A fresh look at distinguished Victorians

John Ruskin was raised in a hothouse, that venerable Victorian hothouse known as the one-child family. He was raised by hand. The only son of ambitious, upwardly mobile, somewhat elderly parents, little John became the focus of all their aspirations. His pious mother wished to see him rise to become Archbishop of Canterbury. His more worldly, prosperous father wished to make his son a poet , like Byron, only purer.

As soon as the boy was old enough to travel, John's parents took him to see the Swiss Alps, the battlefield of Waterloo, and the stones of Venice. When he went away to Oxford at 17, his careful mother left her London home as well, and took rooms in Oxford to be near her son.

''My mother,'' John Ruskin wrote in his autobiography, ''never let me play cricket lest it should quicken my pulse - step into a boat lest I should fall out on the other side, or learn to box lest I should bleed at the nose.'' Emotionally he remained a child. His only marriage failed when his neglected Effie ran off with the painter Millais. With the scrupulous self-analysis of an honest self-student, he wrote as his marriage was failing, ''I have hardly any real warmth of feeling, except for pictures and mountains.''

But the remarkable fact about John Ruskin is not that he remained an emotional child all 80 years of his life; the remarkable fact is that he managed to become an eminent Victorian - one of the sages of the age. Art critic, moralist, reformer, Ruskin wrote over 30 books, courageously championed unpopular artists, founded Utopian schemes, delivered the Oxford lectures on art to halls overflowing with undergraduates, lectured Manchester and Bradford millionaires on their misuse of their wealth and their country's polluted streams, and hobnobbed with the likes of Carlyle, Rosetti, and Emerson. He was a skilled botanist, accomplished geologist, and no mean hand as a sketchbook artist of pencil and pen. He is one of England's great literary stylists. Late in life, he even took up the composition of music. Truly a Victorian Renaissance man.

His glacially strict upbringing left him a compulsive worker, an inveterate traveller, and, like Lewis Carroll, an admirer of nymphets. The child in Ruskin delighted in the innocent company of intelligent girls of 12 and 13. To his circle of adored ''pets'' he gave art lessons, wrote marvellous letters, indulged in the kind of baby-talk or ''little language'' that Swift used in his letters to Stella.

An oddity, an eccentric, a genius, Ruskin towers above his hangups. Joan Abse brings a novelist's ability to this brilliant biography of a many-sided man. Reading her sympathetic study of the child-man Ruskin, one comes better to understand the crabbed Victorian lives of George Eliot's Englishmen, even of Ibsen's Norwegians. One sees why Marcel Proust, that prince of psychological novelists, was drawn to study and to translate Ruskin.

Abse's life of Ruskin is like one of those comfortable Victorian novels that begins among the overstuffed furniture of the London drawing-room and ends in the winding hallucinatory landscape of dream and desire. Ruskin's poor tormented wife, Effie, was soon fed up with the ''batch of Ruskins'' she found in John's family, but the reader will find it fascinating.

Victor Howes teaches English at Northeastern University.

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