- John Ruskin, Henry James and the Shropshire Lads
Readers of Victorian Studies will be familiar with books, usually by British authors, of the type presented here: essays in cultural, social, and literary history that proceed by way of multiple biographies based on published and archival materials. Cynthia Gamble improves on many examples of the type by relying heavily on standard academic sources such as Leon Edel's biography and edition of the selected letters of Henry James and on the comprehensive, early-twentieth-century Cook and Wedderburn edition of John Ruskin's writings. She also provides full bibliographical references for her citations, not always provided in this sort of book.
Whatever the merits of biography as a genre, a strong intellectual structure is usually not one. A study such as this nonetheless depends on a leading idea or organizing term to serve as a principle for selecting among the available data. In John [End Page 734] Ruskin, Henry James and the Shropshire Lads, the organizing term is Shropshire, Gamble's native ground. Located in the west of England on the Welsh border, the county is a place of interest in itself. Shropshire has been home to many sites of fortification since the earliest times, including the major Christian outposts Wenlock Abbey and Priory, whose owner, Charles Gaskell, James visited in 1877 and wrote about in "Abbeys and Castles," an essay published in Portraits of Places (1883). James also visited the Norman ruins of Buildwas Abbey, illustrated in the volume. Shropshire is distinguished by a memorable geographical feature, the Wenlock Edge, an eighteen-mile-long limestone escarpment memorialized in the georgic poetry of A. E. Housman. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution originated in small towns near the Severn River such as the ill-sited and long-neglected Broseley, Ironbridge, Coalbrookdale, and Madeley, illustrated by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg and J. M. W. Turner. Given the juxtaposition of industrial landscapes with nearby rustic beauties and archeological sites, Shropshire could serve as a sort of material allegory of Ruskin's views of the decadent character of modern civilization and the factitiousness of its values, though Gamble's interests don't carry her in this direction.
Instead, the raison d'être of the book is Ruskin's lifelong association with three notable sons of Shropshire, one of whom, Edward Cheney, also lived in London and as a connoisseur of art in Italy. Ruskin and his wife had visited Cheney's home in Venice, the Palazzo Sorantzo-Piovene, while Ruskin was researching The Stones of Venice (1851-53). The couple also visited him at the family home in Shropshire, Badger Hall, and at Badger Dingle, a private park that became a popular goal for day trips from Wolverhampton and Birmingham after 1851.
While there existed tensions both personal and artistic in his relationship with Cheney, Ruskin was much closer to the most important of his Shropshire connections, Osborne Gordon, who as a young man tutored Ruskin at Christ Church College, Oxford. Gordon became a close friend of both Ruskin and his parents and frequently traveled abroad with him during the years that followed. During times of crisis, such as Ruskin's disastrous courtship and later mourning of young Rose La Touche, Gordon attempted to steady his friend while maintaining a distance from spiritualist practices. Upon Gordon's death in May of 1883, Ruskin provided the draft of a memorial tablet installed on the north wall of the chancel of the church of St. Michael and St. Mary Magdalene at Easthampstead, where Gordon had been pastor for nearly a quarter century. Gordon's most significant single attempt to intervene in Ruskin's life had occurred early, when he suggested that Ruskin's final undergraduate exams at Oxford be postponed until fall of 1840, a recommendation scotched by Ruskin's parents, who insisted that he travel with them to the continent instead. As an indirect result, Ruskin ended by taking an honorary degree, a Double Fourth, in April of 1842, which enabled him to style...