Friday, 25 April 2008

Ruskin, Morris, Little Girls

In early spring 1887 Sydney Cockerell visited John Ruskin at Brantwood: ‘We were soon talking of men that I admired. Morris was “beaten gold”, he said, “a great rock with a little moss on it perhaps”. His “love of Turner, primroses and little girls” had prevented his ever being Morris’s close friend…’ (cited in Tim Hilton, John Ruskin, 2002, p.817).

We know that Burne-Jones was certainly very much closer to Ruskin than Morris ever became, but could it truly have been the issue of ‘little girls’ that played a part in the relative distance between the two men? How much did Morris know of what Hilton himself, Ruskin’s best recent biographer, terms his ‘paedophiliac’ sexual orientation (p.253), or of Ruskin’s disastrous passion for Rose La Touche, who was a girl of nine when the 39-year-old Ruskin first met her in 1858?

We are used to thinking of Morris’s News from Nowhere as a Ruskinian utopia in terms of its medievalism and its work-practices; but might we also have to begin to think of it as a Ruskinian utopia in sexual terms too? For the central emotional relationship of that work develops between the 20-year-old Ellen and a William Guest who is ‘hard on fifty-six’, an age difference even greater than that of Ruskin and Rose La Touche; and one might even sense a certain progressive ‘girlification’ of News from Nowhere as the text proceeds. The indeterminate ‘children on the road’ in Kensington wood in the early chapters become the three girls and a boy on Greylocks outside the British Museum half way through, who in turn later become the eroticised ‘half a dozen girls playing about on the grass’ up the river near Goring and Streatley (‘they had been bathing, and were light clad and bare-footed’).

So it may be that if the issue of Ruskin’s predilection for ‘little girls’ was indeed a distancing factor in Morris’s relationship to him, the younger man makes what amends he can to his mentor in this respect in News from Nowhere – all the while, however, ensuring that a sexual barrier between the generations is firmly in place after all, by having Guest vanish away from Ellen at the end of his utopian vision.

No comments: