decorated initial 'B'ut he did go home. As Viljoen would show in coming chapters, Ruskin's determination to shun Denmark Hill and its destructive unhappinesses eventually withered. Before that occurred, however, convinced that, settled in his beloved Savoy, he had finally found a place for his own feet, he continued, almost daily, to improve physically and mentally. Planning, he discovered a piece of land with a marvelous view of the Alps on which he would build his house. But, on another level, despite the fact that he was accompanied by George Allen and his family, he was terribly lonely. As fall drifted toward winter and the weather turned, the depression came on again, augmented, at Christmas, by an immense sense of guilt for having chosen not to be with his parents, sickly and desperate for him.1

Early in 1863, another blow descended: his Fraser's articles on political economy had set the critics off again. Their cries had begun immediately after his initial chapters had appeared the prior June. After the third installment, December's (the second came out in September), the protests reached a level of intensity comparable to that of three years before when his Unto this Last essays were appearing in The Cornhill — with the same censorious result. Under intense pressure from his angry readers, Froude wrote Ruskin, explaining that after his next submission, further thoughts on this provocative subject would no longer be published. "I never saw Ruskin so crestfallen as he was when Thackeray stopped . . . publication in The Cornhill . . . because [Ruskin's essays on political economy] were so revolutionary," Allen later wrote, "but when those contributed to Fraser's were stopped in 1863, Ruskin paced up and down in his terrace-walk at Mornex for hours like a caged lion, and deep gloom gathered upon him."2

Finally, acceding to importunings, in late May a still not fully recovered Ruskin left for London. Although he was to return to Savoy in September with the idea of settling still strongly in mind, the pressure of his parents' worsening condition, coupled with the pleas of friends (significantly, the Burne-Jonses — deeply worried about his health, both physical and mental), ultimately convinced him to shelve the idea of an Alpine home. In November, he returned to England again. Later that month, while staying at the Winnington School for Girls in the Midlands, his defeat was palpable as he wrote to his father of his "weary longing to begin life over again" and of his terrible "sense of fate forever forbidding it . . . If it were not [that the girls are] very happy to have me, and that I can do them good, I should run away to Abbeville directly; I was very cheerful there . . . " (November 23; cf. versions at LE 36: 458; Burd, WL, 438-40). A few months later — March 3, 1864 — John James died. Inheritor of a considerable fortune, with the care of his ai ling mother always on his mind, Ruskin would never again consider a Continental home. In fact, Ruskin would not have his own home until 1871, when he bought Brantwood in Cumbria, the year his mother died.

Although Viljoen would complete a few more chapters (taking Ruskin's life into the late 1860s), with the death of John James she brought one of the central themes which distinguished her work — the decades-long struggle which perpetually framed interactions between father and son — to its corporeal end. It is worth reproducing a portion of the chapter in which she describes this singular moment, a time in Ruskin's life which finds him at once regretful for pleasant opportunities lost and achingly aware that the negative state of relations between himself and his father had done them both incalculable harm. It is a passage which shows — as does the Milan chapter in its entirety — Viljoen at the height of her powers as a biographer, telling Ruskin's story in a new, complex, deeply personal way, as she skillfully weaves the threads from various published and unpublished sources, many of the latter known only to herself.

"It was not long," she began, describing the days before the death at Denmark Hill, "before all of them in attendance, excepting Margaret, began to realize that from this illness John James would not survive. Through Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, he remained irrational, Ruskin — through the last twenty-four hours of delirium — holding the sick man in his arms. The family's friend, Doctor [John] Simon . . . pronounced the death 'phenomenal' in its slowness. On Tuesday night [March 1], it seemed to Ruskin that his father had already died, but through another day and night, beneath his hand, he felt the heart beat on. On Thursday morning the heartbeat stopped. 'He died unconsciously, at least speechlessly,' Ruskin wrote a family friend, Mrs. [Mary] Hewitt, 'a long death of three days and three nights — cloudy phenomena of various pains passing by continually. My mother, fortunately, was too blind to see the worst of it' (April 23, 1864, unpublished; ALS, PML (MS Eng MA 1940); another passage from this letter appears below.) On Thursday night, Ruskin told Burne-Jones (in a letter written on March 6), that he had slept without a dream, 'though the last forty hours were enough to make one dream — one should have thought' [LE 18: xxvii].

"The dreams, however, had begun while he was still awake and doing what he could to help the dying man, dreams entailing dark regret and intense self-reproach. 'The quite wonderful thing to me,' he continued to the Burne-Joneses, 'is the way [death] changes one's notion of the past character. I had often measured my feeling to my father, as I thought. But I never had any conception of the way that I should have to mourn — not over what I lose now, but over what I have lost until now" [LE 18, xxvii; Viljoen's planned addition].3 Next day [March 7], curiously enough, he received from Henry Acland a letter which impelled him to defend himself: 'My dear Acland,' he answered, 'When you said to me some few months ago that you had always thought I was under a peculiar blessing because of my carrying myself kindly to my parents — and when, in the Highlands, you told me that you thought I lived the life of an Egyptian slave to them — you were, in each case, just as wrong as you are now in supposing that I ever spoke so as to cause my father much sorrow. . . . If (as I suppose is always the case) death invariably makes us remember what we have done wrong to the dead and forget what we have done faithfully to them . . . .' I admit that 'I was surprised to feel how much light was thrown on all the occasions, and they were numberless, on which I might have given my father pleasure by the mere expression of my love of him, and never did. For the pain I have given him — much, only in cases where it was not my fault, but error — I feel bitter regret; it was never given without more in myself, a hundredfold. But for the pleasure I have not given him, I shall mourn in the past, as whenever anything that happens that would have rejoiced him, I shall mourn in the future. This appears to me a very impious state of mind . . . ' [LE 36: 468-69].

"And yet, for the time being, remorse did not overwhelm the balance of his judgment. On the day before the funeral [March 9], when he wrote Acland again to remove the sting of his initial protest, he showed unwavering insight suggestive of so much that had brought harm: 'You must not be too much hurt at my losing my temper with you. It is just because I know your regard for me that I was provoked at the want of understanding of the relations between my father and me, which you were one of the very few who might have understood — and helped me to mend, perhaps, in time . . . You are "one that hath had losses" [Much Ado about Nothing, 4.2.84; paraphrased]. But you never have had — nor with all your medical experience have you probably seen — the loss of a father who would have sacrificed his life for his son, and yet forced his son to sacrifice his life to him, and sacrifice it in vain. It is an exquisite piece of tragedy altogether — very much like Lear, in a ludicrous, commercial way — Cordelia remaining unchanged and her friends writing to her afterwards — wasn't she sorry for the pain she had given her father by not speaking when she should?' [LE 36: 470-71]. In the same vein, somewhat later, he wrote Mrs. Hewitt: 'My father was dead to me in all the inner and deep senses of death for many years — not that he knew that — but things to me are just what they were, mixed only with a profound pity for the poor father . . . lying in the clay in this springtime . . . '" [April 23; unpublished. This last sentence is taken from an earlier draft of Ch. XXVI. I have interpolated it because it succinctly summarizes Viljoen's thinking about how the family struggle affected Ruskin at the time; this earlier draft is in Burd's possession.].

Viljoen knew that from such profound wounds Ruskin would never recover, despite the hope he expressed to Acland. To the end of his days, in one form or another, the conflict with his father would haunt him, even in his maddest moments (Spates a, 177-84). Making manifest what she saw as the causative link between her subject's later loss of sanity and the internal struggle which tormented him, she wrote the following as she ended the chapter describing the death of John James, foreshadowing a principal theme intended for the last third of her biography.

"After many more years passed, the son [so] loved had been, for a third time, violently insane. Recovering, he wrote a friend: ' . . . but this last illness, as soon as I lost consciousness of outside things, took also, and for some time, wholly, the form of Judgment by my Father for his own shortened life. These things are all quite normal — the inevitable sequence of spiritual law — and, of course, affect the lungs, liver, and all the rest of it. But they can't be cured by cold douches any more than by hot damnation. Such as I have made of my life, I must live it — and manage my thoughts first, and my flesh next — as I can . . . I could no more go to the Tyrol and dip myself into good health than Jeremiah could have dipped himself into good humor in [the] Jordan. For mere leprosy, the cure is clear enough'" [May 5, 1882; unpublished; transcript of letter to Henry Swan (Curator of Ruskin's Museum of St. George in Sheffield); VP, Box 51, Ch. XXVII].

But Viljoen never did compose the last third of the biography; nor did she complete long-planned revisions of parts of Ruskin's story she had already written. The reasons are complex, and can only be summarized here [For the fullest account, see Spates, "Helen Gill Viljoen: 'The Scholar and His Life," Pt. Three]. Most of her draft chapters, including "Milan," — were completed by 1948. Then, without warning, over the course of the next eleven years, Viljoen found herself either the recipient of or in prime position to study major new caches of Ruskin documents which had previously been unavailable.

In 1948, she was loaned — later given — four (of five) fantasy "sermons" Ruskin had written as a boy. The evidence contained in them convinced her that she had been in error in thinking that the ruinous struggle with John James had begun in her subject's adolescence following a relatively happy childhood (a view still held by some biographers). Instead, it had been present almost from the moment he could walk. She realized that all of her introductory chapters would need rewriting.

In 1950, as noted in the "Introduction," the Morgan obtained the "Bowerswell Papers" from the Millais family, containing nearly 1250 documents pertaining to Ruskin's ancestry and his courtship of and marriage to Effie Gray. Scrutiny — Viljoen was the first scholar to study them — led her to conclude that if she was to put Ruskin's background in proper historic frame and context, she would need to write a "Prelude" to her biography; this became Ruskin's Scottish Heritage, which appeared in 1956. But she also saw that the Bowerswell information would require her to rewrite all her chapters which dealt with Effie and Ruskin's marriage.

Then, in late 1956, while reading Ruskin's late work as preparation for starting the last of the biography's chapters, she had an epiphany: throughout his writings Ruskin had encoded his life story in symbolic allegories. This remarkable discovery gave a whole new dimension to his genius. However, to do justice to this insight, she realized that she would have to write a separate book introducing the thesis to scholars and then recast many chapters with this theory in mind. Viljoen shared her allegory hypothesis with Burd: see "Introduction"; for more, see Spates, "Dark Star," 150-55, 184-88.

Finally, in 1957, she learned that she had inherited the collection of Ruskiniana compiled by F. J. Sharp, an English carpenter with whom she had been corresponding. Arriving in England in 1959 to collect what she would soon come to call her "precious gift," she found that she now possessed an incredible horde of unknown or long-thought-lost Ruskin documents — paintings, unpublished diary and manuscripts segments, hundreds of letters from, to, and about him, and two previously unavailable diaries — the first describing his trip to Cumberland with his parents in 1830, the second an even more important chronicle written between 1876 and 1884 which evidenced, often in excruciating detail, the onset and sorrowful consequences of the mental attacks which, beginning in 1878, had, seriatim, destroyed Ruskin's great genius. After Viljoen's death, the manuscript of this diary passed to PML; it was published in 1990 by Burd and Dearden. So important was the latter that she immediately began editing it for publication. But Sharp's bequest, like her other post-1948 discoveries, carried with it a high price: to incorporate all the critical evidence contained in the craftsman's collection she would have to rewrite her draft chapters even more extensively.

And there was still more. She was an unquenchable scholarly sleuth, and as someone determined to write the "definitive" biography, her efforts to accumulate every scrap of information relevant to Ruskin never ceased. As a result, every year she found herself in possession of more and more crucial material — material that other scholars had not taken the time to ferret out — that would have to be interpolated into her chapters.

The consequence of all this was that by the time she turned 60 in 1960, Viljoen was — not unlike Ruskin in 1858 after his discovery of the Turner erotica and the shedding of his earlier Evangelical beliefs — in the unenviable position of having to "rewrite all my books." Added to all this was the responsibility of caring for a mentally-challenged brother and the increasing enervation and debilitation brought on by a long-undiagnosed case of multiple sclerosis, the disease which would claim her life. In the end it proved too much. Though she would publish The Brantwood Diary of John Ruskin in 1971, she never would make much progress in revising the work which for four and a half decades had been her raison d'�tre — the great biography. Thus when Burd received the boxes containing her legacy after her death in early 1974, he found not only a Ruskin "biography" inordinately rich in new ideas and in documentary evidence supporting those ideas, but a biography in great disarray.

Regarding future work on Ruskin, however, it is the ideas and evidence which Viljoen assembled, exemplified in the Milan chapter, which should arrest the attention of scholars. For, in addition to "Milan" and the well-written chapters surrounding it (none of which are in need of major reworking), Viljoen's heritage contains much. A few highlights point to the significance of the whole.

Considering the biography itself: The draft of her second chapter, "Maria Edgeworth" — an outgrowth of her careful study of Ruskin's juvenilia now at Yale — details the importance of this Irish writer's ideas on the upbringing if children in Ruskin's own boyhood, an influence no other biographer has noticed. Then, in two separate chapters, "School and Boyhood" (Chapter V) and "Oxford Studies and Ad�le" (Chapter VII), Viljoen tells the tale of Ruskin's disastrous teenage infatuation with Ad�le Domecq, whose summary rejection left him for the rest of his life sexually arrested at this age, focused on adolescent or nearly adolescent girls (symbolically the same age as Ad�le), as his obsessive love for Rose La Touche and abiding interest in girls similarly aged (particularly after 1870) demonstrate. In another chapter, "Effie Gray" (Chapter XIa), composed near the end of her life and based on her deep knowledge of the Bowerswell Papers, Viljoen, using letters and sources other biographers do not, relates the reasons for the ill-fated union between Ruskin and Effie, the results of which (after the marriage's collapse on grounds of non-consummation) would haunt him for decades, the debris finally crushing any chance he might have had for marrying Rose and, coupled with the omnipresent residue of the ruinous familial struggle, contributing heavily to the mental disturbances which plagued him after Rose's death in 1875 (for the fullest rendition of the Rose story, see Burd, John Ruskin and Rose La Touche). Rose herself is the principal subject of no fewer than three chapters — "Rose La Touche" (Chapter XIX), "Sesame and Lilies" (Chapter XXVI), and "Proserpina" (Chapter XXXIII). One of the first scholars to understand Rose's importance in Ruskin's life after the intense effort to suppress details and documents by Cook, Wedderburn, and Joan Severn, Viljoen in her accounts provides an almost daily guide to the evolution of this tragedy-in-the-making that does not exist elsewhere.

Such "story-line" chapters, however, hardly exhaust the useful material contained in Viljoen's work. Other drafts illustrate, in a way that the Milan chapter only implies, another distinctive element of her approach — her beliefs that, in the end, Ruskin's ideas were much more important than his history and that biographies which focused on the "life-story only" (or primarily) ran the risk of decontextualizing their subject from the times which had provided the frame for that life, leading to the possible — erroneous — interpretation that the subject's personality and immediate familial and interpersonal situations were the "causes" of the life rather than showing how that personality and those close relations had unfolded as a result of being placed in a unique cultural and historical frame. It was therefore critical to Viljoen that she tell the story of Ruskin's days rightly so that as the clouds of confusion and misinterpretations which had been created by Cook and Wedderburn were cleared away, readers would be able to see clearly the cultural factors which lay behind his tragedy and see anew why, during his time, Ruskin was regarded as one of the greatest sages who had ever lived. In that sense, Viljoen, painfully aware that Ruskin's reputation was at its nadir when she began work on him in 1929, saw her biography as a work of resurrection. Thus as we read through her drafts, we find her composing a series of "interpretive" chapters (interspersed with her "story-line" chapters), the intent of which is show why Ruskin thought it was so important to create the theories of art and architecture, geology, religion, literature, economics, and society that he did. Once again, a few examples must give a sense of a number of chapters written in this vein.

Why Ruskin wrote the five-volume series entitled Modern Painters is the subject of four chapters (IX, X, XVI, XVII). In each, Viljoen shows how Ruskin, ever concerned about the fate of nature and society and the toll being exacted on these by the juggernaut which was his industrial- capitalist era, presented his arguments so that he might make his readers not only aware of the damage being done but so that he might motivate them to do something to stop these ills before it was too late. (Chapter XVII, which deals with the evolution of Modern Painters V, published by Ruskin in 1860 just as he was making his shift to sociology, is particularly noteworthy.) Similar interpretations are provided for The Seven Lamps of Architecture (Chapter XII) and the three volumes of The Stones of Venice (Chapters XIV, XV). The chapter chronicling the creation of Unto this Last (XVIII) is significant because, to write it, Viljoen dug deep into portions of Ruskin's correspondence that other writers overlooked — most especially his exchanges with Sir John Simon — as he attempted to be "sure of his facts" before publishing what would become his most controversial book. [Other significant contents of the Viljoen Papers4]

Ruskin with Rossetti. Albumen print by William Downey. 1863.

In this regard, one long interpretive chapter (ninety-nine pages) finally deserves mention: Chapter XXIX, "Relationships with Men and Art." In it, Viljoen, using her talent for interlacing many sources to create a rich dramatic narrative, focuses on Ruskin's intense relationships with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne, friendships to which other Ruskin writers have given limited attention. The burden of her essay is not simply to provide an overview of her subject's connection to these artists and show how, as each, in his own way, collapsed into madness, Ruskin did everything in his power to save both (in both cases failing, as he knew, miserably), but also to communicate Ruskin's essential insight into these unhappy ends: that their premature destruction (and, as a result, the "destruction" of art which would never be created) was the consequence not of intrinsic personal deficiencies but of how, generally, the Victorian age had chosen to react to their innovative works — often with derision, barbed critique, and, most dishearteningly, dismissal. The concluding paragraph of Viljoen's chapter deserves reproducing because, in its writing quality, tenor, and erudition, it is emblematic of the complex nature of her biographic work overall. Hardly coincidentally, her final sentences are designed to remind readers of prominent themes contained in earlier chapters, while pointing, at the same time, to concluding chapters which, though imagined, would never be written.

"But the relationship which stayed constant," she wrote, "and which was always basic, was implicit in the title of that lecture which he gave at Cambridge [in 1867]: 'The Relationship between National Morality and National Art' [LE 19: 163-95]. For could he not see, at his right hand and his left, how the morality of his England was taking a toll? This he himself had witnessed: first, Turner; now Swinburne and Dante Gabriel; men achieving but pale shadows of their might. Thus always in the end he blamed the times and not the individual — so clearly he, John Ruskin, though so much inferior in genius, had more work to do."5

Given the significance of Helen Gill Viljoen's legacy, the same conclusion could be reached for Ruskin studies of the future.

Last modified 30 April 2024