THE WIDER SEA: A Life of John Ruskin by John Dixon Hunt

THE WIDER SEA: A Life of John Ruskin

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Though far more detailed and considerably more stylish than Joan Abse's John Ruskin (1981), this long, often-probing biography gives less coherence and shape to Ruskin's daunting life-and-work than does the modest Abse study: the Ruskin here is more of a difficult, selfish fellow than the crippled soul convincingly drawn by Abse. He had ""a creative rather than a crushed boyhood,"" says Hunt (English, U. of London), putting relatively little emphasis on Mother Ruskin's fierce evangelism. Similarly, when Ruskin's emotional problems surface--the impotence with wife Effie, the unconsummated obsession with young girls (especially doomed Rose La Touche), the eventual madness--Hunt, while going in for psychological speculation here and there, tends to stay on the genteel surface. (""It was a need and habit of self-absorption, at best, or wilful egotism, at worst, which was one of the main contributions to the failure of his only attempt to share his life. . . ."") And Ruskin's Utopian, social concerns--which Abse integrated with the art-criticism quite persuasively--seem underexposed here. Still, Hunt is strong on close-up scrutiny of Ruskin texts--whether shrewdly weighing the objectivity of passage after passage in Praeterita or noting the limitations of Ruskin's art criticism. (""Analyses of individual pictures often seem to mirror his own enthusiasms and justify his principles rather than attend carefully to the actual works."") And he returns again and again, with some effectiveness, to Ruskin's lifelong search for the right form in which to collect and present his rangy thoughts: ""to unify responses towards a whole life and to bring together nations otherwise divided."" The result, then, is a dry, oddly unenthusiastic and unsympathetic study indeed, even less rich in period personality than the somber Abse book; but, if Abse remains the better introduction to both life and work for the general reader, Hunt's scholarly approach--year-by-year minutiae analyzed, the preoccupation with subtleties of intellectual development--will be welcomed by specializing students and researchers.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Viking