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Book Reviews Ruskin's Later Years Tim Hilton. John Ruskin: The Later Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. xxiii + 656 pp. $35.00 IN AN ERA of increasingly hefty biographies, John Ruskin's tragic yet immensely productive life actually warrants extended treatment . Tim Hilton's John Ruskin: The Early Years (Yale University Press, 1985, newly reissued in paperback), which followed Ruskin to 1859 as Modern Painters was concluding and his transition from art to direct social criticism signaled by Unto This Last was about to begin, ran 301 pages. This long-awaited second volume is over twice that length because Hilton contends that Ruskin became both a better writer and a better man in the last half of his life, creating a neglected masterpiece, the 650,000-word series of 96 monthly letters to the workers of Britain, Fors Clavigera (1871-1884). Though he modestly labels it "a plain chronological account . . . describing , or at least mentioning, each of [Ruskin's] many books," Hilton offers a richly detailed literary biography, justified not only because Ruskin's life and works so complexly intertwine but also because "he could hardly take up his pen without shaping his thoughts in literary form." Moreover, Hilton emphatically values both the daunting profusion ("I do not believe that Ruskin wrote too much") and the disconcerting incompleteness of the later writings ("such books may be better for their lack of termination") as Ruskin's interests, commitments, and audiences proliferated. Hilton's command of the published work, bolstered by extensive original research in unpublished manuscripts, is obviously magisterial. The task of dealing coherently with such a polymath as Ruskin is nevertheless formidable. Early biographies, including the 1911 two-volume life, which Hilton reluctantly admires, by E. T. Cook, co-editor of the massive Library Edition of Ruskin's works, were typically skewed by Victorian reticence and his disciples' protectiveness; later single-volume lives have tended to abridge the last years. Hilton is Victorian in his admiration , but he deploys his fresh research with a modern candor that substantially fleshes out and variously revises previous accounts. 342 Book reviews His central text is Fors, Ruskin's "most personal and wilful publication ," at once intimate and apocalyptic, a "recondite and difficult work. It made no attempt to be otherwise." Fors is not only the capacious site of Ruskin's fiercest social criticism but a register both of his hectically multiplying projects, especially his Utopian St. George's Guild, and of biographical data bearing on issues that particularly concern Hilton: Ruskin's doomed love for Rose LaTouche ("the sad and wasteful story"), his insanity, and the changing religious views that evolved from both. Ruskin tacitly made Rose the recipient of his Fors letters until, frail and deranged, she died in 1875; she haunted them ever after. Though he was never certain that she read any, he intended them, Hilton maintains , "to demonstrate to all the world that he was a man of candour and integrity," challenging Rose's deep distrust of his religious questioning, so at odds with her own inflexible Evangelicism. Hilton constructs a densely detailed calendar of their relationship, tracking the apparently anorexic Rose's restless peregrinations across Ireland and England and later from one sanitarium to another; their meetings, intended, accidental , or postponed; the interventions, often misguided, by well-meaning friends and distressed or hostile relatives; the prolonged separations. In fact, Hilton argues, Ruskin was happiest when he could simply correspond with Rose; his love for her "was not in the nature of an active relationship with another person" but "rather, a part of [his] personality." He "needed to see [her] in terms of art," first in the Zipporah of Botticelli and later in Carpaccio's St. Ursula, "as lovely, distant, an icon, immortal or at least unaffected by human ills." These "artistic surrogates became part of Ruskin's religion, inseparable from his mental illness." Hilton carefully charts Ruskin's madness, noting early signs in the writings of the 1860s and backdating the first attacks to 1871 and 1876-1877. His depictions of the major breakdowns of 1878 and 1881 are more harrowingly graphic than earlier versions, as is his mapping of Ruskin's own strangely detached analyses...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 342-345
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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