- Ruskin and Social Reform: Ethics and Economics in the Victorian Age, and: Performing the Victorian: John Ruskin and Identity in Theatre, Science and Education
The Victorian polymath John Ruskin's star rose throughout the nineteenth century. By the end of the long Victorian period, his Sesame and Lilies became the most common school prize for girls and Ruskin societies had proliferated around the country.1 With the advent of the First World War, he fell out of favour and his reputation declined steadily until the 1970s when his work began to enjoy a gradual revival, primarily in relation to his writings on visual art and architecture. In the lead-up to the centenary of his death in 2000 and in the first decade of the twenty-first century, a new wave has come to dominate Ruskin scholarship; it has at its core the recuperation of Ruskin's reputation, not just by interpreting and exploring thoughts within his works themselves, but by tracing his influence, primarily in areas which, given the cultural power Ruskin wielded at the beginning of the twentieth-century, have not received the critical attention they deserve. Gill G. Cockram's Ruskin and Social Reform and Sharon Aronofsky Weltman's Performing the Victorian both fit into this category and both begin by articulating ways that Ruskin still inhabits our culture, Cockram by stating that '[e]veryone with any knowledge of [End Page 152] nineteenth century history knows something about Ruskin' and listing his reputation as 'the art critic who famously insulted Whistler', as a proponent Gothic architecture and as the subject of 'anecdotal ribaldry concerning the circumstances of his divorce' (1), Weltman by noting Ruskin's surprising re-emergence onto the stage as the subject of 'two new hit shows' at the turn of the twenty-first century (1). For both critics, Ruskin is now best known for his biographical interest and each sets about redressing the imbalance, particularly by presenting Ruskin's credentials as a theorist. By tracing his thoughts in their respective areas, Cockram on Ruskin as a social and economic critic and Weltman in relation to a broad spectrum of 'performance', both demonstrate the influence Ruskin exerted a century ago – and still wields.
Cockram's Ruskin and Social Reform began as a doctoral thesis, filling a gap in Ruskin scholarship. She argues that Ruskin was essentially an organic thinker and that his organicist perspective coloured all his writing, including his later socio-economic works. She has produced a book which, while focused on Ruskin, offers a coherent introduction to Victorian social and economic theory and practice, particularly at the end of the era. Making selective use of figures such as Tom Barclay, Robert Blatchford, Thomas Carlyle, G. D. H. Cole, Keir Hardie, Frederic Harrison, John Atkinson Hobson, TomMann, Karl Marx, J. S. Mill, William Morris, A. J. Penty, Robert Owen, George Bernard Shaw and Adam Smith, she maps out Ruskin's unique position within the tradition, while noting ways in which he parallels, reinforces, influences and contradicts the work of others. She does so in a voice which is immensely readable and makes this complex area accessible to the non-expert.
Having staked out her territory in the Introduction, in Chapter 2, 'John Ruskin: The Emergence of a Social Critic', Cockram meets her readers where most scholars of Ruskin reside – in art and architecture – and takes them on a journey into social and economic thought, building her argument with examples from Ruskin and his contemporary reviewers until she can state that '[o]rganic unity made manifest in great works of art, whether it be Turner's paintings or Gothic cathedrals, thus provided the original metaphor for Ruskin's social criticism' (38). Chapters 3 and 4 consider the ideas within and reception of Ruskin...