Turner, Ruskin, and an alleged Bonfire

Turner’s death in 1851 and following organization of his works sparked a rumor throughout the art world: that John Ruskin, as an executor named in Turner’s will and curator of Turner’s nearly 30,000 artworks left in a bequest, destroyed many of Turner’s erotic drawings, watercolors, and sketches in a bonfire in 1858. Ruskin himself declared in 1862 the act of pyromania was a protection of Turner’s reputation. : “I am satisfied that you had no other course than to burn them, both for the sake of Turner’s reputation (they having been assuredly drawn under a certain condition of insanity) and for your own peace. And I am glad to be able to bear witness to their destruction; and I hereby declare that the parcel of them was undone by me, and all the obscene drawings it contained burnt in my presence in the month of December, 1858. (Letter to Ralph Nicholson Wornum, Secretary of the National Gallery) Ruskin’s reputation had become that of a “notoriously prudish Victorian”, coupled with an annulment of marriage which was never consummated. In 2005 the myth was debunked by the Tate Gallery, after cross-referencing of Turner inventories showed no significant amount of missing works. The Tate’s scholar instead suggested the myth by Ruskin was created in the face of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, to throw off investigation of the newly formed Turner catalog.

The Act was authored by Lord John Campbell, then Lord Chief Justice, as a response to presiding over a trial regarding pornography possession. As his fellow lords debated the restriction of poison sales to deter poisonings, Campbell raised the moral stakes. “But, from a trial which had taken place before him on Saturday, he had learned with horror and alarm that a sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strichnine, or arsenic—the sale of obscene publications and indecent books—was openly going on. It was not alone indecent books of a high price, which was a sort of check, that were sold, but periodical papers of the most licentious and disgusting description were coming out week by week, and sold to any person who asked for them, and in any numbers. This was a matter which required, in his opinion, the immediate consideration of the Government.” (May 11, 1857, House of Lords) The Act instructed for search and seizure of potentially erotic artworks or publications, and prosecution of their owners, but turned out to have little applicable enforcement beyond its passage. The myth survived on the aggressiveness and tragedy of assumed Victorian censorship which so neatly fit into well-established notions of Victorians legislating morality.


Questioning of Sale of Poisons, House of Lords

Censorship Goes Up in Smoke, NY Times, Jan 2005

Morals, Art, and The Law: The Passing of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857

The Cider Press

The action of the cider making, a grinding, gnashing violence followed by intense pressure to squeeze or wring out the essence of the apple serves as a metaphor for the mental torture suffered by Grace and Giles throughout their shared experiences. The mechanism of the press involves of slow turning screw which “wrings down the pomace, which sweet juice gushed forth into tubs and pails. (174). The quality of Giles is in his connection to the land, which It was the cider country, which met the woodland district on the axis of this hill. Over the vale the air was blue as sapphire—such a blue as outside that apple-valley was never seen.” (140) In seeing him later, after his suffering and fall from prospects and her own sufferings in a increasingly love less marriage, Grace begins to see the juice strained from the press

“[Giles’s] homeliness no longer offended her acquired tastes; his comparative want of so-called culture did not now jar on her intellect; his country dress even pleased her eye; his exterior roughness fascinated her. Having discovered by marriage how much that was humanly not great could co-exist with attainments of an exceptional order, there was a revulsion in her sentiments from all that she had formerly clung to in this kind: honesty, goodness, manliness, tenderness, devotion, for her only existed in their purity now in the breasts of unvarnished men; and here was one who had manifested them towards her from his youth up.”. (219)

Grace’s restriction to Fitzpiers becomes described in increasingly constrictive and pressure laden diction, “I am tied and bound to another by law, as tightly as I am to you by your arm” as the rotation of the seasons revolves like the screw on the cider press. (256) Grace claims she feels used up and wrung dry by the process in her exclamation to Giles: “Affliction has taken all that out of me.” (280) She has been reduced from her “proud damsel” and “dainty” ways into the essence of the woodlander woman. (280)

Giles’s final act of love, a tortuous experience of physical self sacrifice reveals “the purity of his nature, his freedom from the grosser passions, his scrupulous delicacy” in a destructive way similar to the apple press. (314) His body, like the apple, is left a discarded shell but his essence remains with those around him like the cider.


Marking time with Trees and the loss to blight

The slow, steady growth of trees along with their deciduous properties marks time within the Woodlander’s world. From little time markers of time like winter being “the time of bare boughs” or  the assault of spring noted in the physical “rush of sap in the veins could almost be heard”(51)(135) The woodsmen of the area draw their history from the trees as they rip their saws through the tree rings, “sundry narratives of their fathers, their grandfathers, and their own adventures in the woods. (139)

The elm beside the South property, “a tall elm, familiar to [Giles] from childhood” marks time in both the life and death of South, died to his life  “when it was quite a small tree…and I was a little boy.” (91) The woodsman and the wood are mirrors of each other. The species of the trees mentioned throughout the first part of the novel also marks a singular moment in flora history, to which we can never return. The elm tree, once incredibly popular as a shade tree throughout Europe and the United States, is now a very rare wood in Britain due to the multiple strains of the Dutch Elm disease. First found in 1910, with newer strains arriving in Britain in the 1960s, the elm bark beetle helped spread a fungi which slowly kills the branches of the tree. Britain and the United States now have very few elms. (Morton Arboretum) This adds a degree of unintended tragedy to the shrouding and chopping down of the elm by the South household, as the elm tree has become an uncommon resident of the forests in Britain, and gives the modern reader a view into the context of the past. Marty South’s hair, her one concession to beauty, is the color chestnut. The hair mimics the action of the plantation forest: it is beautiful as it is grown, but doomed to be cut from its origin and shipped elsewhere. The chestnut tree still fights for survival in the United Kingdom, while its American cousin suffered tremendous loses of 3.5 million trees to the Chestnut blight around starting in 1904. The chestnut blight was found in a new form in the UK in 2011. (UK Forestry Research)




The Victorians and Famine Blaming

The accounts of famine by John Hanning Speke immediately places the blame of famine on the industriousness of the local people, in a manner in keeping with the well-established Victorian tradition of assigning a punishment narrative to famine, thereby fitting the loss of life and struggle within a contained understanding. Speke claims the misfortune of the African people comes from inability to organize, in part due to laziness: “the negro is too lazy to [take advantage of rainy seasons for planting crops] so efficiently, owing chiefly, as we shall see presently, to want of a strong protecting government.”. (Speke, xix) He goes on to assert “laziness is inherent to these men….with no thought to look towards the future.” (xxvii)

The association of poor achievement with a racial or national identity had been in use with the debates surrounding British assistance to the Irish Famine, occurring ten years before starting in 1845. The collapse of the potato crop and ensuing starvation of 1/5th of the Irish population was claimed by the official in charge of providing as a judicial sentence.  “[The Famine] is a punishment from God for an idle, ungrateful, and rebellious country; an indolent and un-self-reliant people. The Irish are suffering from an affliction of God’s providence”( Charles Trevelyan, 1847) Across the empire, the Indian famine 1877-1778 received rebuffs for aid by the viceroy Lytton as “humanitarian hysteria” and “cheap sentiment” while laissez-faire economics were tested instead of investing in protecting the population. (Davis, 31) In the mind of the economists, the agency of the British Empire had little bearing on the suffering of the Indian people, yet wheat continued to flow out of the producing nations through larger scale mechanics beyond subsistence agriculture.

Casaubon’s Obession

Casaubon’s allowance of collaboration in his work signifies an acceptance with mortality, and a transference of the acidic obsession which slowly eats away at his and Doretha’s mind.

“This is the first step in a sifting process which I have long had in view, and as we go I shall be able to indicate to you certain principles of selection whereby you will, I trust, have an intelligent participation in my purpose”. (447) In the events leading to his death, Casaubon has become a self destructive force of torment, in keeping with one of his first assertions “I feed too much on the inward sources; I live too much with the dead.”(16) In his jealously, the feeding turns literally on himself. “Thus his intellectual ambition which seemed to others to have absorbed and dried him, was really no security against wound-least of all against those which came from Dorothea.” (391)  Dorothea’s yearning for thoughtful intellectual engagement had been the strongest draw to Casaubon since the beginning of their acquaintance, when the notion of their marriage first enters her thoughts. She seeks a knowledge: “she wanted to justify by the completest knowledge; and not live in a pretended admission of rules which were never acted upon…the union which attracted her was one that deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance,” (27)

Their final interaction of intimacy comes from the reading aloud, which played a crucial component to the beginning of their connection. “She had the very considerate thought of saving my eyes” (60). This final return to familiar patterns signifies a final attempt at connection before departing, which makes the reader aware of how drastic the change of emotional tone has become between the two. Dorothea is in distress, suspicious of “the conjecture of some intention on her husband’s part which might make a new yoke for her.” (449) Gone are the words of liberation

The Medical Community Debate

Eliot aligns the character of Tertius Lydgate with a progressive, reformist stance in the medical community which tracks accurately with real debates happening within the timeframe. The position is highly detailed, nearly obsessive, with provided information of the context of the professions landscape. The harsh stance given towards “quackery” by Eliot can be mirrored in the first edition of The Lancet published in October of 1823. The opening introduction of the journal, published by Thomas Wakely, states thy intend to fight the establishment “We are well aware that we shall assailed by much interested opposition; [in the process of spreading knowledge and fighting “ignorant practitioners”] but we will fearlessly discharge our duty. We hope the age of “Mental Delusion” has passed, and that mystery and concealment will no longer be encouraged. Ondeed, we trust that mystery and ignorance will shortly be considered synonymous. (Lancet, page 2)

Comedy is interfused into the debate “This was one of the difficulties of moving to good Middlemarch society: it was dangerous to insist on knowledge as a qualification for any salaried office.” (146) The authenticity of the assertions made by Mr. Chichely and Dr Sprague on page 147, regarding the role of the coroner and medical training tracks with very real debates made in The Lancet during the late 1820s and 1830s. In 1832, the Lancet published Samuel Cooper’s lecture “On Surgery”, which tackles the exact debate undertaken by Chichely and Sprague. Eliot’s detailed description of the medical community demonstrates a hyper awareness and dedication to research to set the novel in a very real time and mindset.


Sources: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/first-issue-of-medical-journal-the-lancet


Rossetti and Highgate Penitentiary

Request for Funding for Highgate in April 1860 Morning Post,           Source: British Library


As mentioned in her Broadview anthology biography, Christina Rossetti volunteered at the St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary in Highgate, starting in early 1859. Referred to simply as “Highgate”, the institution’s 1855 charter hoped to “for the reception and reformation of penitent fallen women with a view to their ultimate establishment in some respectable calling”.  (Rogers, 17) An appeal for funding for Highgate in April 1860’s Morning Post stated the 40 bed establishment sought to fit “women of every class” with the appropriate level of domestic ability and kind help, as long as “ they maintain a good character”. (British Library) The term “fallen woman” mostly referred to prostitutes, but also included women of any class found to have sex outside of marriage and shunned as a result.

Highgate differed from other institutions of the Church Penitentiary movement by stressing redemption through prayer and rehabilitation instead of the common practice of forced labor and punishment in work houses. (Schlueter, 146) Rosetti’s work would be nun-like, requiring her to dress in uniform, though the institution advertised that the volunteers did not need vows forsaking worldly possessions or connections. (English Women’s Journal, 1858) Funding for the program came from private donors within the Church of England and women could stay for up to two years. The role of Rossetti at Highgate functioned as a supporter and model for the inmates, fostering a relationship as the “sister-savior” to a woman in need. (Schuler, 149) The duality of this relationship is seen in “Goblin Market” between Lizzie and Laura, with Lizzie warning of the corruption of the market: “No,’ said Lizzie: ‘No,no, no, no:/ Their offers should not charm us/Their evils gifts could harm us.’” Lizzie demonstrates the girlish, naïve version of the world, eager to block out potential harm by sticking her fingers in her ears and fleeing. Laura takes the risk, despite the warning and discovers excitement at great personal risk and harm. The dead Jeanie stands as a cautionary tale, like one which would float around the halls of Highgate. Lizzie finally ends up nursing Laura back to life, a rescuer as Rossettil would imagine herself at Highgate.


Rogers, Scott; There is no friend like a sister’: The Influence of the Church Penitentiary Movement on Christina Rossetti’s Sister Poems, 1994, Graduate College of the Oklahoma State University

Schlueter, Renee ; Victorians and the case for charity : essays on responses to English poverty by the state, the church and the literati, 2014

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Brick in the Victorian Landscape

The role of brick in Victorian cityscapes colors our images of the crowded urban life. Dickens describes Coketown as “It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but, as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. (27) Brick is inherent to the toxicity of Coketown, “the innermost fortifications of the ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in.”(65) As a building material, brick satisfied two needs for the Victorians: it was cheap and resistant to the noxious coal smoke. However, the usage of brick had dropped of severally in the early 19th Century after a series of brick taxes, starting in 1784 in response to the Revolutionary War and need for greater tax revenues. The tax was increased in 1794 and 1803. Houses built from stone, particularly the British limestone used in the greater buildings of Britain, began to pockmark, gouge, and blacken in reaction to the corrosive acid in the coal smoke. Brick’s resistance to the physical crumbling from smoke comes from the firing process, and the invention of the Hoffman Kiln in 1858 by Freidrich Hoffmann created a continuous process for cheap, uniform bricks. The brick tax was repealed in 1850, as no other building material could meet the increased demand for new structures in growing cities.


Sources: At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson. 2010, pgs-242-245