“To Helen—who set the standard of scholarship for all of us, and for whose help and wise counsel I am deeply indebted. With every friendly wish.” —Van Akin Burd, inscription in his presentation copy of The Winnington Letters of John Ruskin (Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library, Queens College, New York)

Helen Viljoen as she looked not long before her first visit to Brantwood in 1929 .

As the years and decades that followed her life-altering visit to Ruskin’s home, Brantwood, in 1929, passed Helen Viljoen, always indefatigable when it came to working on her revolutionary new Ruskin biography, would, never one to let any stone unturned, returned again and again to the most essential Ruskin texts, whether these were written by or about him. Starting at their first page, she would mine them once more for new or missed insights, especially after those moments when her knowledge of her great Victorian had taken a great leap forward (as after she unexpectedly inherited Ruskin’s teenage “sermons” in the 1950s). Each time she re-studied one of these vital texts, a dedicated marginalist, would interpolate new remarks, often composing, in addition, separate notes that she would file in one or another of her dozens of thematic shoeboxes, each dedicated to an issue in Ruskin’s life or subject in his work, e.g., “Health and Illness,” “Rose La Touche,” “Modern Painters V.” Intentionally, as she made these second, third (even fourth!) passes at these texts, she would use a different colored pencil—red, blue, black—for her newest comments, so that, when she returned to the text at yet another time, she would be reminded of when each note had been written. Later still, while she was composing one of her chapters for the biography, or an essay about Ruskin’s work, the colored underlinings and attendant notes would serve to remind her of other materials in her vast collection of Ruskiniana that might be dug out to buttress an argument. (For other examples of the remarkable fruits of this approach, see her “Introduction,” text-comments, and “Supplementary Notes” for any of the years covered in her Brantwood Diary of John Ruskin; the framings and interpretations for “1878,” the year Ruskin suffered his first psychotic attack are particularly noteworthy in this regard.) Examining her legacy, the vast collection of her Ruskiniana preserved at the The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum in New York, nothing impresses a reader more of the depth, extent, integrity, and quality of her scholarship. The intent of this essay is to provide only a single example of the superlative nature of her work as a biographer. To put it slightly differently, what follows should be regarded as emblematic of the whole of her efforts, and suggest why, had her biography ever been published, it would have been all but impervious to criticism because of the remarkable depth of her knowledge of the extant Ruskin resources, great swaths of which had been missed or not consulted by previous biographers.

One of the essential Ruskin texts, whatever its shortcomings, was Evans and Whitehouse’s three-volume, The Diaries of John Ruskin. (Today, this edition is regarded by most, if not all, Ruskin biographers, because of its multiple errors and intended omissions, as a scholarly disaster. However, because the holographs of the great majority of Ruskin’s diaries are preserved in institutions in the UK, Viljoen, and most other biographers, had no choice but to use this problematic source. Having read many of the original diaries on her second trip to England in 1959, Viljoen was particularly sensitive to Evans and Whitehouse’s errors when she encountered them.) The two pages from her first volume of the Evans and Whitehouse set are reproduced below have been chosen to serve as an illustration of her researching method and skill. They record Ruskin’s entries over the course of a few days in 1844, written when he was twenty-five during a trip to the Continent with his parents, John James and Margaret. On the date when the entries begin, their little group has just quit Switzerland’s Geneva and is making their way via carriage to Chamouni (today, “Chamonix”), the Alpine valley at the base of the Mont Blanc range which Ruskin, until his death, would revere as the most beautiful place on earth. The trip was designed to be both celebratory and an escape. 1843 had seen the publication of the first volume of Modern Painters, a book which, because of the novel nature of its insights, convincing arguments, and expositional brilliance, had turned its unnamed author into a literary cause celebre. (Because of John James’ worry that the book might be poorly received, he had insisted that its author be simply noted as “A Graduate of Oxford.” After it received extensive praise, the second and subsequent editions would register Ruskin’s name.)

As Viljoen’s notes for Ruskin’s dairy entries make clear, even though their Continental sojourn was intended to be relaxing, in reality, what she called “the ruinous struggle” between the young writer and his parents (and of which conflict Evans and Whitehouse appear to have no awareness) always simmered just beneath the surface, constantly stressing and depressing Ruskin as it occasioned more than a few tense moments between the principals. While three Ruskin biographers make note of his pervasive melancholy during this time, unaware of the struggle’s constant and enervating effects on the family, they do not note its draining effects. The result, Viljoen knew, was that the volumes Evans and Whitehouse published became yet one more instance of Ruskin “biography” whichmisrepresented, however unknowingly, the very life it purported to make manifest. (compare Abse, 66-67; Hunt, 143-44; Hilton, Early. Batchelor makes no reference to this excursion.)

The passages excerpted below and the comments I have attached to each are intended to interpret for the reader Viljoen’s most significant notations. All handwritten remarks and drawings are hers.

Viljoen’s annotations on page 277 of first of volume of Evans and Whitehead’s three-volume edition of The Diaries of John Ruskin. Click on images to enlarge them.

June 1, Geneva: It begins with an entry which carries over from the previous page, where Ruskin had written, “I have been singularly downhearted” [Viljoen underlines this word] “all this journey, and conceive not why. I have felt more [in being here] than I ever did, I think, and yet not with the buoyancy or life of old time. I think always of those who have no power of seeing what I see, and am full of remorse that I see it…” [continuing on the page imaged above:] “I was much excited, and arrived here languid and weary and grieved at having to descend, and full of old thoughts and recollections of early times in this lovely land.” Both passages Viljoen highlights as evidence of the pernicious effects of the ruinous struggle. His earliest trips to the Continent, Ruskin would recall in his autobiography, Praeterita, had brimmed over with joy (cf. LE 35: Ch. VI). But now, a decade later, his sense of being imprisoned when he is with his parents is all-pervading. Had Viljoen ever written the last chapters of her own biography of Ruskin—the chapters focusing on the 1880s, the years when Ruskin was writing Praeterita—it is possible that diary passages like this would have been inserted to remind his readers of how deeply and long the struggle had weighed on him, even though, at this time, 1844, as the passage makes evident, he is not yet aware that the familial conflict is the real source of his dis-ease. Some passages following express the same intensity of angst.

June 3, St. Gervais: “Took my father and mother on a long walk, too long for them, beside lake. Dull, heavy clouds and stormy wind. We got behind a dead wall at the very time that the clouds broke, and Mont Blanc became purple. I would have given twenty pounds to have been in sight of it, as I caught a glimpse of it by leaping over a wall: so it is, the finest things always come when they are useless. [Here, Viljoen has penciled in: “thanks now to walking [with] his parents,” meaning that the his unremitting obligation to be with them almost always prevents him from seeing and experiencing things that would have been much more wonderful.] “I do hope it will be fine to-morrow to let me have my walk at Cluse.” [“my” is underlined because it expresses the preciousness of any solitary moment for Ruskin]. Considering the page as a whole, it is clear that Viljoen, in contradistinction to all other Ruskin biographers, perceives it to be suffused with comment after comment which evidences the omnipresent and malign nature of the ruinous struggle.

The marginal comment at the bottom of page (left) is one of many interpolations throughout this volume wherein Viljoen expresses her abiding admiration for the subject of her biography: “Deucalion.” [published in a series of essays between 1975 and 1883] “It is wonderful to watch him gathering, through the years, the knowledge & impressions that [will] finally find some concentrated and memorable expression.”

Viljoen’s annotations on page 277 of first of volume of Evans and Whitehead’s three-volume edition of The Diaries of John Ruskin.

June 5th: St. Martin’s [near Sallanches, en route to Chamouni]: Viljoen’s right margin note to herself pertains to the first paragraph:] “Note how, since 1842 [during another continental trip], botany has been a central interest. But, in these later diaries, there is no expression of the inner meanings—such as one finds in 1840 & before.” As noted above, one of the prime discoveries during Viljoen’s later years of researching was that Ruskin frequently expressed himself in what she called his “symbolic allegory.” For example, in Proserpina, his book on flowers, he would regularly assign human qualities to the flowers being discussed, representing, variously in this interpolating, his parents, his love Rose La Touche, Darwin, some political figures, and, sometimes, his friends. All his later works were laden with these symbol stories, she argued, and, once the reader learned to recognize them, they could be viewed as veiled expressions of how Ruskin reallyviewed himself, others, and the world. (For more the symbolic allegory thesis, see my detailed discussion in my essay on Viljoen’s unpublished biography, “John Ruskin’s ‘Dark Star.’”)The note is intended to remind herself to think through, as she made this novel argument in the later chapters of her biography (no other biographer has ever noticed the pervasiveness of this symbolic allegory), about when flowers had first assumed these emblematic qualities in his mind.

June 6th, Chamonix: “A lovely day, to light me to my own valley. I have just come down (1/2 past 8) from my old seat on the block of the Brévant [an immense glacial erratic about half way up the mountain opposite Mont Blanc that provides a breathtaking view of it and, indeed, the entire valley]. But I do not feel as I ought to feel. For the first time in my life, I begin to miss the exhilaration of spirit which these scenes awakened in my childhood. I am not likely to wake tomorrow, mad with delight at the idea of climbing a hill. I shall not be singing about the passages at the thought of sketching about rocks—the sketching has become a labour, the climbing a tranquil enjoyment. I am a man in feeling, though not in knowledge, and deeply am I grieved to find it so. But it is perhaps better for me.” [Viljoen:] “cf. June 1 (p.275) [cited above] & June 15 (p.284), a time which Ruskin remembers as being a period when he could climb these mountains with exhilaration at close to the speed of a chamois. This followed by more remarks about his persisting depression, comments which, for Viljoen, are particularly significant because of the melancholy’s power to cloud his experience in the place he loves more than any other; they are highlighted here because they are yet more evidence of Ruskin’s increasing sense that, throughout the entirety of this trip, his parents, thinking primarily of keeping him to themselves, have regularly thwarted his wish to enjoy and study these wondrous sights alone and at length. All of which suppressed bitterness, Viljoen knows, will, once he clearly perceives the ruinous struggle as the source of his despair and unhappiness, finally triumph over his commitment to filial piety and will erupt in 1862, as she would document at length in her chapter, “Ruskin in “Milan.”

“I have a little of the blasé feeling, too, about this place, for which I cannot account. I yearned for it so when I was not at it. I begin to think, even myself, that I am too much indulged.” Viljoen’s note: “the parental phrase” is important to note here because she sees it as indicative of two important themes: first, that, like all those who wish to dominate and control others, the castigation that “you have been overindulged” is a remark designed to simultaneously denigrate the person to whom it is directed as “selfish,” while, at the same moment, it generates in the accused a powerful sense of guilt and a fervent desire to “do better” (atone)—both of which reactions revivify the dominant person(s)’ control over the accused. Second, Ruskin’s reference to himself here as overindulged shows that he has internalized his parents’ disparaging view of him. As a consequence—and again as intended by those making the caustic remarks—he will perpetually regard any desire for what he really wants to do as an inappropriate response, as an indication of his intrinsic weakness, a reaction which binds him, at one and the same time, to his accusers as it increases internal stress, confusion, and resentment.

“The day before yesterday, I had a lovely walk, in coming from Geneva. We went, from Bonneville, on the other side of the valley from the old road, which put me in a fever [of delight], and yet I got a far better idea from this, of the range of mountains to the south. I jumped out as soon as we got past [the hamlet of] Cluse, and walked on leisurely examining the cliffs.” Here, Viljoen has underlined the last three words and drawn an arrow in the left margin connecting this thought to the one she had while reading the last paragraph at the bottom of page 276. Ruskin has a lovely walk because, for a short time, he can be away from his parents (they continuing on in the carriage); during which precious minutes he can delight himself by drinking in and studying the marvelous mountain scenery about him. Of particular note is the joy he expresses when he has, at last, a moment alone, a joy which, as he laments in other remarks on these two pages, vanishes when he is with them. For a few minutes, he has been allowed to quit the prison. But, as they all know—and as Viljoen saw—the victory would be pyrrhic; he had been accorded “a little indulgence” (the last two words being equally important). Within the hour, as they came ever nearer Geneva, he would be forced to rejoin them inside their diligence, their control over him would be reasserted, and his guilt and depression would rise once more to sour his consciousness all the way back to their hotel.


The above are but two pages reproduced from Viljoen’s copy of the first of volume of Evans and Whitehead’s three-volume edition of The Diaries of John Ruskin. Brief as this sample is, they are fully representative of the immense entirety from which they have been extracted, the thousands of other unpublished pages and notes preserved at The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum in New York, all gathered over the course of forty-five years for possible use as evidence supporting the many new contentions she would make in what she knew would be her revolutionary biography of Ruskin, a biography which, for complex and lamentable reasons, remained unpublished at the time of her death in 1974. (For an overview of Viljoen’s “Life of Ruskin,” see my essay, “John Ruskin’s ‘Dark Star.’”) All of these assiduously collected and analyzed materials, like the pair of pages we have just reviewed, patiently await the next dedicated Ruskin biographer, ready to enrich that great, and much needed, effort vastly.

Last modified 16 August 2020