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Ruskin: the autobiographer without an audience?

By Francis O’Gorman

When John Ruskin (1819-1900) began Praeterita (1885-9), his unfinished autobiography, he had no obvious models of what an autobiography should look like, nor a clear view of his audience.

As far as models go, Ruskin is closest (though not very close) to John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1865). I don’t mean that Praeterita is primarily or explicitly theological. Rather, that Ruskin, like Newman, wanted to write a history of his mind’s development. “How I learned the things I taught,” Ruskin says in Praeterita, “is the major, and properly, only question regarded in this history.” More locally, Ruskin borrowed Dickens’ tone of comic retrospection from David Copperfield (1849-50) and Great Expectations (1860-1). For the rest, he was hesitant, changing manner and style as he made his own way through his life story. But who was his intended audience?

Ruskin had spent a lifetime addressing a public. He was not interested in his own fame, but only how he might serve the interests of those worthy of praise. Those were primarily painters, writers, architects, and later in his life, anyone who had, as Ruskin saw it, nobly fulfilled their God-given responsibilities. So why write about himself at the end of his active life?

Part of the answer, of course, is simply that Praeterita is a supplement to Ruskin’s public writing. It tries to describe the personal context, the private feelings, which lie behind his celebrations of Gothic architecture, Turner, northern Italy, eastern France, the Alps.

But, despite that, Praeterita can read as if it had no large audience in mind anyway. It is a private, intimate text. Praeterita was not first conceived as a book, but as a series of instalments. Its publication was occasional, and it was circulated in parts between friends, as if it was written for them. Some are individually addressed in the text.

More precisely, Praeterita often sounds as if Ruskin is addressing an idealised group of people who shared his own values. Readers are imagined to be already on his side. They love the mountains and hate restorations of buildings; they contemplate art with care and reverence, and do not look at the world with all the breathless haste of modernity; they care for what they were appointed to do and they spurn social climbing, selfishness, and avarice. Their faith is in God who appointed all people to individual tasks and equipped them with the skills and aptitude to fulfil those tasks.

It is little wonder that Ruskin thought he only had a small audience left.

Ruskin always believed that God had imparted to him responsibilities as an art and social critic to expound the fidelity of Turner’s vision, and to explain the meaning of Gothic architecture. But in the late 1880s, he had to admit, after decades of increasing disappointment and attempts to deny that disappointment, that he had not succeeded as he had hoped. That was the mood in which the autobiography was written.

Ruskin had begun his career with great expectations. He had believed himself, particularly in Modern Painters I (1843), a flag carrier. But his views on Turner had been attacked. The Pre-Raphaelite painters hadn’t followed his advice or lived up to his ambitions for them. Venice, to which he had dedicated enormous energy, remained in peril and the city’s warning to England to hold true to the Christian faith had not been heard. As he penned Praeterita, more than four decades since his public career began, Ruskin could not readily see that his influence had been extensive or helpful. He had either been misheard or not heard at all.

Ruskin in Praeterita sometimes doesn’t bother to explain details of what he is talking about, not because he has forgotten or does not care, but because he is writing for an imagined group of people who understand already. These are the ideal readers of the text — a small cluster who are sympathetic, informed, supportive, and already on board. They live primarily in Ruskin’s imagination not in reality. They are, in fact, versions of Ruskin himself.

That, I think, is the deepest sorrow of Praeterita. In a sense, Ruskin isn’t writing for an audience because he no longer thinks he has one. He had long believed that throughout his life, he had been fully alert to the remarkable revelations of nature and of art, and attentive to the best that had been thought and felt in the past. But those revelations and realisations hardly had availed him, for he now thought that he had persuaded few of their significance. The compelling sorrow of Praeterita is that Ruskin, in the late 1880s, thought he was often talking to himself.

Francis O’Gorman was born in Shropshire and educated at the University of Oxford. He has written widely on English literature, and recent publications include essays on Coleridge, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Edmund Gosse, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, and the value of literary research. Recent books include The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture (2010), and editions of Margaret Oliphant’s The Makers of Venice (2012), John Ruskin’s Praeterita (Oxford World’s Classics, 2012), and, with Katherine Mullin, Anthony Trollope’s The Duke’s Children (Oxford World’s Classics, 2011). He is currently Professor of Victorian Literature at the University of Leeds.

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