John 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).
Apart 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.
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”. Still, setting aside the Exchange of theirs, and concerning the matter of architecture, 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 included 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, regarding taste, he expressed that it’s misery to binge into Newgate Calendar as a literary pastime. This concept is quite inspiring.
There’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” (Hence the title of “Traffic”). “Architectures are principally built to her: railroad-piers, warehouses, exchanges!” This Getting-on and gathering place had a motto and heroism attached to it, all things and matters for that “getting on”, earning money, without a sense of perpetual beauty, 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.
All in all, the Wool Exchange was constructed in the style of Gothic Revival. The committee somehow heeded Ruskin’s taste of his architectural favours, 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.
All 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 the passages, because they somewhat reflected John Ruskin’s ideas; also, 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.”