Thursday 19 September 2019

Ruskin's Fireflies

'I walked with her to Camberwell Green, and we said good-bye rather sorrowfully at the corner of New Road; and that possibility of meek happiness vanished for ever...'
That's John Ruskin (writing in Praeterita), and I came across the quotation in the unlikely setting of Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye. It's quoted, a propos of nothing in particular, by the devilish protagonist, Dougal Douglas, who has landed a 'job' at not one but two local firms, each of them desperate to have 'an Arts man' on the payroll to shake things up and inject some fresh thinking. Dougal does no work for either of them, but spends his time on what he calls 'social research' into the neighbourhood, which consists largely of swanning around charming (and sometimes alarming) the locals and sowing trouble. He is, you might say, an early adopter of the now commonplace 'bullshit job'. But he does do some reading along the way – hence the Ruskin quote.
  The girl Ruskin walked to Camberwell Green with was one Charlotte Withers, and she was but one of several with whom a potential romance was nipped in the bud by Ruskin's excessively controlling parents, who dominated his life for many years. 'Charlotte Withers,' Ruskin recalls, 'was a fragile, fair, freckled sensitive slip of a girl about sixteen; graceful in an unfinished and small wild-flower sort of a way, extremely intelligent, affectionate, wholly right-minded, and mild in piety. An altogether sweet and delicate creature of ordinary sort, not pretty, but quite pleasant to see, especially if her eyes were looking your way, and her mind with them. We got to like each other in a mildly confidential way in the course of a week ... If my father and mother had chosen to keep her a month longer, we should have fallen quite melodiously and quietly in love; and they might have given me an excellently pleasant little wife. Charlotte went away at the week's end, when her father was ready for her. I walked with her to Camberwell Green...'
  Praeterita (which begins with a chapter titled The Springs of Wandel, of which the first sentence is 'I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school...') is the most extraordinary autobiography. In a long essay on that invaluable website The Victorian Web, Elizabeth Helsinger describes it as 'a strangely self-destructive autobiography ... evidently written by a man who did not like himself'. True enough, and as an autobiography it conforms to no known pattern. Though there is recognisable structure to the earlier parts in particular, it does not, as we expect an autobiography to do, follow the life of a person through its succeeding stages, tracing the principal events; what it presents is less a person than a particular sensibility – a sensibility, what's more, that cares for and responds to places (and of course to art) rather than people. Ruskin entirely omits major events and major figures from his life, focusing rather on some of the lesser characters and following curious byways. The narrative, such as it is, becomes more and more diffuse and meandering as it nears the end, perhaps as a result of Ruskin's failing mental powers – but he pulls it all together to give his sui generis autobiography a final paragraph of quite astonishing beauty. In it he recalls his last visit to Siena, with his American friend and correspondent Charles Eliot Norton, and he remembers the fireflies...
'Fonte Branda I last saw with Charles Norton, under the same arches where Dante saw it. We drank of it together, and walked that evening on the hills above, where the fireflies among the scented thickets shone fitfully in the still undarkened air. How they shone! moving like fine-broken starlight through the purple leaves. How they shone! through the sunset that faded into thunderous night as I entered Siena three days before, the white edges of the mountainous clouds still lighted from the west, and the openly gold sky calm behind the gate of Siena's heart, with its still golden words, "Cor magis tibi Sena pandit," and the fireflies everywhere in sky and cloud rising and falling, mixed with the lightning, and more intense than the stars.'

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