The Grey side of John Ruskin

The Grey side of John Ruskin

When I attended Newport (Mon) High School for Boys (established 1896), from 1958 to 1965, there were six “houses”, modelled, like much of the ethos of the school, on English “public” (actually, private) schools.  I fail to remember all the names of the houses.  I do recall that they were named after men – then, all famous.  I belonged to (Isaac) Newton, as my Uncle Ronald (killed in action in 1941) had belonged to it.  Another was named after (John) Ruskin (1819-1900) – eminent polymath, artist and art critic, social, commentator on social and economic and political matters, etc, etc.

Ruskin’s influence in his day is reported to have been enormous, on individuals and on movements.  (Among others, he influenced Marcel Proust, as can be seen, for example, in the chapter, ‘Séjour â Venise’ (‘Staying in Venice’), in À la recherché du temps perdu.)

I have read Proust but never Ruskin.

It appears to me that Ruskin’s many contributions to serious thought have been absorbed by others and hence have come down to us in the ideas of others.

What an extraordinary legacy, then!

What is Ruskin chiefly remembered for nowadays?  Probably, and sadly, his failed marriage (1848-1854) to Euphemia (“Effie”) Gray (1828-1897).  In 1855 she went on to marry the painter John Everett Millais (1829-1896); and she had eight children.

Much has been written and produced about this “triangle” over the years, to the exclusion, to a large extent, of Ruskin’s own merits.

I have just seen, on BBC television, the 2014 film, Effie Gray, which devotes itself exclusively to the matter of the failed marriage and the developing relationship between Effie and Millais.  Much of the content is based on guess-work.

Nothing indecorous is shown.  The acting and scene-setting convey all we (as viewers) need to know.

Ruskin himself is portrayed as unfeeling and patronising towards Effie, and at the same time largely under the control of his own parents.

As a viewer, I longed for Effie to escape from the stifling atmosphere created by the Ruskin family and to escape – to the arms of her admirer, Millais, as that is what she wanted.  A happy ending for her, then, and for Everett, but not for John.

The film makes much of this happy-sad story; but the material for the plot is rather slim.

There remains a larger story to tell about this Victorian sage.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Alys Fowler’s ‘Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery’ (Hodden & Stoughton, 2017)

Tthe title of the book contains a double-entendre.  First, the writer discusses the nature of canals – the botanical, zoological and geological aspects, and the history of their building and uses.  This nature is largely hidden from view – hidden from those who don’t venture on to the towpath or indeed on to the water (as the writer does).  Ms Fowler evokes this nature enthusiastically and in detail – in a blend of objectivity and subjectivity.  She conveys the impact upon her that both the wildlife and the detritus of industry and our throwaway society create.

Secondly, the accounts of her exploration of the canals of the West Midlands (and London too, a bit) are blended with her personal history – her midlife crisis, indeed.   (Well, she is in her late thirties.)  The canal trips provide a way for the writer to re-assess her life and to make life-changing decisions.  (She is a gardener who temporarily abandons her garden.)

In brief, Ms Fowler changes partners.  She is torn, about this.  Her re-orientation takes time and trouble and involves painful feelings.  But she sticks to her decision, once made, and accepts the implications and costs.

Ms Fowler writes about sexuality but not sex.  She writes about herself rather than about her partners – they remain somewhat shadowy, little described.  (This preserves a degree of privacy for them.)  Her account is openly subjective.  The “significant others” would have said something different (of course).

This book is not for everyone.  (I like it.)  Not all will enjoy the canal and nature descriptions.  Not all will accompany the writer on her emotional journey sympathetically.  Some may not go along with her decision to leave one partner and to take up with another.

Worth a look.  Thought-provoking.

Afterthought

Did I mention that Alys leaves her husband for a woman?  No!?

From what I can gather, Alys is not alone in her transition from a relationship with a man to one with a woman.  And the writer is at some pains to say that the former relationship was genuine and fond – implying that it was the right thing at the time (at its time).

I guess we don’t yet know much about what has been termed “sexual fluidity”.