Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In the pits of stinking dust and mortal slime - John Ruskin and the horrors of fiction

We used to regard novels as ephemeral; and a quarter of a century since were accustomed to consider those by Scott, with a few others which, from Robinson Crusoe downwards, had made permanent names to themselves, as exceptions to this rule.

Anthony Trollope is, in his 1879 essay “Novel-Reading,” celebrating the publication of collected editions of Dickens and Thackeray.  I don’t know how many dozens of novels Trollope had behind him at this point but I can somehow sense Trollope’s satisfaction that he, too, will someday be represented in a diligently-edited uniform edition, as will Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot and George Meredith and any number of other deserving writers.

Trollope never actually writes that.  I’m reading between the lines.  It’s a self-satisfied essay.  Individual novels may be bad, or even bad for the reader, but “the novel” is a good thing.  The old argument about the morality of the novel is over.

I think Trollope is broadly correct, which is why it is so much fun to turn the page of The Victorian Art of Fiction to John Ruskin’s “Fiction – Fair and Foul” (1880), in which he declares that novels are rotten.  Here’s how it begins:

On the first mild – or, at least, the first bright – day of March, in this year, I walked through what was once a country lane, between the Hostelry of the Half-moon at the bottom of Herne Hill, and the secluded College of Dulwich.

In my young days, Croxsted Lane was a green bye-road traversable for some distance by carts; but rarely so traversed, and, for the most part, little else than a narrow strip of untilled field, separated by blackberry hedges from the better cared-for meadows on each side of it; growing more weeds, therefore, than they, and perhaps in spring a primrose or two – white archangel – daisies plenty, and purple thistles in autumn. (297)

Then: a spring, duckweed, “sundry curious little skipping shrimps,” “sometimes a tittlebat.”  We seem to be nowhere near the topic of fiction, unless Ruskin is actually writing a novel.  What is Croxsted Lane like now?

No existing terms of language known to me are enough to describe the forms of filth, and modes of ruin that varied themselves along the course of Croxsted Lane.  The fields on each side of it are now dug up for building, or cut through into gaunt corners and nooks of blind ground by the wild crossings and concurrencies of three railroads. (297-8)

Now Ruskin really gets going:  “heaps of – Hades only knows what… mildew of every unclean thing… back-garden sewage” ending with the worst insult, “remnants broadcast, of every manner of newspaper, advertisement or big-lettered bill, festering and flaunting out their last publicity in the pits of stinking dust and mortal slime” (298).

All right, now I get it.  This is a metaphor!  Of what?  Ruskin’s marvelous childhood lane has been destroyed by his arch-enemy:  London, the home of misery, infection, and decay.  Cities destroys landscapes, people, and, it turns out, fiction.  Fiction, and its writers and readers, now worship “the Divinity of Decomposition” which is “concerned only with the regenerative vigour of manure” (300).

Who is Ruskin talking about?  Amazingly, after a glance at Balzac, Ruskin launches directly into Charles Dickens, into Bleak House!  Urban readers can now only be entertained by “varying to his fancy the modes, and defining for his dulness the horrors, of Death,” which Dickens happily provides, as Ruskin demonstrates in his hilarious list of the fatalities in Bleak House:  “One by assassination; One by starvation, with phthisis,” and so on, all of which is “properly representative of the statistics of civilian mortality in the centre of London” (301).

At this point, the essay, becomes, a bit strangely, a defense of the “healthy mind” of Walter Scott, who of course did not write much about cities, and did not write at all about the morbid horrors of modern urban life.  Ruskin excepts a few other novels, based on no principle that I can see.  Oliver Twist is fine (“earnest and uncaricatured”) but Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris is “the effectual head of the whole cretinous school,” which is bad, I guess.

Which bothers Ruskin more, the loss of fortifying Scott-like fiction, or the loss of Croxsted Lane?  It’s all the same thing, really.  To Ruskin, cities destroy everything.  The novel is traditionally the product of modernity, but to Ruskin it is just another casualty of modern upheavals.  Halt “progress,” and then you’ll get your good fiction back.

John Ruskin is always – what do I want to say? – a provocative and useful challenge to me.


  1. HAHAHA! Oh my, he doesn't disappoint, does he?

    What seems especially batty about this is the muddle of cause and effect - given that urban growth is happening, that the deaths in Dickens are "properly representative of the statistics of civilian mortality in the centre of London," does Ruskin think Dickens should just ignore cities and continue to write about an idealized countryside? Does he feel that the State of Fiction would be better if we all just pretended London (disease, death, poverty) didn't exist?

    Also, it makes one wonder whether a writer like Hardy, for example, was yet on his radar - novels that address the disease/disaffection/hardship/ignorance of country life in a less idyllic, Croxsted Lane-ish way. Far from the Madding Crowd & Return of the Native would have been out by 1879, though not his really harsh stuff like Tess.

  2. No existing terms of language known to me are enough to describe the forms of filth, and modes of ruin that varied themselves along the course of Croxsted Lane.

    What a wonderful curmudgeon!

  3. Is it that he found modern fiction not....fictional enough? More cherubic cheeks and fewer rickets babies? I wonder what Ruskin thought of William Blake...

    This volume sounds like great good fun and I really should pick it up.

  4. Ah, but some things never change. There will always be those John Ruskins as long as men grow old.

  5. I took a Victorian Lit class in college. All I remember is lots and lots of Ruskin. I really didn't think I liked Victorian Lit.

  6. You weren't kidding whne you said Ruskin is bonkers! Oh dear. I'm with Emily in wondering is Ruskin thinks that we should just pretend cities didn't exist and then maybe they will all go away and we can return to some pastoral Eden that never existed in the first place.

  7. Autodidact101 scores a point! Ruskin is neither the first nor last great intellect to identify his childhood as Eden and everything after as The Fall.

    I just realized that the next essay is R. L. Stevenson's great defense of childhood experience, which he thinks an adult writer can recreate, not embalm. Rohan, did you do that in purpose?

    Hardy, Blake - those are interesting questions. I don't know about Blake, but I have a guess that Hardy doesn't cut it, either. I omitted the best thing in Ruskin's essay: "Rashly inquiring the other day the plot of a modern tory from a female friend, I elicited, after some hesitation, that it hinged mainly on the young people's 'forgetting themselves in a boat...'" He's describing, and dismissing, The Mill on the Floss!

    Ruskin is in some sense arguing against the domestic novel. I think one thing he wants, that Scott supplied, is serious novels about heroes, borrowing from Carlyle. He can't see a George Eliot protagonist as heroic.

    Fundamentally, he's not arguing that fiction should be different, but that reality should be different. Which is some argument.

    Rebecca - a Victorian literature class with that much Ruskin! My poor (non-literature) students this semester, how they hated Ruskin.

  8. That's interesting. I just finished reading The Mill on the Floss. I can see how someone would make that simplification. It's about character, psychology, how who we are creates the incidents in our life. Maggie was always 'forgetting' herself. It was also about passion. Its too bad Ruskin dismissed it. Often happens with things we don't understand.

  9. AD101 - I think you're right, that whatever Eliot is doing is out of Ruskin's grasp at this point (he's 61). George Eliot was a keen student of Ruskin, at least of his aesthetic ideas, which is plainly visible in her early novels, at least. So that's another irony.

  10. I was grieved that Rohan cut Ruskin's footnote about why authors create characters with disabilitie (It's because the authors, sometimes temporarily, have contracted "brain disease").