Saturday, April 03, 2010

Ruskin & pubic hair

[William Etty, Female Nude (1820)]

John D'Agata was at Our Fair University some weeks ago, where he read a sustained stretch from About a Mountain, his long "lyric essay" revolving around the plans to use Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste storage facility. It was a riveting reading. Now, I'm still not quite sure what the "lyric essay" means, which is fine – I think it has something to do with elaborate digressions, lots of dictions shifting, & occasionally falling into meter – but I liked what I heard from D'Agata. It had the effect of jolting me from the steady round of things I've been writing & meaning to write – critical analyses, bits of literary history – to hankering to do something Montaignesque, Davenportian, even Ruskinian: a big, rangy, maddenly digressive essay on something that's been interesting me for ages. So why not write about Ruskin and pubic hair?

"I was told in art school that it was her pubic hair," Martin Corless-Smith opined to me in Boise back in February. The reason, that is, that Ruskin never consummated his 1848 marriage to Euphemia ("Effie") Gray. During the annulment proceedings 6 years later, Effie Ruskin testified that her husband told her "he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening April 10th." Ruskin, in his own affidavit, said that "though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it." But the doctors who examined Effie in 1854 and pronounced her a virgin noted nothing unusual about her "person"; she would go on to have 8 children with John Everett Millais. So how then had Ruskin misimagined the female form? what was the source of his "disgust"? what about Effie's body checked his "passion"?

For a while in the last century, the theory that Ruskin was freaked out that his wife had pubic hair – he knew only the hairless mounds of classical nude statuary and renaissance painting, the story went – had some currency (Mary Lutyens, who published three full books on the Ruskin marriage, is the source of this one). It's a story that has had legs – I know it's figured in at least 3 poems over the last couple decades (for the record, by John Matthias, Ben Downing, & yr. humble blogger). But Ruskin told his parents in a letter that he had undergraduate acquaintances at Oxford whose drawers were full of "pictures of naked bawds" – presumably unclipped ones. And the Victorian painter William Etty (see above) did pictures which presented the female form in fully unshorn form. So the pubic hair thesis, if not quite untenable, is rather less than convincing.

Was Effie having her period, as one scholar whose work I can't lay hands on speculates? Was it something else, heaven knows what? The precise reason for Ruskin's apotropaic reaction to his wife's anatomy is finally as unrecoverable as the first draft of Book I of Carlyle's French Revolution (which John Stuart Mill's maid burnt as scrap paper). And that's one of the reasons I find it so fascinating. Imagine – an essay ranging over the history of early Victorian representations of the nude (with special attention to pubic hair), over Victorian pornography (the "naked bawds" of the Oxford undergrads), over the sexual preparations & expectations of the young & hopelessly naive products of evangelical Scottish families – & going from there to Ruskin's discovery of JMW Turner's pornographic – yes, okay, he's a great artist, so I should say "erotic," but golly, some of them are just plain pornographic – sketches & the long and murky history of whether or not Ruskin burned them.

So that was what was on my mind when I stumbled over this article, an announcement in the Guardian that Emma Thompson has scripted a new film, now in production, that focuses on Ruskin & his marriage – or rather, on Effie Ruskin & her marriage to the critic. Now I yield to no one in my infatuated admiration for Emma Thompson, but I have deep misgivings about this project. Thompson's husband Greg Wise, who's producing the film & playing Ruskin, seems to have only a hazy grasp of his subject, judging by his remarks here: "He is a pin-up for many artists and was Gandhi's hero too." At any rate, if there's a major film in the works on the subject, maybe I should stop ruminating on Ruskin & pubic hair & get back to actually reading his works.

On that front, I'm working thru Modern Painters II again, this time in the Library Edition, after a detour thru the bulk of the mid-period works on political economy. I'm also trying to tackle the secondary literature in a less scattershot manner than previously. For instance, I've just finished John D. Rosenberg's The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin's Genius (Columbia UP, 1961), which can be said to have inaugurated "serious" modern Ruskin studies. It's a very smart book indeed, a cleanly written and enthusiastic overview of JR's career. Rosenberg doesn't mince words when he finds Ruskin falling into silliness or incoherence; nor, a bit more wincingly for me, does he restrain himself from gushing when he finds Ruskin compelling, particularly on the political economy: Unto This Last is great because "Its power is that of truth [my emphasis], as relevant to our age of superabudance as to Ruskin's of relative scarcity." Ouch. But then again – he's right, isn't he? and when's the last time you read a critic use the word "truth" without a trace of irony (& isn't that a trifle refreshing)?


Vance Maverick said...

Thanks for clearing up those legends for us -- I'm surprised to find that I was rather attached to both (the hair, and the bonfire). If you do this, don't let the disingenuous sense of "erotic" pass unchallenged.

Does "pin-up" have some other sense in the Old Country? It seems especially inapt in this connection. Perhaps Wise said "pre-nup", or some other more plausible syllables that the reporter miscaught.

Anonymous said...

R., I aver, completely misunderstood JMWT amid his flights of flimsy fulminations - in love with his own rhetoric.
Others more qualified than I, confirm that he was equally wrong about Venitian artists and on other subjects.
He - against JMWT wishes - hitched his teenage enthusiasm to England's greatest artist - an opportunist per excellence.
Douglass Montrose-Graem
Founder in 1973
The Turner Museum
PS Destroying some of JMWT's erotic work was one of the great cultural crimes of the century.
Deserting the Trusteeship of JMWT's estate was an act cowardice.
Ruskin - the multiple criminal - RIP.

Steven Fama said...

"Lyric essay" for D'Agata's book also because he at the back explains how he conflated, combined, and time-shifted events. At least one reviewer -- for the Washington Post has suggested doing that undermines the presentation. I think it does too.

plainwater said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.