It is not our part to look hardly, nor to look always, to the character or the deeds of men, but to accept from all of them, and hold fast to, that which we can prove good. — Ruskin, Modern Painters II (1846)
It goes on.
As these last ages were being written, a respected Victorian scholar, discussing the subject of “toxic masculinity,” remarked that, in his judgment, John Ruskin “was guilty of the most damaging cruelty to females.” To which view, George P. Landow, having recently perused Robert Brownell’s book explaining the reasons for the Ruskins’ failed marriage, took umbrage. In a rejoinder posted on The Victorian Web, Landow provided a point-by-point summary of Brownell’s argument, an argument sustained, as we know, by an array of previously unpublished evidence wherein he demonstrates that the union collapsed not because of Ruskin’s cruelty or sexual incapacity but because of his discovery of his wife’s clandestine agreement to work in league with her father so that her family might gain access to a goodly portion of Ruskin’s father’s fortune as, simultaneously, they rose up the social ladder as a result of her marriage to a world renowned author. In which context, regarding Ruskin, Landow concluded that, while he was hardly the “perfect husband,” to propose that he was an instance of “toxic masculinity” was “absurd.”
Unfortunately, the view of Ruskin held by the Victorian scholar, the damage done by Ruskin’s uninformed detractors having been so deep and wide, remains typical. For which reason, the hope of correcting this view so that the facts we have uncovered here demonstrating his basically benign sexuality remains just that, hope—for the important reason that, as pointed out earlier, in reality, it is not Ruskin who is the issue. He is but the victim blamed, a famed personage who can be accused of having been in willful violation of one of our cherished cultural values in perpetuity, the value informing us that no one has the right to harm, for their own pleasure or self-aggrandizement, anyone who is weaker or different. It is a value so intensely accepted that it demands that those subscribing to it double the intensity of their condemnation if the violation is sexual, and treble the condemnation if the person violated is a child.
By any standard, it is a cultural belief worthy of a prominent place in the chain of values to which it is necessary to subscribe if any society wishes to regard itself as humane. Hence, despite the fact that we can now easily document that Ruskin never violated any of the values many think he violated, absolving him of the accusations will be no easy task, for (and again, as earlier noted), if he is not to serve as a quintessential symbol of sexual depravity, who can we substitute to play this important, if disagreeable, role? Fearing this return to sexual ambiguity, like the British tourists to the Ruskin Library mentioned at the outset of this essay, there is a powerful tendency to hang on to supposedly true even if that supposition proves to be untrue.
Making the task of amendment much harder is prevalent ignorance of the case itself. It is most unlikely that the opinionated scholar mentioned above has any deep knowledge of the Ruskin literature, especially as it pertains to the primary topic of these paragraphs, his sexuality. Further, it is more than likely that he has arrived at his severe verdict as a result of having been exposed to the Ruskin damning voices of others who, themselves, are unaware that persuasive evidence exists which, were it consulted, would result in much kinder views of Ruskin’s relations with the opposite sex.
Nevertheless, an effort to counter the ignorance has to be made if the highest standard of scholarship—the representation of the complete truth concerning any subject—is to be gained. Only when the larger story that accurately describes and explains Ruskin’s sexuality is told will he have a chance of regaining the place of prominence in the pantheon of Western eminents he once deservedly held. Hence, it would seem now obligatory that anyone in possession of the full complement of facts that shed light on our subject’s erotic life is required to use that knowledge, as frequently as necessary, to counter the spurious claims which are still, as the above instance shows, very much in circulation.
If he is to “have a chance of regaining the place of prominence in the pantheon of Western eminents he once deservedly held,” I just said. To some, that remark may seem fanciful, particularly in light of what is currently thought by many when remarking on Ruskin’s work and its cultural significance (in both cases, not much). Which condition brings us to another consideration—of whether there exists a second path which, if conjoined with efforts to amend the ignorance surrounding his erotic life just mentioned, might contribute to his reclamation.
We all live lives. Some are interesting, others less so. (Ruskin’s surely belongs in the first category.) In the end, however, those lives matter little. It is the work we accomplish and the legacy we leave that matter most. We are interested in Winston Churchill’s or Toni Morrison’s life stories only because of the fine reputation attending what they thought, said, did, or wrote. Biographies fill in the quotidian blanks, throw light on the little understood sources that contributed to the greatness we admire or, in the instance of diametrically opposite cases, the offences we abhor.
The greatest tragedy which has resulted from Ruskin’s plunge into infamy is that, for the last three decades his work has been almost universally neglected, discounted, or disdained, work once hailed as an expression of a level of genius rarely found. In which light, I propose that, now that we know there was nothing hypocritical or self-serving about that work, we start to read it with the care it has always merited.
Consider only a few of the hundreds of tributes his pages earned: Count Leo Tolstoy’s first—the great novelist’s assessment of the importance of Ruskin’s work as a guiding light in the world: “Ruskin,” he wrote, “is one of the most remarkable of men—not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times. He is one of those rare men who think with their hearts (‘les grandes pensées viennent du coeur’), and so he thinks and says what he has himself seen and felt, and what everyone will think and say in the future…” (V. 31: 96)
Equally laudatory, if less well-known, was James Smetham, a nineteenth century artist who, in a letter sent to a dear friend as the latter began reading Ruskin for the first time, said (315): “I quite envy you your first reading of Ruskin. Ruskin is a revelation of a new world, and it only wants the remove of a century to show him in his colossal proportions… I do esteem him one of the very noblest creatures that ever-breathed God’s vital air… I shan’t soon forget the silent farms and solitary ways where I first drank in Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice, and The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and would give a good deal to have it all over again.”
The five volumes of Modern Painters appeared between 1843 and 1859. As each was published, Ruskin’s fame as a writer of luminous eloquence and peerless interpreter of nature and art grew. Here is Charlotte Bronte’s assessment, written after she finished his second volume: “I have lately been reading Modern Painters,” she told W. S. Williams in her letter of 31 July 1848, “and I have derived from the work much genuine pleasure. Hitherto, I have only had instinct to guide me in the judging of art and the viewing of nature. I now feel as if I had been walking blindfolded. This book seems to give me eyes.” [Quoted in Smith, 2.94)
Concerning The Stones of Venice, Sir William Harcourt, former Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote the following in a letter to a friend in 1853: “Have you read the second volume of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice? If you have not, beg, borrow, or steal it! It is one of the finest things that ever was written, full of inspiring eloquence and genuine genius. It recreates Venice. And one felt, in reading it, not only as if one was there again, but…saw much more than is revealed to ordinary eyes. You will be in ecstasies at the gorgeous descriptions of St. Mark’s.” [Quoted in Gardiner]
Four decades later, in 1892, William Morris, who, after being deeply inspired by Ruskin, founded, virtually single-handedly, what we now call The Arts and Crafts Movement (a movement which, today, thrives on both sides of the Atlantic), selected “The Nature of Gothic” chapter from The Stones of Venice intending to re-publish it in an elegant edition at his Kelmscott Press. In the Preface to that version, he wrote: “To my mind, and I believe to some others…in future days [this essay of Ruskin’s] will be considered as one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the [nineteenth] century. To some of us when we first read it, now many years ago, it seemed to point out a new road on which the world should travel… For the lesson which Ruskin teaches us is that art is the expression of man’s pleasure in labor, [and] that it is possible for man to rejoice in his work… [He does not ask why] were be born to be so miserable, but, rather, why were we born to be so happy?”
Years later came Virginia Woolf’s assessment of Modern Painters as a whole (49): “after sixty years or so,” she said, “the style in which page after page of Modern Painters is written takes our breath away. We find ourselves marveling at the words, as if all the fountains of the English language have been set playing in the sunlight for our pleasure.”
Still, however acclamatory, these are but encomia, inducements, perhaps, for picking up one or another of Ruskin’s books to find and enjoy for oneself what these applauders found and enjoyed. Better incentives may be the examples which follow next, a few excerpts from the works themselves, fragments which suggest the significance of the whole.
The first is taken from Ruskin’s autobiography, Praeterita. At thirteen, he made his first trip to the Continent with his parents, wanting to see with his own eyes the sites Turner had chosen as inspiration for his breathtaking watercolors. En route, their small entourage stopped at all the great cities, Rouen, Paris, Lyons, Geneva. Of them, Ruskin loved the last best. To him, Geneva was the epitome of what a city should be: beautiful, accessible, well-planned, and quiet as its well-mannered citizens went about their daily tasks. Most of all, he adored the Rhone as it wound its way through the city after exiting the high Alps just before it began its long descent to Marseilles and the Mediterranean. One day, he walked to the river’s edge to watch it, later describing the experience as follows:
For all other rivers there is a surface, and an underneath, and a vaguely displeasing idea of the bottom. But [here in Geneva] the Rhone flows like one lambent jewel. Its surface is nowhere, its ethereal self is everywhere, the iridescent rush and translucent strength of it is blue to the shore, and radiant to the depth. Fifteen feet thick: of not flowing, but flying, water. Not water, neither: melted glacier, rather, one should call it. The force of the ice is with it, and the wreathing of the clouds, the gladness of the sky, and the continuance of Time.
Waves of clear sea are, indeed, lovely to watch, but they are always coming or gone, never in any taken shape to be seen for a second. But here the river was one mighty wave that was always itself, and every fluted swirl of it, constant as the wreathing of a shell. No wasting away of the fallen foam, no pause for gathering of power, no helpless ebb of discouraged recoil, but, alike through bright day and lulling night, the never-pausing plunge, and never-fading flash, and never-hushing whisper, and, while the sun was up, the ever-answering glow of unearthly aquamarine, ultramarine, violet-blue, gentian-blue, peacock-blue, river-of-paradise blue, glass of a painted window melted in the sun, and the witch of the Alps flinging the spun tresses of it forever from her snow.
The innocent way, too, in which the river used to stop to look into every little corner. Great torrents always seem angry, and great rivers too often sullen. But there is no anger, no disdain, in the Rhone. It seemed as if the mountain stream was in mere bliss at recovering itself again out of the lake-sleep, and raced because it rejoiced in racing, fain yet to return and stay. There were pieces of wave that danced all day…there were little streams that skipped like lambs and leaped like chamois; there were pools that shook the sunshine all through them, and were rippled in layers of overlaid ripples, like crystal sand. There were currents that twisted the light into golden braids, and inlaid the threads with turquoise enamel. There were strips of stream that had certainly above the lake been millstreams, and were looking busily for mills to turn again. There were shoots of stream that had once shot fearfully into the air, and now sprang up again laughing that they had only fallen a foot or two. And in the midst of all the gay glittering and eddied lingering, the noble bearing by of the midmost depth, so mighty, yet so terrorless and harmless, with its swallows skimming instead of petrels, and the dear old decrepit town as safe in the embracing sweep of it as if it were set in a brooch of sapphire. (LE 35.326-28)
And if, in a week still in the future, it happens that you visit Geneva and make it a point to walk to the river and read this passage, as you stand near it (as thousands, Praeterita in hand, in Ruskin’s day, did) you will find, as these words flow, that what you are reading is not merely a stunning piece of prose, but that it is also a literally accurate description of the iridescent blue-green waters beside you; find too, as this realization settles in, that, in these few sentences, Ruskin has shown you something inordinately beautiful which, previously, you had missed, has made you aware of just one of an infinitude of lovelinesses which inhere in the natural scenes that envelop us; and—most importantly—realize that he has shifted your consciousness to a higher level of appreciation, a level of enjoyment which, before, you had not been aware existed, and that, in doing so, he has made you a happier human being. No small feats these. But perhaps the best recognition is the realization that you don’t have to go to Geneva to gather this gift of the Rhone. All that is needed are some quiet moments where, as you sit and read, you allow his description to fashion the scene in your imagination.
Such passages number in the hundreds in the works. To come across them, often without warning, is like unexpectedly finding sweet waters flowing from a spring you had overlooked. The lasting exhilaration which such passages generated was what those who so vigorously applauded his writings were trying to express.
There is, however, a second side to Ruskin’s work, a side more rankling, a mode of expression which came to characterize most of the books, essays, and lectures he composed or delivered during his last working decades (1860-89), after he had absorbed a painful lesson: that those for whom he had first written, those for whom he so carefully crafted his lovely sentences, had missed their inmost purport: his hope that, after his readers had grasped the exquisite nature of the world in which they had been given the privilege of living, they would eagerly and gladly start doing the things that were most needed to preserve that world for themselves and generations yet to come. Instead, charmed by his words, after they had enthused about them and him in drawing rooms and at elegant dinners for some weeks, they placed his pages on their bookshelves, and blithely returned to what they had been doing before: exploiting the natural world and anyone within their reach, with neither qualm nor empathy, so that they could continue feeding their avarice and bottomless desire for self-promotion.
It made him furious. And so, in reaction, he determined that he was not about to let them get away with it, as the following paragraphs spoken at the conclusion of his 1884 lecture, “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” evidence. It is worth imagining his listeners on this evening as, in reality, they were: the economic, political, and intellectual elites of British society sitting before him all dressed in their finery, while, outside the hall, their 4-horse carriages, drivers, and footmen waited patiently for their exit so that their masters could be warmly carried to their even warmer beds in their elegant, commodious homes:
Blanched Sun! Blighted grass! Blinded man! If, in conclusion, you ask me for any conceivable cause or meaning of these things, I can tell you none—according to your modern beliefs. But I can tell you what meaning it would have borne to the men of old time. Remember that, for the last twenty years, England, and all foreign nations, either tempting her, or following her, have blasphemed the name of God deliberately and openly, and have done iniquity by proclamation, every man doing as much injustice to his brother as it is in his power to do. Of states in such moral gloom every seer of old predicted the physical gloom, saying: “The light shall be darkened in the heavens thereof, and the stars shall withdraw their shining.” [Isaiah 5: 30] All Greek, all Christian, all Jewish prophecy insists on the same truth through a thousand myths… [And so] I leave you to compare at leisure the physical result of your own wars and prophecies [and leave you to consider a newly risen truth]: that the Empire of England, on which formerly the sun never set, has become one on which he never rises.
What is best to be done, do you ask me? The answer is plain. Whether you can affect the signs of the sky or not, you can the signs of the times. Whether you can bring the sun back or not, you can assuredly bring back your own cheerfulness, and your own honesty. You may not be able to say to the winds, “Peace, be still,” but you can cease from the insolence of your own lips and the troubling [caused] by your own passions. [LE34.40-41]
John Ruskin. 1892 Lithograph derived from photograph in Illustrated London News.
Of the many passages in this second vein, George Bernard Shaw remarked, in a lecture given at a conference celebrating the centenary of Ruskin’s birth (1919): “If you read sociology...,” he said, “you will find that the nineteenth century poets and prophets who denounced the capitalism of their own time are much more exciting to read than the economists and writers on political science who worked out the economic theory and political requirements of socialism... Ruskin in particular leaving all the professed socialists—even Marx—miles behind in force of invective. Lenin’s criticisms of modern society seem like the platitudes of a rural dean in comparison... I have met in my lifetime some extremely revolutionary characters, and quite a large number of them, when I have asked, ‘Who put you onto this revolutionary line? Was it Karl Marx?’ Have answered, ‘No; it was Ruskin.’”
Not surprisingly, the Ruskin of 1860-89 did not win many converts. Without slacking, after he had grasped that ever-growing mountains of gold, not a measured love of life and its pleasures, was the dogged goal of most of his contemporaries, in voice, public letter, lecture, and book, he held them accountable for what he regarded as the abrogation of their God-given responsibility to ensure the welfare—the “faring-well”—of everyone who lived along with them in society. In one Fors Clavigera letter in one of his most marvelous bits of sarcastic imagery, he suggested that the monied should sport trousers outfitted with “glass pockets” so that everyone could see what was in them: LE 27.139. The same passage promised that, in a later letter, he would share an accounting of his own finances, including all of his contributions to the public good, so that his readers might see how these had been spent. The promise was fulfilled annually while the Fors series continued.
But, as far as most of his readers and audiences were concerned, these uncompromising critiques cut too close to the bone. Better, they thought, to (and did) label him as wildly eccentric or unhinged rather than acquiesce to any thought that there might be truth in his barbs.
It may well be that this second facet of Ruskin’s work will prove to be, as in his own time, a formidable barrier to his reclamation. Like the advantaged of his era, not a few of us who take our breath in the twenty-first century are well wed to the idea that life can only be well-lived when it is lived rich—and, as a result of that conviction, have dedicated our days to the accumulation of large piles of precious metals for our personal use. Also like his compatriots, we may not be especially eager to peruse pages which, with regularity, hold our well shod feet to the moral fire, even though that warming might do us—and many less fortunate others—some good. On the other hand, it may just happen that some may elect to endure the heat and, as they do so, discover that, in such social matters as well as in his extraordinary treatises informing us of the essential and life-bestowing elements that inhere in art, architecture, and nature, Ruskin was not only right, but has provided us with a series of beautifully worded blueprints which, should we decide to follow them, might very well lead us to gentler—and happier--days.
Not long ago, in an essay in The American Scholar, literary critic Phyllis Rose, well aware of and much displeased by Ruskin’s current consignment to the files of disrepute, argued that, if we eschew the reading of him, we shortchange ourselves much. She ended her remarks with the following sentences, the last of which, especially in light of the central focus of this essay, has to be seen as one of the best ever penned about our subject: “To do justice to Ruskin,” Rose wrote (95), “read him. Read Unto This Last, Fors Clavigera, Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice, The Crown of Wild Olive, the incredible ‘Prefaces’ to Sesame and Lilies and The Bible of Amiens. He’s hard going, but don’t aim at covering much at one time. Read a passage, read just a sentence before you go to sleep every night. I think you’ll find that Ruskin is very good in bed.”
Rose is right. For as soon as we read Ruskin with any care we discover not only a boundless reservoir of vital ideas (almost every page turns up one, two, or more), but realize that, throughout his thousands of pages, whether we meet him by the translucent fast-flowing Rhone or in a London lecture hall as he excoriates his contemporaries for their wanton despoiling of God’s beautiful earth and pitiless exploitation of their weaker fellows, there inheres an intensity of compassion, honesty, and true concern for the welfare of all rare beyond exceedingly—qualities which speak not only to those of us who live in the literary or sociological worlds, but to anyone still desirous of encountering paragraphs where brilliant, beautiful (and frequently blunt) words relating to life’s most essential concerns still abide, works which, when conjoined with new accounts telling of the innocuous sexual life Ruskin really lived, can play a vital role in reclaiming the once deservedly eminent reputation of a very unjustly maligned Victorian genius.
[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 17 January 2019