Monday, 17 March 2014

Venice inscribed (iii): Ruskin and E.M. Forster

Ruskin has dominated my reading for the past few weeks: The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice, in particular. These are books I have known and owned for years; but I’ve not re-read them so intensively, nor alongside each other, before.

This re-reading was prompted by a lecture I gave last week on ‘Ruskin and Venice’.  I enjoyed describing how Ruskin, standing with his back to the lagoon and gazing up at the fa├žade of the Doge’s Palace, declared ecstatically that it was ‘the central building of the world’. I then asked my audience to imagine the Great Man (still only in his early thirties) turning around and shuddering in disgust at the spectacle of Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore across the water:

It is impossible to conceive a design more gross, more barbarous, more childish in conception, more servile in plagiarism, more insipid in result, more contemptible under every point of rational regard.

This duly provoked gasps and chuckles of astonishment. (It’s always reassuring when your audience react as you hope they will.)

I first encountered Ruskin and Venice when I was sixteen and reading E.M. Forster’s Howards End for the first time.  In Chapter 6, Leonard Bast returns to his drab flat after his day’s work as a lowly insurance clerk, finds tea ‘that still survived upon an upper shelf’ and devours ‘some dusty crumbs of a cake’; then

He went back to the sitting-room, settled himself anew, and began to read a volume of Ruskin.
            ‘Seven miles to the north of Venice …’
How perfectly the famous chapter opens! How supreme its command of admonition and of poetry! The rich man is speaking to us from his gondola.

‘Seven miles…’ This is the opening of Ruskin’s celebrated description of the island of Torcello. Now observe (as Ruskin is always saying to his readers) the cunning of that last short sentence. Whose voice? Forster’s, or his narrator’s – the two are not the same – or Leonard Bast’s, or even a combination of all three? This seems like straightforward free indirect style; but are we, Forster’s readers, included in that ‘us’? Isn’t it just Leonard fantasizing about belonging to the cultured elite who go to concerts at the Queen’s Hall and read Ruskin after dinner? Then there’s the ambiguity of ‘his’ gondola: are we – again, Forster’s readers, not Ruskin’s – meant to join Leonard in thinking of Ruskin as ‘the rich man’ who, because he is rich, can afford his own gondola? Surely (we’d like to think) it’s only poor – literally poor – Leonard struggling to improve himself and his prose style by imitating The Stones of Venice, who betrays his envy of Ruskin ‘the rich man’.

The rich man at his castle,
   The poor man at his gate:
God made them high and lowly
   And ordered their estate.

Leonard’s echoing of the notorious verse from All things bright and beautiful (1848) creates a subtle sense of bathos: no matter how hard he tries to improve himself, his lowly estate is fixed. Ironically, there is also bathos about Forster’s first encounter with a gondola, which took place not in Venice but at the Empress Hall, Earl’s Court.  Although he had travelled widely in Italy during 1901-2, he had not been to Venice. Then, in May 1904 he visited an Italian exhibition that was to prove the hit of the summer. In distant Western Australia, The Kalgoorlie Miner described the show’s highlight, ‘Venice by Night’ thus:

Here by the light of innumerable lamps and the aid of gondoliers, who have under their charge a fleet of thirty-six genuine gondolas, the Londoner can travel the canals and ‘see’ the sights of Venice in miniature. There is the Doge's Palace, the Campanile (now a ruin* in real Venice), the Palace Dario, the Churches of St. Mark and St. Maria, and the Bridge of Sighs, the Rialto Bridges, and the Three Arches. There is three-quarters of a mile of canal, and Italian love songs float across the lagoon.

Forster loved ‘Venice by Night’. He found it ‘absurdly moving and touched in me loves for Italy hitherto unimagined.’ He took a gondola ride, gliding along the three-quarters of a mile of canal ‘between pasteboard walls in water 18 inches deep, by a canvas panorama of the Piazetta [sic] and Doge’s Palace.’  Ruskin would have despaired. Forster, too, acknowledges the kitschy make-believe:

But the gondola was real, and so was the gondolier, who allowed me to move myself by the sound of my own voice speaking Italian. He was young, incompetent, and a little drunk. For a moment the place was real, just as a poem is real.

But it was only for a moment.

Writing Howards End five years later, Forster finds Ruskin a troubling figure. For while Leonard is trying to model his writing on Ruskin (‘he understood him to be the greatest master of English prose’), Forster is trying to expunge Ruskinian mannerisms from his own writing. And, in so doing, he seeks to parody Ruskin’s seductive prose and his noble sentiments as no more authentic than the canvas panorama that had briefly, if absurdly, moved him at Earl’s Court:

And the voice in the gondola rolled on, piping melodiously of Effort and Self-Sacrifice, full of high purpose, full of beauty, full even of sympathy and love of men, yet somehow eluding all that was actual and insistent in Leonard’s life. For it was the voice of one who had never been dirty or hungry, and had not guessed successfully what dirt and hunger are.

But Forster has not done with Ruskin yet: this chapter of Howards End closes with Ruskin himself, in an extraordinary post-modern turn, being allowed the last word on Leonard. At the end of the dismal evening, when Leonard gives up his Arnoldian aspirations (‘To see life steadily and to see it whole was not for the likes of him’) and is forced to abandoned The Stones of Venice altogether, the novelist puts into Ruskin’s mind the thought that perhaps he is reluctant to articulate in his own:

Ruskin had visited Torcello by this time, and was ordering his gondoliers to take him to Murano. It occurred to him, as he glided over the whispering lagoons, that the power of Nature could not be shortened by the folly, nor her beauty altogether saddened by the misery, of such as Leonard.

Adrian Barlow

* The original Campanile in St Mark’s had collapsed in 1902. It was rebuilt and re-opened in 1912.

[References: Ruskin’s denunciation of San Giorgio Maggiore will be found in his ‘Venetian Index’ at the end of The Stones of Venice, vol. III. His evocation of Torcello opens Chapter 2 of vol. II.  Incidentally, Forster is a little less than fair to Ruskin, imagining him ‘gliding over the whispering lagoons’ after leaving Torcello. Ruskin’s next stop was Murano:
But it is morning now: we have a hard day’s work to do at Murano, and our boat shoots swiftly from beneath the last bridge of Venice, and brings us out into the open sea and sky. (Ch. 3, § IV.)
Forster’s account of visiting ‘Venice by Night’ is quoted by P.N. Furbank in his excellent and still definitive biography, E.M. Forster: A Life (1977), p.116. All quotations from Howards End will be found in Chapter 6, which begins, ‘We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet.’

[illustration: Gondolas by the Church of the Miracoli, photo copyright the author.  

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Here are some of my previous posts on Venice:

Venice inscribed (ii): Joseph Brodsky

Venice Inscribed (i): Donna Leon

Venice at the Edges

World and time: In Venice - La Biennale

World and time: (still) in Venice


  1. Adrian, I’m not very pleased to find Forster putting his own fears into the mouth of Ruskin. I hope that Ruskin enjoyed the beauty of Venice without any other thought in his mind. And oh, those dreadful sentences! ‘We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet.’ I cannot imagine what Charles Booth, Joseph Rowntree, or George Peabody would have thought of it . . .

  2. No, these are not comfortable words, and in one sense at least ‘Howards End’ is an exploration of the inadequacy of the liberal conscience when confronted with the harsher realities of life. Forster doesn’t duck this. And don’t forget that the narrator of the novel is clearly not Forster himself (at one point it even becomes apparent that the narrator is female) and is as open to censure as the other characters in the novel.

    1. I see clearly what you mean, Adrian. I had oddly forgotten how often we are at sea when reading novels: whose views – the author’s, the narrator’s, the characters? Strictly, I had taken Forster’s words as if they had been written by Malthus . . . I’ve come across a very interesting essay by Richard Rorty – specifically dealing with Forster’s political, social, and economic ideas as expressed in Howards End. Rorty reinforces what you say, and can be ‘Read inside’ on Amazon. 16 Love and Money, in Philosophy and Social Change (one page has been left out of the essay).

  3. Adrian, I found my way to your fascinating blog from the link to my own post on Free Indirect Style, for which many thanks.

    From the creative writer's point of view, the ambiguity that's set up by techniques like free indirect style - "at sea" with whose view we're inside, as Peter Hart says - is challenging, at least to writers of the younger generations. James Wood's lovely little book The Art of Fiction is good on this ambiguity, but for the most part the discourse of technique is - often fiercely - built on the idea that the writer/reader is locked into either one point of view, or into in another. Moving between points of view within, say, a scene, is frowned upon as "head-hopping", so inevitably, actual ambiguity troubles any writer who's grown up in this tradition.

    And then there's the resistance to the idea of an overall, (semi-)omniscient narrator who has their own views and filters. If you're not too comfortable with that idea, then, of course, it's difficult to deal with the way that the voice/view of characters, and the voice/view of a narrator, might interpenetrate to varying and ambiguous degrees in the way that your Forster example does...

  4. I am very grateful to everyone who has written to me in response to this piece about Ruskin, Forster and Venice. One friend asked whether Forster makes it explicit that Leonard is quoting from ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ and in replying to him, I took the opportunity to think my argument through a little more fully, bearing also in mind the comments posted above:

    No, Leonard doesn’t quote ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ , and I accept I may have made a unjustified assumption. But while it’s likely that Leonard would have known that Ruskin was a man of means, I find it striking that he calls him 'the rich man’ - an epithet which immediately invites us to contrast him with ‘the poor man’: hence my (perhaps overhasty) statement that Leonard is echoing the hymn. I should, I think have said: “When Leonard refers to Ruskin as ‘the rich man’ we may hear an echo in our own minds of the notorious verse …”

    It’s interesting, however, that Ruskin himself uses the very phrase more than once in his own writing, Here, for instance, from 'Unto This Last':

    "The rich man does not keep back meat from the poor by retaining his riches; but by basely using them. Riches are a form of strength: and a strong man does not injure others by keeping his strength, but by using it injuriously." (Note 63)

    This was a passage that drew down a great deal of criticism on Ruskin’s head, because he rejected the socialist arguments being proposed in the post-Chartist era for the redistribution of wealth. And in 'The Crown of Wild Olive', Ruskin refers explicitly to the story of Dives and Lazarus, using the biblical phrase ‘the rich man’:

    "The dietary scale for adult and juvenile paupers was drawn up by the most conspicuous political economists in England. It is low in quantity, but it is sufficient to support nature; yet within ten years of the passing of the Poor Law Act, we heard of the paupers in the Andover Union gnawing the scraps of putrid flesh and sucking the marrow from the bones of horses which they were employed to crush. You see my reason for thinking that our Lazarus of Christianity has some advantage over the Jewish one. Jewish Lazarus expected, or at least prayed, to be fed with crumbs from the rich man’s table; but our [sc. the English Christian] Lazarus is fed with crumbs from the dog’s table.”

    Thinking this through, I’ve come to the following tentative conclusion. I realise that though it is (I still believe) Leonard who enjoys the thought that he is being addressed directly - as it were - by ‘the rich man’ in his gondola, and that he can thus imagine himself (in that dread Thatcher phrase) to have become ‘one of us’, it is of course Forster who challenges Ruskin’s idea that the rich man is using his wealth well simply by sharing his aesthetic sensibility with the poor. Certainly, by the end of the evening Leonard realises - and by the end of the novel we realise too - that reading Ruskin helps the Basts of this world not one bit.