[An abstract of a presentation delivered at the July 1995 Symposium in Sante Fe, New Mexico, on the occasion of the world premiere of David Lang and Manuela Holterhof's opera about Ruskin, Modern Painters.]

Decorative Initial Ruskin's early writing has received more critical and biographical attention than any other Victorian juvenilia, except for the Brontës. Ruskin himself set the precedent, by reprinting his early writing and commenting on the lifelong consistency of his thought; and critics continue to gain insights by studying the published juvenilia and, in some cases, returning to the unpublished early manuscripts. Scholarship has been misled, however, by the bibliographies and editions of juvenilia compiled by Ruskin's earliest editors — Collingwood, and Cook and Wedderburn — who erroneously dated many early pieces, omitted many other pieces altogether, and in their transcriptions imparted an editorial polish that misrepresents the manuscripts. Nothing short of a complete overhaul of the bibliography of the early manuscripts, now nearing completion, will enable us to make further progress in understanding Ruskin's childhood.

I begin with an overview of the Ruskin juvenilia, briefly discussing the problems involved in dating the manuscripts. Second, I demonstrate how the correctly dated and comprehensive manuscript record can be aligned with the Ruskin family letters to reveal the process of Ruskin's early composition — a process of Ruskin's responses to his parents and teachers, and of their responses to him. In other words, the revised bibliography opens up the psychodynamics of writing in this remarkable Victorian family.

As a demonstration, I focus on 1829-30. This period is proved significant by the revised bibliography, because — contrary to the impression given in the autobiography Praeterita — Ruskin's interest in religious writing emerged very suddenly, in early 1829, and almost certainly not at the behest of his mother but of his new tutor, the Reverend Edward Andrews. Andrews's influence, I argue, was owing to the resemblance of his character to that of Ruskin's father, John James. The resemblance qualified the clergyman for inclusion in an exchange of male personae. the "little large boys," as Ruskin thought of them. These personae will be described in terms of the family dynamics, dependent in part on Margaret Ruskin's exclusion from the exchange, and in terms of Ruskin's compositional practice, dependent on strategies of deliberate fragmentation designed to keep the exchange open-ended — an open-ended elicitation of love. Andrews's inclusion in this process, however — as the manuscript record also reveals, when correctly aligned with the family letters — precipitated a crisis. The crisis is manifested in a new kind of fragmentation, one caused not by deliberately open-ended strategies but by confusion and despair. Moreover, the crisis results in the first poetry that Ruskin addressed directly to his mother, and that is characterized by violent reprisal. This turbulent episode was destined for repetition, but the pattern is suppressed in the Library Edition, owing to the editors' refusal to print "morbid" and "bloodthirsty" poems, to their policy to dismiss "incomplete" work, and to their misdating and editorial completion of what they did print from this period. I will propose an explanation of the pattern using a model of "self psychology," an explanation that promises insight into Ruskin's fragmentation, both early and late.

Created 1995
Last modified 30 April 2024