Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Ruskin & Gothic Literature

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Ruskin & Gothic Literature

Article excerpt

A rapid and closely connected ennoblement, racialization and domestication of the term "gothic" takes place in the 1830s, 40s and 50s, and culminates in John Ruskin's much feted account of the gothic spirit, from the central chapter of The Stones of Venice, "The Nature of Gothic." Ruskin's chapter, published in 1853 in the second volume of The Stones of Venice exerts a considerable influence over figures such as William Morris, over the architectural practices of Victorian Britain, and over political economic thought, especially after Ruskin uses it as the base on which to build a direct critique of laissezfaire economics in his 1862 work "Unto This Last." (1) But "The Nature of Gothic" has rarely been connected to gothic literature itself. (2)

In order to reconstruct Ruskin's role in the mid-19th century normalization and ennoblement of the category of the gothic, this essay will be made up of three parts. First, it will examine Ruskin's analysis of the gothic spirit in The Stones of Venice. Second, it will contextualize Ruskin's chapter by contemporary developments in architectural criticism and race theory, and by the closely contemporary literary phenomenon of "urban gothic." And thirdly, the essay will turn to two characteristic examples of gothic fiction from the second half of the 19th century--Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 collection In a Glass Darkly, and Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde--in order to trace the effects of the mid-century realignment of the category of the gothic.

Ruskin's The Stones of Venice (1851-3) is a comprehensive analysis of the architectural history of Venice in which as much attention is paid to the ideological transformations that stand behind different epochs as to the stylistic minutiae of buildings and monuments. The central chapter, "The Nature of Gothic," is where Ruskin's ideological agenda is most clear, and also where Ruskin contends for the innateness of the gothic spirit to the contemporary British mind. This is a claim that builds on the concerns of Augustus Pugin, I. A. Blackwell, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens and others. But "The Nature of Gothic" is a significant extension of these figures' thought, and a powerful and original theorization of the category of the gothic in its own right. Ruskin's chapter is in this sense the culmination of the early Victorian reassessment of the term gothic.

Ruskin, then, begins his portrait of the category of the gothic with a broad brush, by contrasting the geography and climate of southern Europe with their northern counterparts. The countries of the former are apparently "laid like pieces of a golden pavement into the sea-blue," "glowing softly with terraced gardens, and flowers heavy with frankincense, mixed among masses of laurel, and orange, and plumy palm" (Ruskin II: 154). Northern Europe, by contrast, north of the Danube, the Loire and the Volga, for instance, is a land where "the earth heave[s] into mighty masses of leaden rock and heathy moor" and "splinter[s] into irregular and grisly islands amidst the northern seas" (II: 154). Such lands are also "beaten by storm and chilled by ice-Drift, and tormented by furious pulses of contending tide, until the roots of the last forest fails from among the hill ravines, and the hunger of the north wind bites their peaks into barrenness" (II: 155). Ruskin's object, in crafting this Dramatic and panoramic set-piece, is the identification and isolation of the distinct styles of architecture that reflect and complement these vastly different regions. But it is also to delineate the characteristic human temperaments that produce this architecture and that match the continent's differing qualities. Thus, not only do the animal species across this diverse spectrum of land vary from "glistening serpents, and birds arrayed in purple and scarlet" to the "shaggy coveringfs], and dusky plumage of the northern" fauna, but the human inhabitants also display a comparable variety. …

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