Monday, December 05, 2011

ruskin crossroads (revised)

Shortly after I posted that last post, I launched into Fors Clavigera, Volume I, 1 January 1871. And it was grand to revisit the texts of those early letters. I had to rein myself in, & allowed myself no more than 3 letters a day. But earlier today I found myself reading the Christmas 1871 letter, getting depressed by the actual vicinity of the holidays, & realizing that if I kept up this pace I would entirely lose the chronological thread of my Ruskin reading, here in this most crucial decade.

So I've revised my plan: Instead of reading a Library Edition volume of Fors, then returning to his concurrent writings & lectures, I'll read a year's worth of Fors (Library Edition vol. 27 contains Fors for 1871-1873) and then that same year's lectures & miscellaneous writings. It will be a wobbly, back-n-forth process, but I think it'll give me a clearer picture of the man's intellectual movements than otherwise. So now that I've read Fors for 1871, I've turned back to Volume 22 of the Library Edition, & will read roughly the first half – Lectures on Landscape, delivered at Oxford in the Lent 1871 term, and "The Relationship of Michael Angelo and Tintoret," delivered later that year. (He didn't seem to give any lectures in the Fall of 1871.)

One of the advantages of this plan is that the introductions to the lecture volumes – roughly 20 through 24 – are not merely overviews of the texts contained in each volume, but contain a more or less complete running biography of Ruskin. (Indeed, E. T. Cook, who wrote the introductions, would later combine their biographical narrative material into an excellent and straightforward two-volume biography.)

All this would be easier, of course, if I had at hand at decent chronology of Ruskin. The internets (specifically, the eBay) yielded up a copy of JL Bradley's A Ruskin Chronology (Macmillan, 1997) the other week, and I'm in total agreement with the general editor's preface to the series ("Author Chronologies") to which that volume belongs:
Most biographies are ill adapted to serve as works of reference... There are times... when anyone reading for business or pleasure needs to check a point quickly or obtain a rapid overview of part of an author's life or career; and at such moments turning over the pages of a biography can be a time-consuming and frustrating occupation.
Alas, I will refrain from commenting on the job Bradley's done of it; suffice it to say that he's vague when I want him to be precise, and precise when couldn't care less. (And I'm thinking that maybe I ought to publish the detailed chronologies and databases I generated when I was working on the LZ biography.)

One of the minor irritants is the fact that Bradley is that most unreliable of chroniclers – a profound partisan. He's a Ruskinian thru and thru. When it comes to 1854 – the year in which Effie Ruskin finally fled her husband and filed suit to annul the marriage – his partisanship becomes unmistakeable. Effie found a friend and councilor in Lady Eastlake, who mounted something of a drawing-room publicity campaign on her behalf after she had left Ruskin; after all, anyone who's read more than a couple Victorian novels knows what an act of desperate courage it would be for a woman to leave her husband in 1854. Bradley's summation: "May: In the aftermath of the scandal Lady Eastlake continues to revel in spreading information."

His July 15 entry is priceless: "A judge, sitting for 'A Hearing of the Cause', declares 'the pretended marriage of [John Ruskin] and [Euphemia Gray] a nullity' and ECGR 'free from all bonds of matrimony'. In the verbal jungle of the case the 'incurable impotency' of JR is alleged." Well, I've read that judgment. It's remarkably clear and straightforward; no jungle about it, more a kind of Saharan simplicity, if indeed couched in legalese. What depths of sympathy have driven Bradley, normally a level editorial scholar, to such contortions? Say it straight, man: "The judge annulled the marriage on the grounds of JR's 'incurable impotency.'" Period.

Of course, one has to retain the scare quotes around "incurable impotency," for Ruskin, in an affadavit to his own lawyers, had strenuously insisted on his own potency, offering to demonstrate if so desired (!): it was just Effie for whom he couldn't – or wouldn't – perform the conjugal obligations. Needless to say, this is an issue around which an older generation of passionate Ruskinians have danced many elaborate dances.

On the other hand, reading Cook's beautifully written, deeply sympathetic, and critically aware biographical introductions to the Library Edition, one is often brought up short as well. Of Ruskin's illness and emotional strife in 1871, Cook comments "The pain to which he referred was suffered in the region of the affections, for this year was a dark one in the chequered story of his romance." Got that? And that's all you'll get, at least from Cook.

The "affection" in question was for Rose La Touche, the Irish girl with whom Ruskin had fallen in love perhaps a decade before – when she was still in her middle teens. The story of Ruskin's passion for Rose, who was fanatically evangelical, perhaps anorexic, and in the end mentally ill, has been largely omitted in the Library Edition – though Ruskin showed his overwhelming cathexis for this troubled young woman by embroidering images of roses through all of his later works. He had written Sesame and Lilies with her in mind; he would come to identify her with St. Ursula, as painted by Carpaccio, and with the tomb statue of Ilaria del Carretto by Jacopo della Quercia (in Lucca); after her death in 1875, she would become his Beatrice.

But Edward Cook was writing his introductions under the watchful eye of Ruskin's heir, Joan Severn (née Agnew), Ruskin's cousin, who had married the artist Arthur Severn. (Severn's father Joseph had tended Keats in his final illness in Rome.) Joan had nursed Ruskin through his bouts of madness, and through the long twilight decline of his last years. On some level she probably blamed his breakdowns on Rose La Touche's rejection of his proposals of marriage. And she was not at all interested in having the story of Ruskin's painful and awkward pursuit of this Irish girl told – no more than J. L. Bradley is interested in presenting a balanced account of Ruskin's ridiculous – and for Effie, nearly tragic – wedding night.

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