118: “The Effeminate Sentimentality of Ruskin”


After 1860, the year in which the essays of Unto this Last were first published, Ruskin rankled. As we have learned, he had concluded that his early books (Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice) had been, at their best, Pyrrhic Victories. Readers loved his words and word paintings but had ignored all of his carefully wrought suggestions about how, together, they could bring a better world into being. The core reason for the ignoring, he determined, was his fellows’ all-consuming avarice and their commensurate addiction to self-aggrandizement, both of which the still- advancing Industrial Revolution had made possible for many.

He decided that he could, and would, fix the first problem by writing more simply and directly. He would cut out all the flowing prose which had so taken his early readers and substitute for it unambiguous sentences. The second problem he would fix by including direct critiques of the people and practices he saw as the most egregious offenders of human care and decency, hoping, in so doing, to convince many to change their ways.

In the last two posts (#116 and #117), we saw him hard at work on both objectives, castigating the rich and privileged who came to his lecture as ersatz Christians and making it clear that, as the so-called leaders of society, they were hypocrites. In the Dublin lecture, he told his listeners, using only the most transparent of veils, that, in truth, they had no interest whatever in helping anyone weaker than themselves. Rather than feeding, clothing, housing, and educating those in need in hopes that at least some of these millions might have a better chance at living rewarding lives, they ignored the suffering around them so that they could, without distraction, build bigger mansions and increase, to the nth degree if possible, the number of zeros they could trail behind the prime integer that summed their monetary assets.

Three years later, in early 1871, he began his series of letters to the working people of Britain, Fors Clavigera. In the first of these, he went directly at politicians. After some remarks about “the community of thieves” who ruled over London and Paris, he set down some choice sentences about these “servants of the people” who, like the economic elites with whom they were in league, served only what they saw as their own interests. Yes, he wrote, responding to the then au currant idea that a “republic of the people, for the people, and by the people,” a social order where everyone would be free to pursue his own interests, was, on the face of it, most seductive. There were, he had been told,

republican villages in America where everybody is civil, honest, and substantially comfortable. But [such] villages [it seems to me,] have several unfair advantages. There are no lawyers in them, no town councils, and no parliaments. Such republicanism, if possible on a large scale, would be worth fighting for. Though, in my own private mind, I confess I would like to keep a few lawyers–for the sake of their wigs and the faces under them (generally very grand when they are good lawyers) [when they talk] their unprofessional talk. Also, I should like to have a Parliament into which people might be elected, on condition of their never saying anything about politics, so that one might still feel sometimes that one was acquainted with an MP. In the meantime, Parliament is a luxury to the British squire and an honor to the British manufacturer–which you can leave them to enjoy in their own way, provided only that you make them explain, when they tax you, what they want with your money…

The Fors letters, as he knew would be the case, only increased the vitriol heaped upon him by his elite compatriots. He was, they concurred, a traitor to his class (they were quite right in saying this). All those whose oxes he gored hated him for telling the world that they were exploitive and charlatans into the bargain. They hated him too because, steadfastly, he refused all the entreaties of his friends who suggested that he back off or mitigate what he published or lectured about. He would not, he rejoined. They must hear these things. There can be no more of their pretending that they are innocent and that, if we just let things follow their course, everything will work out for the best. Tell that to the millions on the verge of starvation who have no health care and have not a shred of the education they would need to live and support themselves in a meaningful, decent, and useful way.

Recognizing his intransigence, the gored upped the ante, claiming not only that he was woefully, wildly, misguided, impossibly utopian, and utterly incapable of evaluating how society and economic life really worked, but crazy as well. One critic, in response to the essays of Unto this Last, said that he was not about “to be preached to by a mad governess!” To make things worse, many suggested that his writing had gone from the sublime to the incomprehensible. Now, no one could follow what he was saying, so disjointed were his thoughts, so laden were they with invective.

Usually he ignored these barbs and simply went on publishing new scorching paragraphs. Occasionally however, he would reach his limit and return fire. Such is the case in the passage below. Written in early 1875, it comes from the 41st of the Fors letters. To the contrary, he said, rejoining the suggestion that it was impossible for any of the workers to whom he addressed the letters to understand him:

It is quite possible for the simplest worker or laborer for whom I write to understand [what I write, and share it] if he will. But the crisis and horror of this present time are that its desire of money, and the fullness of luxury dishonestly attainable by common persons are gradually making churls of all… [With the consequence that] the nobler passions are not merely disbelieved,  but even the conception of them seems ludicrous to the impotent churl mind.

So that, to take only so poor an instance of them as my own life–because I have passed it in laboring always for the honor of others not my own…because I have lowered my rents and assured the comfortable lives of my poor tenants instead of taking from them all I could force for the roofs they needed, because I love a wood walk better than a London street, and would rather watch a seagull fly than shoot it, and rather hear a thrush sing than eat it, and, finally, because I have never disobeyed my mother, because I have honored all women with solemn worship, and have been kind even to the unthankful and the evil, therefore the hacks of English art and literature wag their heads at me, and the poor wretch who pawns the dirty linen of his soul daily for a bottle of sour wine and a cigar talks of the “effeminate sentimentality of Ruskin.”   

It is interesting, in our modern context, to look back on the attacks (and there were more than a few) that sought to deride Ruskin for his “effeminate” stance. Quite literally their writers said, that, because he practiced, in all he did, the directive of the Master of his (their) religion that he (they) should treat others as those others had a right to be treated, because he had a heart that was injured by the sight of suffering, because he had always obeyed his mother and honored women, he was weak, “effeminate.” In contrast, the detractors implied, it would be better if he was like us, we realer men, we James Fairbanks (Posts 103 and 104): hard-hearted and logical, we never-swayed-by-affection men; we who are strong enough to accept the fact that, in life, a few win while the great majority–as was inevitable in the ceaseless fight in nature for dominance–lost.

All this being food, of a sort, for reflection.

Crocuses 2018 Front Yard March 26

Today’s Pictures…are here mainly because I like them. The one that appears at the top of the post is, of course, Ruskin’s, his drawing of a tiny juniper bush growing along the wall of the garden of the house he rented in Mornex in 1862-3, a time when he was the subject of opprobrium for publishing his second book of economic critique, Munera Pulveris, his follow-up to Unto this Last. The drawing is, for me, a sweet instance of his love and reverence for all living things, however tiny. Eleven decades later that same house, garden, and wall would be bought by dear Suzanne Varady (Post 50), who, during her brief tenure there, would create a garden which would have brought tears of joy to the eyes of its famous nineteenth century tenant.

The picture of the ecstatic crocuses was taken in our front yard just a few days ago. Delicate things, crocuses are–as those who grow know–always among the very first delighters of that regeneration of life we call Spring. Returning from campus one afternoon, there they were, dancing for me in their multitudes (they had not been out in the morning when I left) about two inches above the softening ground. I simply could not resist taking their picture, thinking that perhaps you might delight in their delight too.

Together, both are marvelous images, don’t you think, of the “effeminate sentimentality of Ruskin”?

Be well out there in our advancing Spring!


Until next time.



This entry was posted in Art, Life, Nature, Ruskin's Life, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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