[This review first appeared in Albion Summer (2001): 331-34.]

Sitting outside St. Anthony's College, Oxford, on a brisk spring day in 1977, I first learned about Tim Hilton's approach to what would become, more than three decades later, the second volume of his major biography of John Ruskin. When Mr. Hilton learned — possibly from Robert Hewison, who was then working at Oxford on another important book about Ruskin — that I was teaching at Brasenose, he invited me to his college, which, he told me, had graciously created a position for him so he could finish his biography, despite the fact St. Anthony's concentrated on the social sciences and had no art or English faculty. The college's gracious foresight has been rewarded at last.

I begin my review in a Ruskinian manner by setting this memory within a precise place and time, because Mr. Hilton then explained his basic approach to his subject. Now that I have had his massive final volume in hand at last, I see he has remained constant to it for good and for ill. During our conversation, I had enthusiastically described an essay on Praeterita by Elizabeth K. Helsinger that redefined notions of autobiography. Mr. Hilton responded by claiming that his discoveries made while reading the Ruskin manuscripts at the Bembridge School, Isle of Wight, would prove all such interpretations false and completely irrelevant. He then movingly told the painful story (now more fully amplified in the present volume) of Ruskin's leaving Brantwood and living by himself in seaside towns for more than a year. According to him, Joanna Severn, his financial dependent, caretaker, and heir, would not send his diaries to him. Their absence, Mr. Hilton believed, prevented his working on Praeterita and in large part determined its present structure.

I relate this anecdote as such length because it takes us directly to the heart of what is best and worst in this important volume. First of all, yes, Mr. Hilton has explored the treasure trove formerly at Bembridge more completely than any other Ruskin scholar has ever done, and he has made great use of what he has found. His efforts will undoubtedly prompt some reviewers to label his biography "magisterial," which, alas, it is not; it is valuable, indispensable for much information and many insights, but hardly magisterial.

To clarify this judgment let me explain that one can approach Ruskin in two basic ways: one can read him, as many contemporaries did, for his many styles, particularly his brilliantly experiential word painting, and one can also read him as someone who can teach us to see — to notice and perceive at what we are looking — better than anyone else. Similarly, one can also approach him in terms of his attacks on classical economics, his major contributions to the development of the modern welfare state, and, of course, we can read him as by far England's greatest and most influential practical critic and theorist of painting, drawing, and architecture. Again, following this same basic approach, one may place him within the arenas of periodical reviewing, contemporary art politics, and their relation to class interest, and one may also see him within traditions and training of the amateur watercolorist, the Academy schools, and the rise of museums and art galleries. According to this view of Ruskin and Ruskin studies, to understand the meaning and significance of his writings, one must see them within the living context of contemporary political events (particularly the 1867 Reform Bill), Victorian belief and its many crises relating to Biblical interpretation (typology, prophecy, apocalyptics, and the Higher Criticism). One must also observe his roots in eighteenth-century literature and moral philosophy, contemporary education, the Industrial revolution, urbanization, the rising middle classes, and the role of the arts in all of these. In fact, when I first studied Ruskin with E. D. H. Johnson, one of the founders of modern Victorian Studies, he began by telling the six of us in his graduate seminar, that Ruskin was a key to an incredibly rich and complex age and that if we could understand the equally rich and complex Ruskin, we would have a powerful means of understanding the Victorians.

Conversely, one can study Ruskin and his works, as a biographer is in part bound to do, by using works and life to illuminate each other, by taking them as two closely interwoven texts. That approach despite a few gestures at the contemporary scene, some quite valuable, is Hilton's. The worst sin of the reveiwer, my wife (an editor) often reminds me, is to review the book one would like to have written oneself and not that before one's eyes. She is correct, and I fully recognize Mr. Hilton's right to produce the kind of biography he chooses. Fair enough. But while praising his many successes, I have to mention what his approach necessarily omits.

Hilton's John Ruskin: The Final Years makes many valuable contributions, not the least of which comes in the "Foreword" when he graciously retracts his earlier writing "harshly" of E. T. Cook and admits himself now "more and more humbled by Cook's scholarship and dedication" (p. xiii). This is no minor point, for scholars ever since Viljoen have unnecessarily denigrated the Library Edition of Ruskin and its editors, despite that fact that, even if one does not take into account the age and conditions in which it was executed, its thirty-nine massive volumes still remain one of the greatest editions of any Victorian writer. It is important to have a major Ruskinian, who has seen so much of the manuscript evidence, say so.

The Final Years offers much valuable information, such as its discussion of Ruskin's delight in popular, even vulgar, musical halls and minstrel shows (p. 405). Mr. Hilton's valuable explanation of Ruskin's use of undergraduates to repair roads in Hinksey, a poor suburb of Oxford (p. 294), so often mocked as typically Quixotic, reveals Ruskin as once again a pioneer, for his projects turn out to take the form of exactly those forms of university outreach — undergraduate exercises in social responsibility and leadership — that have become increasingly important throughout the world, East and West. Hilton's knowledge of the Oxford context also produces his valuable explanation of "Ruskin's propaedeutic use of a nineteenth-century institution, the walk. Another disciple from the round-building period, Oscar Wilde, was to recall how 'my walks and talks with you' were the most vivid parts of his undergraduate life. Like many friendly and earnest dons and clergy of the time, Ruskin uses the shared walk as a long and informal tutorial" (p. 263).

Some of the strengths of the book come from Hilton's copious quotation of long passages from both unpublished letters and from published work, particularly Fors Clavigera, that he clearly does not expect his readers to know. One can question his quoting so much of the published work at length, since many, if not most, of the volume's readers will have at hand editions of Ruskin's works; and indeed the The Final Years could probably have been twenty percent shorter with a little handy exercise of the red pencil, but then, I have to admit, we might have lost some wonderful things, such as Ruskin's brilliant depiction of women nail-makers in Worcestershire (p. 358). This passage, essential for anyone wishing to understand his attitudes toward women, the Industrial Revolution, cottage industry, and work, shows Ruskin enthralled by the sheer manual skill of women ironworkers. It is particularly important because, As Catherine Stevenson has shown, this is precisely the kind of scene that middle-class feminist authors like Mrs. Gaskell omit.

Hilton's greatest contributions, quite appropriately, lie in those areas most fully illuminated by the Bembridge manuscripts: He does a fine job setting forth "the sad and wasteful story" (p. 132) of Ruskin's relations with Rose La Touche, the biographical contexts and themes of Fors Clavigera, the terribly painful story of his years as a mad, deibilitated runaway in Folkestone and Sandgate, and his final surrender to Joan and Arthur Severn, who needed Ruskin (and his money!) as much than he needed their care, since without him they were destitute.

One stated purpose of this final volume to Hilton's biography involves his explanation of Fors Clavigera's according to its place within Ruskin's life and writing career. According to Hilton,

First, Fors can scarcely be mastered without the help of footnotes, an index and a detailed biography of its author. Secondly, the letters of Fors are often obscure because they are intimate. They contain remarks that were meant to entertain, or to challenge, only two or three people. . . . In fact Fors has no pattern, only the stamp of its author's sensibility. [p. 223]

Depending upon how one takes that slippery term "masters," one will not disagree with Hilton's first claim. To the second one has to say, "Yes, but isn't that also true of works, often their greatest, by authors as different as Browning, Tennyson, Swinburne, Joyce, and Pound?" The third brings us to some of the major problems in this book, and I now return to the discussion of Praeterita with which I began. During our conversation, I pointed out how Helsinger's brilliant reading of the exquisite and deeply moving final paragraphs of Praeterita leads to a new conception of autobiography and of narrative form. By tracing out Ruskin's various allusions to Dante in the description of fireflies at dusk, Helsinger demonstrates that Ruskin abandons the traditional linear model of autobiography, replacing it by a far more segmented, poetically allusive one — resulting in fact in a work not so different that Tennyson's In Memoriam and Proust's A la Recherches du Temps Perdu. In 1977 and in this book published in 2000, Timothy Hilton will have none of this.

There's an old Russian saying that to a man whose only tool is a hammer, all problems look like nails, and I'm afraid that the Bembridge manuscripts have become Mr. Hilton's hammer. He desperately needs a few more tools, but The Final Years provides no evidence that he has made himself acquainted with the dozens of volumes of scholarly criticism about Ruskin, much less those on closely related writers, such Carlyle and Tennyson, that have appeared in the past three decades.

The serious effects of this lack appear throughout the book, but I'll mention just two; others who work in Victorian literature, art, political history will have their own examples. Yes, it is good to be learn that Ruskin was deeply hurt by Carlyle's attack on him in "Jesuitism," but it's hardly possible that passage entirely produced the Carlylean elements in Ruskin's writing (p. 187). We have long had the Carlyle-Ruskin correspondence with its useful introduction. Moreover, John Holloway's The Victorian Sage, my Elegant Jeremiahs (1986), and a host of other work, including G. B. Tennyson's Sartor Called Resartus, have explained the way Carlyle and Ruskin drew upon Victorian understandings of Biblical prophecy, sermons, and the rhetorical tradition to create an essentially new genre characterized by episodic structure, virtuouso acts of interpretation, attack upon the audience itself, grotesque examples, and idiosyncratic and often satiric definition of key terms. Unfortunately, Mr. Hilton is not a skilled or insightful reader of complex Victorian prose in any but biographical terms, and he ignores all other contributions in the field. The sad result comes in the fact that his readings of Fors, in many ways the intellectual center of his book, proves far less illuminating than it should have been.

My second and last example concerns the absolutely central question of Ruskin's religious belief, particular since Mr. Hilton correctly points out, as so many before him have done, that this subject provided many painful moments in Ruskin's relationship with Rose La Touche. According to Mr. Hilton's bland assurance, "It should not be thought that Ruskin was without faith. In all his life, he never ceased to believe that the Christian god was his maker and that Jesus Christ was his saviour" (170). This is simply false. Abundant evidence from letters and reported conversations shows that for long painful periods between his 1858 "unconversion" and his acceptance of an idiosyncratic Christianity twelve years later — a period when he wrote many important works — Ruskin was an agnostic and even atheist. The evidence Mr. Hilton adduces, that Ruskin "loved the Bible" and alludes to it with great "sensitivity," is simply beside the point in the Victorian period. Like Ruskin, both Carlyle, who was hardly a Christian of any form, and Swinburne, a self-proclaimed fiercely anti-Christian atheist, also continually make elaborate scriptural allusion that require a sophisticated understanding of biblical exegetics.

Nonetheless, despite the reservations, I want to close by emphasizing that Mr. Hilton's John Ruskin: The Later Years, which provides important information about Ruskin and his family context, is essential reading for those interested in the Sage's final years.

Last modified 30 April 2024