The Social and Political Legacies of a Victorian Prophet, 1870-1920
Oxford Historical Monographs
Oxford: University Press, 2011
Hardcover. xii + 304pp. ISBN 978-0-19-960241-4. £63.00
Reviewed by Peter Mandler
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
This book is mistitled. It is not ‘after Ruskin’, but mostly ‘during Ruskin’ (who died in 1900). It is not about Ruskin’s legacies, his influences, but rather about his disciples. That is not in itself a negligible subject. Ruskin had a genius for discipleship. He spoke deliberately in oracular tones that aimed at recruiting disciples rather than mere followers: dévots who hung on his every word and who fed on his presence or at least his aura. Some of the best passages in this book are first-person accounts from disciples who knew that they would never be able fully to communicate the thrill of his presence amongst them. Anyone who has had the pleasure of hearing Ruskin’s speeches enacted – there are a few players out there who make a living performing Ruskin’s speeches – can testify that that electricity still lingers in the words. But the words confined to the page grew cold almost as soon as Ruskin’s body did.
The master-disciple relationship itself captures Ruskin’s elusive combination of Toryism – he was the master, after all – and popular radicalism – he made his disciples feel bigger, and like all good cult-leaders he made them feel one. This blend of hierarchy and interdependence was perfectly designed both to engender iconoclasm and to tighten the bonds amongst the iconoclasts. But Ruskin was not himself much interested in leading, and he never lingered in one place long enough to make those bonds permanent, nor did he strive to bring his bands of disciples together. So the story that Eagles tells is episodic and dispersed. The Guild of St. George represented his most sustained effort, but even it threw off only a series of disarticulated and generally short-lived projects: a cooperative farm at Totley in Worcestershire, a few abortive experiments in handloom cloth manufacture, St. George’s Museum at Walkley. A non-profit teashop in Marylebone staffed by Ruskin’s family servants and a street-sweeping project in St. Giles failed when Ruskin ran out of money or interest. Ruskin’s time spent as Slade Professor in Oxford in the 1870s saw the launch of the road-building at Hinksey that recruited fleets of the best and the brightest of young Oxford to do manual labour in a good cause for two hours a day, but the episode passed quickly, leaving the young men beguiled but bewildered.
Part of the problem is that they had little to do. Ruskin was not a man of action and he did not adumbrate programmes. His interventions were meant to be symbolic. He kept his distance from any more sustained [or successful] enterprises undertaken by his disciples. It is telling that when they endeavoured to stick to Ruskinism pure and simple, they sickened and died, but when they applied his inspiration to something else [often their own inspiration] they often thrived. The Ruskin societies that sprang up around mostly northern towns in the 1880s were dedicated to spreading the master’s gospel but – like so many cults – never on their own found anything to do beyond sponsoring talks about him and distributing his works. Even when they did essay a social experiment in the manner of their master – such as the Glasgow Society’s decision in 1889 to ‘adopt a street’ in the slums – they adopted also their master’s preference for abortive experiments; ‘nothing seems to have come of it’ . If as Eagles shows many creative and successful social reformers passed through their doors, their creativity and success surely owed much to the fact that they passed through rather than lingering.
Eagles does not strengthen his case by always giving Ruskin the benefit of the doubt. The challenge posed by Ruskin’s proposals for social experiments was ‘entirely undiminished’ by their practical failures. Anyway, in the case of the Hinksey diggings ‘it would be a mistake to see them solely as a social experiment’ because they also ‘provided an opportunity to explore the flora of the countryside’ . Ruskin is credited with all the ‘core ideas and activities’ of the settlement movement, but not debited with the discouragement he put in its way: ‘they are very beautiful efforts’, he wrote in 1887, ‘but they go dead against all my teaching’ . Similarly, Ruskin is credited with inspiring all of the provisions of the Edwardian Liberal welfare reforms even though he deprecated the social-scientific research that his so-called followers generated to advocate for them and would have been appalled by the legislation that ensued . The Ruskin societies, although they only had a few dozen members each, are given ‘a significant place in civic life’, mostly on the grounds that a lot of significant people addressed them; their addresses are seen as ‘seminal’ interventions at ‘critical moments’ [187-8]. The Birmingham Society’s journal, Saint George, is accorded ‘a uniquely significant’ role in ‘the political culture and social thought of Edwardian Britain’ , on pretty close to zero evidence.
Perhaps the best-known contemporary testimony to Ruskin’s wider influence is W.T. Stead’s 1906 survey of early Labour M.P.s and the books that shaped their politics, in which Ruskin figured prominently. Eagles properly devotes a whole chapter to Ruskin’s reputation amongst organised labour. Again the most telling evidence cited is that provided by first-hand accounts of the spark lit by hearing or reading Ruskin, such as J.R. Clynes’s memory of reading The Seven Lamps of Architecture in the 1880s, a book which he considered ‘as much my own intimate possession as a young lover’s memory of his virgin kiss is his’ . Eagles makes things too easy by counterposing Ruskin to Marx, as if that was the only choice. Again, however, the real lessons of Ruskin’s influence on organised labour can only be learned by asking how Ruskin combined with other influences (which might include Marx, or Methodism, or Christian socialism, to name but a few). To say as Eagles does that Ruskin’s followers in the labour movement were ‘curiously selective’  in what they chose to read or to remember from his works is to state the problem, not to address it. The harnessing of Ruskin’s inspiration to other sources and to other causes that Ruskin himself would have rejected was as much a creative act as Ruskin’s own interventions.
It is precisely the plasticity of Ruskin’s words and thought, which made them so susceptible to combination with other creeds, that makes so difficult the job of showing what work they did – disentangling what is Ruskinian from what is not and then identifying and explaining the creative syntheses that resulted. Some very talented historians have already broken their heads on distinctive aspects of this quest – Ian Britain (Fabianism and Culture, 1992) and Chris Waters (British Socialists and the Politics of Popular Culture, 1990) on socialists and the arts, Michael Saler on industrial design (The Avant-Garde in Interwar England, 2001), Seth Koven on the settlement movement (Slumming, 2004) – none mentioned in Eagles’s bibliography. An overview of all of these influences, and the many more that might be legitimately laid at Ruskin’s door, would be insanely ambitious for a Ph.D. thesis, and in the end we cannot fault Stuart Eagles for not attempting it. It was enough to stick to Ruskin’s disciples. But in the end a clear view of the master is not ever going to be achieved from his disciples alone.
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