JOHN RUSKIN: The Passionate Moralist by Joan Abse

JOHN RUSKIN: The Passionate Moralist

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In recent years, Ruskin-the-unstable-man has appeared most often as a bizarre cameo performer (in historical fiction as well as non-fiction) while Ruskin-the-thinker/critic has inspired such purely intellectual studies as Robert Hewison's fine The Argument of the Eye. Abse, however, attempts to present Ruskin whole, through a complete and ""definite image of a great and sad man""--with solid but unfocused and only intermittently illuminating results. Raised by possessive, conflicting parents--a frustrated, culturally ambitious merchant-father and an Evangelical, dominating mother--gifted child John grew up as ""a somewhat helpless little deity"" alternately pushed to be a great poet or a great preacher. Very soon, of course, after travels in Europe (sketching nature) and exposure to Turner's paintings, he arrived at his lifelong compromise: to be a preacher about art--crusading for the moral imperative of beauty, of portraying the world as it really is. And Ruskin's ""indignation at the lack of understanding of art"" gradually led him, argues Abse, into ""a criticism of the society in which it was so regarded""; hence his increasingly broad humanism--with attacks on the soul-less industrial milieu, involvement in Utopian schemes, even self-proclaimed socialism. But while this shift required Ruskin to rebel against his parents' quintessential Victorianism (with a kind of late-blooming adolescence), no such transformation was possible in his personal life: ""the strict, Evangelical nature of his upbringing had cramped"" him to the point of spiritual, sensual emptiness. Thus: his disastrous unconsummated marriage; his lifelong virginity; his platonic obsession with young girls (including doomed Rose La Touche); his guilts, self-hatred, and eventual breakdown--with ""final surrender to a mother figure"" in beloved cousin Joan. Abse charts this grim case-history with plausible, if often rather vague, psychological insights. And she sketches in the substance of his writings competently. But the man and his work are never convincingly integrated; Ruskin's world remains rather bland here (figures like Carlyle and William Morris are insufficiently fleshed out); and throughout one misses the shrewd, curious drive (or the vigorous style) needed to bring off such an all-in-one biography. Still, if more careful than commanding, this is the first Ruskin life to incorporate recent research and a modestly valuable study of a notoriously difficult subject.

Pub Date: Nov. 12th, 1981
Publisher: Knopf