As an impressionable teenager, flicking through a copy of the Stones of Venice, I found an entry on a palazzo which had impressed me on a recent visit. 'This palace, formerly one of the most notable in Venice, was rebuilt in the Pagan style, and is now devoid of interest,' announced Ruskin. Well, I didn't know much about architecture, but I knew that the Palazzo Vendramin was not devoid of interest. Only half a decade later, under the patient guidance of Mark Swenarton, did I realise that Ruskin's greatness lies in his enormous capacity to stir passion.
Tim Hilton's magisterial John Ruskin: The Later Years gives some indication of this characteristic, though Hilton concentrates more on Ruskin's internal passions (often involving little girls) than on those he provoked. There, are of course, many precedents for the 'warts and all' biography, and Ruskin's inner demons had considerable bearing on his work. Hilton has compiled an enormous mass of information about Ruskin's last 40 years. It is an impressive result.
One of the problems with Ruskin, who stated 'I never wrote a letter in my life that all the world is not free to read if they will', reduces those who write about him to editors. His copious writings are diverse and lacking in consistency, but often beautiful expressions of whatever was in his mind at the time. To make sense of them, the scholar has to impose some interpretative template on them, organise them; once that is achieved, they then speak for themselves.
Hilton goes a little further. His template is chronology, and he gives full account of Ruskin's travels, meetings, enthusiasms and illnesses. This is valuable but verges on the superficial. Arguably Hilton plays down some works in favour of others. He rates Fors Clavigera, the monthly 'letters to workmen' that Ruskin wrote between 1871 and 1884, but plays down Ruskin's extraordinary paean to Greek mythology, The Queen of the Air, and especially St Mark's Rest and the Bible of Amiens. The former foreshadowed late Victorian interest in myth; Proust translated the latter into French. Ruskin's multifarious work readily lends itself to disputes as to the relative merits of each book, but this also indicates a weakness in Hilton's approach.
Coming perhaps from Hilton's concentration on inner rather than outer passions, this weakness leads him to overlook some intriguing connections which might show Ruskin's position in Victorian intellectual life. Ruskin, despite a scandalous divorce, mingled with royalty, prime ministers, cardinals and the oligarchy of Oxford University; he was intimate, at different times, with Turner and Carlyle. Thackeray edited the Cornhill Magazine which published Unto this Last; Tennyson, Dickens and George Eliot were contemporaries. Throw in the Pre-Raphaelites, Octavia Hill, geology and botany, and various waifs whom he befriended, and Ruskin's unique position as a touchstone of Victorian social and intellectual life becomes apparent.
Against this background, Hilton's throwaway reference to Ruskin's comment (in his diary) that 'it might have been better for the world if there had been more of Ruskin in Dickens and more of Dickens in Ruskin' begs elucidation. So does Ruskin's 'personal regard' but 'dislike for her works' of George Eliot. Neither receive it, although that would be more interesting than speculation as to whether Rose La Touche, the peculiar Irish girl with whom Ruskin became infatuated, suffered from anorexia nervosa.
Yet, as Ruskin's last published writing says, 'How things bind and blend themselves together!' This biography nearly coincides with the establishment of the Ruskin Library in Richard MacCormac's splendid building at Lancaster University, as the heart of an institute which explicitly takes Ruskin as a starting point for multi-disciplinary investigations of Victorian intellectual life. Hilton's book may not shine like the fireflies on the Tuscan hillside above Siena which Ruskin enjoyed with Charles Eliot Norton, but, as a comprehensive chronology, it might serve as a background against which other studies will glow brightly.
Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher