Praeterita is too great a book to be seen only in the context of its genre: like most of what Ruskin wrote, it might be said to break through the normal frontiers of genre into something else altogether. — Clive Wilmer

Certainly one of the more bizarre episodes in the study of John Ruskin, or perhaps even of all English studies, involves the way first so many scholars and critics took anything (or everything) in Praeterita as conveying the complete truth about his life and others then attacked Ruskin's autobiography for its gross inaccuracies and omissions. This despite the fact that, as Clive Wilmer puts it,

Ruskin candidly admits that he has written "frankly, garrulously, and at ease; speaking of what it gives me joy to remember at any length I like ... and passing in total silence things that I have no pleasure in reviewing". There is no mention, therefore, of his wife or the annulment of their marriage; no mention, either, of . . . Rose La Touche, the young woman he had fallen in love with when she was still a child. He plainly understood that to omit the pain was to modify the account he gave of the pleasure. [3]

Several reasons/factors to some extent explain the fact that supposedly professional scholars and critics missed such a key — and strongly emphasized — point, the first of which is the unfortunately obvious one that professional literary scholars, like undergraduates and the rest of us, are often lazy and slovenly. We can all recall embarassing blunders we've made that we hope others forget because we forgot to check some fact or text. An equally important factor that I pointed out some decades ago derives from the clarity and force with which Ruskin so often writes, something particularly crucial when he writes, as he so often does, polemically. Thus in the oft-misquoted closing chapter in the first volume of Modern Painters when Ruskin advises beginning painters, those probably still in art school, to follow nature closely, he managed to convince a large number of Ruskinians that this man who began his book to defend Turner's later, increasingly abstract proto-expressiomnist works chiefly advocated a photographic hard-edge realism. — and this despite the facts that, again, Ruskin explained whom he was here addressing and then devoted (as he had promised) much of the later volumes of Modern Painters to approaches to representation opposed to imitative theories of art, theories of beauty and other aesthetic categories, descriptions of artistic imagination, and explanations of composition and iconology. This sad episode in the history of Ruskin studies has several explanations in addition to readers' ineptitude or Ruskin's power as a polemical writer. Modern Painters ended up as a five-volume work — a lot to hold in one's mind — and the when he was defending the Pre-Raphelites, whom he saw as beginning artists, he increasingly praised detail realism in their and other painters' work.

Wilmer raised the more interesting question of Ruskin's accuracy (or truthfulness) in Praeterita in relation to what he correctly describes as "a famous epiphany" at Fontainebleau that supposedly took place in 1842 when Ruskin was recovering from an illness:

Feeling a recurrence of lethargy, he lies down on the bank of a cart-road and is struck by the pattern of an aspen's branches against the summer sky:

Languidly, but not idly, I began to draw it; and as I drew, the languor passed away: the beautiful lines insisted on being traced, - without weariness. More and more beautiful they became, as each rose out of the rest, and took its place in the air. With wonder increasing every instant, I saw that they "composed" themselves by finer laws than any known'of men. At last, the tree was there, and everything I had thought about trees, nowhere .... The woods, which I had only looked on as wilderness, fulfilled I then saw, in their beauty, the same laws which guided the clouds, divided the light and balanced the wave. "He hath made everything beautiful, in his time," became for me thenceforward the interpretation of the bond between the human mind and all visible things; and I returned along the wood-road, feeling that it had led me far; — Farther than ever fancy had reached, or theodolite measured.

The prose is surprisingly plain, and yet there is a rhythm and a lyrical edge to it that make the transition into biblical language seem natural and uncontrived. Much of Ruskin is as quotable as great poetry, though it is clear that in his late writings he resisted the temptation to be "purple" or poetical. In any event, it is surely important that, here, an act of remembering on his part is so memorable to the reader.

But did what was remembered really happen?

Wilmer's first response is, "Why not?" Not only does the prose sound convincing, but Ruskin's drawings reveal "a distinct shift in style precisely around the year in question, 1842," as he increasingly abandons the technique of teachers like J. D. Harding "and puts his trust in the forms and patterns that nature herself contrives." Nonertheless, Wilmer points out, the entire account "may well be fantasy" because no one has found a drawing of an aspen dating from this time, and, moreover, his "diary entry for the summer in question records a walk in a forest near Fontainebleau, notes its 'sublimity' but says nothing of our epiphany, though something of interest does seem to have happened: 'I past a profitable half hour lying under the copse on the hill top, watching the dark outlines alter under setting sun.' But there is nothing about drawing or about a particular tree."

To answer the dilemma created by this evidence, or lack of it, for the biographer and general reader of Ruskin, Wilmer offers two possible explanations:

One is that a set of experiences fused in Ruskin's memory with his emergence from illness on this particular day. The other is that the experience was someone else's, and that it chimed so with the progress of Ruskin's thinking that he came to recall it as his own. There is indeed some evidence that Harding told him such an anecdote. This is not to insinuate that Ruskin was intending to mislead. There can be no doubt that he remembered intensely, but his memory, like most people's, was apt to be unreliable. Unreliability is perhaps the source of the imaginative alchemy that turns fact into impression and memoir into literature. The story of the aspen-tree may not have happened, but that is not to say that it is "untrue". On the contrary, it clearly came to stand for everything Ruskin felt he had learnt from the habit of drawing. If it came from God, however, it did so in the most circuitous way.

This kind of problem with interpreting Praeterita occurs repeately, almost always, as one might expect, in relation to (supposedly) crucial episodes in Ruskin's life. Thus, although Ruskin narrates his 1858 decisive loss of Christian belief in both Fors Clavigera (1877) and Praeterita (1888), the order in which key events took place appears reversed and certain details are omitted. Both versions begin with Ruskin attending a Protestant service in Turin at which the preacher assured his congregation that they, and only they, will be saved. But whereas Fors emphasizes the absurd arrogance of the few who insolently assure themselves of salvation while condemning all other men to eternal torment, Praeterita, which does not even mention damnation, concentrates instead on the bleakness, the dullness, the emptiness of lives which require such cruel consolation. What he earlier attacked Praeterita tried to explain. These radically different attitudes toward the same subject derive both from the inconsistency of Ruskin's emotions and from his different intentions in the works which contains the story of his loss of belief. The polemic version in Fors, which relies on invective, uses his personal experience to provide a cautionary tale that, he hopes, will warn the workingmen of England against the twin dangers of atheism and Evangelical Protestantism. The gentler version in Praeterita, which tries to recapture the past, to recollect and present it in tranquility, seeks understanding rather than victory over an opponent.


Wilmer, Clive. "Back to nature: Ruskin's aspen and an art in the service of the given." Times Literary Supplement (1 December 1995): 3-4.

Last modified 1 May 2024