In the course of his authoritative analysis of the nature and history of Ruskin's late-life bouts of mental illness, Professor Spates convincingly demonstrates that neither schizophrenia nor the forms of bipolar disorder (I & II) match his symptoms. Unlike previous writers on this subject, Spates has a vast, detailed knowledge of Ruskin's life and letters, and on the basis of this research he concludes that Ruskin suffered from severe chronc depression brought on by a number of factors, including an "essentially loveless upbringing," his disappointment in love, his parent's stifling expectations, and, finally, a belief that all his work — his enormously influential writings on art, architecture, design, cultural preservation, protection of the environment, and political economics — had failed to change the minds of enough of his contemporaries and that he was therefore worthless. Thanks to Professor Spates for sharing the following with readers of the the Victorian Web. — George P. Landow]

Ruskin’s essentially loveless upbringing left him, throughout life, desperately longing for the real thing. “I wonder mightily now,” he wrote tellingly in the last chapter of the first volume of Praeterita, a chapter entitled “Roselyn Chapel,” as he mused, a half century later, over the loss of Adele, “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. It seems to me that such things are not allowed in this world.” (Works 35: 228)

Add to this profoundly conflicted, love-restrained upbringing and its ordinance for saving the world, the other great disappointments: Ruskin’s (not inaccurate) belief, emerging in the late 1850s, that all his previous work on art and architecture had miscarried; the vituperation which greeted publication of his works on political economy in the 1860s; the crushing loss of Rose in 1875 after more than fifteen years of courting, adoring, and hoping; the lack of any serious interest, even among his dearest friends, in his efforts as an active social reformer; his inability to stop or even lessen the destruction of most of the great art and architecture of Europe; his inability to retard the spoliation of his beloved natural world as laissez-faire capitalism consumed on — and we find little which suggests a recipe for happiness, little reason to think that a sense of accomplishment and contentment would ever occupy much space on his life’s plate. Is it any wonder then, that, living within such baleful inner space, Ruskin was, as the years passed, perpetually in a state of “chronic fury” (Works 37: 371), became seriously depressed and succumbed, in time, to debilitating psychotic attacks? “I must . . . allow myself a few . . . words of autobiography touching” on this point of my work and its reception, he wrote in March, 1880 after recovering from his first psychotic attack:

The doctors said that, when I went mad this time two years ago, it was from overwork. Well, I had not been working more than usual, and what was usual with me had become easy. But I went mad because nothing came of my work. People would have understood my falling crazy if they had heard that the manuscripts on which I had spent seven years of . . . life had all been used to light the fire with . . . But they could not understand that I should be the least annoyed, far less fall ill in a frantic manner because, after I got them published, nobody believed a word of them. Yet, the first calamity would only have been misfortune; the second — the enduring calamity under which I toil — is humiliation, resisted by a dangerous and lonely pride. (Works 29: 386) . . . .

One more source of Ruskin’s illness needs consideration. Two hallmarks of Major Depression are an intense and irrational sense of self-loathing and guilt. In letters earlier cited, we found evidence suggesting that, in later years, Ruskin experienced such tortuous feelings on a daily basis. But such emotions had been constant companions for decades. Some instances: an excerpt from a letter sent soon after his first psychotic attack (1878): the weeks when he had been out of his mind, Ruskin said, were a “continual vision to me of my selfishness, prides, insolences, failures — written down day by day, it seemed to me, with reversed interpretation of all I had fondly thought done for others, as the mere foaming out of my own vanity.” (Works 37: 244); and: in 1880, Ruskin decided to permit his The Seven Lamps of Architecture, first published in 1849, to be reissued; ever since his “unconversion” of 1858 (Works 35: 494-6), he had hated the book, calling it “the most useless I ever wrote” — useless because the first version had been framed by his “rabid and utterly false Protestantism” (Works 8: 14); useless, too, because its teachings had been all but ignored by its main audience, England’s architects. Study of footnotes inserted in the new edition reveals, time and again, our subject’s wrath at himself and his inattentive contemporaries. [33-34]

Related Material


Ruskin, John. Works. Eds. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wdderburn. 39 vols. London: Gerge Allen, 1903-12.

Spates, James L. "Ruskin's Dark Night of the Soul: A Reconsideraion of His Mental Illness and the Imnportance of Accurate Diagnosis for Interpreting his Life Story." Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies New Series 18 Spring 2009): 19-58.

Last modified 1 May 2024