Sunday, January 20, 2013


[James Spates]

One of the few treasures in my Ruskin collection – and it's a working library, not a collector's treasure-trove – is a little vanity-press production from 1966, The Ruskin-Froude Friendship as Represented Through Letters. I picked it up in The Strand the year before last, along with a bunch of other Ruskiniana. It's inscribed by its author/editor, Helen Gill Viljoen "To Dr. Rosenberg – With kind regard and best wishes." Of course, that's John D. Rosenberg, author of The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin's Genius (1961), the book that's widely regarded as having kicked off contemporary Ruskin criticism, & a book which would start Rosenberg's career as a distinguished Victorianist. In 1966, Rosenberg was a young scholar; he had joined the Columbia faculty four years earlier; Viljoen was 67, & had retired from Queens College the year before. Since 1929, she had been working on Dark Star, a revolutionary biography of John Ruskin.

I'm most of the way thru James L. Spates's very strange and very absorbing The Imperfect Round: Helen Gill Viljoen's Life of Ruskin. I'll be frank: this is a weird book. It's a smart book, if a bit eccentric. Spates is a professor of sociology, not a literary scholar, and he's sometimes a bit wobbly on the norms of the discipline – how to insert comments and emendations into quoted letters, how to cite cross-references in footnotes, and so forth. And he's not a critic or theorist of biography. Nonetheless, this is one of the most compelling pieces of writing about biography I've encountered in a very long time.

Helen Gill Viljoen (pronounced "Fil-yoon," if you were wondering) was an American Ruskin scholar. She's remembered for three books: a massive and incredibly detailed edition of Ruskin's late Brantwood Diary (Yale UP, 1971); a little book on Ruskin's friendship with Froude (Pageant, 1966); and Ruskin's Scottish Heritage (U of Illinois P, 1956), a large-scale "prelude" to a full-scale biography of Ruskin that she never wrote, or never brought to the point of publication.

Viljoen visited Brantwood in 1929, when Ruskin's library and papers were still in the house, pretty much in the state Ruskin had left them. Well, in the state Cook and Wedderburn had left them, after going thru everything in the course of preparing their 39-volume Library Edition of his works. She wasn't planning on doing much research; she had just finished her PhD at Wisconsin (on Modern Painters) and thought perhaps to follow up on some of her hunches about Ruskin's reading. But in the course of going thru the bookcases, she discovered Ruskin's diaries (which had never been published), and in reading thru them – and pretty much transcribing them whole over the next few weeks – she came to the conclusion that the Library Edition editors had systematically distorted the record of Ruskin's life – repressing the story of his obsession with Rose La Touche, airbrushing out the terrific tension in his relationship with his parents.

What she had in the diaries, Viljoen decided, was the basis for a new, revisionary life of Ruskin, one that would completely eclipse the "standard" lives of WG Collingwood and ET Cook, and would sweep away the handful of Stracheyan productions written in the first decades of the century. So for the rest of her life she was laboring towards a massive, multi-volume biography that would capture the true essence of Ruskin, that would set straight the mistaken record that almost all Ruskin scholars were relying on.

Viljoen's career, as Spates presents it, is a tragedy of an over-scrupulous scholar who could never stop researching, could never sit down and just write the book that she had been working her entire adult life to make real. Decade after decade, Viljoen accumulates more and more notes for her Ruskin biography, comes upon new caches of letters and stacks of documents. Time and again, she gets sidetracked: Before she writes the biography proper, she needs to transcribe and edit all of the sermon notebooks Ruskin kept as a teenager; and then she has to account for all of his ancestors, and remove various myths surrounding his parents' background; and then, disgusted with the way most of his diaries have been edited and published, she has to do her own massive job on his "Brantwood" diary, appending full biographical sketches of every person mentioned, annotating every single reference in his maddening allusive text (that last project seems to have eaten up around a decade of her working life).

Every job takes longer than she's planned; every ancillary project ends up sidetracking her from writing the biography proper. It's almost heartbreaking, really. Part of me admires Viljoen unreservedly: in her desire from absolute accuracy, and complete thoroughness, she's kind of a patron saint of scholars. But even scholarship has to stop somewhere. There's no such thing as total knowledge, & the desire for total knowledge can keep one from offering any of one's knowledge to the world in print.

Spates clearly reads Viljoen as kind of an unsung hero of Ruskin studies, and I'm inclined to agree. But my admiration for her is rather less whole-hearted than his. Yes, she probably knew more about Ruskin than anyone else alive – maybe more than anyone else ever will know. But the inability to know when to stop, to call a more or less temporary halt to the quest for information & to set down what one already knows, is at least as important a faculty of the scholar as the drive for continued research.

And frankly, I'm less than convinced that Viljoen's critical acumen is all that Spates makes it out to be. As he narrates in The Imperfect Round, Viljoen spent a number of years pursuing an allegorical reading of Ruskin's work, in which almost all of his writings, from the early Poetry of Architecture thru Praeterita (& even including his private diaries) are coded allegories of his own family, & later of his pursuit of Rose La Touche. Viljoen never published any of this work – she told everyone she knew about it, and received scant encouragement from the scholarly community – but apparently she clung to this reading to the very end. It distracted her from working on Ruskin's life for a number of years, and heaven knows how it would have affected the biography she never really wrote. The very notion of an extended allegory, running thru and structuring all of Ruskin's works, strikes me as incredibly unlikely; it goes against everything I know about how Ruskin wrote and thought, every intuition I've had about his work over the past decade of reading him. He's simply not that kind of writer. Alas, there's something all too Casaubon-like in this bit of Viljoen's intellectual history.

So I have reservations, both about Helen Gill Viljoen's work and about James Spates's full-throated praise of that work. But The Imperfect Round is a book every Ruskinian needs to own, and indeed every biographer ought to read. It's the most absorbing cautionary tale about the art of life-writing I've encountered, and gives us in scrupulous detail the moving human tragedy of a gifted writer's encounter with, and ultimate absorption in, the endless vortex of the record of the past.

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