John Ruskin: The Later Years by Tim Hilton (Yale University Press, 656 pp., $35)
In the second volume of John Ruskin's three-volume study The Stones of Venice, which appeared in 1853, there is a chapter titled "The Nature of Gothic." It opens conventionally enough, with Ruskin promising to describe the "characteristic or moral elements" of the Gothic; but readers who were familiar with Ruskin's earlier works, Modern Painters and The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and who had been dazzled by his word-pictures of works of art and scenes of nature, could not possibly have expected a straightforward scholarly description. So when he launched into a bird's-eye tour of the landscape stretching from the Mediterranean to the northern Alps as a visual overture to his subject, they no doubt were delighted.
Such is Ruskin's artistry that he gives readers the capacity to see as they have never seen before the waters, skies, clouds, storms, mountains, fields, gardens, flowers, rocks, and sands of Syria and Greece, Italy and Spain. And as the bird wings northward through Switzerland and France, the reader is made to see "the orient colours change gradually into a vast belt of rainy green." Every fine detail is poetically wrought into vision, culminating in a grand contrast that makes one experience first-hand the "moral elements" of the Gothic:
Let us contrast their delicacy and brilliancy of color, and swiftness of motion, with the frost-cramped strength and shaggy covering, and dusky plumage of the northern tribes; contrast the Arabian horse with the Shetland, the tiger and leopard with the wolf and bear, the antelope with the elk, the bird of paradise with the osprey....Let us stand by him when, with rough strength and hurried stroke, he smites an uncouth animation out of the rocks which he has torn from among the moss of the moorland, and heaves into the darkened air the pile of iron buttress and ragged wall....There is ... no degradation, no reproach in this, but all dignity and honorableness ... this wildness of thought, and roughness of work; this look of mountain brotherhood between the cathedral and the Alp.
Ruskin, who adored Byron and Walter Scott from the time he was a child, had harbored youthful ambitions of becoming a poet, but he willingly renounced them to become the single most important interpreter of art and architecture in nineteenth-century Britain. The testimony of his contemporaries suggests that his visionary force was equal to that of the most celebrated Romantic poets. Charlotte Bronte was not alone when she announced that Ruskin had made her see anew: "Hitherto I have only had instinct to guide me in judging art; I feel more as I had been walking blindfold--[Modern Painters] seems to give me eyes." Leslie Stephen, too, spoke for his generation when he told of the power of Ruskin's great book: "People who shared the indifference to art of those dark ages ... were suddenly fascinated, and found to their amazement that they knew a book about pictures almost by heart." In Stephen's estimate, Ruskin had effected a sea-change in aesthetic appreciation. After him, "a comfortable indifference to artistic matters, instead of being normal and respectable, [was] pitiable and almost criminal."
If ruskin's readers had come to expect such breathtaking vistas from him, imagine their shock when, a few pages further into "The Nature of Gothic," Ruskin abruptly moves from glorious word-painting to personal chastisement. One moment he is contrasting the perfection of ornament resulting from the Greek system of slave labor with the "imperfection" of the Gothic, the only true Christian ornament, which expresses "the individual value of every soul." And the next moment he is denouncing the perfection of modern ornament produced by the industrial division of labor.
It is still a shock to be addressed so personally in a book supposedly about Venetian art and architecture: "And now, reader, look round this English room of yours, about which you have been proud so often, because the work of it was so good and strong, and the ornaments of it so finished." And it is a rare experience in reading to be censured for one's pride in "accurate mouldings," "perfect polishings," and "unerring adjustments of the seasoned wood and tempered steel," and to be reproached for the blindness that comes with such hubris: "Alas! if read rightly, these perfectnesses are signs of a slavery in our England a thousand times more bitter and more degrading than that of the scourged African, or Helot Greek." (Remember that Ruskin was writing when slavery was not only a powerful metaphor.)
Here Ruskin is practicing the kind of reading that Thomas Carlyle, whom he reverently called his "master," made popular in 1829 in Signs of the Times. For Carlyle, all the signs pointed to an "Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word....Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand." For Ruskin, the signs of the times were emblazoned in works of art and architecture as well as in the objects of everyday life, all of which were physical manifestations of the moral and spiritual condition of the person who made them.
What is more, such things represented the moral and spiritual state of the nation and of the age. When Ruskin came face-to-face with the "perfectnesses" of modern English manufacture, all he could see was the horror of the system that had produced them, in which men are "divided into segments of men--broken into small fragments and crumbs of life"; an industrial society in which the "multitudes are sent like fuel to feed the factory smoke, and the strength of them is given daily to be wasted into the fineness of a web, or racked into the exactness of a line." He would not allow readers to be complacent about the soul-destroying process that turned men into mere "tools." Nor would he let them forget that their desire for perfection had made men's "fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses," and in the bargain "unhumanized them."
In Ruskin's impassioned writing, aesthetic experience and social criticism come together in a manner never seen before and never fully realized since. In the eighteenth century, when thinkers first began contemplating the nature of beauty, their question was: why do I experience delight in the presence of certain natural phenomena or particular works of art? Ruskin asked instead: what social conditions produce the physical properties of the things of the world? And thus modern industrial England stood convicted of unjust social arrangements that had produced not only aesthetic shams and deceits, but also ugliness and squalor everywhere. Never before or since has beauty--and taste--been made to bear so much moral weight. Taste, as Ruskin defined it in a lecture called "Traffic," was nothing less than "the vital function of all our being. What we like determines what we are, and is the sign of what we are; and to teach taste is inevitably to form character."
In our own time, few notions have become so trivialized as taste, which now means little more than individual whim or consumer preference. The word that Ruskin used as its opposite, "vulgarity," has virtually dropped from common usage, so closely has it been linked with snobbery or, as we say today, elitism. For Ruskin, by contrast, these words indicated a person's capacity for sensitivity, the very wellspring of morality. In Sesame and Lilies, his most popular book, Ruskin distinguished between a "simple and innocent vulgarity" and "true inbred vulgarity." The first was merely an "untrained and undeveloped bluntness of body and mind," which could be overcome. But the second was apparently irremediable, and far more destructive:
There is a dreadful callousness, which, in extremity, becomes capable of every sort of bestial habit and crime, without fear, without pleasure, without horror, and without pity. It is in the blunt hand and the dead heart, in the diseased habit, in the hardened conscience that men become vulgar; they are for ever vulgar in proportion as they are incapable of sympathy--of quick understanding-- of all that, in deep insistence on the common, but most accurate term, may be called the "tact" or "touch-faculty," of body and soul.
Who sounds like Ruskin anymore, or like Carlyle, or like our own Emerson? But at a time when the faith of sensitive people was being put into question, these men, each of whom had struggled with his own dark night of the soul, were revered as sages. Their contemporaries believed they had fulfilled the aim that Ruskin held out for artists: "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.... To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion--all in one." (That a social critic might be a visionary is hard to imagine today, and if one should appear he or she is certain to be dismissed--as Christopher Lasch, our last such figure, was dismissed--for his or her "jeremiads.")
Carlyle was ecstatic about The Stones of Venice: "A strange, unexpected, and I believe, most true and excellent Sermon in Stones--as well as the best piece of schoolmastering in Architectonics....The spirit and purport of these critical studies of yours are a singular sign of the times to me, and a very gratifying one." George Eliot was a constant reader of Ruskin, and venerated him as "one of the great teachers of the day. The grand doctrines of truth and sincerity in art, and the nobleness and solemnity of our human life, which he teaches with the inspiration of a Hebrew prophet, must be stirring up young minds in a promising way." Decades later, students who had heard his lectures at Oxford would respond in even more reverential tones. One recalled being "overwhelmed with the thrilling consciousness of being in the immediate presence, and listening to the spontaneous exercise of creative genius," and another recalled being "overwhelmed with solemn awe." When Ruskin concluded his lecture, the student reported, the audience sat "absolutely silent. We no more thought of the usual thunder of applause than we should have thought of clapping an angel's song that makes the heavens be mute." Such tributes provide a glimmering of Ruskin's power, but there is no substitute for actually reading him, an experience as resistant to paraphrase as that of poetry (or prophecy or religion).
Ruskin never stopped thinking, lecturing, and writing about art; but by 1860, midway through his life, his passion for art began to wane as he became more and more tormented by the misery and the squalor that he saw all around him. He was a man possessed by the paradox of the modern age: how was it possible that material progress had brought not spiritual advancement, but rather corruption and moral blight? During the nineteenth century in England and America, this question was at the center of a dispute between champions and critics of laissez-faire capitalism.
Today the idea of moral or spiritual progress has a quaint ring. It lingers on in the bland phrase "quality of life," but only in the most attenuated form: average life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, incarceration rate, the number of homeless, of "squeegee men," of subways defaced by graffiti. And while there is still an occasional shudder at the obscene salary of a corporate executive, a sports star, or a Hollywood celebrity, the Ruskinian tone in the criticism of modern industrial society has fallen into oblivion. Yet one need only think of the latest planned community, housing development, research complex, strip mall, highway--let alone the latest work of art--to appreciate just how apposite Ruskin's criticism continues to be. What, we must ask with Ruskin, does all this monotony and shoddiness, this sterility and ugliness, tell us about the social conditions that produced it? What does it tell us about the moral and spiritual condition of the people who made such a world and of those who choose, consent, or are forced to live there?
So we still need Ruskin; but reading him is not an easy task. It is hard to recover the meaning of such unironic notions as "truth and sincerity in art, and the nobleness and solemnity of our human life." What is more, Ruskin's interests were far-flung, and his writing was anything but systematic: he cannot be shoehorned into any single academic discipline. In a letter to Carlyle in 1855, he jokingly reports that he is reading German metaphysics, poetry, political economy, cookery, music, geology, dress, agriculture, horticulture, and navigation all at once, which, as he adds, "takes time." And reading Ruskin is hard because he wrote so much--the famed Cook and Wedderburn edition numbers thirty-nine volumes, not counting his voluminous correspondence and diaries--and little of what he wrote is now available in affordable editions.
Given these obstacles, and the fact that few of the many Ruskin biographies are still in print, one turns with anticipation to Tim Hilton's second volume of Ruskin's life. (The Early Years appeared in 1985, and The Later Years has been published to coincide with the centennial of Ruskin's death.) Hilton has devoted decades of his life to Ruskin, and the fruit of his enormous labors is a year-by-year, sometimes day-by-day chronicle of Ruskin's every move from 1859, when he was already a celebrated figure, to his death in 1900. At times Hilton's research provides wonderful new details about some previously overlooked aspect of Ruskin's life--for instance, we learn much about his life at Oxford as the first Slade Professor of Fine Arts. At other times Hilton seems overwhelmed by the minutiae that he has amassed, and this can result in such oddities as lists of names of the various servants and craftsmen in Ruskin's employ, or of the names and the breeds of his most faithful dogs.
But anyone interested in why Ruskin was such a towering figure of the Victorian age--or who wants to learn something about Ruskin's ideas, upon which his reputation and his claim to our continued interest must finally rest--will get little help from Hilton's scholarly efforts. To be sure, Ruskin's many books, pamphlets, and lectures--along with his private diaries and letters--appear in Hilton's study; but not for the purpose of intellectual analysis. More often than not, Ruskin's writings serve Hilton as the basis for speculations about the inner workings of Ruskin's psyche, his most private thoughts, feelings, and obsessions, which are the real subjects of this learned but deeply frustrating biography.
Ruskin was born in 1819 in London, the only child of a Scottish couple. His father was a self-made and cultivated man, with a taste for Romantic poetry and modern painting. The fortune that he made in the sherry business provided him with the means to take his family abroad annually on leisurely tours, and to collect art himself, and to buy watercolors by Turner for his appreciative son. His mother, a devout Evangelical, adored her son; and through her he experienced his first intimations of spiritual awe, as they read the Bible aloud together every day of his youth. His mother dreamed that he would enter the clergy, and his father dreamed that he would become a poet. In 1836, when Ruskin began his studies at Oxford, his mother and cousin accompanied him, and his father joined them on weekends, as the family could not bear to be apart.
Throughout his adult life, Ruskin continued to make annual pilgrimages abroad, his favorite destinations being France, Italy, and the Alps. He was an accomplished draftsman, creating an enormous quantity of delicate and detailed drawings and watercolors of clouds, sunsets, mountains, glaciers, towers, churches, shells, flowers, trees, and herbs. He wrote countless pamphlets and books, all the while keeping a diary and maintaining a huge correspondence. He gave public lectures that were so popular that they were held in large auditoriums and were often delivered twice. He taught drawing at the Working Men's College in London (free of charge) and at Oxford, as well as giving lessons privately, often by correspondence. He supported a small retinue of artists who were deployed throughout Europe to record the details of Gothic architecture that was being destroyed either by restoration or by demolition. He was an avid collector of art, illuminated manuscripts, gemstones, meteorites, minerals, and botanical specimens, most of which he gave away to friends and museums. And he devised a utopian community dedicated to renewing England called St. George's Guild, to which he donated enormous personal resources.
It is a convention of Ruskin biography to divide this prolific career into two parts. There is Ruskin the interpreter of art, who before 1860--when he was just forty years old--had completed the magisterial studies that made his name, the five volumes of Modern Painters and The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and the three volumes of The Stones of Venice, along with poems, instructional books on drawing, and reviews of contemporary art exhibitions, in which he championed Turner's late and most controversial paintings (which were the starting point of Modern Painters) as well as the embattled Pre-Raphaelite painters. These early works did nothing less than shape a new sensibility. For the first time, early Italian "primitives," Gothic architecture, and mountains, especially the Alps, were proper objects of aesthetic contemplation. And his moving descriptions of Gothic cathedrals, which were under siege from overzealous restorers, led William Morris to found the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings.
This was also the time when Ruskin became a celebrated author and could count among his ever-growing circle of friends Turner, Carlyle, the Brownings, Coventry Patmore, and the leading Pre-Raphaelites, along with Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris; and the time when he married the beautiful Effie Gray. Biographers have spilled much ink over this unhappy marriage, which lasted only six years. Ruskin emerges from the story as self-absorbed and inattentive, and Effie as socially successful but shallow. Neglected by her husband, she fell in love with the artist John Everett Millais (a protege of Ruskin's), and left Ruskin for him, and had their marriage annulled in 1854.
And then there is Ruskin after 1860, the burning social critic who compared himself to Swift. This was the Ruskin who bewildered, angered, and finally alienated much of his audience with his outpourings of scorn and invective. Unto This Last, a violent attack on political economy that appeared in 1860, so scandalized readers that Thackeray was forced to halt its publication in Cornhill Magazine. But his most alarming work was Fors Clavigera, ninety-six letters to the "Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain," which fills two thousand pages. The publication of these monthly pamphlets began in 1871, was interrupted after seven years when Ruskin was overcome by "brain fever," and then resumed two years later, continuing until 1884.
There is nothing quite like Fors Clavigera in all of literature. It contains frenzied, satirical assaults on modern machinery, industrialism, trade, and war, and stunning insights about religion, mythology, art, and everyday life. At the same time it is intensely personal, with wild, fantastic tirades and soliloquies bordering on delirium. To Ruskin's disciples, it represented (in the words of his early biographer Frederic Harrison) "his essential gospel or message to a perverse world." To his critics, it was "evidence of brain disease and a nature disordered with Quixotic self-absorption and querulous nostrums of his own invention."
As for his personal life, these were the torturous years in which Ruskin lived out the consequences of his aesthetic and moral elevation: rejected by much of the public, he grew increasingly isolated and lonely. These were the years when he struggled to preserve not only his religious faith, but his sanity; and when he met Rose La Touche, the girl who was to become the great love of his life. He was her drawing teacher when she was nine and he was thirty-nine, and in 1866, when she turned eighteen, he proposed marriage. Her parents, pious evangelicals, disapproved of the idea, and Rose asked him to wait for her answer until she was older. Six years later, as Ruskin anxiously watched her become increasingly deranged by religious mania, she refused him; and by 1875 Rose had literally wasted away through repeated devotional fasts and died insane. Ruskin's last productive years were devoted to capturing the past that was on the verge of being lost--owing to modernization, but also to his repeated lapses into madness--in the hauntingly beautiful, unfinished memoir Praeterita. By the late 1880s, he was so incapacitated that he wrote not a single word during the final decade of his life.
This is the outline of Ruskin's life. What distinguishes Hilton's account from earlier ones is his novel claim that "the later years" are more important than the early ones, so much so that his second volume is more than twice as long as his first. Hilton believes that the official version of Ruskin presented in the massive Cook and Wedderburn edition and buttressed by the earliest biographies written by Ruskin's friends and disciples--W.G. Collingwood, E.T. Cook, and Frederic Harrison--was overly reticent when it came to the central facts of Ruskin's later years: his love for Rose and his madness. Hilton also believes these disciples never fully appreciated Fors Clavigera, which he considers to be Ruskin's "masterpiece." It is Hilton's aim to set matters straight.
Hilton is following in the footsteps of a group of Ruskin scholars who have made it their business to ferret out every last detail about Ruskin's private life. For his speculations about Ruskin's madness, Hilton relies heavily on Helen Gill Viljoen's edition of The Brantwood Diary of John Ruskin (1971). In one chapter, he reproduces Viljoen's annotations of fragmentary entries of Ruskin's diaries made while he was in the throes of madness in 1878, as if these pathetic ravings, in which Ruskin is at his most helpless, were as deserving of interpretation as his most polished lectures. And for his endless delvings into Ruskin's feelings for Rose, he relies heavily on Van Akin Burd's publication two decades ago of Rose's diaries from 1861 and 1867. As is typical of the new Ruskin scholarship, the diaries run only thirty-nine pages, while Burd's introduction fills one hundred forty-two pages. It turns out that Rose's only distinction comes from having been a girl who was loved by Ruskin. It is the rare private life, and the very rare adolescent life, that can withstand intense scrutiny without becoming banal; and the more Hilton speculates about her illnesses, her praying, her fasting, her letters, her notebooks, and her thoughts about Ruskin, the less interesting the girl becomes.
Why ruskin found this sickly, tormented young woman so attractive is a secret that cannot be unlocked, no matter how mercilessly her privacy and Ruskin's are invaded. And merciless is the word for Hilton's approach. He thinks nothing of printing letters to Joan Severn, Ruskin's beloved cousin and devoted caretaker, in which Ruskin indulges in a kind of baby talk that was a bond of intimacy between them. Ruskin speaks of a little girl with "pitty eggie pegs in brown tights." Hilton seizes on this as if it were a public confession of Ruskin's "predilections," as he calls it.
Since Ruskin's sexuality is never far from Hilton's mind, he imagines that it is just as often on Ruskin's mind, even though Hilton lacks the historical evidence to warrant such musings. When Joan is about to be married, Hilton comments: "Revolted by adult physical love, Ruskin could not come to terms with the fact that Joan and Arthur would henceforth share a bed. Perhaps this is why he arranged that they should spend the first week of their honeymoon under the roof of a clergyman." Hilton goes so far as to imagine the virginal, pious young Rose wondering about the same thing: "Surely two thoughts about her suitor were constantly on Rose's mind." And the most important of those thoughts was: "What was the secret of his sexuality?"
What in the end is gained from all this prying and speculating? Not very much, since no matter how hard Hilton tries to plumb the psychic depths, his analyses remain trapped at the surface. We learn that Rose suffered from "anorexia nervosa" and that Ruskin was a "pedophile." Hilton thus reduces the confounding, mysterious aspects of Ruskin's private life to familiar clinical terms. This raises methodological questions so profound that they are philosophical questions. Are the minds of others really so transparent? Are some things so personal that they necessarily elude an outsider's grasp?
These questions are equally pressing when it comes to Hilton's treatment of Ruskin's mental collapse. In chapter after chapter, he reprints passages from Ruskin's diaries and letters as well as from letters of family, friends, and doctors that reveal the terrifying, grueling details of Ruskin's often violent fits of madness, thereby enabling us to observe humiliating incidents never meant for curious onlookers. It is not that Ruskin's madness is inappropriate for a biography. His "brain fevers," along with incessant attacks of illness and bitter despair, were central events of his life. Ruskin himself wrote at length and publicly about them, and his early biographers never shied away from these unhappy matters. Certainly it would have been worthwhile to try to grasp what Ruskin meant when he spoke almost rhapsodically of his "visions" or when he spoke with a fury bordering on despair that he had been driven insane because "nothing came of [his] work," because "nobody believed a word of [it]." Ruskin's madness also might have provided a lens into the Victorian cult of the prophet-seer, whose exquisite sensitivity makes him suffer more than ordinary mortals, causing him to wrestle with wide issues of life and death, to speak out against misery and injustice, only to be condemned by public opinion, leaving him more lonely and despairing, with the tragic result of madness or suicide.
But those are not Hilton's concerns. He believes, without ever explaining why, that "we may know Ruskin best when he is insane or near to insane." And to get at this essential Ruskin, Hilton repeatedly offers the most direct unmediated experience possible of Ruskin's torments: page after excruciating page of the "Brantwood Diary," in which Ruskin is wild with delirium. After printing the fragments that Ruskin recorded during two nightmarish days in February 1878, Hilton plays the material for all its dramatic effect: "The diary brings us to the abyss of Saturday morning. We know that Ruskin's mind is about to break...." Apparently Hilton accepts the Romantic caricature of genius, according to which greatness must always be inflected by abjection and deviance. Why else would he present his subject "naked and deranged on the morning of Saturday, 23 February"? Hilton turns tragedy into spectacle.
The act of exposure alters the nature of some things. What is emotionally fraught in private may become histrionic or grotesque when it is served up for public consumption. By making Ruskin's "attraction to pre-pubescent girls" and "mental breakdowns" the main story of his later life, Hilton has provided a misleading impression, a historically unjust impression, of those years. Surely the biographer must present a picture of his or her subject--no matter how critical--that would be recognizable to those who lived at the time, even if they could not have presented the picture in this particular light. Hilton's psycho-pathological approach is another variety of presentism, which not only limits our access to the past but also betrays condescension and even contempt for worlds different from our own.
One result of Hilton's narrow focus is that an entire line of Ruskin appreciation simply disappears from the historical record. We learn nothing about why Carlyle, Emerson, and Tolstoy were among Ruskin's many admirers, or about his enormous influence. After all, Ruskin societies dedicated to the study of his works once flourished in Britain and in America, and his writings became an inspiration for Arts and Crafts movements and modernist design and architecture. After his death, Ruskin's blistering social criticism was adopted by the left (an ironic outcome, since Ruskin called himself "a violent Tory of the old school--Walter Scott's school ... and Homer's"). George Bernard Shaw was a disciple, and a survey of the first Parliament in which the British Labour Party gained seats revealed that Unto This Last had a greater influence upon them than Das Kapital. And Unto This Last also "marked the turning point" in the life of Gandhi, who translated it and declared that "it made me transform my life." Ruskin's exquisite literary sensibility captured Proust, who knew parts of Praeterita by heart and also translated Ruskin.
Yet it is not only the public figure who disappears under the barrage of unseemly conjectures. The private man also has little room to surface. Personal reminiscences are rare in Hilton, largely because of his disdain for what he regards as the "pious" tone of Ruskin's intimates. Thus we hear almost nothing from Charles Eliot Norton, the American whom Ruskin called his "first real tutor" and dearest friend. Ruskin's sympathy with Norton was such that he made him his literary executor. But Hilton has almost a personal animus for Norton, and for Joan Severn as well, because after Ruskin's death they burned his most revealing letters, which means that we will never get to the bottom of Ruskin's "obsession" with Rose. For Norton and Severn, of course, their act was one of love and devotion: they wanted to protect Ruskin from the cold eyes of curious strangers.
Hilton's decision to banish friends such as Norton to the margins of Ruskin's life deprives his story of the kind of historical detail that is the lifeblood of biography. In a letter in 1869, for example, Norton spoke of Ruskin's sweetness, generosity, and kindness, giving as an example the way he sent the Norton family "a quantity of beautiful water-colours--William Hunt's, his own, and Turner's work--to hang on our walls, and as long as we stayed in England he supplied us with all the drawings of this sort we desired." Yet he did not shy away from the darker aspects of his friend, who he had come to believe was melancholy in the extreme, "one whose nature seemed to have been so sensitized to pain by the experience of life." Still, Norton's portrait is not all darkness; he describes also Ruskin's sense of humor, fun, and gaiety. He tells of a visit that Ruskin paid his family, accompanied by two "vivacious" young ladies. The two girls were singing at the piano at the other end of the room, but their performance of a "lively Negro melody" did not suit Ruskin. So, Norton reports, he "corrected them, when suddenly Miss Joan ran across the room, seized him by both hands, dragged him after her and compelled him to join them, which he did with excellent grace."
In the preface to his edition of Letters of John Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton, which was published in 1904, Norton tried to take account of Ruskin's nature, which he declared was "in the highest degree complex." To prepare readers for Ruskin's less attractive qualities--his arrogance, vanity, and impetuousness--he evoked the figure of the creative genius, noting that Ruskin was "a personage altogether exceptional. The measuring rod which serves for common men will not answer for him." Norton then offered a final assessment of his friend's life: "Taken all together [the letters] form a tragic record of the perplexities of a great and generous soul, the troubles of a tender heart, the spendthrift use and at last the failure of exceptional powers." Norton put the matter even more poignantly to Leslie Stephen just after Ruskin's death: "The whole retrospect of [his life] is pathetic; waste, confusion, ruin of one of the most gifted and sweetest natures the world ever knew. He was a kind of angel gone astray; meant for the thirteenth century he got delayed on the way and when he finally arrived was a white-winged anachronism."
It is this judgment that marks the unbridgeable divide between Norton's vision of Ruskin and Hilton's: what Norton mourns as tragic waste, Hilton celebrates as creative excess. And so it is that people who have never read a word of Ruskin will now know that his marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation, and that he had a taste for young girls, and that he lost his mind. Hilton's biography has only given them more to gossip about, while Ruskin's beautiful books rot in the libraries.
Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang)