“Traffic” and “The Roots of Honour” by John Ruskin

IMG_20150828_203533-1John Ruskin (1819 – 1900). Artist. Writer. Lecturer. Teacher. Critic. Scholar. Social Reformer. Philanthropist. Before reading this pamphlet, little I knew about John Ruskin. To me, he was the antagonist who was infamously embroiled himself in the love triangle between Effie Gray, his wife, and one of the founders and associated members of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whom he once gave infallible support and high accolade – John Everett Millais. There’s a movie adapted from the biography by Suzanne Fagence Cooper I watched some months ago, about the cold feud and annulment of their unconsummated marriage in 1854. He afterwards in 1858 encountered an innocuous teenager and student named Rose La Touche whom he might be endlessly swooning over, and which love became a source of inspiration for Nabokov’s Lolita (1955).

9780199538300Apart from Ruskin’s personal life and sexual encounters, he was often mentioned as sources of conversations and arguments between the characters in George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893). Essay entitled Sesame and Lilies and Ruskin’s School of Thought were often controverted and affronted by Rhoda’s idea of women’s independence, as being one of the singletons and partner in Miss Barfoot’s office situated on Great Portland Street – possibly based on the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women between 1858 and 1860,

 I have much more sympathy with the new idea that women should think of marriage only as men do – I mean, not to grow up in the thought that they must marry or be blighted creatures. My own views are rather extreme, perhaps; strictly, I don’t believe in marriage at all. And I haven’t anything like the respect for women, as women, that you have. You belong to the Ruskin school.

John Ruskin was also recited in Mr. Widdowson’s lecture to his wife,

Woman’s sphere is the home, Monica. Unfortunately girls are often obliged to go out and earn their living, but this is unnatural, a necessity which advanced civilization will altogether abolish. You shall read John Ruskin; every word he says about women is good and precious. If a woman can neither have a home of her own, nor find occupation in any one else’s she is deeply to be pitied; her life is bound to be unhappy. I sincerely believe that an educated woman had better become a domestic servant than try to imitate the life of a man.

Wool Exchange, Bradford. Built between 1864 and 1867. (from http://victorianweb.org/)

All these kinds of negativity make me want to delve into something which might do him justice (in my opinion). Well! Reading John Ruskin’s two essays is delightful as well as an enlightenment. It’s by far my favourite Little Black Classics among the other 4 that I bought (well, for Henry Mayhew’s one, better get yourself London Labour and the London Poor instead!). In the essay entitled Traffic (trafficking and goodies exchange), he stated that stakeholders wished to consult him, a “respectable architectural man-milliner”, regarding the guidance of construction of the Wool Exchange in Bradford; but he got them in preparation by trenchantly saying that, no, although he wouldn’t wilfully offend them by declining this invitation to deliver a talk in the Town Hall in 1864, he simply would not care less about the Exchange of theirs, because “they don’t”; but what his thoughts to eclipse all other issues were that “all good architecture is the expression of national life, and character; and it is produced by a prevalent and eager national taste, or desire for beauty”; that “Taste is the ONLY morality”. What someone liked basically would be telling who they were. Means of critique also ncluded outside ornaments like the love of pictures, statues, furniture, and architecture. In this case, if one is engrossed with entities which “proposes delight in perpetual contemplation”, he is considered as having a good taste (that included devouring a Turner’s picturesque pictures). Of course it’s misery to binge into Newgate Calendar as a literary pastime. This concept is quite inspiring.

Ruskin1There’s so much to talk about, so many examples and analogies. What he then said was that England, apart from its iron-working industries and competition against other European vice, there’s the fourth religion of Christianity practicing there, and it was the worship of “Goddess of Getting-on”, or “Britannia of the Market”. “Architectures are principally built to her: railroad-piers, warehouses, exchanges!” This Getting-on and gathering place had a motto and heroism attached to it, which he should regard it as absolutely a preposterous ridicule, it’s rather selling than supplying, “quartering one’s self upon them for food, stripping them of their clothes”, to put the this trait simply, it’s merely but gravely a competition for the “bravest”, “wittiest”, and strongest” in the commerce marketing with doing businesses dishonestly. In this case, CHANGE was needed.

Following those trodden ways of wisdom, which are pleasantness, and seeking her quiet and withdrawn paths, which are peace; — then, and so sanctifying wealth into ‘commonwealth’, all your art, your literature, your daily labours, your domestic affection, and citizen’s duty, will join and increase into one magnificent harmony.

In the end, the Wool Exchange was constructed in the style of Gothic Revival and that was advocated and supported by Ruskin accordingly.

The Roots of Honour is another essay included in the Little Black Classics, which examines the flaws of modernity and system of political economy in mercantile businesses that defied the inborn quality of social affections and empathy. The piece is great as well, especially pleasant to mention Dickens’s works in order to observe master-servant relationships, for example, Esther and Charlie in Bleak House and Miss Brass and the Marchioness in Master Humphrey’s Clock; and Ruskin’s favourite, Hard Times.

F1430All in all, I really like this pamphlet, full of metaphors and examples. Though he might not be right on gender issues, but there’s something in his views to look at in relation to art and society. In the end, I would like to include some passages of “the fatal lecture” in The Fallen Leaves by Wilkie Collins. It’s a lecture delivered by Amelius Goldenheart in the hall of Hampden Institution. Goldenheart’s devout belief in Christian Socialism is distinctive in the novel and controversial. Some might think it’s one of the reasons credited with the unsatisfactory reception in public and critics of the time. Moreover, I would like to include it because John Ruskin was one of the supporters of Christian Socialism among the Pre-Raphaelite circle, and a teaching fellow of the Working Men’s College. Enjoy! 🙂

  • “Ladies and gentlemen, thoughtful people accustomed to watch the signs of the times in this country, and among the other nations of Europe, are (so far as I know) agreed in the conclusion, that serious changes are likely to take place in present forms of government, and in existing systems of society, before the century in which we live has reached its end.
  • All that I can now attempt to do is (first) to point out some of the causes which are paving the way for a coming change in the social and political condition of this country; and (secondly) to satisfy you that the only trustworthy remedy for existing abuses is to be found in the system which Christian Socialism extracts from this little book on my table—the book which you all know under the name of The New Testament.
  • Look at our Commerce. What is its social aspect, judged by the morality which is in this book in my hand? Let those organised systems of imposture, masquerading under the disguise of banks and companies, answer the question—there is no need for me to answer it. You know what respectable names are associated, year after year, with the shameless falsification of accounts, and the merciless ruin of thousands on thousands of victims. You know how our poor Indian customer finds his cotton-print dress a sham that falls to pieces; how the savage who deals honestly with us for his weapon finds his gun a delusion that bursts; how the half-starved needlewoman who buys her reel of thread finds printed on the label a false statement of the number of yards that she buys; you know that, in the markets of Europe, foreign goods are fast taking the place of English goods, because the foreigner is the most honest manufacturer of the two—and, lastly, you know, what is worse than all, that these cruel and wicked deceptions, and many more like them, are regarded, on the highest commercial authority, as ‘forms of competition’ and justifiable proceedings in trade. Do you believe in the honourable accumulation of wealth by men who hold such opinions and perpetrate such impostures as these? I don’t! Do you find any brighter and purer prospect when you look down from the man who deceives you and me on the great scale, to the man who deceives us on the small? I don’t! Everything we eat, drink, and wear is a more or less adulterated commodity; and that very adulteration is sold to us by the tradesmen at such outrageous prices, that we are obliged to protect ourselves on the Socialist principle, by setting up cooperative shops of our own.
  • …that aspect presents one wide field of corruption and abuse, and reveals a callous and shocking insensibility on the part of the nation at large to the spectacle of its own demoralisation and disgrace.”“I am sorry I have made you angry with me,” he said, smiling. “The blame for this little disturbance really rests with the public speakers who are afraid of you and who flatter you—especially if you belong to the working classes. You are not accustomed to have the truth told you to your faces. Why, my good friends, the people in this country, who are unworthy of the great trust which the wise and generous English constitution places in their hands, are so numerous that they can be divided into distinct classes! There is the highly-educated class which despairs, and holds aloof. There is the class beneath—without self-respect, and therefore without public spirit—which can be bribed indirectly, by the gift of a place, by the concession of a lease, even by an invitation to a party at a great house which includes the wives and the daughters. And there is the lower class still—mercenary, corrupt, shameless to the marrow of its bones—which sells itself and its liberties for money and drink.
  • Do not, I entreat you, suffer yourselves to be persuaded by those purblind philosophers who assert that the divine virtue of Christianity is a virtue which is wearing out with the lapse of time. It is the abuse and corruption of Christianity that is wearing out—as all falsities and all impostures must and do wear out. Never, since Christ and his apostles first showed men the way to be better and happier, have the nations stood in sorer need of a return to that teaching, in its pristine purity and simplicity, than now! Never, more certainly than at this critical time, was it the interest as well as the duty of mankind to turn a deaf ear to the turmoil of false teachers, and to trust in that all-wise and all-merciful Voice which only ceased to exalt, console, and purify humanity, when it expired in darkness under the torture of the cross! Are these the wild words of an enthusiast? Is this the dream of an earthly Paradise in which it is sheer folly to believe? I can tell you of one existing community (one among others) which numbers some hundreds of persons; and which has found prosperity and happiness, by reducing the whole art and mystery of government to the simple solution set forth in the New Testament—fear God, and love thy neighbour as thyself.”

Inescapable Fate, in the name of marriage – The Odd Women (1893) by George Gissing (Part 3)


(So, as we say in the business; readers who do not wish to learn details of the plot can skip this review at your own wish…)

The Odd Women touches many concepts of matrimony in relation to contemporary values. Marriage always causes dissent in inequality, for instance, the divorce and marriage property law being disadvantageous to married women. One of the concepts would be that many characters, including Mr. Micklethwaite the mathematical scholar and Mr. Widdowson, the middle-aged bachelor, who later became Monica’s husband, all emphasized the importance and practicability of the notion of “man and wife” of the time – the female of singularity becomes a unity in subordination to her husband dutifully and financially in accordance to Ruskin’s school of thought concerning domesticity; on the other hand, it is perceived as manliness to save a wretched single woman from that fate. “Woman’s sphere is the home, Monica. Unfortunately girls are often obliged to go out and earn their living, but this is unnatural, a necessity which advanced civilization will altogether abolish…” Ostensibly, each and every woman might accept it but in Monica’s case her entrenched idea instilled by Rhoda and Miss Barfoot’s institution influenced deeply in her to liken her treatment of housebreaking into what is said on a stage of confinement as well as a maidservant on the discretion of allowance, permission and submission at Mr. Widdowson’s wishes. “All that was needed was resolution on my part. I have been absurdly weak, and weakness in the husband means unhappiness in the wife. From today you look to me for guidance. – I am no tyrant, but I shall rule you for your own good.”

The conventional notion of submission and condescension between husband and wife engender inequality in an institution of marriage, especially when it is based on a ground without a admittance of love as an irrational human infallibility.  “Done, in the name of Morality. Done, in the interests of Virtue. Done, in an age of progress, and under the most prefect government on the face of the earth.” (Man and Wife (1870), Wilkie Collins) Ironically enough, in Monica and Mr. Widdowson’s marriage, although Ruskin’s school of thought prevails in Widdowson’s tirade and doctrine to Monica, unyielding to obey to her husband and position overriding another, it is a defeat upon man’s weakness; as a result, dishonour, infidelity and jealousy are the only components to define it all. “Ten years hence, would she have subdued her soul to a life of weary insignificance, if not of dishonour? For it was dishonour to live with a man she could not love, whether her heart cherished another image or was merely vacant. A dishonour to which innumerable women submitted, a dishonour glorified by social precept, enforced under dread penalties.” Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He was Right (1869) is another novel to examine the poignancy of a matrimonial relationship based on husband’s jealously and faith. Marriage evolves into a battle ground of stubbornness and manliness, as well as irrational competition to outmaneuver another sex thereby restoring self-esteem as being embroiled in a nuptial life. “He could not but remember the many nights when he thus kept watch in Walworth Road and in Rutland Street, with jealousy, then too, burning in his heart, but also with amorous ardours, never again to be revived. A little more than twelve months ago! And he had waited, longed for marriage through half a lifetime.”

Concerning imbalance of marriage statuses in sexes, misogynistic and negative attitudes towards women in nuptial relationship could be found throughout the novel. Trifling of trivialities described in women would be commonplace to describe them. “Narrow social opportunity has something to do with it. They must marry some one, and in the case of most men choice is seriously restricted.” To cure of fairer sex’s ambivalence of emotions, sentimentality and to reform it into swiftness and resourcefulness would be a motto of Barfoot’s institution in educating girls of the new generation. Doing deeds “for the happiness of men” is mentioned throughout the novel. Women Invasion, a new ruler of work, a new ruler of home, as well as being beneficial to the goods of men, is questionable. (Men demand so much from women, to be engaged in domestic household and require them to be subordinate to themselves. what kinds of women would they ask for?) Overall, men and women are dependable and inseparable when talking about women’s reformation and feminism, it should be of an equal status. Actually, I think of Robert Bly’s Iron John (1990), to teach man love woman, to live peacefully with one another.

However, women also unconscious demean herself to take advantage at the mercy of affectation and weaknesses only for the sake of her selfishness, and George Gissing illustrates this inescapable fact and tragedy that women sometimes are the perpetrator to engender in equality of their sex. Barfoot’s brother, Thomas, when in a serious injury, resorted to retreat to the countryside. Being contemptible in this circumstance and pining to return to urban abode, Mr. Thomas “always spoke of herself as a sad sufferer from mysterious infirmities, and had, in fact, a tendency to hysteria, which confused itself inextricably with the results of evil nurture and the impulses of a disposition originally base; nevertheless she made a figure in a certain sphere of vulgar wealth, and even gave opportunity to scandalous tongues. Her husband, whatever his secret thought, would hear nothing against her; his temper, like Everard’s, was marked with stubbornness, and after a good deal of wrangling he forbade his brother to address him again on the subject of their disagreement.”

Talking about marriage, it might become hard to accomplishing the vow successfully. This novel also examines the accessibility of “free union” – “cohabitation without marriage, a phrase which at the time was regarded as part of emancipationist jargon”. To put this practicability upon Rhoda Nunn and Everard Barfoot, “Seriously, I believe if a few men and women in prominent position would contract marriage of the free kind, without priest or lawyer, open and defiantly, they would do more benefit to their kind than in any other possible way. I don’t declare this opinion to every one, but only because I am a coward. Whatever one believes with heart and soul one ought to make known.” Though it arises imagination of an ideal relationship in Everard to live on love as the ground without unloosening the legal intricacies, it might be for the woman to crystallise the ideal of marriage, the symbol of completion of a golden ring. In Rhoda’s mind, it is woman weakness against self-esteem in her ambivalence in consent to a marriage. “She herself was no longer one of the ‘odd women’; fortune had – or seemed to have – been kind to her; none the less her sense of a mission remained. No longer an example of perfect female independence, and unable therefore to use the same language as before, she might illustrate woman’s claim of equality in marriage. – If her experience proved no obstacle.” To her, it is not the question of want of faith to seek a marriage, it is for the promise of love to someone. (although love is also unequal in a relationship)

All in all, I couldn’t say I was right in all the opinions I wrote, it just provokes my thinking and want to share it all in my interpretation; the novel deals with so many facets of social and sexual values richly, and definitely worth a re-read. George Gissing himself is also a phenomenon. Social Life and condition always intrigue me. I might read He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope soon, but hopefully I will read Josephine Butler’s biography next, as prostitutes as free-wheeling creatures also appear in The Odd Women and being examined in great details.

The Odd Women (1893) by George Gissing (Part 2)

Weakness and Strength


(So, as we say in the business; readers who do not wish to learn details of the plot can skip this review at your own wish…)

Why are women redundant…

So many odd women – no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally – being one of them myself – take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve. When one woman vanishes in matrimony, the reserve offers a substitute for the world’s work.

In the year of 1872 comes the first chapter of events of The Odd Women. Five year earlier, John Stuart Mill proposed to change the wording of the 1867 Reform Bill to read “person” for “man” to advocate and expand the franchise to all sexes; National Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed which later furthered into National Union for Women’s Suffrage Societies, and Women’s Social and Political Union founded by Emmeline Pankhurst’s. The Odd Women is probably a novel by George Gissing influenced by New Woman fiction around the time. At the beginning of chapter, we are introduced to Dr. Madden, the widowed surgeon of the village in Clevedon. Though the home was intellectual, he never has thought of seeking for his six daughters prospects of professional development.

Agnes Grey

Nothing upsets me more than the sight of those poor homes where wife and children are obliged to talk from morning to night of how the sorry earnings shall be laid out. No, no; women, old or young, should never have to think about money.

Their methods of study are unsystematic and if a fatality befell on him, “teaching would always be their resource”. However most importantly, he is determined throughout his life to set an exemplary and patriarchal approach to lead them into a righteous life in developing girls’ minds with £800 insured as financial assistance. Sudden death tragically practicalizes his prophecies. Governesses and girls’ companions qualify meagre needs but deteriorate health. 15 years later in 1887, the sisters are limitedly to be at the mercy of weaknesses and human sympathies compatible  with conventional views of “womanish and social usefulness” of the time; Alice dealt her devotion of religion only in “sorrowful commonplaces, profitable perhaps to her own heart, but powerless over the trouble of another’s; Virginia helplessly and pathetically resorted to be a secretive drinker as consolation of hunger in ignorance of own’s imploring of self-respect and dignity. “Already they were old; and they would grow older, sadder, perpetually struggling to supplement that dividend from the precious capital – and merely that they might keep alive”  – better than working as domestic goodness. (education method and system between gender is important issue in The Odd Women)

Monica, the youngest of all, tempts her fate to work as a shop girl in the city, and if that is the only solution to get herself married and whatnot depending on her present circumstances and frivolity. Harshness defines job when she is to be “laboriously engaged in a shop for thirteen hours and a half every week day, and on Saturday for an average of sixteen”, and on Sunday to be forbidden to stay indoor until bedtime. “Varicose vein” torments her, boredom tires her.

(c) Girton College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Barbara Bodichon (c) Girton College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When my mother left me that little sum of money I took a bold step. I went to Bristol to learn everything I could that would help me out of school life.

Poverty seems to be inevitable and manifesto of fate and discrepancy of classes, “self-help” is nevertheless one of the main focuses of the novel in defining the concept of this novel. Property and finance is defined in one and each of the character either from means of inheritance and salaries. Nevertheless, there is a spirit of self-help prevailing and lurking in every opportunity of all classes, depending on “whether they have the awareness and resolution to take advantage of them”. Rhoda Nunn is a pivotal figure of this novel who constitutes capabilities of a “man” with respect of contemporary values of sternness, resourcefulness, and determination. Going through her hardship in shorthand, book-keeping, commercial correspondence, and typewriting, we found her as working in concert with Miss Barfoot to train young girls for work in offices in Great Portland Street (based on Society for Promotion of the Employment of Women established in 1850s by Barbara Bodichon). Different from Urania Cottage as refuge for fallen leaves and workhouses for refuge of the underprivileged as “ceaseless philanthropy”, it serves as an institution of women with potentiality and capability of receiving a middle-class education, be rational and responsible human beings, to please themselves and free the reproach of “womanliness” and success of “woman invasion” not only for their sex but as well as for the men’s good as “new ruler of home”. “When I think of the contemptible wretchedness of women enslaved by custom, by their weakness, by their desires, I am ready to cry, Let the world perish in tumult rather than things go on in this way!'” However, Rhoda takes a step further in obstinacy that “falling in love”, and to be engaged in matrimonial relationship is an animal weakness of sentimentality influencable by love novels at the dispense of sterner qualities,

“My work is to help those women who, by steer necessity, must live alone, – women whom vulgar opinion ridicules. How can I help them so effectually as by living among them, one of them, and showing that my life is anything but weariness and lamentation? I am fitted for this. It gives me a sense of power and usefulness which I enjoy.”

However, it is starting to get confusing for me. This might be paradoxical and critical in individuals of the story. As the novel drives on, I see that Rhoda faces challenged ahead of her in respect of defying temptation of love and triumph she has in the pronunciation of men’s weakness and confession to love.

“Rhoda seemed to have endeavoured to liken herself to the suggestion of her name by the excessive plainness with which she had arranged her hair; its tight smoothness was nothing like so becoming as the mode she usually adopted, and it made her look older. Whether by accident or design, she took an upright chair, and sat upon it in a stiff attitude.”

Apart from that, she could also be having a misogynistic attitudes apart from men in her judgmental aspects.

Many a vivid moment dwelt in her memory; joys and sorrows, personal or of larger scope, affected her the more deeply because of that ruling intelligence which enabled her to transmute them into principles.

Experience might say a lot to form a person’s mind and notion of an idea…”If only she had once been loved, like other women – if she had listened to an offer of devotion, and rejected it – her heart would be more securely at peace. So she thought. Secretly she deemed it a hard thing never to have known that common triumph of her sex. And, moreover, it took away from the merit of her position as a leader and encourager of women living independently. There might be some who said, or thought, that she made a virtue of necessity.”

Ambivalence and Influences of Circumstances

In Rhoda’s case, I think it might not be based on her belief but to be her advantage to seek a mission to be superior to the others provided with her withstanding fortitude in past struggles and experience in harsh life. Unkind circumstances strengthen her. In the end, Rhoda was sympathized by man; she seemed to be contending herself all along, “her honesty”, “her dignity, struggling against the impulses of her heart” overtake her, making her stronger than Virginia and Alice. If she enjoys inborn social advantages as other women have, the molding of her heart could be different.

The Odd Women (1893) by George Gissing (Part 1)

9780199538300(So, as we say in the business; readers who do not wish to learn details of the plot can skip this review at your own wish…)

Regarding my reading experience, the fairer characters in fiction, who step into the stage of maidenhood or living in “single blessedness”, are often portrayed negatively. For instance, Miss Clack, the “Rampant Spinster”, is the subject of ridicule and idleness. Concerning the phenomenon of telescopic philanthropy in The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins, she fanatically helps out with church affairs and a committee called “The Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society”, in which she deals with men’s unmentionables regardless of her own’s proprieties and conducts concerned.

Take a glance of Jane Wilson from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by Anne Brontë; while unable to identify with such “vulgar people in the eyes of the world”, she takes lodging in a county town and ends up “doing no good to others but little to herself, spending in her days in fancy-work and scandal” in her ways of “closefisted, cold, uncomfortable gentility”. Others might include Miss Matty and Miss Wade being invented in novels of Cranford and Little Dorrit in 1850s by Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens respectively. Modern fictional characters I have read would be the formidable aunts by P. G. Wodehouse. In other cases, one of the most interesting characters would be Marian Halcombe from The Woman in White (1860), perceived as strong, independent, intelligent, and be capable of anything.

“[T]hough in single life your joys may not be very many, your sorrows, at least, will not be more than you can bear. Marriage may change your circumstances for the better, but, in my private opinion, it is far more likely to produce a contrary result.” In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham aka the marriage guru gives wise counsel that marriage is a constitution of “approval and love”.

The Odd Women by George Gissing, on the other hand, places topics of marriage and singletons on whole new perspectives directing to many facets, which definitely will be one of the most devouring and best novels I have read this year.