Allan Massie

Aesthete with a Cause

If the bicentenary of John Ruskin’s birth had fallen twenty years ago, it might have received little attention except from art critics, though I suppose some would have picked over the story of his strange, unhappy and unconsummated marriage to Effie Gray. Back in 1999, ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and in the heyday of Tony Blair, we were still complacently talking of the twin triumphs of liberal democracy and capitalism. But now, years after the Iraq War and the financial crash of 2008, which left everybody but the bankers and the very rich poorer and led to years of austerity, things are certainly not what they used to be. Ruskin is relevant again, and the bicentenary of his birth on 8 February should give occasion for thought as well as celebration.

It will not be the aesthete and art critic who is celebrated, though doubtless attention will be paid to his writings on art and architecture, which so delighted Proust that he translated some of them (with his mother’s help – her grasp of English was better than his). No, it will be the social and economic critic, the man whose book Unto This Last changed Mahatma Gandhi’s understanding of the world. This Ruskin speaks directly to our troubled times and our divided and embittered society. In that book he deplored what he saw as laissez-faire capitalism’s ‘art of establishing maximum inequality’ and declared that ‘the rash and absurd assumption that such inequalities are necessarily advantageous, lies at the root of most of the popular fallacies on the subject of political economy’.

Thomas Carlyle, whose own masterpiece Past and Present undoubtedly influenced the development of Ruskin’s thought, judged that ‘no other man in England that I meet has in him the divine rage against iniquity, falsity and baseness that Ruskin has, and that every man ought to have’. So, given that we are living in a time once again characterised by just these deplorables, a world where lies and fake news smother the truth, Ruskin seems to speak to us once more. One could add that some of our artists today might do well to consider Ruskin’s view that all art is a form of praise, and even act upon it, beauty being preferable to ugliness.

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Ruskin, like so many Victorians, was a polymath, ranging over many disciplines, and was also wonderfully energetic, his Complete Works filling a long bookshelf even when published in a beautiful small format and printed on delicious India paper. One is constantly amazed and indeed abashed by the energy and productivity of so many great Victorians – even the hypochondriacs among them. They make you – well, me – feel inferior, sometimes even rebuked. But then, their circumstances were different. I remember something that T H White wrote on, I think, the first page of The Age of Scandal, his entertainingly gossipy book about 18th-century England. He had recently overheard a conversation between two bishops. They were discussing which was worse: washing the dishes or drying them. One can be pretty certain that no Victorian bishop ever had to do the washing-up. There were servants to do that for them. Middle-class Victorian men were spared many of the time-consuming duties that afflict their counterparts today: no school runs, no trudges round Tesco. Ruskin, like his admirers Carlyle and Proust, was childless, but even Dickens, that remarkably energetic father, never, one supposes, changed a nappy.

On the other hand, think of the actual labour of writing all those long books by hand, having to dip your pen every few words into the inkwell. There are still authors who write their first draft the old-fashioned way by hand, but there are surely fewer of them with each generation. I still make notes by hand, copy sentences from newspapers, magazines and books for future reference. But I write so little by hand that my handwriting, never good, is now shockingly bad, so much so that I often find what I have jotted down to be illegible. So the thought of writing a novel as long as Our Mutual Friend by hand is daunting. How much more so when one calls to mind that heroine of literature, or literary slave, Sofia Tolstoy, who was required to copy out all seven drafts of War and Peace. Even so, after a day’s copying duties she would find time and energy to write pages of her diary, often complaining of her husband’s beastliness.

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However much attention Ruskin’s bicentenary deservedly gets, it is likely to be eclipsed by the bicentenary of Queen Victoria’s birth on 24 May. Whatever one thinks of Victoria and the age to which her name is given, one thing is surely clear: she created, not necessarily of intention, the monarchy as we still know it. Few respected the uncles who preceded her: George IV was an intelligent aesthete but selfish, idle and extremely unpopular; his younger brother William IV was popular but a buffoon. Victoria brought respectability to the institution. But she might never have been born. The death in 1817 of her cousin Charlotte meant there was no living legitimate grandchild of George III. George IV (still regent in 1817) was estranged from his wife (in fact, he loathed her). George III’s next son, Frederick, Duke of York, was also not happily married, and his wife anyway was past childbearing. The third son, William, Duke of Clarence, had lots of children, but none legitimate, his relationship with the popular actress Dorothea Jordan never having been formalised in law. The next son, Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, had lived with a French lady, Madame de Saint-Laurent, for almost thirty years, though they seem to have been childless. Following Charlotte’s death, he deemed it his duty to marry. There’s a very funny account in the papers of Thomas Creevey of a conversation in which Kent proclaims that he is ready to do his duty – so long as Parliament will pay his debts and make provision for Madame de Saint-Laurent. Agreement was reached. Madame de Saint-Laurent was pensioned off. A German princess was found and recruited. And the result was Victoria.

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