February 8, now two days gone, was Ruskin’s birthday. He’d have been 197. Even his great admirer, the illustrious, much loved, and kindly Van Akin Burd, who dedicated his life to writing books and articles testifying to Ruskin’s greatness, lived only to be 101 and a half! (For more on worthy Van, see Post 52; click, on this page, on the link with that number in the column to your immediate right. If you’d like to read previous posts which honored Ruskin on his birthday, enter “February 8” in the search box to the right and they’ll come up.)
This year I’ve chosen some recollections written by a modest three of the thousands who, during their own days, were fortunate enough to meet him. Although their encounters Ruskin occurred in different decades, I think you’ll see that they are all of a piece, and show us that the man the first of our reporters met was the same person the last encountered. They also tell us–and this is the best part–from varying perspectives, what an intriguing and truly noble fellow he was throughout his life, thoroughly deserving of the eminence bestowed on him by his contemporaries. To remind us of the reasons for such high repute, I’ll preface each reminiscence with a brief excerpt from one of Ruskin’s works which was written near the time of his encounter with his admirers. At the end, I’ve included a nice instance of a modern “meeting.” (Snippet fans–hold on until the next post!)
F. J. Furnivall (1825 – 1910) was a devotee of Ruskin throughout his adult life. A lover of the English language and its use (during his life, Furnivall would found a number of British literary societies, become an associate editor in the lead up work to what would become widely acknowledged as the greatest dictionary in history, The Oxford English Dictionary, and translator of a much praised edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), Furnivall first came to regard Ruskin as a wordsmith nonpareil as he read passages like the one below from the fifth volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters series:
The leaves of the herbage at our feet take all kind of strange shapes, as if to invite us to examine them. Star-shaped, heart-shaped, spear-shaped, arrow-shaped, fretted, fringed, cleft, furrowed, serrated, sinuated, in whorls, in tufts, in spires, in wreaths, endlessly expressive, deceptive, fantastic, never the same from footstalk to blossom. They seem perpetually to tempt our watchfulness, and take delight in outstripping our wonder.
Here’s how Furnivall looked in the early 1880s during the time he served as associate editor of the OED:
He had met Ruskin much earlier, however: in the early 1850s. After Ruskin’s death in 1900, like many others who had known him personally, Furnivall was asked to set down some recollections of his experiences with the great author. A prominent literary periodical of the time (issues published simultaneously in Britain and America) was The Bookman. The issue of March, 1900 devoted an entire section to such memories. Here’s Furnivall’s, an account of his first encounter with Ruskin. Both had been invited to a London eminent’s home for the evening. Furnivall arrived first, made his expected hello circle around the room, after which he had settled down for a more serious chat with a friend. It was at this moment, he tells us, that j
I saw the door open and John Ruskin walk softly in. I sprang up to take the outstretched hand, and then and there began a friendship which, for many years, was the chief joy of my life. Ruskin was a tall, slight fellow, whose piercing, frank blue eyes looked through you and drew you to him. A fair man, with rough, light hair and reddish whiskers, in a dark blue frock coat with velvet collar, bright Oxford blue stock, black trousers and patent slippers. How vivid he is to me still! The only blemish in his face was the lower lip which protruded somewhat. He had been bitten there by a dog in his early youth. But you ceased to notice this as soon as he began to talk. I never met any man whose charm of manner at all approaches Ruskin’s. Partly feminine it was, no doubt, but the delicacy, the sympathy, the gentleness and affectionateness of his way, the fresh and penetrating things he said, the boyish fun, the earnestness, the interest he showed in all deep matters, combined to make a whole which I have never seen equaled. Association with Ruskin was a continual delight.
Mary Gladstone (1847-1927) was one of eight children fathered by the justly famed nineteenth century British Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Ruskin and Gladstone had become good friends as a result of their political views, especially their shared concern over the plight of England’s millions of poor, and their common conviction that the only good business was honest business, trade where profit was always a secondary interest to providing customers the kind of services which allowed them to live healthfully and happily. As a result, Ruskin was often invited to Hawarden Castle, the Gladstone family residence in Wales. Mary was exceptionally bright. (As an adult, she served as her father’s confidant, adviser, and private secretary, roles which gave her an unusual degree of political influence.) Later in life, she became well-known as a writer, especially for her sensitive diaries and letters, published in 1930 not long after her death. Like Furnivall, she read Ruskin intently and regularly, many of her views shaped by “radical” arguments like the one below, extracted from one of the letters Ruskin wrote a working man in 1867, and later collected in a volume entitled, Time and Tide:
[P]unishment is not to be thought of as a preventive means, only as the seal of opinion set by society on the fact. Crime cannot be hindered by punishment. It will always find some shape and outlet… Crime can only be truly hindered by letting no man grow up a criminal–by taking away the will to commit sin, not by mere punishment of its commission. Crime, small and great, can only be truly stayed by education—not the education of the intellect only, which is, on some men, wasted, and, for others, mischievous– [the most important form of education being] education of the heart, which is alike good and necessary for all.
In mid-May of 1878, not long after suffering his first serious attack of the mental illness, a condition which would recur at intervals until his death 22 years later, Ruskin was invited to Hawarden so that he might hasten his recuperation while visiting with dear friends. Because of his fame and earlier visits when he had delighted all there, the family was in a state of eager anticipation. Here is how Mary described the weekend of May 11-14 in her diary:
[To our great consternation, a letter came] to Agnes [Mary’s sister] from Ruskin, saying he couldn’t come. Sent us into fits! Telegraphed orders to him which he obeyed, “praying yr. merciful pardon.” At 6 [PM, Friday evening] he arrived… We were all unspeakably shy and I soon vanished. Dinner was very interesting. I was [sitting next to him and found that he] spoke just as he writes. Every word might be profitably written down. He has the most gentle and chivalrous manner…the slow and soft stream of beautiful but unaffected words, the sudden lighting up and splendid laughing. He talked about sins and ugly things in the world as all mistakes or misprints, and utterly condemned the way in which they are dwelt upon and collected. “You can see the beauty of a rose without a nasty dripping fungus near it,” when the need of contrast was urged as an argument. Said there should be newspapers which only talked about nice people… [H]eaps of what he says is purely visionary and unpractical, it is the ideal beauty of it which is so enticing…
[Saturday] morning at breakfast [we] much enjoyed talking of Tennyson and Frederic Myers [contemporary poet and founder of The Society of Psyschical Research, in which Ruskin was much interested]–[He] admires the latter enormously and thinks the former, after Homer, the greatest painter of Nature. He says Poetry is the living art of modern days… After dinner, Alfred [Mary’s brother] and I got all the plums as he sat at the piano forte with us, talking in the most solemn and pure and pathetic manner of young men and maidens, love and marriage, quoting from [Alexander] Pope…all the time with such reverence and perfect beauty of tone and language that he almost made one believe the ideal might become the real. Went off to bed in a glow.
[As he drove off on Sunday] we all, including Katie [another sister], stood in the doorway, leaving us in a “golden mist.” Looking back upon it now as enrolled among “The Glories of the Past,” I think nothing could have been more entrancing and ennobling. More than any one else he seems to give one a glimpse of “The King in his Beauty” [Isaiah 33: 17: “Thine eyes shall see the King in his Beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off.”], always revealing the loveliness of things, choosing the good, refusing the evil. Though often unpractical and inconsistent, there is a consistency of its own about all he says, and you feel throughout that his is a raising influence in your lives.
Not many pictures of Mary have survived. This one was taken in the mid-1880s, not long after her marriage to the Reverend Harry Drew:
A decade later, the late summer of 1888 found Margaret Nevinson (1858-1932), a school teacher, and her husband, Harry, a journalist in the radical tradition, in the small Swiss (later, French) town of Sallanches, entry point to the great Mont Blanc chain of Alps not far to the southeast. Like many before and since, they had been so inspired by Ruskin’s writings on nature and the beauties of the mountain regions of central Europe, they had decided to go and see for themselves the places he had written about. Recently they had been reading his autobiography, Praeterita, then being published serially. They were enthralled by his remembrances of his trips on what he called his “Old Road,” a path which stretched from the harbor of Calais through France, up through the Jura Mountains, down to Geneva, then into the Alps–lingering always in the Chamouni Valley, the place Ruskin believed the most beautiful earth had to offer–before, finally, crossing the mountains and descending into Italy and the places where its greatest art treasures had been created: Verona, Venice, Florence, Rome. Their political persuasions were, in large measure, a mirror of his, with sentences like those below–written in the early 1880s as Ruskin reflected on the purpose of life–serving as clarion calls. (After the new century turned, Margaret would become a prominent member in England’s suffragette movement.)
It seems to me that, just because we are intended, as long as we live, to be in a state of intense moral effort, we are not intended to be in intense physical or intellectual effort. Our full energies are to be given to the soul’s work–to the great fight with the Dragon.
As it happened, while the Nevinsons rested in Sallanches, quite unexpectedly, they encountered the man they had been honoring in their travels. Then 69 and ill, Ruskin was near the midpoint of the tour he knew would be his last on his beloved “Old Road.” Margaret recalled their meeting in an article which appeared in The Westminster Gazette for January 20, 1901 (no picture of Margaret from around this time seems to exist):
The anniversary of John Ruskin’s death reminds me of a chance meeting we had with the great man at a little unknown inn in Switzerland in the September of 1888. We had been studying Praeterita before our tour, and, following in the footsteps of the Master, we determined to stay at the Hotel du Mont Blanc at St. Martin’s [about two miles from Sallanches] of which he speaks of as “the most eventful, pathetic, and sacred of all my inn-homes.” However, to our disappointment, [when we came there], we found the place ruined and deserted the new diligence route having been taken round on the other side of the [River Arve]. So we recrossed the bridge and took up our abode in the Hotel Belle Vue at Sallanches, a place then apparently only known to English tourists as the halfway house for lunch between Geneva and Chamouni. [We stayed some days. One evening, a young Scottish man–Detmar Blow, an aspiring architect, who had met Ruskin in Beauvais and had traveled with him after, as Ruskin made his way toward his beloved Chamouni before going on to Venice–] revealed to us that he was there in attendance upon John Ruskin… “Monsieur Ruskin! Mais oui, madame,” said our landlady when I asked her the next day if she knew what a great man was beneath her roof…
[B]eing young and enthusiastic, we felt we could not let such an occasion pass without paying some act of homage to the great man. So, buying a somewhat roughly constructed basket at the village shop, we filled it with moss, cyclamen, and ferns gathered halfway up the [nearby] mountain of St. Roche…[At lunch,] asked our Scot to give it to the Master.
“Mr. Ruskin’s compliments and thanks, and he hopes you will come to his room and see him” [was the reply the young man returned, after which] painfully conscious of being overheated and untidy, we were ushered into the great man’s presence.
He received us very graciously. I remember his manner struck me as having all the charm of the old world courtesy to women, a quality one values the more since it has begun to live in memory only. The conversation was a monologue, and we listened as was seemly. He talked of the Alps and the peculiar beauty of the Mont Blanc range as seen from Sallanches. But not a soul stopped there. Few people had souls for beauty; they only rushed on to Chamouni to climb the mountains “like greasy poles.” He spoke of the peasants and their hard lives. There seemed to be no one to help them or take an interest in them, for the “gentry” had all left the [region] or were busy money-making in the towns. In England, too, we only cared for money or else our huge cities would not have been built. But at least some of us realized the horror of things around us, and the good people spent their lives trying to undo the evil others had brought about. We were too much disposed, though, to do all for the sick and too little for the strong. Everyone was ready to look after hospitals and lunatic asylums, but no one took the trouble to prevent disease or to keep the healthy whole…
In that conversation of fifteen minutes he may be said to have condensed the essence of his teaching–the love of nature and simplicity, health, sanity, and good work.
[The next morning, We] watched him from our window as he drove away by the old road to Chamouni (our basket of flowers in front of him!)… At [lunch] we ordered a bottle of Asti Spumante and drank in honor of the day, knowing that hereafter we could boast to our children and our children’s children that we had seen Ruskin plain and that he had stopped and talked to us!
A. S. Byatt (1936-)–who, thankfully, is still very much with us–has also met Ruskin, repeatedly. In her acclaimed novel, Possession, he makes a cameo appearance or two–once as a lecturer the principal characters go to hear because of his fame as a speaker of the highest rank (perhaps they were in Rusholme Town Hall in Manchester for “Of King’s Treasuries!–see last post). By the way, if you haven’t read Possession and are at all interested in books and their marvels, as well as in gripping tales of the worries and joys which accompany literary sleuthing, a better does not exist (regarding such things, I know whereof I speak). It’s a delight from first page to last. I can’t recommend it more highly. Byatt even has a terrific short story in which Ruskin plays a significant role in a rather novel way. Maybe I’ll post it some day.
But it is her love of Ruskin’s writing and its ability to open aspects of the world to us for the first time, that is of immediate interest. Below is one of my favorite passages from Possession, about the power of great prose to move, challenge, and change us. Ruskin isn’t mentioned specifically, but that it is about his (and a few others’) work is palpable to anyone who has read him (or them). I know it is about him for another reason. Byatt’s sentences describe exactly how I feel when reading Ruskin. All the time.
There are readings…that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect, readings that hear a rustling of unheard sound, that count grey little pronouns for pleasure or instruction… There are personal readings that snatch for personal meanings–I am full of love, or disgust, or fear, I scan for love, or disgust, or fear. There are–believe it–impersonal readings–where the mind’s eye sees the lines move inwards and mind’s ear hears them sing and sing.
Now and then, though, there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark, readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily run ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we, the readers, knew it was always there, have always known it was as it was, though we have now, for the first time, recognized, become fully cognizant of, our knowledge.
Meeting Ruskin. Then and still.
Until the next time we meet, be well out there.