JOHN RUSKIN (1819–1900)
Extracts from ‘Fiction, Fair and Foul’. Parts I and V

The passages printed here find the great fine art critic and radical social prophet, John Ruskin objecting in the strongest terms to the ugliness of the subject-matter of most modern fiction, and hence both to sensationalism and to realism’s willingness to deal with ‘low’ subjects. In this he is following a line of attack laid down years before by critics of quite different political, social and religious persuasions. We learn from such examples not to classify Victorian reactions to complex cultural phenomena on a simplistic scale of ‘left to right’. Ruskin’s particular variant on this widespread critical position naturally grows out of his general concern with the moral and cultural degradation of the age, particularly as exemplified in and brought about by mechanisation and urbanisation, and in its resemblance to High Church, Tory lines of thought, may be an example of ‘convergent evolution’—a process whereby the response of different species to similar environments produces apparently similar characteristics, even if these species are not closely related. (The numbering of the paragraphs is Ruskin’s).

[From Nineteenth Century 7 (June 1880), 944–46]

7. (III.) The monotony of life in the central streets of any great modern city, but especially in those of London, where every emotion intended to be derived by men from the sight of nature, or the sense of art, is forbidden for ever, leaves the craving of the heart for a sincere, yet changeful, interest, to be fed from one source only. Under natural conditions the degree of mental excitement necessary to bodily health is provided by the course of the seasons, and the various skill and fortune of agriculture. In the country every morning of the year brings with it a new aspect of springing or fading nature; a new duty to be fulfilled upon earth, and a new promise or warning in heaven. No day is without its innocent hope, its special prudence, its kindly gift, and its sublime danger; and in every process of wise husbandry, and every effort of contending or remedial courage, the wholesome passions, pride, and bodily power of the labourer are excited and exerted in happiest unison. The companionship of domestic, the care of serviceable, animals, soften and enlarge his life with lowly charities, and discipline him in familiar wisdoms and unboastful fortitudes; while the divine laws of seed-time which cannot be recalled, harvest which cannot be hastened, and winter in which no man can work, compel the impatiences and coveting of his heart into labour too submissive to be anxious, and rest too sweet to be wanton. What thought can enough comprehend the contrast between such life, and that in streets where summer and winter are only alternations of heat and cold; where snow never fell white, not sunshine clear; where the ground is only a pavement, and the sky no more than the glass roof of an arcade; where the utmost power of a storm is to choke the gutters, and the finest magic of spring, to change mud into dust: where—chief and most fatal difference in state—there is no interest of occupation for any of the inhabitants but the routine of counter or desk within doors, and the effort to pass each other without collision outside; so that from morning to evening the only possible variation of the monotony of the hours, and lightening of the penalty of existence, must be some kind of mischief, limited, unless by more than ordinary godsend of fatality, to the fall of a horse, or the slitting of a pocket?

8. I said that under these laws of inanition, the craving of the human heart for some kind of excitement could by supplied from one source only. It might have been thought by any than a sternly tentative philosopher, that the denial of their natural food to human feelings would have provoked a reactionary desire for it; and that the dreariness of the street would have would have been gilded by dreams of pastoral felicity. Experience has shown the fact to be otherwise; the thoroughly trained Londoner can enjoy no other excitement than that to which he has been accustomed, but asks for that in continually more ardent or more virulent concentration; and the ultimate power of fiction to entertain him is by varying to his fancy the modes, and defining for his dulness the horrors, of Death. In the single novel of Bleak House there are nine deaths (or left for death’s, in the drop scene) carefully wrought out or led up to, either by way of pleasing surprise, as the baby’s at the brickmaker’s, or finished in their threatenings and sufferings, with as much enjoyment as can be contrived in the anticipation, and as much pathology as can be concentrated in the description.

     Under the following varieties of method:—

One by assassination . . . . . . . . . . . . Mr. Tulkinghorn.
One by starvation, with phthisis . . . . Joe.
One by chagrin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Richard.
One by spontaneous combustion . . . Mr. Krook.
One by sorrow . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Lady Dedlock’s lover.
One by remorse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Lady Dedlock.
One by insanity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Miss Flite.
One by paralysis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sir Leicester.

Besides the baby, by fever, and a lively Frenchwoman left to be hanged.

     And all this, observe, not in a tragic, adventurous, or military story, but merely as the further enlivenment of a narrative intended to be amusing; and as a properly representative average of the statistics of civilian mortality in the centre of London.

9. Observe further, and chiefly. It is not the mere number of deaths (which, if we count the odd troopers in the last scene, is exceeded in Old Mortality, and reached, within one or two, both in Waverley and Guy Mannering) that marks the peculiar tone of the modern novel. It is the fact that all these deaths, but one, are of inoffensive, or at least in the world’s estimate, respectable persons; and that they are all grotesquely either violent or miserable, purporting thus to illustrate the modern theology that the appointed destiny of a large average of our population is to die like rats in a drain, either by trap or poison. Not, indeed, that a lawyer in full practice can be usually supposed as faultless in the eye of Heaven as a dove or a woodcock; but it is not, in former divinities, though the will of Providence that he should be dropped by a shot from a client behind his fire-screen, and retrieved in the morning by his housemaid under the chandelier. Neither is Lady Dedlock less reprehensible in her conduct than many women of fashion have been and will be: but it would not therefore have been thought poetically just, in old-fashioned morality, that she should be found by her daughter lying dead, with her face in the mud of a St. Giles’s churchyard.

[From Nineteenth Century 10 (Oct 1880), 520–21]

108. All healthy and helpful literature sets simple bars between right and wrong; assumes the possibility, in men and women, of having healthy minds in healthy bodies, and loses no time in the diagnosis of fever or dyspepsia in either; least of all in the particular kind of fever which signifies the ungoverned excess of any appetite or passion. The ‘dulness’ which many modern readers inevitably feel, and some modern blockheads think it creditable to allege, in Scott, consists not a little in the his absolute purity form every loathsome element or excitement of the lower passions; so that people who live habitually in Satyric or hircine conditions of thought find him as insipid as they would a picture of Angelico’s. The accurate and trenchant separation between him and the common railroad-station novelist is that, in his total method of conception, only lofty character is worth describing at all; and it becomes interesting, not by its faults, but by the difficulties and accidents of the fortune through which it passes, while, in the railway novel, interest is obtained with the vulgar reader for the vilest character, because the author describes carefully to his recognition the blotches, burrs and pimples in which the paltry nature resembles his own. The Mill on the Floss is perhaps the most striking instance extant of this study of cutaneous disease. There is not a single person in the book of the smallest importance to anybody in the world but themselves, or whose qualities deserved so much as a line of printer’s type in their description. There is no girl alive, fairly clever, half educated, and unluckily related, whose life has not at least as much in it as Maggie’s, to be described and to be pitied. Tom is a clumsy and cruel lout, with the making of better things in him (and the same may be said of nearly every Englishman at present smoking and elbowing his way through the ugly world his blunders have contributed to the making of); while the rest of the characters are simply the sweepings out of a Pentonville omnibus.

109. And it is very necessary that we should distinguish this essentially Cockney literature,—developed only in the London suburbs, and feeding the demands of the rows of similar brick houses, which branch in devouring cancer round every manufacturing town,—from the really romantic literature of France. Georges [sic] Sand is often immoral; but she is always beautiful, and in the characteristic novel ... Le Péché de Mons. Antoine, the five principal characters, the old Cavalier Marquis,—the Carpenter,—M. de Chataeubrun,—Gilberte,—and the really passionate and generous lover, are all as heroic and radiantly ideal as Scott’s Colonel Mannering, Catherine Seyton, and Roland Graeme; while the landscape is rich and true with the emotion of years of life passed in glens of Norman granite and beside bays of Italian sea. But in the English Cockney school, which consummates itself in George Eliot, the personages are picked up from behind the counter and out of the gutter; and the landscape, by excursion train to Gravesend, with return ticket for City-road.

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