John Ruskin

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

At Christmas, 1859, John Ruskin was forty, would be forty-one in the following February. His life had been bittersweet, his last volume of Modern Painters was in the working. “He had found much success in the world,” but he was unhappy and unsure of himself. He felt that the institutions of art were too worldly, that art had lost its “spiritual power,” and that he himself had lost that “Evangelical thrust” which had initially inspired Modern Painters (1843-1860). Furthermore, he felt that his father, for whose approval and respect the work had been written over the many years, was about to die. The modern age weighed heavily upon Ruskin at this point, and his ambitions, his hopes, his dreams were uncertain, his vision of modern art just as uncertain. The spiritual power he wanted to inform his vision of art was vague and of a spirit unchristian, something he obscured in his writing to hide such thoughts from his mother and, perhaps, from himself. He had finished a tour of Europe with his parents the previous year and had stayed three weeks at a girls’ school in Chesire, at Winnington, where he “enjoyed the company of schoolchildren” and where, for the next ten years of his life, he would spend some of “the happiest moments of his life.” His marriage to Effie and his unrequited love for Adèle were behind him now, and his newly growing love for Rose La Touche was yet unclear to him.

It is in this mixture of despair and hope, love and love lost that Tim Hilton, in John Ruskin: The Early Years, 1819-1859, leaves the reader, with high expectations for the promised second volume of this biography. Hilton cleverly structures his scholarly and insightful work with such suspense that he achieves a novelistic effect: By plotting biographical information with reference to what has come before and what will come, Hilton quite successfully conveys the anxiety that characterized Ruskin’s life and that characterizes the modern age in general.

Hilton is known for his work on catalogs of numerous important exhibitions, for his books on Pablo Picasso and the Pre-Raphaelites, and for his contributions to the Times Literary Supplement; his acumen for biography is clearly revealed in this volume.

This work should be important not only to anyone interested in the spiritual incertitude of art but also to anyone interested in the problems of soul and body as portrayed in the life of one man, one of the most prolific, if inconsistent, writers of literary history. Hilton’s biography provides an insight into the complex of emotions, thoughts public and private, and events historical and personal that characterize the Victorian era and that helped shape the modern era. One sees entangled in Ruskin the sense of duty and the repressed passion commonly associated with Victorian life as well as the vision of natural beauty and sensuality typical of the Pre-Raphaelites. In the life of John Ruskin, one witnesses the troublesome and troubled soul of the nineteenth century.

Only one other man might have been so exemplary of the torture of the body and soul in Victorian England: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but that would be coming from quite a different, nearly opposite, perspective, one that the reader may hope Hilton will one day pursue. Both men had their share of passion and their sense of duty. Rossetti’s House of Life (1881) attempts to articulate a sensual, sexual spirituality and, perhaps, fails, but the attempt reveals something important about the age and those who lived in it. For Ruskin, the tensions between love and physical passion, “lust in action,” as William Shakespeare...

(The entire section is 1489 words.)

John Ruskin: The Later Years Analysis

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

During the hundred years after the death of the queen who gave the Victorian era its name, literary and historical figures of the period became subjects of quite a number of biographies. The best of these, by scholars who made extensive and judicious use of letters and diaries made available only after the Victorian era was but a memory, contributed significantly to a general understanding of the men and women whose work had such a profound influence on their contemporaries and who remain figures of importance to anyone wishing to appreciate this period in English life and culture.

Many of these biographies are products of a lifetime of scholarship, the fruits of careful and sometimes painstaking research in libraries and private collections scattered across the globe. Tim Hilton’s two-volume life study of the Victorian writer John Ruskin is such a book. The result of more than twenty years of effort, John Ruskin: The Early Years (1985) and its sequel, John Ruskin: The Later Years, reveal the man behind the hundreds of books, articles, and pamphlets that covered subjects ranging from art to biblical exegesis.

It is a literary commonplace that knowing something about an author’s life can sometimes help readers understand his or her works. In the case of Ruskin, Hilton argues, such knowledge is essential. “Ruskin’s books,” Hilton remarks in the foreword to the first volume, “are without exception personal. They were formed by the events of his life, his reading, his friendships and loves, dreams, travels and memories.” With other authors one might be tempted to dismiss this claim as mere hype from the biographer, but in Ruskin’s case Hilton has good reason for his assertion. As he observes, Ruskin’s books

[A]re neither straightforward nor self-explanatory, and they have an especial unlikeness to anyone else’s writing. Few of them are in an obvious sense works of literature. They rarely conform to the classicgenres of writing.

Ruskin’s works do not easily fit into prescribed categories because the man himself refused to confine his intellectual explorations to a single area of study, and whatever he studied, he wrote about—often in several thick volumes. Considered by contemporaries and succeeding generations as one of the great Victorian sages, Ruskin seemed to understand his age, even if he objected vehemently to what other Victorians called “progress.” He was facile in describing even the most complex natural or architectural phenomenon. More than any other writer of his time, he was able to create in readers’ minds a vivid picture of the scene before him and then use his descriptions as springboards for philosophical rhapsodies that would carry readers along to conclusions about life and society often at odds with the prevailing temper of the day.

The principal strength of Hilton’s book is that it reveals the complexity of Ruskin’s character and the range of his interests. Readers will immediately sense that there are many adjectives one could use to describe Ruskin. First, he was prolific. The Library Edition of his collected works, lovingly edited by disciples E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn in the early years of the twentieth century, runs to thirty-nine volumes. Since the publication of this massive edition, discoveries by bibliographers, scholars, and antiquarians have added considerably to the Ruskin corpus, especially in the form of diaries and letters. For the biographer, this treasure trove of material offers fertile soil to till for information that could lead to understanding Ruskin’s life and relationships.

For most readers, the amount of primary and secondary materials is just too vast to be managed with anything less than the scholar’s time and attention. Making matters worse, Ruskin was a polymath. Not content to focus his gift of genius on a single cultural endeavor, the author who became famous at twenty-nine with the first of five volumes of Modern Painters (1843-1860) also wrote about architecture, geology, religion, social issues, economics—the list could be extended considerably. He seems equally at home discussing Greek myth and modern business practices. Additionally, and perhaps even more daunting for the modern reader, lengthy, digressive, and highly allusive paragraphs are the hallmark of Ruskin’s prose,...

(The entire section is 1780 words.)