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RUSKIN IN OLD AGE
SOME UNPUBLISHED LETTERS By J. Howard Whitehouse, M.P.
Founder of the Ruskin Society
RS. LA TOUCHE, to whom these letters were addressed, lived at Harristown, Kildare, in Ireland. She is associated with the great tragedy of Ruskin's life. In the year 1858 she was introduced to Ruskin in London by his friend Lady Waterford. -Mrs. La Touche had at this time three young children, two girls, Emily and Rosie, and a boy. She was a devoted admirer of Ruskin's works and a careful student of his teaching. She was very anxious that her children should be taught properly the beginnings of art, and she asked Ruskin if he would take some interest in their education. Ruskin's love for children was, throughout his life, a distinguishing feature of his wonderful personality; he gladly assented to Mrs. La Touche's request, and a friendship began which henceforth was to color and influence his whole life.
Rosie, the younger girl, was at this time nine years old, Emily being fourteen. The little boy disappears from the story, for the only later reference to him in the official life of Ruskin is contained in a letter by Ruskin describing a visit to the home of the La Touches at Harristown, where he arrived late at night and the little boy came running to greet him, barefooted, from his bed.
But other members of the family soon play a great part in his life. Ruskin supervised the art teaching of the girls with great earnestness, and they both entered with sympathy and understanding into his ideals. A deep affection soon united Ruskin to all of them, but for Rosie he felt an increasing love and worship. For nearly nine years the intimacy continued on this basis, Ruskin, their friend and guide, spending all the time he could spare at their house in London. No one could have had a more faithful friend: he would have made any sacrifice
that could have added to their happiness.
In 1866 Ruskin declared his love for Rosie and told her parents of his hope to make her his wife. There was a great difference of years between them. Ruskin was now forty-seven; Rosie was in her eighteenth year. There was some natural hesitation on the part of the parents, and it was arranged that the matter should be postponed for three years, when Rosie would be twenty-one years old.
Ruskin waited for the passing of these three years with an intensity of feeling which is beyond description. More and more he idealized the beautiful woman who had grown from childhood under his tuition. He had helped to form her mind and guide her sympathies. She had become a woman of exquisite beauty of character.
But when the period of probation was ended new difficulties arose. There was hesitation not only on the part of the parents but also by Rosie. The remaining facts can be stated in a few words. It would be idle and perhaps unseemly to attempt now to probe the details. It is sufficient to state that Miss La Touche was of a deeply religious nature, but her views were orthodox and she did not share the wider views on spiritual questions which Ruskin increasingly believed in. Her love for him had never wavered since the days of her childhood, but she doubted if, holding the views she did, she could marry him. Both she and Ruskin suffered the deepest distress, and it is better not to raise the veil too far from the events of the next few years. For a little time there was estrangement, and there is a moving entry in Ruskin's diary in the year 1870: "Last Friday about 12 o'clock at noon my mistress passed me and would not speak." In the following year there was reconciliation, and always Ruskin was buoyed with the hope that before long they would be united as man and wife. But it was not to be. Their friendship continued. Ruskin saw her whenever it was possible. When they were separated they exchanged letters. The number of these was very great, and they were of the most intimate nature. But Miss La Touche's indecision was not removed.
The end of Ruskin's dream came in 1875. Miss La Touche's health, never strong, began to fail, and she died in May of this year. The effect upon Ruskin was overwhelming, but the nobility of his character was never seen to greater advantage. The sorrow remained with Ruskin all his life, but the memory of the character of the woman he loved and the communion that existed between them inspired all that he was to do in the future. Some immediate relief he found by plunging into fresh work, and the next few years were filled with intense labor.
The letters which Ruskin wrote to Miss La Touche and those which she wrote to Ruskin were destroyed. After her death Ruskin had kept all of them in a special box. They were his most sacred possession. The destruction of the letters is related by Mr. Cook in his "Life of Ruskin":
"On a day in autumn Mr. Severn and Prof. Norton took them to the woodland garden above Brantwood and gave them to the names. A wind was blowing and one letter fluttered away from the pyre. It was written from Brantwood when Ruskin was first settling in his new home, and in it he wonders whether Rosie will ever give him the happiness of welcoming her there. But she never came to Brantwood. The garden, lake, and shore which became so dear to Rliskin were left without any memory of her presence, though often, as it seemed to him, graced by her spirit."
Opinions will vary as to the wisdom of this destruction. The writer is one of those who regret it, for he believes that the world is the poorer. To have delayed publication of the letters would have been reasonable; to deprive the world for all time of literature so unique, which revealed the fragrance and nobility of the writers in a setting so exquisitely
beautiful, was to incur a heavy responsibility.
But before this destruction took place one of Rosie's letters had been given to the world. In 1888 Ruskin, an old man, was writing the last chapter but one of "Pneterita" (Chapter III, L'Esterelle). It is about the woman he worshipped.
"Some wise and prettily mannered people have told me," he writes, "that I shouldn't say anything about Rosie at all. But I am too old now to take advice, and I won't have this following letter— the first she ever wrote me—moulder away, when I can read it no more, lost to all loving hearts."
It is a wonderful letter which follows, tender and loving, but showing in its youthful writer an informed judgment, alike on art and nature, tempered by a sense of humor.
In this chapter of "Prseterita" Ruskin tells with exquisite feeling the story of the beginning of his friendship with Rosie and her mother and sister. He describes his first meeting with her:
"So presently the drawing-room door opened, and Rosie came in, quietly taking stock of me with her blue eyes as she walked across the room; gave me her hand, as a good dog gives its paw, and then stood a little back. Nine years old on 3rd January, 1858, thus now rising towards ten; . . . the eyes rather deep blue at that time and fuller and softer than afterwards. . . ."
He describes the first visit to Denmark Hill:
"That first day . . . there was much for them to see:—my mother, to begin with, and she also had to see them; on both sides the sight was thought good. Then there were thirty Turners . . . half a dozen Hunts; a beautiful Tintoret; my minerals in the study; the loaded apple trees in the orchard; the glowing peaches on the old red garden wall. The lesson lost itself that day in pomiferous talk, with rustic interludes in the stables and pig sty."
It is only a fragment which Ruskin gives us of the great friendship of his life, but it is one which has enriched the literature of the world.
Mrs. La Touche died in 1906, having survived Ruskin six years. In 1908 her letters were published under the title "Letters of a Noble Woman" (Mrs. La Touche, of Harristown), by M. F. Young.
This book contained six letters written to her by Ruskin, but did not include any of the accompanying letters, which are now printed for the first time.
The great library edition of Ruskin's works, edited by Mr. E. T. Cook and Mr. A. Wedderburn, contains eight letters by Ruskin to Mrs. La Touche. Of these eight, six are the letters which appeared in "Letters of a Noble Woman."
It will, perhaps, be for the convenience of readers to state the dates of the letters to Mrs. La Touche which appear in the library edition of Ruskin's works. They are as follows: August 3, 1881; July 4, 1882; October 22, 1882; November 2, 1882; June 9, 1883; June 22,1883; June 8, 1889; June 12, 1889.
It will be observed that most of the letters now published are signed St. C. This was an abbreviation of Saint Crumpet, the pet name by which the children knew him. Its origin is thus described by Ruskin:
"Rosie had shortly expressed her sense of her governess's niceness by calling her 'Bun,' and I had not been long free of the schoolroom before she wanted a name for me also, significant of like approval. After some deliberation she christened me 'Crumpet'; then, impressed by seeing my gentleness to beggars, canonized me as 'Saint Crumpet' or, shortly and practically, 'St. C,'—which I remained ever afterwards; only Emily said one day to her sister that the C. did in truth stand for 'Chrysostom.'"
In order to assist as far as possible to the fuller understanding of the letters now published, I have added a brief note before each letter giving any relevant details concerning the contents of the letter or the circumstances of Ruskin's life at the time it was written.
The letters possess, a unique interest. They come from the pen of the prophet in his old age, and they enable us to realize that in the evening of his life, though broken in health with the strain of sorrow and effort, he kept intact his great enthusiasms, his powers of admiration, hope, and love, his limitless sympathies, and all the winning qualities which endeared him
not only to those within the circle of his personal friendship but to a nation.
[In the early part of this year Ruskin had had a serious illness and for some weeks was laid prostrate with brain fever.
The foxglove referred to in this letter was apparently sent to him by Mrs. La Touche, for a letter dated August 3, printed in "Letters of a Noble Woman," makes further reference to it. It was regarded by Ruskin as a remarkable freak in nature.]
Brantwood, Coniston, Lancashire, 22nd July 81. My Dear Lucy: Its ever so nice making you dells of Grampus: but I've a notion I shall carry on a good deal farther with Florence (who is responsible by the way for the whole arrangement!) Suppose it ends in opposite cells—and Bells, on the Old Man and the St. Georges crags—like St. Alpha and St. Dormice at Amiens. I've been rather puzzled this morning to present St. Alpha's great miracle of praying the Frogs (to be) quiet who disturbed her at her prayers, in a manner to command the respect of Protestant readers. I hope to reverse the miracle myself and make E talk, more, for them.
I'm wild to see that mossy Foxglove of your's but I'd rather not have any seed lest our foxgloves should take to any such tricks! I am so glad you found things to gather here, and enjoyed yourself. If I'm here in the Winter (I've some vague notion of being at Monte Cassino instead—but I don't think it will come to any thing) I wish you would come to see the lovely cascades of down-lace— cobwebs—and crystals—all twined and netted over jellies of grass and candies of heath and sugar-conserve of moss— and barley-sugar of fern. Its very wonderful and not a bit cold, and you'll never begin to look at my books.
Ever your loving St. C.
[Ruskin's biographer, Mr. E. T. Cook, notes in his "Life" that after recovering from the serious illness which he had at Brantwood, Coniston, Lancashire,
the beginning of 1881, this year was a of things, and what these kind of people
time of great mental excitement. He was were made for and where they go to. depressed and restless, and this letter, to Ever y. affectionate St. C.
some extent, shows this.]
(Undated. Postmark on envelope 6th Scptr. 1881).
My Dearest Lucy: I have been depressed and only fit to write you as a bush, or a dog, .or a reed, this week back. I've been trying to play, and then my study gets into confusion, and my work into heaps of nightmare in my head —and the last days of soft air are passing from me, and I have got no good of them, and the other day I went up the Old Man and came down stiffer than I went up, and the nice nice curl's gone out of the end of my beard and it looks like the fluff of a cotton rush 'withered before it be grown up.'
But "it's real nice to have letters from you" and this is only to say so.
I shall be better when I get into harness again, and it is rather good for—you —that I have been afflicted, for my last breakdown was owing to a woman whom Mrs. Marshall brought to dine here, having been tumbled in upon by her unawares, and she was the perfection of energetic commonplace and had to be listened to like a barrel-organ all dinner time—and hav'nt recovered it.
What a surprise it will be to you and me if we ever understand the meaning Vol. LXII.—75
Re produced through the courtesy unit their publishers, Messrs.
[The "Norfolk St." referred to in this letter was the old home in London of the La Touches, where Ruskin was a constant visitor. The quotation "my sisters, the moorland roses, nodded at me" is from Rosie's delightful letter to Ruskin when a girl of ten, which he printed with loving words in "Praeterita" (Vol. Ill, Chapter III), but he gives it inaccurately. In Rosie's letter the word used is cousins, not sisters.
The "new grammar of crystals," which Ruskin states he is writing was one of the manyschemes left unfinished at his death.
The word Lacertae which he uses in the last line was a reference to the name "Lacerta" which had been bestowed upon Mrs. La Touche by one of her friends.]
Brantwood, Coniston, Lancashire,
5th Dec. 81.
My Darling Lucy: I'm a little consoled for the blue flower, as you're going away to the blue seas—else its every blossom was a reproach to me. I'll send you Acacias to the Riviera, but I can't write there—its sadder to me even than Norfolk Street—you know the first long letter I ever got was of the pass of the Esterelle —"my sisters, the moorland roses, nodded at me."
Miss Rose La Touche.
I wonder what you and Joanie call being "good." I call being good, to think of the past—& hope for the future—& then I go mad. Joanie calls it good to amuse myself as well as I can, & then I fall lower & lower—till nothing will amuse me but the theatre des Folies.
At present, I'm busy as Faust was—at the end of him—digging—turning all my moor-marshes upside down,—baring the rock—& opening channels for every pool. I'm having another grand try for cranberries in the first fresh earth. I've laid down again: & theres to be a garden of every conceivable spring flower—(please the mice)—under the heathery rocks. I let all the heath be: its only the long rank grass, & actual bog, that I overturn. Then I'm writing a new grammar of crystals—■ without the schoolgirls in it who spoilt the Ethics. This will be supremely mathematical, and as dull as you please. Fors has sent me some lovely crystals of gold to begin with which you'll have to keep dusting the velvet under every day when you come next.
How long are you to be among the orange groves?
—N. B. I've had half a dozen ripe out of my own greenhouse.
Did Joanie tell you of the guardian I expect I've got in it. My own geological secretary caught a good-sized viper in the course of the turf-cutting—& we've put him with a few comfortable sods under him and a glass over him in the greenhouse—and he's made himself a hole, and gone to sleep.
Mind you always give my love to the Lacerta?.
Ever your affect' St. C.
[In March of this year Ruskin had a third attack of brain fever. In August he set out with Mr. Collingwood to revisit old scenes in France, Switzerland, and Italy, and he remained abroad until December.
His references to Harristown were founded on personal knowledge, for he had visited the La Touches there in 1S61.