During the last decade, a spate of criticism about John Ruskin has appeared both on trade and scholarly bookshelves. It comes as no surprise, then, that a new “life” of this Victorian sage has joined these works to provide a sound biographical study of Ruskin and his work. The Wider Sea fulfills its role well, offering the reader a clear, well-written portrait of Ruskin that provides substantial insight into the way that the events of his life shaped the many and diversified works that seem to have poured from his pen during the middle and later decades of the nineteenth century. The amount of specific criticism of these many works provided in The Wider Sea is slight by comparison to that found in most recent studies. That apparent deficiency is more than compensated for, however, in John Dixon Hunt’s careful and perceptive presentation of the character and personality of Ruskin as it was formed and as it changed over the years.
Simply to record accurately the major events of Ruskin’s life requires patience and a good deal of economy of style. The life of Hunt’s subject was certainly a busy one. From age four, Ruskin spent a part of almost every year traveling, and what would be leisurely vacations for most were the grist for his literary mill. The travels, both at home and abroad, are seen as a constant succession of discoveries. On each trip he saw something “new” that had been there, unnoticed by others. Whether that discovery was the greatness of J. M. W. Turner or Tintoretto, the particular emblematic quality of the architecture of Venice, or the new genius of the Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin made a meticulous record of it, preserving his impressions carefully for use in his writings. The notebooks that he filled on these journeys were transformed into the dozens of major works for which he achieved fame both in his own century and in subsequent decades. In a narrative that seldom slows or becomes pedantic, Hunt recounts Ruskin’s travels (many with his parents, whose role in his life was certainly influential, arguably devastating), as well as the years Ruskin spent at Oxford and at his homes in and around London. The major events of his life are impressive enough: Newdigate Poetry Prize winner and scholar at Oxford for three years; author of a major work of art criticism at age twenty-four; victim (or perpetrator) of a terrible marriage that lasted six years but which was never consummated; prolifically published critic of architecture and of society itself; Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford; pathetic participant in a “May and December” romance that affected his thinking for the rest of his life; proponent of numerous schemes to improve the lot of the workingmen of his country; fighter against the insidious, dehumanizing tendencies of “modernism”; victim of fits of insanity that silenced his pen for the final eleven years of his life.
Hunt’s book reflects an extraordinary interest in the early years of Ruskin’s life, perhaps because Ruskin’s Praeterita (1885-1889) provides such a ready source of basic information about this period. This is, however, no mere paraphrase; both published and unpublished sources provide Hunt ample material to penetrate the many fictions that Ruskin included in his autobiography and present a detailed account of the formative years of this precocious son of a wine merchant. Ruskin’s was not the “toyless, joyless childhood” depicted in Praeterita; it was, nevertheless, a life carefully controlled by parents who did everything possible to protect their only child from the harsh realities of the adult world. The general impression given by the first quarter of The Wider Sea is that, in Ruskin’s case at least, the child was father to the man: reared under the constant eye of doting parents, Ruskin was denied the opportunities to experience the joys and the sorrows of a normal childhood, ones that shape boys and girls for healthy adulthood. Though, as Hunt mentions, not all that Ruskin says in Praeterita can be taken at face value, it is certainly true that young John had little opportunity to learn from example the difficulties that adult life brings with it.
The young Ruskin, sheltered by his parents from the company of others his own age, learned of the world indirectly through the works of Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Rogers, and other writers; he viewed its best side, too, on the many trips that he took during the first thirty years of his life. The art and architecture of Europe became substitutes for playmates, and the grandeur of nature provided for Ruskin the emotional stimulus that others found in falling in love. In his accounts of these travels, the curious blend of Romantic ecstacy and calculated scientific inquiry that characterized his mature literary method are seen in their formative stages.
In their efforts to make something special of him, Ruskin’s mother emphasized religious training, his father the development of literary skills. Ruskin once commented that his mother expected him to enter the Church and eventually become a bishop, even Primate of England. His father’s preference for literary activity prevailed in Ruskin’s life, however—perhaps because it was less restrictive and allowed the young man to pursue myriad interests. The extent of his father’s encouragement and direction was exhibited in Ruskin’s earliest endeavors: drawing and versifying filled much of his time, and at age eleven, he was a published poet. For much of his adolescent and young adult life, Ruskin tried to...
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