John Ruskin, His Life and His Work

A critical study by Marie von Bunsen.

   Ruskinian literature has just been enriched, not by a priceless, inestimable, "unsurpassable" (Ruskin), piece such as M. de La Sizeranne's Ruskin1, not even by a "treasure" (in the religious sense of the word) of lesser importance, but valuable nonetheless, such as M. Brunhes' Ruskin et la Bible, nor by an exceptional morsel, exceptional in size and magnificent in form such as M. Bardoux's John Ruskin2. John Ruskin, His Life and His Work by Marie von Bunsen is nonetheless, however, a very elegant and useful book which those who are unfamiliar with Ruskin will be able to consult to great advantage and which will be flicked through with great pleasure by those who have no more to learn about him - only from the man himself. Miss von Bunsen does not analyze the Coniston3 master's various works one after the other. Her book follows a more interesting and truly rational course. And, as if she had all Ruskin's books (and let us not exaggerate, there are many) held in her memory or open at her table, when she has to discuss Ruskin's opinion about a particular painter, for example, she quotes passages from several works at the same time which are in harmony or, where they differ, complement one another and mark the evolution of Ruskin's thought. I would not say that this is the exact working method employed by Miss von Bunsen; but this is the ideal method she seems to apply most of the time, in a manner, it must be said, that is rather incomplete, and even, when it is a necessity to remain incomplete, a little arbitrary4. Very often she passes by the salient quotation that those who have read Ruskin are waiting for, and does not give it. From a wholly different point of view Miss von Bunsen could merit the criticisms directed by Ruskin, and which in no way adds to the value of her book, at "the Protestant female reader who believes she is bringing an independent judgement on what she reads and that she has formed herself". Perhaps she could even be ranged among "the worst of disobedient children, those who take from the word what they like and discard from it what they hate". But in that respect she would have as a companion M. Bardoux, who has nonetheless written an extremely important and very beautiful book about Ruskin. We can not say entirely the same about Miss von Bunsen's work which, in other respects has no pretensions (she confesses with much good grace that she has carefully read twenty seven volumes by Ruskin, and that he has written more than eighty). Rather more copious than complete, it is very instructive whilst remaining very enjoyable, always written in the most sincere tone and with the most irreverent admiration. There are abundant quotations from Ruskin, and thus a ray of genius illuminates the critic's narrative on every page. Yet this ray does not reach us directly, and it is an odd feeling for a French reader, to find in a German book the judgements of an English philosopher on an Italian artist. It creates a series of refractions, a succession of reflections, and, like a hall of mirrors, is a little tiring in the long run. But of course that is a fatuous reproach to make of Miss von Bunsen, since anybody who writes about Ruskin in a language other than English is obliged to translate the passages they quote. A German could equally well object to the same fault with M. de La Sizeranne. And if, one day, some presumptuous young Frenchman5, who, far from possessing the great talent of the author of Religion de la Beauté6, ventures to translate one of Ruskin's works into French, Miss von Bunsen might find great sport in coming back at him as an equally vain and derisory critic.

1. Robert de La Sizeranne, Ruskin et la religion de la beauté, Paris, 1897.

2. Jacques Bardoux, Le Mouvement idéaliste et social dans la littérature anglaise au XIXe siècle, Paris, 1900.

3. Ruskin spent the last ten years of his life near Brantwood at Lake Coniston.

4. In the manuscript the text is more severe in places, for example here it has "incomplete, quite bizarrely arbitrary".

5. At the time Proust was working on his translation of The Bible of Amiens.

6. Robert de La Sizeranne.

First published in La Chronique des arts et de la curiosité, 7 March 1903. Review of John Ruskin, sein Leben und sein Wirken, by Marie von Bunsen, 1903.

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