- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005


By John Ruskin with an introduction by Tim Hilton

Everyman’s Library, $23, 564 pages


It is impossible to overestimate the influence — or the abiding relevance — of the Victorian art critic and social prophet John Ruskin (1819-1900), whose impassioned critique of a society obsessed with getting and spending struck a chord that has continued to reverberate with thoughtful individuals across the political spectrum. Ruskin was a seer in both senses of the word: an acutely perceptive observer of art, architecture, literature, and Nature, and an uncannily prescient Cassandra who warned of developing threats — moral, social, economic, cultural, and environmental — to human life and happiness.

Ruskin’s politics were something of a paradox. A forceful critic of greed, the profit motive, the degradation of labor, and economic injustice, he was also a staunch believer in hierarchy and authority. As he wrote at the outset of his unfinished autobiography, “Praeterita”:

“I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school; — Walter Scott’s school, that is to say, and Homer’s… .From…Scott and Homer, I learned the Toryism which my best after-thought has only served to confirm. That is to say, a most sincere love of kings, and dislike of everybody who attempted to disobey them. Only, both by Scott and Homer, I was taught strange ideas about kings, which I find for the present much obsolete; for…both [Homer and Scott]…made their kings do harder work than anybody else…[they] not only did more, but in proportion to their doings got less, than other people — nay, the best of them were even ready to govern for nothing! …Of late it has seemed to me that the idea of a king has become exactly the contrary of this, and that it has been supposed the duty of superior persons generally to govern less, and get more, than anybody else.”

But as confident as he was in his aesthetic, moral, and social judgments, Ruskin’s personal life was clouded with frustration, doubt, and anxiety. In a letter written to his American friend and confidant, Charles Eliot Norton, in 1868, he wondered if he would even be able to write an autobiography: “I have often thought of setting down some notes of my life. But I know not how — I should have to accuse my own folly bitterly — but no less — as far as I can judge — that of the fondest — faithfullest — most devoted — most mistaken parents that ever child was blest with — or ruined by.”

Ruskin’s father, a prosperous sherry importer with a passion for Scott’s novels and Byron’s poetry, had died in 1864, but his mother, a devoutly evangelical Protestant, was still alive. Both had been devoted parents to their cherished only child, but to call them “over-protective” would be an understatement.

The little boy was brought up in virtual isolation, his every step watched over, worried over. Later, when he embarked on what would prove to be a disastrous marriage to Euphemia (a.k.a. Effie) Gray, he left his new bride behind to go with his parents on a trip to Europe. He seemed unable to break away from their well-meaning domination, and his marriage, never consummated, ended when Effie fell in love with the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Millais.

Subsequently, Ruskin, at this point 39, fell in love with 10-year-old Rose La Touche and eight years later, when she came of age, proposed to her.

Neither the 29-year disparity in their ages, nor the situation of a grown man waiting for a young girl to reach marriageable age was all that unusual in Victorian times, but Rose and her fervently Evangelical mother resisted the match, ostensibly (and for all one knows, actually) on the grounds that Ruskin was insufficiently pious.

Poor Rose seems to have suffered from both physical and mental illnesses, and her death, while still in her 20s, in 1875, plunged Ruskin into deep depression. Three years later, he experienced the first of the several attacks of madness that would continue to plague him in the final two decades of his life.

Given his inhibitions, it is rather amazing that Ruskin finally was able to write an autobiography, and still more amazing that he wrote “Praeterita” in the years that he was intermittently plagued by insanity. As Ruskin biographer Tim Hilton explains in his introduction to the new Everyman’s Library edition, “Praeterita” is an unorthodox autobiography, eschewing the rules of chronology, highly subjective and even more highly selective.

Its tone is surprisingly placid and good-humored, quite unlike the impassioned eloquence of the social prophet in such powerful works as “Unto This Last.” Indeed, Mr. Hilton suspects that Ruskin chafed at the constraints of maintaining a manner so genial (which he did partly at the behest of his devoted relative and caretaker, Joan Severn): Various notes that he left suggest the outline of a darker (and perhaps even greater) work in which this extraordinarily perceptive man would have written directly of his mental breakdowns and delved more deeply into his tormented relationship with Rose.

As it stands, however, “Praeterita” is a remarkable work: evocative, reflective, and engagingly self-deprecating. It is full of vivid descriptions — his first sight of the Alps, carriage travel in bygone days, the garden of his childhood home. Ruskin’s account of his sheltered upbringing and his analysis of its effects on his character is fair-minded yet painfully insightful: Not being allowed to test things out for himself left him unprepared for the adult world, resulting in what Milton called “a cloistered virtue.”

Although Ruskin omits the unhappy story of his ill-starred marriage, he offers a charmingly light-hearted and funny, but ultimately sad account of his various youthful infatuations: “I wonder mightily now what sort of a creature I should have turned out, if at this time Love had been with me instead of against me; and instead of the distracting and useless pain, I had had the joy of approved love, and the untellable, incalculable motive of its sympathy and praise.”

Not very far beneath its amiable surface, “Praeterita” is a deeply strange book, reflecting not only its author’s struggle with mental illness, but also a streak of irritability and underlying arrogance, residue, perhaps, of a sheltered childhood and a frustrated manhood. Unfinished and incomplete though it is, still it manages to reveal many layers of Ruskin’s immensely complex and fascinating character.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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