initial 'W' hen I opened the papers of the American scholar Helen Gill Viljoen (pronounced "Fil-yoon") bequeathed to me on her death in 1974, I soon found the unfinished manuscript of her biography of John Ruskin, a project on which she had been working since the early 1930s. Viljoen and I had become acquaintances about 1952 when she was a Professor of English at Queens College in New York, and through our long correspondence, I had followed her progress on this biography that she had entitled "Dark Star: The Life and Work of John Ruskin." Not only had she entrusted this manuscript to me, she had also given me permission to publish any part of it. As I began reading, I thought that here was at least a volume from Ruskin's birth through his college years deserving publication as a sequel to her Ruskin's Scottish Heritage (1956), which she had written as a "Prelude" to this biography. I was amazed by the originality of her opening chapters on Ruskin's childhood. Most impressive was her devotion to the two scholarly principles she had laid down in the Heritage: first, that a biographer of Ruskin must work from all the manuscripts, not just those which E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn had chosen to use in the editing of the Library Edition of his collected works, and, secondly, that the writer should use Ruskin's autobiography, Praeterita, as an imaginative rather than a factual recollection (Heritage 16-17).

I abandoned my ideas for publication, however, as I faced the difficulty of finding a publisher for an incomplete work, and as I discovered textual problems in the manuscript which I could not easily resolve. In 1990 I deposited the manuscript in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. In 1996 I told a younger scholar, James L. Spates, about this manuscript and, in his recent study of her papers, he has succeeded in tracing the evolution of Viljoen's interpretation of Ruskin, outlined her plans for the final text of her biography, and explained the reasons for her failure to complete it. From the outset of her work — as Spates explains — she saw as "the defining element of Ruskin's emotional, intellectual, and creative life" what she called "the ruinous struggle" with his "all-giving and yet all-devouring parents" ("John Ruskin's Dark Star" 138; hereafter, "Dark Star." For more on Viljoen's Ruskin work, see James L. Spates' three articles listed under "Works Cited") By 1956, however, she concluded that it was inevitable that she redraft most of what she had written to include not only facts from her study of newly discovered manuscripts, like the Bowerswell papers (acquired by the Morgan in 1950), but perhaps also so that she might evidence what she called a "symbolic allegory" that she had come to believe underlay Ruskin's writings almost from the beginning, much of it a mirror of this conflict with his parents. My correspondence with Viljoen shows that I was skeptical about this allegorical interpretation — arising from her recent study of Freud and his followers — especially when she wrote me in 1957 that "To read Ruskin's works in allegory is to be plunged into a world of horror absolute" (ALS, Viljoen to Burd, Jan. 18, 1957; letter in Burd's possession). Perhaps my doubts and those of other friends persuaded her to reserve this allegory for separate essays now to be found among her papers. In any event, she never interpolated it into the thirty-four chapters of the biography she completed between 1930 and 1948, which carried Ruskin's life through the mid-1860s.

Presented here for the first time is a complete chapter from Viljoen's draft of her biography, Chapter XXIII — titled simply "Milan." The text of the portions of the biography Viljoen completed, running to over 1400 typed pages, is housed at the Pierpont Morgan Library (hereafter, PML) in New York City: see The Viljoen Papers (hereafter, VP): Boxes 52-53; the chapter which is the focal point of this article and all other PML MS or letter holdings are used with PML's kind permission. The chapter begins with Ruskin's departure from his parents in London on May 15, 1862, primarily to visit Milan to fulfill a commission of the Arundel Society to study the frescoes of the early Italian painter Bernardino Luini in the church of San Maurizio. Without telling his father, he had invited Edward Burne-Jones and his wife, Georgiana, to accompany him, virtually "smuggling" them out of London because of his parent's disapproval of many of his artistic friends. Among the young artists calling themselves Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin had a particular affinity for Burne-Jones. Early in their friendship he had described Burne-Jones as "the most wonderful of all the Pre-Raphaelites in redundance of delicate and pathetic fancy" (Ruskin, in letter to Margaret Bell, 4 Apr. 1859, in Burd, ed., The Winnington Letters; hereafter, WL: 153). Lately, however, Ruskin had developed doubts about the direction of Burne-Jones's work (Christian 200). As Viljoen suggests in her chapter, Ruskin's return to Italy may have been motivated at least in part by his desire to befriend Burne-Jones and reinspire him with Ruskin's ideals through the study of Luini and the Italian giants whom he had championed since writing Modern Painters II (1846). Viljoen's chapter traces Ruskin's kindness to this young disciple. ". . . [H]ow I think of that summer in Paris and Milan with you," Burne-Jones would recall for Ruskin four years later, " — nothing could ever be so nice to you as that was to us" (Unpublished. passage, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, letter to [John Ruskin], [May 1866]. Autograph File. B MS Am 1088, used by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University.) Viljoen's chapter also traces Ruskin's work on two papers on political economy, unpopular with his father, that he had promised for Fraser's Magazine, then under the editorship of his friend J. A. Froude (essays which he would later republish as Munera Pulveris in 1872). Ruskin had promised his parents to return in early August, but tensions with his father, apparently undermining his health, change his mind. Getting as far as Geneva on his return journey, he resolves instead to spend the winter in Switzerland. Viljoen ends this chapter as Ruskin walks up a nearby favorite mountain where he makes the decision he records in his diary on August 7: "The fatal walk up the Salève when I determined to stay in Savoy" (Evans 2: 566).

Spates, in his study of the biography, had already singled out this chapter for its excellence, and, through a few citations, has shown it as reflective of the tenor of Viljoen's work ("Dark Star," 165-70). The chapter illustrates both the high quality of her writing and the originality of her thinking as it develops two of her major themes — the intensity of Ruskin's determination to free himself from his parents' domination and his disillusion arising from his discovery of erotica in the Turner drawings that he had been cataloguing recently in the National Gallery; for the importance of the discovery of the erotica for Ruskin — a fact hitherto underappreciated by biographers — see Spates, "John Ruskin's Dark Star," 171-77; hereafter, "Dark Star," and Warrell). Most startling in this chapter is Viljoen's documentation, wherein she cites thirty-seven then-unpublished sources, most of them still unknown even to the most recent of Ruskin's biographers — all from Ruskin to his father, John James Ruskin; Three of these (dated June 15, August 12, and August 15, 1862) were included in Burd's Winnington Letters: 366, 369, 372.

The explanation for the oversight of this critical correspondence by other biographers must begin with the tragic sales of Ruskin's papers in 1930-1931, a process which led to their dispersal to libraries and individuals on both sides of the Atlantic. His letters to his mother, for example, went to John Howard Whitehouse of Bembridge (now housed at the Ruskin Library, Lancaster, U.K.); the 1447 letters to his father, which had been bound into six quarto volumes in blue calf in 1889, went to Yale where they are preserved along with typed transcripts of the entire collection. The majority of these letters remains unpublished, but for a detailed accounting of the letters from this collection which have appeared in print, see Spates, "Dark Star," 163 n103. To write a life of Ruskin, a scholar must have the resources to master the manuscripts on two continents. The four most recent major biographies of Ruskin, all by English writers (Abse; Hunt; Hilton, Early Years and Later Years; Batchelor), show a mastery of the sources in England, but not of those in the United States, and especially those at Yale and the Morgan. Viljoen's signal advantage was not only the fact that she had done considerable research in England, but also her propinquity and willingness to master these American collections (Spates, "Dark Star," 139-44).

The neglect of this correspondence may also arise from the need for a better understanding of the methods Ruskin's editors used in preparing his letters for publication. Apparently they began with an invitation to Ruskin's friends for the loan of letters from which they prepared transcripts, usually typed. With the apparent exception of the quarto volumes of Ruskin's letters to his father (then at Brantwood, Ruskin's home on Coniston Water), they also prepared transcripts of many other manuscripts, including his diaries. Until now we have not understood why the editors did not transcribe Ruskin's letters to his father: Wedderburn had already made surreptitious copies of this correspondence when in 1889 — without the knowledge of the then-ailing Ruskin — he had taken the letters to London to have his bookbinder, William Mansell, bind them into the quartos. A hitherto unnoticed letter from Ruskin's faithful publisher, George Allen, to John Hobbs, his brother-in-law in Australia, dated August 5, 1890, and marked "PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL," tells of Allen's (writing of himself in the third person) recent visit to Mansell who told him "privately" that Wedderburn "had placed a large number of Mr. R[uskin]'s original letters in his hands to bind — 5 thick volumes — but it was to be a profound secret and on no account was Mr. Allen to know, but Mr. Allen dropped into his binder's one day and discovered that this mass of letters were addressed to old Mr. R." Wedderburn, according to Allen, knew well that "as literary property, those letters are worth thousands of pounds." In the same letter, he also relates that "within the last three months [Wedderburn] has had the whole of them copied at a typewriter's place and 100 yds. [sic] from my premises in Bell Yard. And fancy the flagrant utter want of decency to send such letters to a public place to be copied by a lot of gossiping girls. . . ."1 These are the typed transcripts that Yale purchased, surely to complement their holograph collection of the son-father letters, at Sotheby's on December 22, 1936. The Sotheby catalogue describes the transcripts as in three volumes, folio; there are in fact five — not three — transcript volumes at Yale; records at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library show that they were on their shelves in early 1937 Although Wedderburn eventually returned to Brantwood the holographs of Ruskin's correspondence with his father, he kept these transcripts in his possession throughout his lifetime, dying in July. 1931.

From their massive collection of transcripts from innumerable sources. including Wedderburn's typed copies of Ruskin's letters to his father, the editors chose the text of those to be included or cited in their thirty-nine-volume project. (It is not known what the editors submitted to the printer for the text of the 507 letters from Ruskin to his father that they used either in whole or in part in the Library Edition.) Their work completed in 1912, Wedderburn assembled many of the transcripts into fifty-two volumes which would be given to the Bodleian Library in 1936. However, he did not include in these his typescripts of Ruskin's letters to his father. Neither did he nor Cook — in league with Joan Ruskin Severn, Ruskin's caretaker cousin and, like Wedderburn, a literary executor of his estate — leave any sources of information which would allow later scholars to easily determine how they had chosen to destroy or suppress anything that might reflect adversely on Ruskin's reputation, such as the correspondence between Ruskin and Rose LaTouche and records of Oscar Wilde's friendship with and admiration of Ruskin. On May 12, 1906, Sarah Anderson, helping with the sifting of Ruskin's correspondence, expressed her relief that many letters had been burnt, declaring to Joan Severn: "...[D]on't let us have scandals turning up after our lamented demises" (ALS, Ruskin Library, Lancaster University, UK; File L63; this and subsequent unpublished material from this collection are used by permission of RL and the Ruskin Foundation. Hilton in The Later Years, 292, first noticed the exclusion of Wilde from the Index to the Library Edition.

Wedderburn's decision to separate his typescripts of Ruskin's letters to his father from those which would go to the Bodleian almost surely reflects his desire to protect the portrait of Ruskin which Cook, with Wedderburn's assent, had constructed in the Library Edition. It was Cook who manned the "labouring oar" in this massive project, according to his biographer. But, twice a week, Cook met with Wedderburn to secure the latter's approval as a barrister and literary executor (Mills 224-25).

Viljoen and Spates have described the distortions in Cook's portrait of Ruskin, one of the most important of which was to minimize the abrasive struggle with his parents (Heritage 16; Spates, "Dark Star"167-68). From the eighty surviving letters that Ruskin wrote to his father during the ninety-three days covered in Viljoen's chapter -- nearly a letter a day! — the editors cite passages from eleven, only three of which suggest the tension between son and father. From their partial quotation of Ruskin's letter of July 22, 1862, they allow this passage: ". . . the one only thing you can do for me is to let me follow out my work in my own way and in peace." They also cite a letter written from Mornex, near Geneva, on August 17, in which Ruskin looks back on his recent correspondence with John James: "If you write such nice letters in answer, it is enough to make me go on writing half cruel letters . . ." (LE 36: 414, 419; LE 36: 415, 419). For the full text, see Burd, Winningtton Letters, 369-72; for a detailed analysis of how the letter was selectively presented so that readers would not detect the full fury of Ruskin's remarks, see Spates, "Dark Star," 167-68, and discussion below. But these "half cruel" letters - and there were many that summer — are cited at length only in Viljoen's Milan chapter. In most, Ruskin cries out for independence from his parents: ". . . I am an incomparably nobler and worthier person, now, when you disapprove nearly all I say and do, than I was when I was everything you and my mother desired me" (August 19) being only one example.

Missing from Viljoen's chapter are any letters from John James — "painful letters," as Ruskin describes them — that brought on these protests. Many of the father's letters from other periods of his life were saved, but very few for 1862. In his anger, Ruskin may have destroyed some, inadvertently allowing his editors perhaps even more leeway to preserve their image of the relationship between father and son; on at least one occasion Ruskin consigned his father's letter to the flames. The Ruskin Library, however, does preserve two letters of late 1862 from John James to Ruskin that escaped Viljoen's research. Both describe the loneliness of the parents at Christmastime. "Many thanks for Telegram rec'd at 8 o'clock — some consolation poured on our not easily comfortable state. Mama was dull. I was dull — the house very dull, the Servants were dull. The Candles were dull. The lamps burnt blue," John James wrote his son on 15 December. On Christmas he describes the day as "one of the loveliest sunniest Days I ever knew - when I saw your study in a Blaze of Sun at _ past 8 & missed you. I was morbidly disabled almost from uttering the prayers . . . ." At Camden that morning he found that "the Service did not heal me" (ALS, RL, File L4).

The father's letters, we may surmise, were filled not only with pathos — John James being only a year and a few months from his death — but also criticism of his son's writings on political economy. In 1895, W. G. Collingwood, having recently completed his biography of Ruskin, describes John James in a letter for an admirer of Ruskin: "Old Mr. Ruskin was a very cautious man: he used often to call himself 'Mr. Fearing'2 after the person in the Pilgrim's Progress: and he was always nervous when his son — who must have led him a life in this respect — broke out with a new idea. The [Political] Economy was a great trial to him, and in his letters of the later part of his life, he continually remonstrated with J. R. about it."

Wedderburn's omission of his son-father letter typescripts from those sent to the Bodleian can be a snare (possibly intentional?) for unwary biographers, because this, compounded with the fact that both holographs and transcripts eventually made their way to Yale, meant that the whole of Ruskin's important correspondence with his father is not available in England. Thus, Hilton tells the story of Ruskin's trip to Milan in 1862 in half a page, taking his facts solely from the sparse entries in Ruskin's diaries (Later 42). Hunt (286-87) did work at Yale, but apparently overlooked Ruskin's letters of 1862, and his equally brief account of the Milan visit makes no mention of the devastating struggle there between father and son. Abse (184-85) and Batchelor (169-73) describe the dissention between the two Ruskins in somewhat more detail but took their information from published correspondence between Ruskin and his father and other people.

Only Viljoen in her unpublished "Dark Star" has documented fully the conflict between father and son and its pernicious effects on Ruskin's life. Her chapter on Milan, based on her careful study of original documents, especially the unpublished Ruskin family letters, presents a masterful interweaving of sources and tells a part of the Ruskin story still not appreciated. The chapter also illustrates the untapped overall richness of her work that future biographers need to study — not just for the wealth of her sources but also for the continuing significance of her insights on Ruskin.

Last modified 1 May 2024