Chapter Context

The John Ruskin who left the family's Denmark Hill home in South London with the Burne-Joneses for the Continent on May 15, 1862, was a deeply disturbed man, a man immersed in a mid-life crisis of striking intensity. Made overseer in 1857 of his beloved J. M. W. Turner's "gift to the nation" (almost 20,000 paintings, drawings, and sketchbooks), he had unearthed hundreds of erotic drawings. The discovery was intellectually and emotionally calamitous, for not only had Turner been his proclaimed "master on earth" for a quarter century, but Ruskin had made the argument repeatedly that only the pure of heart and soul could paint gloriously. Now incontrovertible evidence indicated he had been, and he was devastated. Moreover, by the late 1850s, having heard the hammers of the geologists for decades and well aware of the theses of the evolutionists (On the Origin of Species appeared in 1859), Ruskin had come to believe that his strict Evangelical upbringing — ingrained by his mother and uncritically expressed in his earlier writings — was a series of lies or distortions [for a discussion of these issues, See ch. 4 of Landow's Aesthetic and Critical Theories]. After experiencing an "unconversion" in Turin in 1858, he began to speak of himself as a "pagan" and found himself adrift in a sea of existential doubt. Together, these events led him to believe that all his previous work had been "in vain," a series of half-truths and misstatements about the nature of art and the world which had misled his huge audience. Augmenting all this was the virulent reaction to his recently published "political economy" (the four essays which became Unto this Last had appeared in 1860). Briefly but powerfully, in an effort to right the wrong-headedness of his covetous industrial age before it was too late, he had argued that if social life were to prosper, it could only do so when cooperation and moderation, not competition and greed, came to characterize trade and manufacture; to his shock, these humane notions were "reprobated in a violent manner" (as he put it in the "Preface" to Unto this Last [LE 17: 17] ); almost overnight, in many quarters his celebrity turned to ignominy and ridicule came to replace approbation.

The final element contributing to his noxious state of mind was the meanest: brought up from birth to obey his parents immediately and unquestioningly and provide, through his ever-increasing eminence, their ticket into the higher echelons of society, he had suppressed many of his own desires — continuing with art criticism because it pleased his status-seeking father, staying with them when their demands made his daily life unbearable, putting up with their rejection of many of his "controversial" or "Bohemian" friends (Carlyle, D. G. Rossetti, and the Burne-Joneses among them). Making these frustrations even more painful was the recognition that however overtly supportive his father had tried to be of his recent sociological forays, at bottom, John James Ruskin considered them foolishly confrontational and a discomfiting embarrassment. For decades, because of his belief that filial piety was an unquestioned duty, Ruskin had swallowed his anger over all such irritants. As the years passed, however, this "ruinous struggle" (as Viljoen called it) had perniciously eroded Ruskin's mental well-being, increasing his choler and sense of being trapped (and his guilt over having such feelings), while at the same time compromising his sense of his own integrity. As the winter of 1862 turned toward spring, Ruskin recognized that if he did not find some way of permanently escaping the cloying love, constant demands, and censorious comments which characterized the negative symbiosis which was life "behind doors" at Denmark Hill, his sanity would be imperiled. In such a festering state he started on the Continental trip which begins Viljoen's chapter, a trip his parents assumed would be delimited. By the time her chapter ends some three months later, this entire cauldron of tensions will have overflowed in a remarkable exchange of letters and Ruskin is ensconced in his beloved Alps, refusing to come home.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that although Viljoen wrote this and all her chapters because she wished to tell Ruskin's story in a more comprehensive and nuanced manner, she also wrote to counter — using as her evidence an array of original documents — the damaging "myth of Ruskin" that had been created by Cook (with Wedderburn and Joan Severn's agreement) in the introductions to each volume of the Library Edition. Thus — taking the months covered in the Milan chapter — we find that Cook devotes four pages to the summer of 1862 (LE 17: lii-lvi); in his version, only two brief references to Ruskin's "mood of oppression" appear, with no explanation given for the upset. For the rest, Cook writes, truthfully enough, of Ruskin's charming manner and kindness to the two dear "children" who accompanied him on the trip, the Burne-Joneses, and provides a catalog of daily doings: where Ruskin was when, with whom, and what he was doing. To showcase the admiration Ruskin had for Burne-Jones, Cook extracts from a truly irate letter Ruskin sent John James on August 12 a passage which, in edited form, becomes positively sunny instead of communicating Ruskin's real purpose — to criticize his father in no uncertain terms for lacking the sensitivity to appreciate Burne-Jones's greatness — a passage fully cited in Viljoen's account below. The Library Edition account ends with a two-page verbatim reproduction of a generally upbeat letter Ruskin sent Margaret on August 31 (he almost never wrote harshly to his mother). Throughout the whole presentation, the impression created is that, in general, except for a few minor, moody moments, all was well. The angst which characterizes Viljoen's version — palpably on display in the majority of Ruskin family letters from this period — is nowhere in evidence; it has been excised (along with other "questionable" parts of Ruskin's story in other introductory chapters of the Library Edition), "for the sake of his reputation" — and (hardly incidentally) so that little of an unexpectedly untoward nature would appear in the great set's volumes which might interfere with sales. In this sense, then, Viljoen's "Milan" chapter can be read as a prime example of her vision for the biography as a whole: to provide for the first time an accurate accounting of Ruskin's life, one that would redress the distorted version Cook and Wedderburn had manufactured, a version which had, in its successful masquerade as "truth," been inordinately destructive to Ruskin's reputation and studies in his name for generations.

Last modified 1 May 2024