9). Ruskin speaks of his love of girls (of various ages), of how he hopes to receive kisses (on the cheek) from them (and will be delighted if this happens), of his wish to have them around as much as possible. One letter (not cited by Hilton) seems direct enough. Composed in Florence on 6 October 1882, it begins in his “normal adult voice,” but, after a few paragraphs, switches into the baby talk mode he regularly uses with Joan: “I’m quite well,” he says, “but the ruin of the place [Florence], and partly the change in myself [a reference to his recent bouts of mental illness]—not for the good—makes me melancholy. De wee ma [“Dear Little Mother”]—me’s got to be so dedful [dreadfully] naughty—me’s doesn’t know what to do—I used to think Botticelli’s Venus [painting was] the nicest thing to see in the world but when I saw her again yesterday [at the Uffizi Gallery], I only thought that to see a real pitty [pretty] girl without any [clothes] but roses would have been so much nicer! Me’s oos poo old wick of a Di Pa.” [“I’m your poor old wicked Dear Papa”].21 However humorous and old-fashioned this description of this titillating moment might sound to our modern, heavily sexualized ears, we shall later find that such restrained comments were, in Ruskin’s mind, the only proper way to express erotic interest. For him, the politely placed roses were, simultaneously, decorous and suitable.
In a number of other letters where an erotic attraction to girls and young women seems evident, Ruskin tells Joan of the guilt he suffers for having entertained such thoughts, confesses –sounding not unlike a newly pubescent Victorian teen—that he has been terribly “naughty.” Never, however, in these letters do we find a desire for sexual encounter. In which frame, it is important to keep in mind the criterion we are considering: that a pedophile has “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children.” About this definition, three other things should be mentioned:
First, that, if Ruskin harbored such coupling thoughts, not a shred of evidence has been found to verify the suspicion. Second, that it is always the case that the “naughty” thoughts recorded in such letters—attended perhaps by some feelings of titillation—were sufficient. And so, when we read in another letter he sent Joan from Dijon on 28 August 1888 that, should she see them, she should give his “Love to all my old flames as Sedgwick,” a village in the Lake District (Dickinson: 252), we can be quite sure that such flames were, at most, embers. Third, we must always keep in mind that what a pedophile desires is to have a sexual encounter with “a prepubescent child or children.” But, as soon as we look with care, we find that the subjects of Ruskin’s fantasies are never children, but for girls who are already pubescent. Some instances: As we have found, in some letters, he comments on his attraction to Botticelli’s famous painting of Venus. But Venus, as is obvious to anyone who has seen the painting or a reproduction of it, is not a child, but, instead, is a sexually mature young woman. Consider as well that one of “girls” Hilton includes in his instancings of Ruskin’s girl fascinations is “Lockie,” a young woman the Severns hired as governess, while still another attraction—described by Mary Gladstone—is to a girl of fifteen. In other words, however sexual his fancies may have been—and it seems indubitable that some were (I return to this important point), it is a long way from such interest to the child-centered disease we call pedophilia.
Previously, following a comment by Dickinson, I said that one critical task was to define just what a pedophile was. That was done. With that definition in mind, we can now consider this question: namely that, even if it could be unequivocally demonstrated, would a sexual interest in pre-pubescent girls by older men be sufficient evidence for concluding that the person is a pedophile? There exists doubt in the psychiatric community that it would. What are we to make, asks Richard Greene, a specialist in sexual disorders, of someone “who does not act on [his] fantasies or urges with a child? Where does [the observation] leave us? In Wonderland. If a person does not act on the fantasies or urges [indicating] pedophilia, he is not a pedophile… [P]eople with these fantasies do not have a mental disease—unless that person translates thought into action.”22
Given that there is no known evidence—whether in letters, diaries, or the recollections of those who knew him well—which indicates that our subject ever approached any child with sexual contact in mind, we conclude the following relative to the possibility that Criterion A applies to Ruskin: it doesn’t.
In sum, taking into account the evidence reported here (most of it never considered by his accusers), we have learned that, when Ruskin’s interest in young females is examined relative to the scientifically determined criteria used by professionals to diagnose the existence of this dreadful disorder, pedophilia, he fails every test. We have also found that when the supposed evidence presented by Hilton and Robson, who say that he had the disease, was properly contextualized, the plausibility of their arguments vanished. Lastly, recalling DSM-5’s insistence that, to be diagnosed a pedophile, both Criterion A and B must be present, and given that the above analysis had made it clear that neither was, we conclude—his indicters in the academic and public arenas who contend the contrary notwithstanding—that John Ruskin was not a pedophile.
While the above, given the charges of pedophilia which have circled about Ruskin like a troop of avenging angels for decades, is the most important conclusion of this essay, by itself, it is insufficient to rule out other suspicions concerning his erotic abnormality, suspicions which might arrest the interests of those who, while perhaps willing to accept on the basis of evidence presented here that Ruskin was not the degenerate they imagined, might still harbor thoughts that some other erotic fault, as yet unspecified, surely accounts for his distasteful interest in young females. It is to an examination of such possibilities that we turn now.
It will be remembered that, at the outset of the previous section, we set to one side DSM-5 Criterion C, another index used to diagnose pedophilia. It states that the “individual [suspected of being a pedophile] is at least 16 years old and at least 5 years older than the child or children” he desires sexually. The reason for doing so was that, at this juncture, we could consider evidence directly bearing on this criterion, evidence which, once it is examined, will (i) demonstrate even more conclusively that Ruskin was not a pedophile, (ii) make it clear that his interest in girls and young women fits none of the known patterns of sexual fixation that rivet the attention of some men for females much younger than themselves, and (iii) lead us to an initial insight into how Ruskin carefully managed his sexual impulses so that, in their delimited expression, they would provide a modicum of pleasure without harming anyone.
Earlier I noted that, because he did not use a psychiatric definition of pedophilia, Hilton conflated the ages of the girls and young women whom he saw as evidencing Ruskin’s abnormality, including in his observations, children, girls in their early teens, and young women well into the second half of their second decade. In her pages “demonstrating” Ruskin’s pedophilia, Robson does the same, pointing to his “desire for, or admiration of, or obsession with little girls” (97) without making any distinction as to their ages. Like Hilton, she does not view age variations as significant. But such distinctions are crucial, for, when the whole class of fixations a few older men have for young females is reviewed, we find that a series of fixations exist with each aligning with a set range of years. Indeed, age preference is the fulcrum around which accurate diagnosis of these sexual fixations revolves.
A male whose primary erotic interest is in girls between 12 and 14, the years just prior to and during the onset of puberty, is a “hebephile” (“hebe-,” from the Greek, “dawn of puberty”); one whose focus is on girls in more advanced adolescence—between 15 and 16—is a “ehpebophile” (Greek: “ehpebo-,” “youth”); and, finally, one whose attraction is to young women 17 or older is a “teleiophile” (“teleio-“ Greek: “full-grown”). None of these fixations is paraphilic, meaning that their presence does not presage serious physical or emotional harm as is the case with pedophilia. Nevertheless, as obsessions, they can be severely discomfiting for those who are their objects, those who have them, and those who bear witness to their effects. The question is, how do such variant erotic age foci relate to Ruskin?
If we recall the ages of the women and girls Ruskin mentions in the letters discussed near the end of the last section, it is clear that his interests ranged over all of the just mentioned age categories. Following are additional letters evidencing this observation.
The first is a missive Ruskin posted on 1 May 1886 to Lady Jane Simon, a close friend since the 1850s.23 In a prior letter, Lady Jane must have commented on a change which had come over his close relationship with Mary Gladstone (daughter of England’s famed Prime Minister, William Gladstone), a change which followed close on the heels of Mary’s announcement, earlier that year, that she was to marry the Reverend Harry Drew. For nearly a decade, Ruskin had been in steady touch with Mary, both via letter and during numerous visits to Hawarden, the Gladstone family home in Wales. Over this time, they had become close, as their correspondence and her memoirs show.24 Despite her age—Mary was 38 when she married—Ruskin had long thought of her as one of his “pets,” a term he frequently used to describe girls and young women with whom he had developed close relationships. (I discuss this term in detail below.) As ever, even when speaking of intimate issues, our subject is forthright when he says, in reply to Lady Simon’s query:
How little you know me, after all! As if I ever cared about marriages! The moment people marry I drop them like hot coals. Go suckle your babies and don’t bother me! I just [agreed to] let Mary Gladstone write to me still on condition she never signs her married name. But I like my girls from ten to sixteen—allowing 17 or 18 as long as they’re not in love with anybody but me. I’ve got some darlings of 8—12—14—just now and my [Brantwood servant girl who lives] here—12—who fetches my wood… Also—when I come to town [London]—I’m open to anything visible in the way of Kate Vaughans or Connie Gilchrists.25 When I come to town! But you don’t know how ill I’ve been—and am. How totally what strength I have goes in setting my own [authorial] house in order—Not at all in sharing other people’s wedding arrangements! Praeterita [his autobiography] is a very grave business to me indeed—though I manage it as yet…The little girls help me—but the grave ones [do] not…”
Two of Ruskin’s very-unchildlike Pets: Left: Connie Gilchrist. Right: Kate Vaughn.
By “the grave ones,” Burd (“Sexuality”) informs us, Ruskin means the pets who, hardly surprisingly, in the course of life’s progress, marry. “As he had learned from his marriage to Effie Gray in 1848,” Burd says, “grown-up girls expect sexual consummation and suckling babies, a prospect which [he] had rejected, as a growing family would hinder his desire to travel and study art”. What he really wanted in a wife “was a companion, or as we might say, a research assistant, to help him in his work”. Indeed, Ruskin only married “to please his parents,” a reading Burd evidences by citing a letter of late 1848 where Ruskin reports to his parents that, as he and Effie crossed the Continent en route to Venice (where their marriage quickly began to founder), he had finished the research work required for one of his masterpieces, The Stones of Venice (1851-53): “Effie is sitting beside me just now,” he tells them, “writing out passages from the Proverbs for me and printing them almost that they might be legible.”
Margaret Ruskin by Sir James Northcote, RA. Right: John James Ruskin by Sir Henry Raeburn, RA. Reproduced from Library Edition. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Of note here is Ruskin’s detailing of the ages of the girls he prefers. He tells Lady Simon that they range between 8 and 18, a span that includes children, newly pubescent girls, and sexually mature young women, ages spanning all the categories of fixation mentioned earlier.
A second letter, written a dozen years before the one he sent Lady Simon, was posted to a very dear friend, his Coniston neighbor, Susanna (“Susie”) Beever. When he sent it on 10 April 1874, the love of his life, Rose La Touche, was wasting away physically and mentally in a Dublin nursing home—she would die there the following May. Their relationship always fraught, earlier in 1874, Ruskin had tried to visit Rose, hoping to heal the severed connection. She refused to see him. Knowing he could do nothing to stop her long and chosen descent, the disconsolate suitor crossed to the Continent in hopes of diverting himself from his misery. He informed Rose of the trip, mentioning that he planned to travel as far as Sicily, a part of Italy never before visited. In a prior letter which occasioned the response below, Susie, their friendship still new and perhaps hoping to help her famous friend consider the possibility that other fish swam in the sea, had asked about his pets. “My Dearest Susie,” he responded,
I have your lovely letter here. It is such a comfort—together with a nice one from Joanie… That wicked and cruel child [Rose], after sending me away without one glimpse of her, nevertheless condescend[ed] to be frightened about the banditti in Sicily!26… [Please write to me there.] It would make my Palermo mistress so jealous… Please do!
Let me see. How many [pets] have I now, after Rosie [?] There’s first Susie—and then, I think, this Palermo one, Amy, who’s really as good as gold, too; and then there’s a pretty Flora, at Woolwich—and then—I fell so terribly out of my depth the other day—with the sister of one of my pet Oxford pupils, a wild girl of the hounds, who has just insisted on going for three months into the Hospital for Invalid Children in Great Ormand St. to learn nursing, and came down to see her brother and me in such a dainty little sunny-crimped nurse’s cap and black gown sitting very neatly at the waist! And looking as demure as you please, but liking it a little I think, nevertheless, when I asked if it wasn’t too profane to admire the cap. Oh dear! If these good girls would but set themselves to be an example in their own drawing rooms when they marry, [examples] of plain dressing and charitable deed. But they all let themselves go off into the manners of Park Lane…27
It is the list of pets and their ages that arrests our attention, for, after Rose (then 24), Ruskin lists Susie, his letter’s recipient, age 64, Amy Yule of Palermo, 22, daughter of the travel writer and former administrator of India, Henry Yule, whom, in another place, he calls his beautiful “witch of Sicily” (Ruskin, Hortus: 4), Flora Louisa Shaw, 22, daughter of Major General George Shaw, and Lucy Drewitt, 23, “sister of one my Oxford pets,” and, like that sibling, a daughter of his longtime friend, physician Dawtrey Drewitt. To this list Mary Gladstone’s name should be added (26 when the letter was written). All, save Susie Beever, are in their twenties. Combining the list of pets in this letter with the list in the missive sent to Lady Simon, we find that the girls and young women whom he sees as pets range in age from 8 to 26 with an almost equal proportion in their sexually mature twenties as in the age categories where sexual development is either absent or new. Together, the letters underscore the fact that the age range of girls and young women in whom Ruskin is interested in no way conforms to the range specified in Criterion C (“children and prepubescents”) that is used to identify a pedophile (providing yet more evidence of the error of so designating him).28 Nor do these attractions fit within any of the categories of erotic fixation which some older men have for girls and younger women. To put it succinctly: not only was John Ruskin not a pedophile, he was neither a hebephile, an ehpebophile, a teleiophile, nor any combination thereof. Clearly then, considering his erotic interests, something else was going on.
To move closer to an understanding of what it might be, I pause to consider the word Ruskin uses to identify the girls and young women he calls “pets.” Heard by suspicious twenty-first century ears, not infrequently it serves—like “pedophile”—as still another index suggesting a proclivity to perversion, to what is presumed to be, in his case, a desire to seduce and exploit young females, his fame the lure. But, as we shall see, to Ruskin the word merely indicated girls and young women with whom he had learned he could be friendly, even familiar, in expression, qualities which, as he says in another letter (later quoted), he knows that the girls enjoy as much as himself. Indeed, in his era, the word, “pet,” had no connotation suggesting that anything disgraceful might be in the offing: it merely designated a relationship “specially cherished, [or, a person for whom] one has a particular fondness or weakness” [OED]. In which context, it is worth noting that he used the term hundreds of times in letters and conversation, hardly the practice one might expect if something nefarious was afoot.
By this point, it might have occurred to some of those who have contended for Ruskin’s abnormal sexual proclivities that they might have been on firmer ground had they simply said that his erotic interests (leaving out of consideration the antique Susie Beever) always specified girls and women much younger than himself as his objects, and that it was this penchant which was pathological. But, as soon as we entertain the hypothesis, a Pandora’s Box opens.
Citing considerable cross-cultural and historical data, psychiatrist Richard Greene (467-68) argues that, in many cultures, erotic attractions and sexual relations between older men and young girls are regarded not only as normal but as eminently acceptable, as witnessed by the fact that not so many decades ago in Western societies (and still in some less economically developed parts of the West), there was (is) widespread acceptance of marriages between girls just entering puberty and older men. The rationale for such unions is not difficult to discern, their social significance being greater than their erotic elements: older men often have the means to support a poor bride (and her family) which younger men do not, and older, wealthier, or renowned, men usually bring with them a significant boost in social status for both the girl and her family.
Not long ago, Allan Francis, another specialist in the study of sexual malfunctions, argued that the idea of including hebephilia in the list of sexual dysfunctions in the upcoming edition of DSM-5 was utterly wrong-headed, for the simple reason that such interests are natural. It is “no sign of mental illness,” he wrote, if older men “feel sexual attraction to pubescent youngsters”. His view prevailed: hebephilia was not listed in the “Sexual Dysfunctions” chapter of DSM-5. As an indication of the misperceptions which can arise when an erotic interest in pubescent girls is used to imply an unhealthy attraction to young women, consider now a case directly relevant to our discussion.
Zipporah. John Ruskin’s lifesize copy of the figure from a Botticelli's Temptation of Moses in the Sistine Chapel, 1874 Pencil, watercolor, and bodycolor. Courtesy of the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster (1996Po880).
Hilton, in one of the places where he provides examples he regards as indicating Ruskin’s abnormality (Later Years: 276), excerpts from a letter Ruskin sent Joan Severn in May, 1874, a missive that contains a number of remarks pointing to his subject’s erotic obsession with one of Botticelli’s paintings of Zipporah. Using an “isn’t-this-a-naughty-boy-sort-of-thing-to say!” tone Ruskin, after describing his interest in the painting in titillating terms, tells his cousin that he would very much like to see Zipporah without her clothes. If, however, one knows the painting, it is apparent, recalling Botticelli’s much more famous painting of a naked Venus, that Zipporah is a clothed version of the same woman. Further, given that the Venus image is of a woman undeniably pubescent, it is clear that Zipporah is as well, as any good reproduction shows.29 In other words, however erotic Ruskin’s feelings for the imaged Italian girl might have been, when we put them in the context of the arguments advanced by Greene and Francis, we quickly see the truth of their contentions: that such fascinations are not signals of abnormality but, instead, are indices of normal sexual attraction.
Nevertheless, reading his letter, there seems little doubt that, in this instance, Hilton is right. It is difficult not to agree with his view that Ruskin’s attraction to the Zipporah depicted in the painting is sexual, as are a few comments he makes about young females in other letters. As instances, consider some remarks he includes in a few letters he sent to another trusted confidant, Lucia Alexander, in the 1880s.
Ruskin met the Alexanders by chance in 1882. From a friend he had learned of a pair of American expatriates, a widow and her adult daughter, living near Florence’s Church of Santa Maria Novella, had been told, too, that the daughter was a consummate artist who wrote wonderful stories about the fast-fading peasant life of Italy. Visiting, he found the mother, Lucia, and her daughter, Francesca, enchanting. All that had been implied about the marvel which was Francesca’s work was true. Immediately, he bought the holograph of her large book of drawings and stories at generous price, promising to publish both; which he did, sending all the profits of Roadside Songs of Tuscany (LE 32) to Francesca. (She gave them to the poor.) As this happened, the three became fast friends, exchanging hundreds of thoughtful and loving letters. Given Ruskin’s always powerful desire to create a family for himself in his later, extremely lonely years, Lucia soon became his “Mammina” and Francesca, his “Sorella” (sister). To them, he was their “Figlio” (son) and “Fratello” (brother). No element of erotic attraction ever characterized the relationship. But so intimate did they become, not long after their letters began crossing from England to Italy, Ruskin began to tell Lucia of his pets and of his erotic attraction to some of them.
The first letter to consider is one sent from Brantwood to Florence on 1 April 1884. In it, Ruskin tells Lucia that, while his attraction to some girls and young women does contain an erotic aspect, about this, he is unapologetic. “Sweetest Mammina,” he writes—responding to a query in an earlier letter of hers where she has asked if he has other correspondents with whom he is so frank: “No, I’ve no other Mammina, no other Sorella, and it is ever so much more than I deserve to have such a two. It is true that I am not well right now, being both colded [sic] and tormented by dark weather and by calculations of what I can’t do and of what I’ve too little chance of doing if I tried—and flirting to any extent—for I can’t accept the pretense of its being the least ‘friendly’ or ‘Platonic.’ It is simply Love, within proper limits, and giving a great deal of pleasure on both sides [my emphasis]. But what I wrote [before] of my usual state of mind has been so ever since 1875…”30
Some framing will help: For their friendship, he is immensely grateful because, by this time, his intimate friends have dwindled to but a few. Given the failure of his work to accomplish the good ends intended for it, he barely deserves their friendship. He is always deeply depressed, partly by the weather, but also because, as a consequence of his fragile mental health (he experienced major breakdowns in 1878, 1880, 1882 and will again in 1886 and 1889), he is painfully aware he cannot accomplish what he feels he must in the shrinking time allotted him. He has been in this awful emotional state since 1875, when Rose died. To relieve the depression, he confesses he has done much “flirting.” There is no escaping the fact that such dallying is erotic, but about this he is unrepentant.31 She should not worry because “it is simply Love, within proper limits”.
A second letter was sent two years later, 27 February 1886. In it, Ruskin tells Lucia that this love of girls has been with him (at least) since the early 1860s, and that such relationships, whether imaginative, real, or epistolary, do him good, however blamable such things may be in God’s eyes. I have, he writes, a “continuous pleasure…in girls’ letters and books and sayings and doings—which most men haven’t in the least. What is really mean and wrong in it is a thing to be ashamed of but not to be complained of as a cross. The curious thing is that during the one time of my life when I quite conquered it—being in Savoy out of the way of girls, climbing all day, and keeping myself right-minded for Rosie’s sake—I got extremely unhappy, and lost delight in everything. I have certainly no faith or hope of ever being a ‘consistent-happy-and-healthy-man.’ It seems to me that every inconsistency and folly of youth, or any time, is punished to the end” (BPL Mss. Acc. 2400: (III), 14 a-c. Excerpt previously unpublished).
The topic of sensual attraction appears in a third letter he sent Lucia a few days after the first letter above, on 6 March 1886. In an earlier missive, Mrs. Alexander has wondered if what seems an intractable problem—the impossibility of anything serious ever developing between himself and these girls—has not, occasionally, caused harm. To which query Ruskin responds: You are quite right to bring up this matter, but the harm has always been to myself,
the lover, not the girl. Several [girls]—not in the least hurt, nor capable of being hurt—have done me much harm by their conceit, and the public never knows or hears [about the truth of our relationship from] my real friends, so that [the public] take[s] such girls reports [as true]. I have been extremely foolish in such matters. But I have never done any good girl the smallest harm to my own knowledge. And I think of all that part of my life with mere provocation, sometimes shamed at having so amused and degraded myself, [but] never with the smallest repentance. And the sins of which I do repent, bitterly and daily—misconduct to my father, cruelty to my mother, neglect of the poor, failure of direct duty—all are accurately punished, ounce by ounce, grain by grain. That which thou sowest, thou shalt reap… Ever your lovingest, Childie. [BPL Mss. Acc. 2400: (III): 19 a + b. Excerpt previously unpublished.]
Once more, some framing. Several times, Ruskin says, his relations with girls have harmed him because some, motivated by their desire for attention, have told others (who, in turn, have told still others) about the seemingly improper comments they have read in letters received from this eminent old man. Having no corrective—his friends might have countered the stories, but had he defended himself, it would have only added fuel to the fire—the public has been all too happy to accept the girls’ reports. In such relationships, he has been foolish and deserves the public censure he has received. Despite this, he repeats that he is not sorry. There are other, more important sins he has committed, and, for them, he is receiving the inevitable punishment. You reap what you sow. I love you very much, your Little (Bad) Boy.
Ruskin does not name the girls who have humiliated him. However, a letter does exist that may give a sense of what some of those who received his “suggestive” missives might have read. Before citing it, however, I wish to note that that the young woman who wrote it was not one of the girls who had “caused harm.” Like the Webling sisters whom we met earlier, Eva Layton and her sister, Constance, were fixtures in the London arts scene of the 1880s, their fame arising from their incomparable singing ability. At some point after meeting Ruskin, they became friends and many meetings followed in coming years. In one letter which Eva, then in her early twenties, sent Ruskin in the mid-1880s, she must have made a remark which he read as at least implicitly erotic. He replied: “Yes, Miss Pitcher [his nickname for her], I have known—and rather liked—some naughty girls in my time—but anything like this!!!—not yet. Henceforward, I shall always say it wasn’t the Serpent that tempted Eve [cf. “Eva”]—but Eve, him…”32
Again, contextualizing comments. While he is unabashed and forthcoming in his remarks to Mrs. Alexander about his erotic interest in the girls and young women he mentions, Ruskin never says anything which would lead us to think that any sexual contact ever occurred. Nor do we find evidence that a desire for such experience existed. Venus and Zipporah, however much they may have been erotic images for him, were, after all, only pictures—as are the dancing girls Kate Greenaway painted. The young girl of whom Mary Gladstone told him who captured his fancy for a few days, he did not know and never attempted to meet. The group of beautiful young girls he saw in Hyde Park in London (Hilton, Later Years: 437) who attracted him, he never saw again, nor did he make any attempt to. The girls whom he mentions in the letters to Mrs. Alexander are real, but he knew few of them well, nor do we sense he wishes to. The majority of the girls and young women mentioned in the letters he sent Joan over the course of a quarter century are equally phantom-like: he notices them, is excited by the noticing, reports the excitement to Joan, and then, before long, the noticed disappear. If one examines the Layton correspondence, we find the erotic comment sent to Eva an anomaly: no other comments like it are in the file. Add to this the fact that, to the end of her life, Eva delighted in telling of her and her family’s delight in their special days with Ruskin.33 As we shall see in the next section, the same pattern characterizes his correspondences with his adult women friends. Lastly, his “highly experienced” remark to Eva has to be read with a grain of salt as his sardonic phrasing suggests: there is no known evidence which would make us think that he knew any “naughty girls.” It is as if, with all his young correspondents, there exists an inferred agreement, an understanding to the effect that “what is happening here is not serious; now and then we can make sly reference to “naughty” things, but it is only in fun. Nothing serious is intended by such remarks and certainly nothing will ever come of them.”
Another example pertaining to his flirtations. Alexander Wedderburn was one of Ruskin’s devoted students at Oxford. After his graduation, they remained close, with Ruskin entrusting Wedderburn and another acolyte, W. G. Collingwood, with oversight of the publication of one of the classic works Ruskin thought all right thinking people should read, Xenophon’s The Economist. As years passed, Wedderburn assisted in other projects. For his dedication Ruskin appointed him as an executor of his Literary Estate (a fateful decision, as we shall soon learn). Throughout the 1870s and 1880s they often corresponded. In due course, Wedderburn married and sired a daughter, Dorothy Susan. In the early 1880s, he sent Ruskin her picture. Ruskin was delighted, remarking, in a return letter of 17 June 1885, how beautiful she was, adding that “I hope for lovely flirtations with her, when she’s—seventeen” (Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin: MS 3654).
The remark serves as an emblem of the “insubstantial nature” of what we have been discussing. First, it is barely conceivable that someone harboring unsavory sexual designs on a child would inform her father of that interest. Second, Ruskin has told Wedderburn that, while he would like to flirt with Dorothy, he could not even think of doing so until she has grown into her sexual maturity. Third, in all these “erotic” comments there inheres something of the fanciful, as if they only reside in Ruskin’s imagination. Fourth, never does he mention sexual encounters or imply an interest in same. In short, they are a form of erotic play voiced within the framework of a well-worked-out plan, a plan that carefully specifies how he should, indeed must, comport himself. He is allowed to say this, but never that—for that, as he told Mrs. Alexander, would be an instance of love outside “the proper limits.” With the exception of the few who, trying to impress their listeners with tales of “funny old Mr. Ruskin,” it was a framework perfectly well-understood and accepted by all the young women who became his pets.
However critical we moderns may be of such a design—as our subject was of himself for creating and indulging in it—these barely tangible “erotic moments” were salves, tonics soothing his unremitting, nearly unendurable, loneliness, and depression. From them, he could find brief distraction, could occasionally indulge in a few “saucy” (his word in some letters) remarks, and insert into his distressed days moments of pleasure that helped to keep his always-at-risk-of-sinking ship afloat. For which solace, he was eternally thankful—and unrepentant.
As another instance evidencing the balm such encounters provided, consider a story told in another letter sent to Mrs. Alexander (2 March 1886): Ruskin is in Coniston and is, as always, much depressed and tense. He has been invited to visit some local friends in their home. “Last night,” he tells his Mammina, “I had birthday tea at [a] ship carpenter’s… [H]is youngest daughter is the prettiest grown girl in the village, but she’s a little past my time—22, I fancy—or more. I didn’t ask. But I never saw a girl more prettily happy with a new dress. It was a dark brown....” [Subsequent paragraphs describe the dress; after which he concludes:] As I left “I got two kisses [on the cheek], two eggs like curds & cream, and a muffin. Ever your lovingest—Figlio.” (BPL Mss. Acc. 2400: III, 16: a-c) The ship carpenter’s daughter never returns to his missives, this brief experience of “Love, within proper limits” having proved sufficient unto the day.
Having said this, I want to dispel any thought that all or even most of Ruskin’s epistolary exchanges with girls and young women contain erotic elements. The vast majority do not. As one reads through the files preserving the letters sent his pets, one quickly finds that they bifurcate: one type includes a few letters containing a few erotic elements, while, in the other, much larger, category, such remarks never occur, as if, in Ruskin’s mind, there was a clear demarcation between the girls to whom he could express such thoughts and those for whom such intimations were inappropriate.
Lucy Drewitt, with whom he corresponded for eleven years (1876-87), was a pet in this second category. A letter sent on 26 April 1876 when Lucy was 25, explains why these chaste friendships were so important to Ruskin. It is nearly a year since Rose died and not an ounce of his crippling grief has departed. Nevertheless, he is regularly delivering his Oxford lectures, is publishing, monthly, a series of letters, Fors Clavigera, addressed to the working people of England, urging them to take the helm in saving their country; he is writing a book, Love’s Meinie, explaining the glories which are birds. In which context, sounding like a desperately lonely little boy, he tells Lucy that
It is very good and dear of you to pet me a little. I really want it terribly—ever so much more than those chaffinches [about which he is writing] or any other helpless creature you can think of. I’ve such quantities of cold & hard & horrid things to say & do and think of [a reference to his criticisms of society in Fors], that I feel like a mere dead leaf in the East Wind…but for gleams of light and breaths of summer when my girl pets send me letters. I’ve only three just now—or one and a half besides you—and I only get about a letter a month, altogether. Isn’t it woeful? Oh me, if I only could come to be petted every day. But then one wouldn’t be a martyr and a reformer and a—I really don’t know what I am, really. [PML 1770]
There is something else of note here, something which appears in other letters—a remark where Ruskin makes it clear to Lucy that she is but one in a series of similar correspondents. It is conceivable he tells her this to encourage the thought that he is a bit of a roué, possible that he may wish to spark a little jealousy. But I believe neither to be his intent. What he is saying—as he will say to all his pets at one time or another—is that there is no chance that she will become “the one,” telling her that their relationship, however wonderful and delightful it may be, is temporary. As another example, consider a letter of 8 January 1886 which he posted to Francesca Alexander. In it, he tells his beloved Sorella of three more pets whom he cherishes, each of whom is beautiful by any standard, all of whom are well-aware of his love for the others, and all of whom (as we shall see in the next chapter) have been chosen in great part because they are decidedly “off-limits”: Margaret Burne-Jones, 20; Dorrie Collingwood, 29; and Mary Gladstone, 38: the first two being married to two of his closest friends, while the last, a special pet for over a decade, is about to be married: BPL Mss. Acc. 2400: (III) 3 a-m.
It is not just an intriguing pattern, it is a pattern recurrent and long-lived which is diametrically opposed to the path implied by those who have contended that Ruskin was a sexual predator callously bent on exploiting the weak and innocent to sate his obsessions. Instead, all the evidence suggests that, throughout his adult life, Ruskin did everything he could to keep any sexual impulses he might have had at bay, while, at the same time, making sure that none of the young women with whom he became close never entertained even a thought that any erotic or permanent connection between them was possible.
To conclude this section: the literature on non-pedophilic sexual fixations advises that the critical issue is not whether sexual allure sometimes exists between older and much younger people but whether, if it does, whether it indicates, ipso facto, anything depraved or dangerous. Leaving out of consideration the few instances where terrible things have resulted from such attractions (none of which pertain to Ruskin), most professional students of the phenomenon conclude that they do not. As Weltman — employing considerable wit in a field hardly known for its merriment — has put it: if “mere attraction to a teenager were enough to label middle-aged men [sexual obsessives], a lot of men would be in trouble” (145).
Not one of the first-person accounts and the hundreds of holograph letters exchanged between Ruskin and girls and young women which I have read suggests that he ever approached any of them, at any time, with sexual mischief or gratification in mind. Nor do such materials suggest that he ever planned such advances. In contrast, we find that he is always remembered by these younger folk as a perfect gentleman, as sweet, generous, helpful, and kind. A remark in a memoir written by Violet Hunt, daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Alfred Hunt, provides an example which can serve as a motif for the whole: “When I was a little girl,” Hunt recalls, “John Ruskin took me for a long walk in the nut woods at Brantwood and, in reply to some questions of mine, told me simply, ‘Find someone you can love and trust, and then count no sacrifice too great to make in that one’s service.’”34 Indeed, no matter where one looks in the more than twenty thousand pages housed by the 39 volumes which bind his works, no matter how many of the thousands of unpublished letters one reads, it is impossible not to come to the conclusion that to do damage to or take advantage of another human being, male or female, old or young, was, from Ruskin’s first to last breath, anathema.35
Because I am desirous that this review of the sexual problems which might apply to Ruskin will be exhaustive, we turn now to consideration of a specific erotic malfunction (as opposed to a certifiable illness). The reason for doing this relates to other allegations of sexual failure or disturbance leveled against him, most importantly by those who have contended that his marriage to Effie Gray collapsed because of his inability to perform physically, an incapacity which, in its train, caused him to treat Effie harshly and disdainfully, behavior which was indicative of a powerful misogynistic streak. To frame the discussion, we begin with a list of the principal intimacies in his life (some already mentioned):
We know that, at seventeen, he fell head over heels in love with the daughter of one of his father’s partners in the sherry trade, Adèle Domecq; we know that, although he pursued her intently and wrote her many heartsick poems, the three years younger Adèle rejected him as a naïve, silly boy and that, for years, the rebuff all but crushed him, its scars still evident as he entered old age a half-century later (cf. LE 35: 178-84, 228-9). We know that, during his early twenties, he expressed mild interest in two women close to him in age, Charlotte Lockhart and Georgiana Tollemache (the latter becoming, years later, Lady Mount-Temple, one of his closest confidantes); neither of the attractions, however, ever went beyond the fantasy and gazing-from-afar stage.36 We know that, in 1848, he married Euphemia Chalmers Gray, he then 28, she 19, and that, during the six years the ill-fated union lasted, it remained unconsummated; indeed, the lack of coupling became the legal reason for the marriage’s dissolution and the instigator of the damaging (mostly to Ruskin) scandal that followed the sundering. We know that, in early 1858, Ruskin, now 39, met the much younger Rose La Touche, then 10, and that Rose, to whom he would offer marriage just days after she turned 18, was the one true love of his life; we know that, three years after receiving the proposal, in 1869, Rose refused him, as, in 1871, she would refuse a second offer; we know that the rejections, when conjoined with other stresses which had long served as barricades between them, cast him into despair; we know that when Rose died, insane, in 1875, her death was a blow from which he never recovered, her “spirit” remaining with him daily until his own end arrived early in 1900; it was as if they had been lovers in another life who, rediscovering each other in this traverse, never discovered a way to resolve the negative residues lingering from the prior passage. We know that, beginning in the 1860s and lasting into the 1880s, he had a skein of relationships, many epistolary, with girls and young women. We know that, as his life progressed, he had a series of intense friendships with adult women, many lasting decades.37 Finally, we know that, in the late 1880s, he met and had a weighty exchange of letters with Kathleen Olander, she in her early twenties as he approached seventy (Unwin); as their exchanges progressed, Ruskin, unbearably lonely and sensing that, at last, he had found an intelligent, kindred spirit who might be a helpmate during his waning years, began to entertain the idea of proposing and intimated as much in a letter; Kathleen, shaken when she gathered his meaning, dutifully reported the idea to her parents, who, having heard some of the virulent gossip which trailed Ruskin’s annulment, and had heard, as well, rumors of the troubled relationship with Rose, forbid further contact, the rejection becoming one of several untoward factors occasioning his severe mental collapse in Bassano, near Venice, in 1888.38 And that is all.
It is, as I trust readers will agree, a rather sparse and unusual list of a life’s amorous interests. Indeed, reviewing it, its idiosyncrasy becomes more striking when we realize, especially when recalling earlier suggestions that Ruskin was a sexual obsessive, that it is a list all but devoid of sexual content, if we mean by “sexual” the possibility or actuality of intimate physical relations.
The observation takes us back to DSM-5 and to a consideration of an erotic disorder that might conceivably apply to Ruskin. In its chapter on “Sexual Dysfunction” (423-50), the manual lists eight significant erotic abnormalities (all of which are much less severe than the sexual dysfunctions discussed above). Three pertain only to women (Female Orgasmic Disorder; Female Sexual Disinterest Disorder, Genito-Pelvic Disorder), while a fourth is inapplicable to Ruskin on a prima facie basis.39 The remaining dysfunctions afflict men. Of these, three describe difficulties which emerge once intimate sexual relations have commenced — “Premature Ejaculation,” “Erectile Disorder,” and “Delayed Ejaculation.” Because Ruskin never had such relations, they do not pertain.
Which leaves “Male Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder” (440-43; hereafter, MHSDD) as the only psychiatrically identified abnormality that might apply. To ascertain if it does, I employ the same diagnostic model used above to detect the presence or absence of a paraphilia. MHSDD is said to be present when three traits are found: when (A) the man in question has “persistently or recurrently deficient (or absent) sexual/erotic thoughts or fantasies and desire for sexual activity”; (B) when the “symptoms of Criterion A have persisted for a minimum duration of six months”; and (C) when the “symptoms of Criterion A cause clinically significant distress in the individual.” All three criteria must be present for the diagnosis to be secure.
Interestingly, in determining whether the dysfunction applies to Ruskin, we must turn our analytical lens around, for now we are looking for the opposite of what we were searching for before—not to find out whether he was in some way sexually obsessed, but to learn whether he had any sexual impulse worthy of the name at all. We start by considering arguments presented by Robert Brownell in his recent book examining in detail the failed Ruskin marriage.
Two Millais drawings of Effie: Left: n English Beauty in the Manner of John Leech [Effie Gray]. 1853. Courtesy of the Maas Gallery. Right: Euphemia Chalmers Gray. 1853. From The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
For decades, hundreds of pages have been written on the couple’s decision not to engage in intercourse during the six years their union lasted. All the proposals contained in these pages have been speculative and almost all argued that it was Ruskin’s sexual neurosis that occasioned the rare situation. Among the usual, sometimes lurid, conjectures are: that the groom was appalled at seeing his wife’s naked body on their wedding night, specifically by his discovery that she had pubic hair; that he was repulsed by her body odor; that he was repelled by the “fact” that she was menstruating; or that he was incapable of conjugal relations because, in his deep psyche, he was only sexually interested in girls. Together or separately these conjectures have been uncritically adopted by some in the arts and entertainment industries and, embedded in various formats, have done much to propagate the idea that Ruskin was sexually bizarre or base.40 Brownell, basing his case on critical information which eluded or was deemed not important enough to consult by earlier writers, makes it clear that no evidence worthy of the name exists to substantiate any of these suppositions (178-9; 461-72).
As an instance, consider the first suggestion, originally articulated by Mary Lutyens in 1965 (Effie: 20-1; cf. Grays: 108-9). Normally a serious scholar whose books keying on Effie’s life provided considerable new information, when Lutyens arrives at her description of the just-married couple’s first night together, finding solid evidence of these moments hard to locate, turns to little known letters and statements the pair submitted to their legal teams during the much later months when annulment was under discussion. In one, Effie confided to her father that, during that initial night, her husband had been “disgusted by my person” and, as a result, decided not to “make me his Wife,” a stance which, in retrospect, she deems, later in the letter, “villainous.” Having nothing else to go on, Lutyens speculated that such a statement could only mean that there was something deeply disturbing to Ruskin about Effie’s body. Guessing that when Effie used the word “person,” she meant her body, Lutyens (21) conjectured that there was only one particular which could account for the dismay, reporting her insight as follows: the many “female nudes [Ruskin had seen] in galleries—statues as well as pictures—were either discreetly veiled or depicted as children. For a man as sensitive as he, it may well have been a lasting shock to discover the adult reality. Had he seen other women, he would have realized that what he saw as the unattractive circumstances of Effie’s person was common to them all. In his ignorance he believed her to be uniquely disfigured.” The surmise opened the floodgates to most of the condemnations of Ruskin’s odd sexual views and proclivities that followed.41
But, Brownell reports, evidence exists that shows that Ruskin was nowhere near as naïve about the nature of adult female anatomy as Lutyens presumed (cf. Burd, Winnington Letters, 369).42 Indeed, he argues that, however much anxiety may have played a part in the couple’s disinclination to consummate their union on that first and subsequent nights,43 the real reason why Ruskin was unenthused was his now serious concern about Effie’s moral character after he learned that she was in league with her father to use the marriage as a means to advance her family’s fame and fortune.
Throughout the courtship, having no reason to think otherwise, he had presumed Effie to be ethically upright. However, a fortnight before the wedding he was presented with evidence which made it clear that this was not the case, evidence which proved that the fast-approaching union had been craftily engineered by Effie’s father, George Gray, so that he might gain access to a fair portion of the fortune John James Ruskin had amassed in his sherry business. The evidence also made it clear that Effie was well aware of such motives.
Gold-digging has been a motive, if a less than commendable one, in not a few of history’s marriages. What gave the Grays considerable impetus in their willingness to adopt the practice was the fact that Effie’s father, having over-speculated in a railway shares investment, had recently fallen in dire financial straits, straits so grim he was on the verge of losing everything, including the family home. With no other prospects of salvation, it was hardly lost on him that, if his daughter married this famous author, not only would the Grays gain considerably in status (access to “the best society” in both Scotland and England), there was the possibility that the joining would reap significant financial benefits. As indeed did happen, because, before the nuptials took place, John James, thinking his daughter-in-law-to-be should have her own monies, settled £10,000 (a very considerable amount) on her. Given that there is no reason to doubt that, later, Effie used some of the money to help her strapped family, it is understandable that Ruskin, once he found that he and his family had been duped, might have lost any interest he might have had for consummation, particularly when the exposé conflicted with one of his deepest convictions: that, whatever others did, he would never make love with a woman he did not love. “The plain truth,” Brownell writes (177), “would seem to be that John was suffering the natural reaction of a man who had discovered that he had been gulled into a marriage of convenience.”
Still, even though he was now in possession of information proving the existence of subterfuge, Ruskin refrained from cancelling the nuptials. According to Brownell, there were various reasons. First, marriage contracts of the time in England and Scotland were regarded as legal commitments in terms of rights and property; hence to precipitously cancel such a socially sanctioned melding of lives, families, and fortunes could well leave the cancelling party (in this case, Ruskin and John James — or, more accurately, John James’s estate) open to a claim of breach of contract. As well, given Ruskin’s fame, sudden termination of the proposed union would have been acutely injurious to his reputation as a figure of high moral repute. But perhaps the most important reason was that John Ruskin was very much in love with Effie Gray and, convinced that she loved him similarly, hoped that this lapse in judgement was but an isolated case of her trying to help her strapped and desperate father, not an indicator of a serious character flaw; hoped, too, that no more missteps of similar ilk would occur in the future. If such proved to be the case, it would be clear that he had acted properly by not cancelling the marriage plans, had acted like a knight errant of old, had done everything he could to save his lady and her family from ruin.
John James, however, was neither so hopeful nor so forgiving, and forthrightly told his son that he believed Effie had acted out of a fundamental mercenary interest, had done as she did because she knew that, once the marriage occurred, it would give her a claim on the Ruskin estate which could be used not only in the service of ending her family’s immediate predicament but ensure their and her material comfort for the rest of their lives.
And so it happened that, after the wedding transpired in Perth on the tenth of April, 1848—in, bizarrely, the very house where John James’s father, Ruskin’s grandfather, had killed himself years before—that Ruskin was afforded a chance to observe his wife and her behavior on a daily and hourly basis. The lesson which these observations communicated was difficult to accept; for, as first the weeks and then the months slipped past, he saw that there could be no doubt: his father had been right.
There are two points to be made here regarding whether Ruskin might be viewed as someone with MHSDD. First, Brownell points to evidence (in the form of previously overlooked letters Ruskin sent Effie before the wedding), letters which make it clear that, as he always averred, he was sexually capable and that, like most grooms on the cusp of marriage, had alloted considerable thought to the idea of intercourse. One, showing that he had every intention of consummating the marriage reads in part: “But your letter of last night,” Ruskin says, nearly four months before the vows would be exchanged, “shook all the philosopher out of me. That little undress bit [which her letter mentioned]! Ah—my sweet Lady—What naughty thoughts had I. Dare I say? I was thinking—thinking, naughty—happy thoughts—that you would soon have—someone’s arms to keep you from being cold. Pray don’t be angry with me. How could I help it? How can I? I’m thinking so just now, even!” (Brownell: 175) Such comments suggest that MHSDD Criterion A (that the person being considered has little or no sexual impulse) does not pertain.
But there is also evidence informing us that the deprivation of intercourse, once the likelihood of its occurrence was set aside, did not frustrate Ruskin, even though the couple often went to bed nude (a practice which, in itself, also suggests the implausibility of Lutyens’ pubic hair thesis). Before our wedding, Ruskin told his Proctor when annulment was under consideration, in remarks that point directly to his concern over Effie’s moral fiber, “I had become aware of points in [my wife’s] character which caused me to regard with excessive pain any idea of having children by her, and therefore, neither before nor after that period, I neither pressed nor forced consummation. But I offered it again and again, and whenever I offered it, it was refused by her.” (Brownell: 529) With which result, he said he was content, having plenty to do regarding his reading, studies, and writing; adding that he would be happy to go on loving Effie “with little mingling of desire”44—all of which suggests the inapplicability of Criterion C.
Second, as the union went on, it became clear to both that happiness would never be theirs;45 Effie’s interests lay in partaking of a vibrant social life while Ruskin’s lay in the intellectual realm; she loved socializing and, in the evenings, delighted in flirting with men at gatherings; she was happy to spend her time shopping and chatting about the day’s topical issues with friends and acquaintances; Ruskin had no interest in any of these things and, when in social settings, was perpetually uncomfortable, eager to escape or hopeful of steering the conversation toward the ultimate questions of life. In time, the antipodal interests led to distancing and acrimony, both depressors of any erotic impulses which may have lingered, as Ruskin explained to his counsel (27 April 1854): “[F]or the last half year,” he wrote, Effie “seems to have had no other end in life than the expression of her anger against me and my parents… [A]fter what has now passed, I cannot take her to be my wife or bear me children” (Brownell: 533-4).
Eventually it became obvious that, if a pathway could be found, the ill-conceived merger should end. But revoking legal unions in Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century was no light matter, the only grounds being bigamy, incest, underage marriage, contractual irregularities (none of which pertained), infidelity by the wife (men exempted for such indulgences), or an intractable inability to consummate. Given that adultery was never a possibility in Ruskin’s case and, despite the fact that Effie fell deeply in love with the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais while married to Ruskin, in hers either, the only path through the woods was to contend for the last option. After an exam showed Effie virgo intacta and “perfectly formed,”46 it seemed obvious that, if the pairing was to be dissolved, a case had to be made that the problem lay with the husband, with what had to be his “incurable impotence.”
But Ruskin would not retreat from his insistence that he was not impotent, as he stated baldly in a letter to his proctor, where he said that, if need be, he could “prove [his] virility at once” (Brownell: 534).47 Nevertheless, he decided not to contest the allegation, painfully aware that, should he do so, it would leave him with Effie and Effie with him, both wretched, the rest of their lives. Which created a conundrum: since a verdict of “incurable impotence” was the only possible ground for annulment, and since the matter would be raised in court, there was no doubting that he would be asked if the label was accurate. However, as we earlier learned, as a matter of principle Ruskin never lied. And so, to avoid the possibility that he might have to affirm his capacity, days before the fateful question emerged from some lawyer’s lips, he repaired to the Continent, citing as his reason for doing so his need to gather material for his next book (true enough). Thus, when the day arrived, the court could not call him to the stand to learn whether the assertion of impotence was true. Unable to procure a personal statement and having no written message from the accused challenging the case for impotence and, lastly, being assured that, in both regards, the defendant had ample chance to provide both, the court voided the union. The verdict, an immediate cause celebre, would sully Ruskin’s reputation for the rest of his days, undermining, as we shall soon see, his chance of marrying Rose La Touche a decade and a half later and having a similarly destructive effect on his vain hope of marrying Kathleen Olander twenty years after that—events which, when they arrived, would be emotionally devastating.
Mrs. Cowper-Temple at Broadlands by Edward Clifford. Source: Works 37.36.
But these agonizing consequences lay ahead. What we need to consider now is the possibility that Ruskin—“who never lied”—in this instance, for selfish reasons, did, by claiming a virility he did not possess. The following evidence strongly suggests he was telling the truth. The first piece is contained in a letter written in March 1868, fifteen years after the annulment, a time during which Rose, having refused his first proposal of marriage and now under pressure from both her suitor and a number of well-meaning friends to accept his second proposal, was starting to lose her mind. As her decline continued, Rose had taken to blaming Ruskin often and harshly as the font of all her troubles. So accused by his love, his distress was all but unendurable. Desperate for communion with a sympathetic soul, he again confided his inmost thoughts to his dear friend, Georgiana Cowper-Temple. I can assure you, he told her, that
I have done Rose no wrong from the hour when she entered the room a child of ten years old to this instant. I have loved--honored—cherished—trusted—forgiven—and all these limitlessly. From her, I have borne every form of insult. For her, I have been silent in pain. For her, I have labored, & wept. For her, I have died, for my heart is dead within me… [Always I have] thought of her as a woman, not a child…I thought her so pure and holy that no knowledge could stain, nor dishonor, [nor] touch her… I have never rejected her. She, without mercy—without appeal—without a moment of pause—rejected me. And [even] now—I will take her, for Wife—for Child—for Queen—for any shape of fellow-spirit that her soul can wear, if she will be loyal to me with her love.[PML MA 2250. Internal evidence suggests this dating: cf. Bradley, 138-39]
I want to focus on the last sentence, Ruskin’s remark that he will take Rose “for Wife—for Child—for Queen.” The specification “for Wife” reminds us that, as he told his Proctor, he was always willing to have intercourse with a woman he loved. Reading further, however, we find him just as glad to take Rose “for Child” or “for Queen,” both non-sexual designations, his principal concern being to be with Rose in whatever capacity she would wish. In short, although capable of sexual relations, the possibility that the option might not eventuate did not disturb him, indicating once more that he does not fit the requirements of MSHDD Criterion C.
Second, we know that, for a time in adolescence, like many before and after him, Ruskin masturbated. We know too that, at some point, he ceased the practice, telling this same friend, Georgiana Cowper-Temple, so in a letter posted later that year (2 June 1868). The occasion for his revelation was the question (which had trailed him like a malevolent specter ever since the end of his marriage) of his possible sexual deviation.
Because of rumor and innuendo and the general unwillingness of members of Victorian high society to talk openly about such things, determining the nature of Ruskin’s sexuality remained in a constant state of confusion. When it became a real possibility that he and her daughter might marry, Rose’s mother, Maria, having heard the rumors and innuendos, decided to go directly to one of the sources, writing Effie (Mrs. John Everett Millais since July, 1955) to learn her side of things. Still furious, Effie responded by denouncing her former husband as an “unnatural man.” There was, however, other reason for the ferocity: if Ruskin married Rose and the union produced children, it would be obvious that he had not been “incurably impotent” when the annulment was granted; that, in its turn, would have made the grounds for the marriage’s sundering null and void, and all the children she had had with Millais (in the end, eight), illegitimate (cf. Burd, Ruskin and Rose: 107-119; Brownell, Ch. XXIV)!
Rose La Touche by John Ruskin. 1861. Watercolor. Click on image to enlarge it.
Was Mr. Ruskin, Rose—having learned the legal grounds for his marriage’s annulment from her mother—worried in a letter to Mrs. Cowper-Temple sexually abnormal? To which question, Ruskin, having heard of it from Lady Cowper-Temple, told his friend in a return letter, that his lady love could rest assured that, whatever “Sin” he may have indulged in during his formative years, it was as “past as the night”; he was—as he had been long before meeting Rose—exactly as she wished him to be: utterly “worthy of her” (i.e., sexually innocent), adding that, “No man, living, could more purely love—more intensely honor” her. “She will find me,” he continued, “if she comes to me—all that she has thought. She will save me only from sorrow—from Sin I am saved already.”49 In other words, not only had he foresworn the practice of self-pleasuring, having done so, he never indulged in it further, confirming again his sexual capability and showing at the same time that neither MHSDD Criterion A nor Criterion C are present.
We turn to another unpublished letter, one Ruskin sent to Lucia Alexander nearly two decades after the letters posted to Mrs. Cowper-Temple. Once more, his sentences underscore his lack of concern about living a life devoid of sexual coupling (Criterion C). “Rosie did ask me if I would marry Platonically,” he told his Mammina on 8 March 1886, “and I should have been too thankful—but for the infernal public. We could have lived like brother and sister & been exquisitely happy” (BPL Mss. Acc. 2400: [III] 23a). Rose must have asked him about the possibility of a chaste marriage during the late 1860s while still deciding whether to accept his second offer. The “infernal public” remark refers to those still gossiping about his “deficient sexuality” years after the annulment. There is also his remark in a letter sent to William Cowper-Temple where Ruskin reports a conversation with his mother regarding a possible union with Rose, telling her that, to this point in his life (he was then 52), “having never touched a woman,” there was no reason to think, should he and Rose choose, that they would not have healthy offspring (Brownell, 507-08).
To all of which evidence, I add that, as far as I am aware, nowhere in the vast archival literature detailing Ruskin’s days and concerns, does there exist any indication that he was concerned about the fact that he has yet to experience sexual congress. This, coupled with his awareness that, as the years passed, it became ever more unlikely that such familiarities would ever be his, we must conclude that sexual intimacy was never very high on his list of life’s desiderata. To which we can add this observation: that, when we consider the evidence regarding Ruskin’s expression of his sexuality overall, it becomes strikingly clear that, whether we are focusing on his interest in young women or the sexual circumstances that swirled about his troubled marriage like so many hornets whose nest has been violated, he was ever in control of his erotic thoughts and behavior. We shall return to these points in Chapter Two.
We began this section trying to find out whether the disturbance known as Male Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder applied to Ruskin. We did so in the wake of allegations of sexual malfunction which argued that he was impotent and that the condition caused him to treat his wife cruelly. Examination showed that neither contention was sustainable. Specifically, regarding the charge of impotence, there is abundant evidence supporting the opposite conclusion—namely, that Ruskin was sexually capable but for reasons pertaining to his life circumstances or to deeply-held moral convictions, he chose not to have sexual relations with Effie, or after the marriage ended, with anyone else. In addition, considerable evidence shows that this lack of experience never distressed him. Regarding the attendant charge—that his inability triggered an impulse to torment his wife—the detailed and copiously supported accounts of Burd and Brownell make it clear that, whatever his inner feelings may have been, Ruskin never publicly criticized Effie (even as she was stridently denouncing him), as remarks in the following, previously unpublished, letter attest:
It is May 1854, two months before the annulment. Ruskin is writing in response to a letter that a family friend, Charles Woodd, sent to his father. Woodd has been much concerned lest the public commotion the troubled marriage has generated will negatively affect Ruskin’s work, work he greatly admires: “Dear Mr. Woodd,” Ruskin begins (John James having given him the letter believing that a response coming directly from his son would be best):
I am exceedingly touched by the kindness and deep feeling contained in your letter… I write not only to thank you, but, in some sort, to relieve you [of the discomfort] your sympathy makes you suffer. You need not be so grieved for me, for I have never known what it is to have the love of a wife. My sorrow and disappointment were gradual and therefore subdued, and all their bitterness is long past. It came in the first six months of marriage. Since that time I have been content to bear the punishment of folly in the choice of a companion, to do my duty to her as if she had been to me all that she ought to have been, and to seek for comfort in my various occupations when it was refused me by my wife. The catastrophe, however, was not to be averted by either patience or indulgence. The more I endured and the more I permitted, the less I seemed to be loved. Loved, in truth, I never had been and all my loss is [of] what I had once hoped, not of what I ever possessed. One result of my married life is alone worth much suffering. It has taught me to know the worth of true affection and true friendship. I never knew what it was to possess a father and a mother ‘til I knew what it was to be neglected and forsaken of a wife. And, in you, and in others of my friends, I find a kindness of which I never knew the value or extent…” [Bodleian Library: Ruskin: Ms. Eng. Lett. c 33, fol. 152. Hilton (Early Years, 199) cites the penultimate sentence.]
In sum: Regarding the DSM-5 Criteria which signal the presence of MHSDD: (1) we have found no evidence which would allow us to say that Criterion A (the man in question has “persistently or recurrently deficient, or absent, sexual/erotic thoughts or fantasies and desire for sexual activity”) or Criterion C (the “symptoms of Criterion A cause significant distress in the individual”) are present. Regarding Criterion B (the “symptoms of Criterion A have persisted for a minimum duration of six months”), because of the time that has elapsed, it is impossible to gather reliable data; however, given that Criterion B can only be said to be present when Criterion A is present, the point is moot. Finally, given DSM-5’s requirement that, for MHSDD to be diagnosed, all three criteria must be present, it is clear that Ruskin did not have the disorder.
Two Final Hypotheses
John Ruskin. A portrait of Ruskin by an unidentified photographer dated 1885 used as the frontispiece of LE volume 37. Click on image to enlarge it
Two additional suggestions exist which might account for Ruskin’s atypical sexual pattern. First, it has been submitted that his lack of interest in heterosexual relations might be an index of suppressed homosexual impulses. Leaving aside the now widespread conviction in the psychiatric community that homosexual interests are not abnormal (neither homosexuality nor lesbianism appear in DSM-5’s index), as far as I know, no evidence exists to sustain such a view. Everything in Ruskin’s works and letters points to an unwavering heterosexual focus.
Secondly, it has been proposed that his lack of interest in sexual relations may have been a result of an exceptionally low testosterone level.50 While gathering definitive medical data on the suggestion is impossible, study of pictures of Ruskin from the early 1880s until his death in 1900, a period during which he always wore a heavy beard, casts considerable doubt on the idea.
We undertook this analysis in order that, when it completed, we would be able to say definitively whether or not Ruskin was a pedophile and determine as well whether any credence could be given to other accusations which suggested that he was otherwise sexually maladjusted. Using the clinically accepted definition of pedophilia and testing it against a substantial body of archival material not consulted by those who claimed he had the affliction, we concluded that he was not a pedophile. Second, we analyzed the possibility that his sexual behavior might have been a manifestation of another serious sexual illness (another paraphilia). Using the clinical definitions for these dysfunctions and comparing them against still other archival materials not cited by his accusers, we found no evidence indicating that any such disorder described him. Third, we examined the claim that he was a sexual neurotic, a misogynist who treated his wife and other women ill. Consideration of yet more ignored evidence showed this claim to be unsupportable as well. Finally, we briefly considered two other hypotheses which might account for his atypical (highly delimited, carefully controlled) erotic behavior. Neither proved plausible.
Hence, we can say without qualification that no evidence substantiates the claims of a few scholars (and many less informed others) that Ruskin suffered from a frightening sexual disease or was a coldhearted sexual neurotic.
As we proceeded with these analyses, we also established that, in all the cases where Ruskin was accused of such faults, his accusers had based their accusations either on insufficient evidence or unconfirmed rumor, and can now add that in no instance did any of those who indicted him allocate sufficient time to consulting a plethora of available biographic evidence, which, had they done so, would have shown their claims to have been in error. In light of which findings, and with full sensitivity to the massive damage which has been visited on Ruskin’s reputation as a result of his branding as a disgraceful sexual deviant, it needs to be unambiguously said that such specious allegations should never have been made. Accordingly, when comparable indictments of our subject’s sexual character arise (as surely they will), whether they emerge in conversation or print, they should be immediately discredited for the hollow surmises they are. (In Chapter Three, I propose some specific strategies designed to begin the process of reclaiming Ruskin’s unjustly shattered reputation.)
Lastly: given what has been determined above, we can say that, when considered as a whole, all of the known evidence leads to the conclusion that, whatever idiosyncratic qualities his erotic expressions may have possessed, when it comes to matters of sexual capability and interest, there is every reason to conclude that John Ruskin was physically and emotionally normal.
[To access the following sections of this essay, click on any title in the Table of Contents in the Left Hand Column, or click on the “Next” box which appears at the bottom of each chapter.]
Last modified 14 March 2019