JOHN RUSKIN; The Early Years, 1819-1859. By Tim Hilton.Yale University Press. 301 pp. $22.50
IN THE WHOLESOME scholarly exhumation of the Victorians in the past half-century, one of the most dramatic rehabilitations has been of the reputation of John Ruskin. This critic of art, architecture, and society had dwindled in public estimation into a quaint word-painter, but now we are beginning to realize that he was as original as his contemporaries believed. Unfortunately, the scholarly industry that restored his reputation has also made it painfully apparent that he was one of the oddest in a century of eccentrics and that the sad insanity of his old age was clearly foreshadowed in his early life. It is the triumph of this fine new biography to make both sides of him fascinating and believable. It can be read with equal pleasure by those solely interested in his personal life and those with a passion for intellectual history, although it will appeal most to readers willing to recognize the obvious but currently unpopular truth that personality and intellectual conviction are mutually dependent, in short, those who believe that an author and his life are relevant to what he wrote.
Tim Hilton apparently plans to publish two volumes; this one introduces Ruskin's ambitious, pietistic family, his financially snug suburban childhood as the only offspring of elderly parents, then his undergraduate years, during which his mother moved to Oxford each term, so that he could spend every evening in filial conversation with her until the college gates were closing. This first 40 years included writing Modern Painters, Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice, and his defense of the Pre-Raphaelites (of whom he actually knew little). In this first half of his life he began developing his deeply Puritanical ethic of art, according to which the work is to be judged by the attitude and morality of the artist or workman, rather than by the product itself. Running parallel to this was his attempt to erase the distinction between fine and applied art. Still to come was the logical conclusion to these tenets, the belief that before art could properly exist, a fit society for it had to be brought to birth.
This volume also covers Ruskin's youthful love of Admated marriage to Effie Gray that ended after six years with an annulment on the grounds of "incurable impotency," apparently leaving him blandly unperturbed by the anguish it had caused her. At the conclusion of the volume Ruskin is on the verge of his pathetic pedophiliac infatuation with Rose La Touche, the 10-year-old daughter of one of his Oxford contemporaries.
Not surprisingly, in the past the history of his erotic life has generated more indignation than understanding. When they were traveling on the Continent he found that architecture had more charms for him than Effie, and he confessed that he had "no heart nor eyes for anything but stone." His polite neglect of the feelings of a young and passionate woman was intolerable, but it is improbable that he ever really understood what she was going through, and her high spirits often took the form of social impropriety, even vulgarity, which grated on his conventional upbringing. What one would most like to know is how conscious he was of thrusting her into dangerous proximity with the painter John Millais, whom she married a year after the annulment.
WITHOUT SEEMING to condone Ruskin's behavior, Tim Hilton is urbanely unshockable about it, sensibly taking the attitude that the reader can see what was mean and pitiful without the help of a wagging forefinger from the author. By its lack of partisanship, this becomes the sanest, most balanced account of the deeply painful marriage that I have read.
Hilton brings much fresh information to this book through the patient re-examination of previously known sources and the discovery of new material. By his splendid and leisurely assembly of small details and supporting characters, he saturates the book with the flavor of Victorian life. Inevitably, the reader is reminded of the crammed furnishings of rooms in the last century, of the accumulation of detail in its paintings and poetry, and even of the combination of eclectic ideas that made up its intellectual ferment. But the sheer plenitude of Victorian collections was often in danger of becoming clutter, and Tim Hilton doesn't always avoid this risk: he becomes so fascinated with each person Ruskin met that he feels compelled to give a biographical background for even the least important acquaintance, so that the narrative flow is often held up by the silt of unnecessary personal detail.
Nor is it always safe to rely on the details intended to make Ruskin's life more immediate. For example, we are told that Tennyson met Ruskin in "1855, the year in which he succeeded Rogers as laureate." But Tennyson became poet laureate in 1850 in succession to Wordsworth (there were giants in those days!); Samuel Rogers, who died in 1855, had never held the post. What is important is the year of the meeting of Tennyson and Ruskin, which is probably correct enough, but the erroneous embroidery of the bald date makes one momentarily distrust the author's accuracy.
Dubieties like these aside -- and usually they are minor -- this is as good a life of Ruskin as we are apt to have for a long time. In his preface Hilton writes that the emphasis of his full biography is "on the later rather than the earlier years of Ruskin's life." If the second volume is even better than his, we have a rare treat in store.