[Review of] The Brantwood Diary of John Ruskin

George P. Landow

[Originally published in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 71 (1972):

The Brantwood Diary of John Ruskin, together with Selected Related Letters and Sketches of Persons Mentioned. Edited and annotated by Helen Gill Viljoen. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971. Pp. xvii+632. $25.

When Oxford University Press was preparing to publish Ruskin's diaries some fifteen years ago, F. L. Sharp, who owned a portion of the diary Ruskin had kept at his Coniston home, refused to release this portion of the MS to the editors Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse. Viljoen's somewhat cryptic explanation in her Preface does not make it clear if Sharp denied them permission only because these journals covered the period of Ruskin's insanity or because he believed his entire collection of Ruskiniana was necessary to make them understandable; but, at any rate, when Viljoen herself came into possession of the MS on Sharp's death (which took place several years before the appearance of the relevant volume of the Oxford edition), she also seems to have withheld permission. If she did so because she believed Evans and Whitehouse incapable of adequately editing these difficult MSS, clearly she was correct. They did a disgracefully inept job of publishing these most valuable Ruskin documents, in part because they provided insufficient annotation in part because they arbitrarily divided his private writings into "notebooks" and "diaries," choosing only to publish the latter. In carrying out this bizarre editorial procedure, Evans and Whitehouse dissected individual entries, retaining Ruskin's jottings about his walks or the weather while cutting invaluable comments on his reading.

In that section of her volume devoted to the Brantwood diary, Viljoen has provided a model of how to present a difficult manuscript. But, unfortunately, even her heroic efforts cannot repair the damage done by Evans and Whitehouse, since she works only with later, generally less interesting journals, and only with those portions written at Ruskin's home in the Lake Country. The diary he kept at Brantwood from 1876 to 1881 and during part of 1883 does not have the importance or interest of the earlier diaries and notebooks -- if only because it dates from the period after he had completed almost all his major writings on art and society. Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Unto This Last, and The Queen of the Air had long since seen completion, and of all his major works only Fors Clavigera engaged him during the years of these diaries. Nonetheless, since these records have something to say about the months which precede and follow his attacks of madness, they will be important to students of Ruskin's biography. The MS demanded an editor deeply knowledgeable about Ruskin's life, and one can state without fear or contradiction that no one knows more about the details of his everyday existence than Helen Gill Viljoen.

The major problem these diaries present to the student is that, excellent for occasional passages of description, they contain little more than apparently random, disconnected jottings that served to remind Ruskin of social engagements, weather conditions, dreams, current projects, and state of health. As the editor correctly explains: "This being the nature of the diaries, to most readers (even to those who have a more or less specialized knowledge of Ruskin) the mere text of the entries cannot be particularly meaningful, however useful it may be in providing factual details. Characteristically, these entries, en masse can be likened to little more than a great heap of bare bones -- bones which need to be clothed with flesh and blood." In other words, Viljoen does not conceive her editorial task to be the presentation of a clear text with minimal annotation. Rather, quite correctly, she sees it as a more daring enterprise of imaginative reconstruction: to make these fragmentary jottings of much use to the student of Ruskin, she has had to place herself within his everyday world, something which has required an awesome expenditure of scholarly effort. Her quietly immodest claim that other Ruskinians could not make much sense of the diaries is probably accurate, for it would take the labor of a lifetime to know enough about the minute details of Ruskin's life -- and about that of his friends, and the friends of his friends -- to make her act of scholarly recovery possible.

Viljoen's procedure is to furnish a careful introduction to each year's diary, next annotate heavily at the foot of each page, and then provide long supplementary notes for the diaries of 1878 and 1883. Several themes emerge from the text and its encompassing editorial apparatus -- Ruskin's intense guilt about his treatment of his father, his dreams, his obsessions with Rose La Touche, air pollution, and the war of Good and Evil. The editorial commentary often brilliantly deciphers apparently random or nonsensical entries. Knowing that Ruskin did suffer an attack of madness in 1878, one frequently would be tempted to dismiss seemingly jumbled entries did not Viljoen so convincingly elucidate the order beneath the surface. Of course as she expertly reveals the hidden coherence in Ruskin's most bizarre entries, she produces strange, and possibly unintentional, results: for as we realize that each bit of data, no matter how mad it may first appear, has meaning and order, we increasingly find that the line between sanity and madness has blurred until, at last, it vanishes. Once one has perceived the underlying interconnections of Ruskin's various obsessions even his madness begins to make a great deal of sense. Thus, perhaps without so meaning, Viljoen ends up in the camp of R. D. Laing and Michel Foucault, both of whom suggest -- if they do not downright insist -- that the world of the madman is as valid as that of the sane. The absence of any extended psychological interpretation and a concomitant absence of clinical terminology do much to intensify this impression Such absences, one must add, confer both advantages and disadvantages: On the one hand, this edition of the diaries is not marred by the heavy-handed and extremely amateurish psychologizing of Viljoen's Ruskin's Scottish Heritage; on the other hand, one feels the need of more psychological interpretations with this kind of material. After the astonishing acts of scholarly recovery which Viljoen undertakes in relation to the slightest reference to Rose La Touche, it is somewhat misleading that she is so reticent about sexual symbolism. In an ordinary scholarly edition one certainly would not ask for such interpretation, but since this is clearly more an act of imaginative reconstruction than an edition, such claims are valid -- particularly because one doubts if anyone after Viljoen will ever know enough about Ruskin to undertake such an enterprise with much chance of success.

These remarks should suggest that what Viljoen has given us cannot be judged entirely on scholarly grounds, for we have something more than a scholarly edition here. Having tried to re-create Ruskin's mind in order to explicate the bits and pieces of his diary, she has produced a work that is neither a scholarly edition alone, nor a biography, but something whose form is reminiscent of recent experimental fiction. While reading the Brantwood Diaries I occasionally felt that it wasn't an edition but a work of, say, Nabokov or Coover. Viljoen has made a bold experiment and, on the whole, succeeded admirably. At least one feels that where she failed, few are likely to do better. Almost the only criticism one can make of her is that she does not establish the connection between the ideas in the diary and the main body of Ruskin's thought. Since her interest in Ruskin is primarily biographical, she well explicates the most minute points in his works where they have biographical significance. Unfortunately, she very rarely turns the apparatus around and directs us back toward the work, and thus she leaves many interesting points unanswered. One would like to know, for instance, more about the relation of Ruskin's habits of mind in these diaries and his elaborate theories of allegorized mythology. What importance do his own records of dreams have for his many statements about the relation of dream to art and imagination?

Nonetheless, whatever may be the minor shortcomings of her editing, Viljoen's handling of The Brantwood Diary stands out as an editorial tour de force, an astonishing job of interpretation and reconstruction. It is therefore most disappointing to report that her presentation of the letters, to which she devotes a third of the volume is in contrast extremely poor. Surprisingly, she has chosen to present them almost bare of annotation, despite the fact that they desperately need a great deal to be of use to Ruskinians. A second major difficulty with the letters arises from their rather odd arrangement: rather than ordering them chronologically to complement the journals, apparently their reason for inclusion Viljoen arranges them by correspondent -- a few letters from Ruskin to one friend, a few to another, a few from Ruskin's friends to his family, a few from Ruskin's friends to his other friends, and so on. This unfortunate arrangement forces the reader to jump back and forth across decades, thus leaving him confused rather than aided. The reason for this most unhelpful editorial practice appears, I gather, in the first sentence of Viljoen's Preface: "Basically an edition of Ruskin's Brantwood Diary, this book has been prepared as a Memorial to Mr. F. J. Sharp, who, just before his death in 1957 (age 77), expressed the wish that I be given his collection of Ruskiniana." In other words, this volume serves both as a scholarly edition of the diaries and as a sampling of the F. J. Sharp collection of Ruskiniana, which includes many letters. Viljoen uses the lengthy section devoted to letters more to provide a description of the collection and offer samples than to illuminate the diaries. However generous it may be for the editor of Ruskin thus to lavish thanks upon the collector of Ruskiniana, it seems most inappropriate to do so by arranging the materials in a manner that hinders our understanding of Ruskin himself. Many of the letters included simply do not justify their presence.

Viljoen attempts to solve the biographical problems inherent in the letters with a series of somewhat uneven capsule biographies to which she devotes almost ten per cent of this edition. The long section on Frances Ellen Colenso daughter of the controversial Bishop of Natal is excellent, providing many fascinating and useful details of her life, both as they relate to Ruskin and not. In contrast, the brief section on George Mac Donald, whom Viljoen describes as both Ruskin's and Rose's closest "mutually intimate friend and advisor," is wholly inadequate. She tells us nothing of his life, gives us no picture of him and does not even tell enough about the relation with Ruskin and Miss La Touche. From her brief section on MacDonald, one would never gather, for instance, that he is an important writer of fantasy and romance -- a precursor of William Morris whose works are still in print. The problem here as elsewhere in this biographical section is that Viljoen hasn't her purpose clearly in focus, for she doesn't seem to have decided whether these sketches are to be biographies, summaries of the persons only as they relate to Ruskin, or anthologies of quotations about them from other sources. By far the most interesting and informative portions of these sections come from Mrs. Oscar Gnosspelius, a resident of Coniston who knew many of the people described. In fact, her contributions to both the biographical section and the notations to the diaries appear with such frequency and such importance that one is a bit surprised not to find her sharing the honors of the title page.

Although the volume as a whole is extraordinarily uneven in quality, the editing of the diaries themselves is superb. The diaries themselves are only of limited significance, but Viljoen's editorial apparatus provides her with an opportunity to pass on her unrivaled knowledge of the facts of Ruskin's daily life. In doing so, she has given us a mine of information that will be used in other contexts.