Sunday, May 19, 2013

more – yes – Ruskin

It's become abundantly clear to me that one could make a life's work, not on Ruskin, but on secondary Ruskin materials alone. That's a bit of an exaggeration, I guess – one could probably read thru the whole corpus in a couple of years, if one didn't do anything else – but there is an awful lot out there. One of the great attractions of doing LZ in graduate school was that I could master the secondary literature in no more than a few weeks' time; and the really good secondary literature probably in a single week. Not so with Ruskin; of course, there's been a century more for the critical and biographical studies to accumulate.

Over this spring semester I've worked my way thru a few things, notably most of the editions Van Akin Burd has edited – Ruskin's letters to the girls at the Winnington School, Rose La Touche's diaries, and a strange book entitled Christmas Story, which is essentially a series of letters from JR recounting his paranormal experiences in Venice in 1876-7. Burd's MO in each of these latter two volumes is the same: under the guise of editing a fairly short text, he presents a behemoth introduction which in itself amounts to a monograph, then crushes the text itself under a mountain of annotation & commentary. This is okay for the La Touche texts; Burd's edition is the most complete account of Ruskin's late love affair. It's rather more tiresome for the "Xmas Story," whose introduction goes very far afield indeed in exploring the most tenuous connections JR had with the spiritualist community.

I've also been working thru Helen Gill Viljoen's editions of JR. I read her Ruskin's Scottish Heritage, and now I'm mired in her edition of JR's Brantwood Diaries. I may take a break – aside from the passages leading up to his breakdown, it's pretty dreary reading – and read her edition of his correspondence with Froude.
At any rate, most recently I tackled JR's letters to a longtime friend, Lady Pauline Trevelyan, as edited by Virginia Surtees. And realized before getting very far that I was reading another "Effie" book – that PT was one of his confidants in the wake of the breakup of his marriage in 1854. Now I'd already read some of the canonical texts on that event – Admiral William James's (Effie's grandson's) The Order of Release, and the rather weird response by JH Whitehouse, Vindication of Ruskin (one of the most astonishing books I know – Whitehouse reprints JR's note to his solicitors as if it were a "vindication," seemingly unaware that the note's major effect is to make Ruskin look like the biggest dick on the planet) – and I'd even read Suzanne Fagence Cooper's potboiler of a biography. But I'd never tackled the primary source on the business: Mary Lutyens's Millais and the Ruskins, the second of a trilogy of books (the first was Effie in Venice, covering their first married years, the third The Ruskins and the Grays, covering their courtship) on the Effie-John marriage.

Millais and the Ruskins is actually quite excellent: scrupulously edited, very well-written indeed, and seemingly quite balanced. Lutyens is careful to give JR credit wherever it's due, and to draw attention to any lapses on Effie's part. Her sympathy – quite rightly – is with Effie (as history's has been – Emma Thompson's film version, with Dakota Fanning as Effie, should be out any day now), but she's doing her best to present a narrative – or really an interlinked series of documents (letters, etc.) with commentary – that gives a fair deal to everyone involved. So it was quite a jolt, after breezing thru Lutyens in a couple of enthralled days, to return to Surtees's edition of the Trevelyan correspondence (under the anodyne title Reflections of a Friendship) and find a full-throated defense of Ruskin every bit as sniffy as Whitehouse's back in the 1940s. Sigh.

Ruskin was a creep in so many ways; he was also incredibly generous. He was a genius, but he was also, in many ways, an idiot. I find myself liking him more and more, the more I read, and at the same time disliking him. I try to hold the two emotions in balance, at once, rather than swinging back & forth in the manner Edel describes in his Principia Biographia. But it's never boring – tho god knows some of the letters these editors feel compelled to print are so trivial that they would have been better tossed into a Jamesian bonfire.

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