And sure good is in feeding and clothing and housing people and then in educating them in the things they need to know to live a fruitful and helpful life. These are the duties with which we are charged, individually and collectively, the tasks which we are required to carry out, at whatever level it is within our ability to do, during the brief time we have been given to draw breath on this earth. To abrogate them, or perform them only in piecemeal fashion, is to deny the central instruction of he whom the majority of us in this hall acknowledge as our spiritual master; it is to abrogate the core task of our life.
So, in essence, said Ruskin to the two thousand who had come to hear him lecture on “The Mystery of Life and its Arts” on that Dublin night in early 1868 (Post 116).
Not surprisingly, many in the audience were discomfited by his statement, and even more disturbed by its unspoken admonition, his implication that perhaps many of those sitting before him were not doing in their own lives all he said they should be doing to ensure that ‘sure good’ was affected for everyone who required it. Although we do not have any surviving record of some of the conversations which surely occurred in some of the homeward bound carriages after his talk ended, we do have from other sources considerable evidence which tells us that moral pronouncements such as the above, which occurred in virtually all of his talks and works, were not always enthusiastically greeted with standing ovations. “It is very easy to criticize, ” some of these skewered and irked critics said, “very easy to tell us what to do, implying as you do so that, in such matters, you are a paragon of virtue. We would very much like to know what you do to ensure that ‘sure good’ is done!”
Ruskin was well-aware of such criticisms and equally aware that public pronouncements specifying one’s personal largesse could easily fuel a different critique, that of boasting. Still, thinking over the moral issues he raises in so many of the posts in this series, the question is an important one. And so, with providing an answer to it in mind, it is perhaps not time wasted if we gain some sense of what, throughout his adult life, our subject did do to ensure that, with the resources at his disposal, “sure good” was done.
The Pierpont Morgan Museum and Library in New York is, along with The Beinecke Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, one of the greatest repositories of Ruskin’s letters (thousands still unpublished) and manuscripts on the North American side of the Atlantic. Among the Morgan’s most valuable Ruskiniana is the scholarly legacy of Helen Gill Viljoen. While she was alive, Viljoen worked assiduously for 45 years on a biography of Ruskin which would have radically transformed how we think of his life and its central concerns. Alas, she never published it, dying of multiple sclerosis in 1974, before the drafts of her 33 chapters could be revised and a dozen still-to-be written chapters were composed. But the incredible trove of her life’s efforts spent in Ruskin’s behalf is available to scholars.
One of the most important things Viljoen did as she worked on her Ruskin biography was to create a series of “Year Files,” large folders devoted to every year in his life. Into these she would put all the items she knew she would want to consult or use when writing about that year in her chapters. What makes the files so critical for Ruskin scholars is that each brims with a large quantity of still unpublished material which Viljoen, one of the greatest archival sleuths in the history of biography, had extracted from other libraries and universities that house Ruskin’s original letters and manuscripts (Princeton, The New York Public Library, Harvard’s Houghton Library, The Boston Public Library, Oxford’s Bodleian Library, The Bembridge School in the UK, many more).
In Viljoen’s Year File for 1859 we find a number of letters Ruskin sent his dear friend, the Reverend Daniel Moore. That year was, as we know (Post 103, Post 104), one of turmoil for our subject, a year when he was questioning almost everything that, previously, he had relied on for psychic anchor–his religious upbringing, his worship of the painter, J. M. W. Turner, and his long-held conviction that at least some in his society were committed to furthering the public good. In two of the letters he posted to Moore, he gave his friend a private look into his growing awareness that almost no one gave anything more than lip-service to the idea that they should help anyone other than themselves, and to the correlative thought that such selfishness was nothing less than a direct refusal to abide by what he saw as the commandment which, both testaments of The Bible, iterated time and again, should be the watchword for all our days, a watchword which he was bound to honor as well: that it was our specific charge as human beings to treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated, to love our neighbors as ourselves. (The most-well known version of the directive is in Jesus’s response to a question from one of his followers: Mark 12: 31; cf. 29-31; for an Old Testament version of the instruction, see Leviticus 19: 18.)
“I believe the one test of a Christian to be,” he told Reverend Moore in the first letter he posted from Dover on May 19 just before he and his parents boarded the vessel which would carry them to Calais and the Continent for an extended tour, “that he can declare fairly and without a breath of hesitation, that his acts and efforts are for others, not himself; that he lays out his money for others, his time for others, & is ready at any time to lay down his life for others, if it be necessary. This test I believe few men can take. Press it well home! Try it on their pet things, their children… How many soi-disant Christians will take a hat and feathers off their own children’s head to fill other people’s bellies?”
Adding, more angrily, in a second letter sent May 29 from Brussels, and written in his usual forthright tone: Right now I am thinking
of you going up to that tiny pulpit of yours…to tell…your prim congregation [in your sermon] how God managed the Atonement…while…here [in Europe} and there [in Britain] are millions of precious souls, little, ragged, innocent, glorious, generous, uncorrupted, children, who have never had one kind word nor look from a human being, who have no bread, no shoes, no joys, no thoughts, for whom there is no destiny but destruction [while] you pious Christians go hat-and-feathering it to Church” [and then, all week long, talk] about God’s Grace and Mercy and their own precious souls. If they’d only let their souls alone and mind other people’s a little, their souls would be all the better, and their stomachs too! The upshot of the whole of which is that modern praying & preaching…is merely a form of Pantomime. The injunction is crystalline: you are ordered to treat your neighbor as you yourself would wish to be treated. [Matthew 22: 38; cf. 36-40]
Naturally, he went on, you and others will ask me, and fairly ask, if I practice what I preach in this regard. While it is not often right to publicize one’s generous efforts without seeming to be self-serving,
you, my kind friend, will not think me wrong if I tell you how I endeavor to act myself. Of my whole income, about five-sevenths is given straight away. I have five people at this time dependent on me in various ways for their whole livelihood–at various rates–but reaching about £100 a year for each irrespective of casual charities. These last depend on what I get for my books. The whole price of The Two Paths [a collection of his lectures published earlier that year] was simply sent away the day I got it. The other two-sevenths of income, when dress, etc., are paid for, go for Turners [paintings] which I buy not for myself but for The National Gallery, and which shall be there, as soon as I see that they will be taken care of and that they will be as useful to the public there as they are under my care. This I say—not as a Christian at all—but merely as a human creature. It seems to me monstrous not to be able to say this.
Observe that there is no Communism or absurdity in this. Christ calls us stewards. As a steward, I hold what I have or can gain [to fulfill this charge]. I take my food, my dress, any share of advisable comfort or help out of it–as I think the world would desire me to take it. The rest I administer as I can.. And I am able boldly & firmly to say that there is nothing I have in this world which I am not ready–& desirous–to give away to anyone who needs it more than I.
Doubting Thomases aside, Ruskin was always as good as his above testimony and beliefs suggest. When his father, John James Ruskin, died in 1864, he bequeathed to his son an inheritance of approximately £200,000 in cash, stocks, and properties, all generated by his many years as one of the foremost sherry merchants in England. Excepting the properties, by today’s conversions (again, approximate), that amounted to something like £9,000,000 or $14,500,000. By the end of that decade (Ruskin delivered “The Mystery of Life and its Arts” in May, 1868), he had spent all but a fraction of it, giving most of it away to charities and, as he had mentioned to Moore, to those he deemed in greater need than himself, and to the purchasing of great art (Turner paintings, Medieval illuminated manuscripts)–itmes which he did give away to responsible museums and libraries after he had assured himself they would preserve them properly and display them for public view. (He always regarded himself as a temporary caretaker of art.) To ease the financial strain which this incredible disbursement occasioned, he reluctantly agreed to reissue some of his early books (something long resisted because he regarded all as “tainted” by what he now believed was the erroneous Evangelical religious creed he had been taught at his mother’s knee).
For the rest of his life, he lived on the income from his books and, between 1969 and 1885, on the small salary he received in his position as Oxford’s First Slade Professor of Fine Art. Throughout all these years, he dispensed whatever he could to charitable organizations, struggling friends, or those for whose well-being he felt responsible (former servants now growing old, families whose income would not allow them to take care of all their members sufficiently).
A brief–but typical–story of this time was told to R. Dyke Benjamin during his visit to Ruskin’s home, Brantwood, near Coniston, some years ago. Nellie Wilkinson was the daughter of one of Ruskin’s gardeners. One day, when she was a little girl, as she was playing on Brantwood’s lawn, she saw Ruskin walking down the path toward the main road. In front of him, one of the local stoneworkers was mending a wall. Seeing that the mason was wearing a very thin pair of shoes, Ruskin immediately released him from his task and gave him enough money to go and buy a sound pair of protective boots.
Throughout the thirty years he lived at Brantwood, Ruskin made few structural changes and kept the furniture he had inherited from his parents. Once, after some friendly visitors had mentioned that his couches and chairs were “rather old and threadbare,” he rejoined that, if these had been good enough for his parents, they were good enough for him, and that, in any event, there were many others who needed the money he might spend on new furniture more than he did.
By the time he died in 1900, all but a fraction of his art and manuscripts had been donated to museums or universities for posterity, leaving only Brantwood, a handful of his most beloved Turner watercolors (soon sold by his inheritors), and the, by then, small income being generated by the sale of his books.
Until next time!
Be well out there!