A Postprandial Conversation at the Hotel du Mont Blanc, St. Martin’s, Early June, 1860
Ruskin looked, with disappointment, at the note in his hand. Michael, the wonderful desk clerk at Chamouni’s Union Inn, had handed it to him just moments ago as he exoted the dining room where he had breakfasted with his American friend, William Stillman, who was traveling with him in this summer of 1860. The note was in a woman’s hand, Mrs. Fairbank’s surely. It bore a St. Gervais postmark for the day before. It had come, Michael said, in the morning’s first post chaise. He had met them before, these Fairbanks. Earlier this week in fact, at the Hotel du Mont Blanc in the hamlet of St. Martin’s, near Sallanches in the Valley of the Cluse/ The hotel had long been his favorite on the route from Geneva to Chamouni.
He and Stillman had been in Chamouni for some weeks by now. He had spent his days doing a little painting (and thought all his efforts useless), much reading (almost all of it in social and economic theory), and not a little pondering, while Stillman, intent on seeing if he had it in him to become an artist of Turner’s rank, had been painting nonstop. As he finished paintings he would show them to Ruskin, hoping to garner praise from the world’s greatest art critic. Ruskin’s reviews had been gentle but, in tone, tepid. (In truth, he didn’t think Stillman was anywhere as good as the younger man hoped he was.) Understandably stung by his older friend’s lack of enthusiasm, in every case, by the next morning, Stillman had recovered, refocused, and, carrying new blank canvases to other beautiful places in the glorious valley, had resumed his picture-making with redoubled purpose. Still, the evaluative process had strained their relationship.
At last, to give himself and Stillman a break from each other, Ruskin had decided to set out with Andre, his favorite driver, for St. Martin’s, thirty miles back on the road to Geneva. There, at the Hotel du Mont Blanc on the banks of the Arve, he could enjoy the most spectacular view of the Mont Blanc range which one could have before entering the magnificent Chamouni valley itself; there, he could hike, read (more political economy), and have long, happy chats after dinner with the hotel’s proprietor, Monsieur Benedict, one of loveliest people, and certainly the best hotelier, he had ever met. He would stay three, maybe four, days.
One afternoon, the third after his arrival, Ruskin returned to the hotel after a long walk to a spectacular nearby waterfall only to find an elegant Englishwoman sitting by the fire reading The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Surprised, he asked what, specifically, she was reading. “Mr. Ruskin’s marvelous passage about the little man and the dragon, two figures sculpted on the north porch of Rouen Cathedral which, he says, everyone who goes there misses!” (Post 99) Do you know it?” Slightly abashed, Ruskin returned that he had written it. At which point it was the lady’s turn to be embarrassed. She said she had had no idea that she and her husband were staying at the same hotel as the famous author! Indeed, she went on, they were on a sort of “Ruskin tour” of France and Switzerland, visiting many of the places, like Rouen, Abbeville (Post 97), and Geneva, he had written about so compellingly in his books. They were going to the Alps next. She could hardly wait for Chamouni and its incredible valley. She had carried her copy of the third volume of Modern Painters for just that portion of the trip; his passage about “The Office of the Mountains” (Post 64) had made her appreciate mountains for the first time in her life, and she wanted so much to see them with her own eyes. She was, she said, Mrs. Sophia Fairbank, her husband–he was resting upstairs–was James Fairbank. Mr. Fairbank was a very successful brickmaker in Bradford and owned a factory that employed at least two hundred men. This was the first holiday they had taken in five years. Hearing all this, Ruskin said that it his great pleasure to meet them; they had chosen the best hotel in the Cluse valley.
In truth, he had been more than a little flattered by Mrs. Fairbank’s praise of his books; heartened too, for her reaction was precisely the one he had always hoped to create in his readers, a reaction which, of late, he had come to believe was exceedingly infrequent. In fact, he had traveled to the Continent this summer because he was convinced that his early books–the four volumes of Modern Painters (the fifth was being published in London as they spoke), The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the three-volume, Stones of Venice, had all failed to carry their central arguments (that the earth was not only beautiful but that it was everyone’s express responsibility to care for it and keep it lovely for all the generations to come). As a result of such thoughts, he had determined that he must find another way of helping his fellow human beings. To which end, for the past year, he had been intensely reading economic and social theory, and thinking hard about how he might write something which would correct the conceptual errors that marred all of these works, errors which championed self-seeking and made it seem as if greed was the sole principle driving economic behavior.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Fairbank’s reaction, however surprising, was energizing. Would she and her husband care to have dinner with him this evening, here at the hotel, as his guests? He would be honored. M. Benedict’s kitchen is very accomplished. “I can hardly tell you how wonderful that would be,” the lady replied. “I am sure Mr. Fairbank will be pleased. Truthfully, he is not as interested in this tour as I am. He is always getting letters from his foreman at the brickmaking factory and sending letters back. In fact, all this morning he answered letters! But knowing how much I love your books, and how much I wanted to see the places you have written so elegantly and compellingly about, he is happy to indulge me. We were so sorry to miss your recent lecture in our fine city [“Modern Manufacture and Design,” 1859]. I so much wished to be there! We couldn’t come because Mr. Fairbank had to deal with some serious worker unrest at the factory.”
It unfolded as she predicted it would. Mr. Fairbank was indeed glad to meet the famous writer and accept his invitation. Throughout the meal, Ruskin was his always gracious and generous self, ordering the most delicious of M. Benedict’s dishes and the best of his wines, while, during conversation, offering the couple experienced advice about how to maximize their coming days in the Alps. He would, he said, be glad to meet them in Chamouni and given them a personal tour. He would be returning there tomorrow. Just post a note before you come. He would introduce them to his American friend, Mr. Stillman, who has been, every day since we arrived, hard at his painting. Perhaps you could see some of his canvases?
The postprandial hour, however, did not turn out as well. Inevitably, the talk turned to Fairbank’s brickmaking and his great success at this work. Proudly, the industrialist reported that he was what the sociologist, Mr. Herbert Spencer, called a “self-made man.” He had started with nothing–his father was a poor farmer–had gone to Bradford to make his forture, and now, twenty years later, was one of the most important–and, he added with emphais, richest–men in the city. In fact, he was so successful he had more contracts than he could fill. He was forever hiring new workers, an irksome process if Mr. Ruskin wished to know the truth, because they were all so unreliable and incompetent.
“As to these people who work for you,” Ruskin said, interested. “Mrs. Fairbank told me you could not come to my lecture last year because there was some trouble. Can you tell me something of that?” Fairbank bristled, telling Ruskin that his view of the vast majority of his workers was anything but sanguine. “Most of them are,” he said crossly, “little better than vagrants. They are dirty, uneducated, interested in nothing but the money I pay (and always grumble it is too little), and, at every chance, cut corners if they can get away with it. I trust none of them. The trouble you mention was initiated by a particularly hard-headed and aggressive handful who had the temerity to go on strike and then actively recruit everyone else working at the factory. They refused to work until I agreed to their demands–that I pay them more (they wanted half again the salary I give!); that they be allowed to work ten fewer hours a week; and that I rebuild the quarters I built for them! And, of course, all these “adjustments” were demanded’; there was no “Do you think it might be possible, Sir?” No ‘By your leave, Sir…” Preposterous, all of it!! I was furious and don’t mind telling you that I fired the troublemakers on the spot, and when some wouldn’t leave, had some of the strong men who work for and are loyal to me give them a hiding which made them realize that their departure from brickmaking would be a blessing! That ended the ‘insurgency’! After that, we have had little trouble, though I can’t say that those who stayed on have any better attitude or any better work ethic. If someone doesn’t like what I pay, the hours I require them to work, and the housing I provide, they can go elsewhere, and good riddance to them! Only, if they go looking for other work, they are unlikely to find it, as all the factories in Bradford–all over England in fact–are at full employment. They can go to the devil as far as I am concerned! Ungrateful, and reprobates into the bargain!”
As all this poured out, Ruskin had listened quietly. Now that Fairbank had finished, he asked if he might offer some alternative thoughts. A bit caught out by the suggestion (hardly used to having his pronouncements about business and workers questioned, especially by art critics), Fairbank paused. Then, with clearly little enthusiasm for what wold follow, nodded his agreement.
Ruskin began: While he was sure that most of the characterizations Mr. Fairbank had used to describe his bothersome workers were probably correct, was it not the case that there may have been reasons, reasons about which they had not yet spoken this evening, which might explain why some–perhaps most?–of those workers might have felt as their “ringleaders” did? He presumed that most of those who worked for Mr. Fairbank were quite poor and so to learn that they had a strong desire to live a more commodious life was not very surprising. Indeed, he thought the desire admirable. It was exactly what motivated you, Mr. Fairbank, wasn’t it, when you set out to become what you call a “self-made man” two decades ago? You note also that prime among your disgruntled workers’ demands was one for more money. Might this mean that, in their view, the wages you offer are insufficient for allowing them the chance to advance in this more healthful and happier direction? And similarly, if the hours they work are excessively long, would it not be the case that your workers, before long, would be exhausted, do their work less well, and, when this lesser performance was noted, would be regarded as milingerers when, in fact, they may have been just trying to “catch their breath”? As to the last demand, if the housing you provide for them and their families at your factory–if the rooms are too small, say, and the furniture not of the best make or enough of it, and the sanitary facilities lacking in quantity or cleanliness, wouldn’t it be surprising if they didn’t become dissatisfied? Wasn’t it possible, in short, that the demands articulated by your workers may have been reasonable under the circumstances, and that, if this was so, it isn’t very surprising they asked for the changes they did? That they did so in “disrespectful” voices, he said, concluding, is hardly surprising either, since they seem to have felt that they had been taken advantage of because of their weaker position.
As Ruskin’s comments lengthened, Fairbank, in marked contrast to the author’s demeanor some minutes before, had become increasingly agitated. “Ruskin,” he said heatedly when the latter finished, “of such things, you know nothing! Of mountains and flowers and rivers perhaps, of little men sculpted into the walls of large cathedrals perhaps. But of business and how it has to be conducted, nothing! The business of business is to make money! To do that, any employer is duty bound to find the most efficient way of making his profits as large as possible. He does this by getting the most work done and best product made for the least outlay. The bricks I produce are of that best quality. Not one of my buyers complain. That is why I get all the orders I do: I offer a good product at a competitive price. As for my workers–for whom your heart seems to break–I pay what the market determines I must pay. I pay, with small differences, what all the factory owners in Bradford pay their workers, whether they are producing steel, processing coal, or making bricks! To pay more would weaken my position. I would have to pass on the extra cost to those who buy my bricks and that would give my competitors an advantage–and they would dearly love to have such an advantage, let me tell you! In a trice, I’d be out of business. Not to mention that if I did all the things your friends the agitators requested, my profits would vanish or be lessened enough that I could not afford to indulge my wife and take her on an exceedingly expensive tour of Europe to visit all those “wonderful places” which had been recommended by the great lover of nature and modern master of prose, Mr. Ruskin!”
Things did not get better after that. For another half hour, Fairbank and Ruskin exchanged their diametrically opposed views. Ruskin, keen to make arguments much on his mind since he had been reading political economy, immediately took on Fairbank’s assertion that he paid his workers what the market determined. Saying that he was sure that this was what the brickmaker did, he went on to say that such market pricing did not therefore make what was paid a living wage, and that, if what was paid was less than what people needed to live decently, that he–Fairbank and all of those who managed factories like his–would be colluding (would they not?) in weakening the life force of their workers, which unhappy condtion, not far down the line, he suspected, might have implications for a possible rebellion in the ranks.
Indeed, when you thought about it, he continued, it seemed to him that there were a host of moral questions implicit in all they had been discussing. For an important instance, there was the issue raised when an employer chose to wilfully harm others–his own workers in this case–for what he saw as his own benefit. Was this not, to speak accurately, anything less than a form of cruelty? And, to take the thought further: was not such wilfull harming behavior that directly contravened the order of the man all three of them in this room would acknowledge as their spiritual Master and Guide for Life, the soul who had come from highest heaven to explain how they could all live together in such a way that the welfare of all would be assured? And, as to your characterization of your workers as reprobates, Fairbank, Ruskin said, I want to mention that the passage in my Seven Lamps which told of the lovely things the anonymous sculptors of Rouen had created all those centuries ago, was written not only to alert readers that such glorious things had gone unnoticed through the intervening centuries, but to prove that all workers–including, I am sure, if given the chance, those working in brickmaking factories–could produce marvelous things, things which would not just make them happier because their higher talents would have been used and appreciated (a fact which would eliminate before they appeared, any thoughts of “rebellion,” don’t you think?). And wouldn’t we all, the whole of society, be better off for such efforts?
By the time these counterpoints had been made, the brickmaker had become so exasperated with the man who had hosted his dinner and with what he said were his host’s “utterly unrealistic, utterly idealistic notions,” he announced that, having had more than enough, he was going to bed. Moments later, his disappearing boots were landing heavily on every stair leading to the first floor.
Remaining behind, Mrs. Fairbank, who had said nothing throughout the whole of this increasingly rancorous exchange, waited until she heard her husband close the door (rather determinedly) to their room. After which, she turned to Ruskin, saying that she had had no idea that he subscribed to such radical ideas. Listening to it all, she had decided her husband was right: that Mr. Ruskin was an art critic and a lover of nature and, as such, had no competence to comment on the ways of the business world. She was astonished he had argued so strenuously in support of what were obviously deficient and ungrateful employees! “And I want to assure you of this,” she said, finishing: “that my husband, James Fairbank, is a good man. He is not an exploiter of the weak as you implied. He pays his workers what everyone in business pays theirs. He has done, and continues to do, much, and very generously, for Bradford as a city and has never in his life harmed anyone intentionally!” To which Ruskin rejoined that, if they had attended his lecture at Bradford, she and her husband might not have been so shocked by the arguments he advanced this night. It was not, he said, that he thought Mr. Fairbank to be consciously cruel, but that he, like so many practicing business in Britain, had been taught that what were, in fact, cruelities to their fellow human beings, were not cruelties, had been taught that to act in such harmful ways was “unavoidable” given the incontestable selfishness of human nature. He did not, he said, believe such charactizations for a moment.
“Be that as it may, Mr. Ruskin,” Mrs. Fairbank said, “you were rude and disrepectful. I–we–are most grateful for your generosity in allowing us to be your guests this evening, and for what providing us with what is surely excellent touring advice. I am sure we will follow it. But I am most anxious, should we meet in Chamouni, that this sort of discussion does not recur. Indeed, I am not sure that, after this exchange, my husband will wish to meet you again!” After saying which, her lighter, but similarly irritated and determined, steps followed her husband’s up the stairs.
When Ruskin came down for breakfast early the next morning, the Bradford couple was nowhere in evidence. After saying his fond goodbyes to M. Benedict, twenty minutes later he and Andre had begun their long trip, ascending through the exacting passes to the valley he considered the world’s most beautiful. Inside the coach, while Andre guided the horses through the steep turns, his passenger was hoping that Mrs. Fairbank’s other prediction of last evening would also prove accurate: that another meeting between himself and the couple from Bradford would not occur.
His wish was not granted. For in his hand at this moment, as the good morning sun streamed through the windows of the Union Inn–having brilliantly lit, on its way, the glaciers and snow-covered peaks beyond, was Mrs. Fairbank’s note. They would be arriving at the Union Inn this afternoon, it said. She hoped that all the unpleasantness of their evening at the Hotel du Mont Blanc was forgotten and forgiven, and that he and Mr. Stillman would join them for dinner tonight, this time as their guests. They would be honored. Would Mr. Ruskin kindly leave a note at the desk regarding the possibility? Assuming his response would be positive–she was sure it would be!–they would meet in the dining room at eight. His recommendations about what to see and do in and around St. Gervais had been perfect! She had much she wished to tell him. She hoped his offer to show them all the best and hidden places of delight in Chamouni was still open…
to be continued…